The New Politics of Climate Hyperbole

Are the world’s leaders talking a big game on climate because they want to take action, or because they don’t?

Photo: Christopher Furlong - Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Christopher Furlong - Pool/AFP via Getty Images

It’s now 12 days down for COP26, the climate conference in Glasgow long called “make or break” for humanity, with one more to go. If “make or break” sounds hyperbolic, rhetoric at the conference itself has set the bar just as high — which is to say, perhaps, impossibly high. On its first day, COP26 president Alok Sharma called the gathering “our last best hope,” echoing earlier comments by John Kerry, who called it “the last best hope for the world,” and Prince Charles, who called it “literally the last-chance saloon.” “It’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock,” Boris Johnson said in his opening remarks. “We are digging our own graves,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, admonishing the world to stop “treating nature like a toilet” and declaring, starkly, about carbon pollution, “either we stop it — or it stops us.”

There have been some bits of good news in Glasgow: a net-zero pledge from India, a commitment from the U.S. and China to work together, a toothless but still significant global agreement to reduce methane emissions. And more negotiating remains to be done, particularly over the text of the conference resolution, an early version of which was released Wednesday. But a preliminary analysis published by Carbon Brief suggests that, all told, the agreements coming out of COP26 may shave just 0.1 degree Celsius off of future warming.

Which means that, even if you set aside for a moment the much more urgent demands of climate activists and some scientists, and merely take seriously the existential language of those typically cautious and pragmatic world leaders, the conference has been an inarguable failure. Forget Greta Thunberg or Vanessa Nakate or the now-familiar rhetoric of climate-vulnerable nations (“Two degrees is a death sentence,” warned Mia Mottley of Barbados) or the 100,000 outraged and frustrated protesters who rallied in Glasgow this week (among other things, they referred to COP as “the conference of polluters”). The conference is a failure by the standards set by the very faces of the meliorist, technocratic global political Establishment — the American climate envoy, British prime minister, COP conference chairman, and U.N. secretary-general — barely more than one week ago. If we’re really one minute to midnight on the doomsday clock, no one in Glasgow is acting like it.

That isn’t to say that doomsday will arrive at the close of the conference or that all hope for progress should be dashed, only that the conference itself has not delivered anything resembling a step-change in climate action so much as a confirmation and consecration of the existing status quo. Partly, this is by design — countries are meant to submit their updated promises in the year leading up to the conference, and much of the hard work of concrete policy is meant to be tackled domestically, by individual countries. But we need much more than the status quo.

In the big picture, we can take some solace from the fact that not everything hinges on these conferences. Over the last year or so, that status quo has changed: The grimmest futures seem much less likely, even as the window of opportunity for a relatively comfortable landing has closed, too. New pledges of decarbonization, changes in long-term outlook for the energy market, and growing pressure from activists and concerned citizens have together shifted global expectations about future emissions somewhat substantially — from a “business as usual” projection for warming of four degrees or so just a few years ago, to something at or even under three degrees today. In the first days of the conference, a slew of new analyses of recent “net zero” pledges were released, each suggesting that if those pledges were all enacted and honored in full, getting below two degrees might be possible, too.

Perhaps it will be, but that math is full of wishful thinking. It may seem confusing that, while “current policies” suggest a median warming of 2.6-2.7 degrees, national “pledges” in aggregate translate to a temperature rise as low as 1.8 or 1.9 degrees. But these two timelines are in fact worlds apart. As skeptical advocates have been pointing out relentlessly, there is a big difference between promising to do something 30 years from now and actually doing the things now that are required to meet that goal. The first requires the second. You simply can’t expect to cut carbon emissions 100 percent by 2050 if you also expect emissions to rise by 2030, as the U.N. does. Just putting yourself on track for a total carbon phase-out in a few decades requires massive decarbonization immediately — that is how large the project is, and how hard the final parts of the puzzle will be to put together — which means that failing to couple net-zero pledges with short-term implementation plans makes the longer, bigger goals essentially notional at best.

And the longer we wait to make them real, the more fantastical they begin to seem. We may think that we know what to do and how to do it, but beginning in 2025 requires a very different speed of action than beginning in 2021, and beginning in 2030 even more so. As Lasse Kummer recently calculated, when the Paris agreement was reached in 2015, the world had about 30 years to get to net-zero to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. We now have considerably less time, and even if you assume that all current stated policy is implemented in good faith and without hiccup, those policies imply that emissions remain about flat between now and 2030 — at which point, because of how little we’d done to actually reduce them in the meantime, emissions would have to drop to zero almost immediately.

COP26 didn’t change any of this, one way or the other — this was the lay of the land two weeks ago, and two months ago. And, as I’ve written before, it is possible to view this positively. The fact that promises of climate action now take place outside the realm of geopolitics and inside the logic of national self-interest suggests that the world may be capable of moving faster outside the U.N. universe than within it. But it would be easier to credit that perspective if the pledges were not so distant, so compromised by short-term deference to fossil fuels, and therefore riskless to those in power today. And while the stated goal of COP26 has been to keep the ambitious Paris goal on track — “keep 1.5 alive” in the simple shorthand —  it may well have already passed out of reach before COP26 had even begun.

In August, when the IPCC released the latest scientific report on the state of warming, one especially eye-opening fact was that in all of the modeled emissions scenarios, including the one literally designed to keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world was expected to actually breach that threshold, at least temporarily. In theory, large-scale carbon removal later in the century and rapid methane drawdown today could bring the world back under that bar, having exceeded it for a time, which is why there has been so much focus on methane at COP26 (although the “agreement” to reduce it is so voluntary and vague it is hard to know how much real action will follow). A second notable data point in the same IPCC report was that an estimated one-third of warming to date had been masked by the cooling effect of aerosol pollution. Without that air pollution, which is killing millions around the world every year, the world would be well past 1.5 degrees already, the report suggested, and perhaps past 2 degrees.

Which means that to continue to believe in the possibility of 1.5 degrees means believing that the world can decarbonize perhaps three times faster than current policies imply, indeed even faster than implied by those net-zero targets; that methane emissions, which have grown dramatically in recent decades, can be brought dramatically down, too; and that large-scale, multi-gigaton carbon removal can be achieved in the next several decades, growing to “planetary scale” in the second half of the century. There may be slightly different ways to make the math all work, but the basic picture of all optimistic scenarios is the same: Everything has to go as well as could be possibly imagined, and perhaps better, while also going faster than any country in the world seems to believe is even possible, starting immediately, without any complication.

Which makes it all the more striking just how vividly and full-throatedly the world’s leaders embraced and underlined that 1.5-degree goal in the run-up to Glasgow, and how dramatically they described the consequences of failing to meet it. They must’ve known how hard that would be, and must have known how out of line their rhetoric was with the policy it implied. They must’ve known, well ahead of time, what progress was likely, or even possible, at Glasgow, and what kind was not at all on the table. So what were they doing? What were they thinking?

One generous interpretation is that, however disconnected the rhetoric was from any actual policy they were willing to consider, they believed it anyway — that this rhetoric was, among other things, a self-indictment. For instance, when Barack Obama, in a speech later in the conference’s first week, invited the world’s youth to continue to burn with climate rage, he might have been implicitly expressing his regret that he bragged in 2018 about making the U.S. the world’s top oil producer.

A second related interpretation is that they were trying to rally the troops. These climate conferences are large, messy, and contentious, and nobody wants a replay of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which began with high expectations and ended with, practically speaking, nothing to show for it.

A third possibility — intriguing and possibly encouraging for those who admire and applaud the moral clarity of the next generation of activists — is that they were basically bullied into playing the part of genuinely concerned, conscientious leaders by those activists, who intimidated them even before they began their protests in Glasgow, though apparently not enough to put more aggressive action on the table. This is the perspective offered by the Davos whisperer Tom Friedman: “For the first time, it felt to me that the adult delegates inside the conference halls were more afraid of the kids outside than they were of one another or the press,” he wrote on Tuesday. And it echoes a remark made by Jason Bordoff, a former adviser to Obama and now the head of Columbia University’s new climate school, in an interview from Glasgow with the London Review of Books podcast Talking Politics. When asked by David Runciman what factors seemed to be most responsible for shifts in corporate and investor attitudes around climate issues recently, Bordoff answered bluntly that, more than warming itself or the financial risks it brings, it was fear of social mobilization and public pressure changing the landscape of private power.

But a final and cynical interpretation connects many of these dots: that these leaders viewed rhetoric as a substitute for real action; preferred the existential theater of climate speechifying to the hard work of enacting global transformation; believed that enough of those watching around the world would accept, in place of real policy commitment, a rhetoric of recognition, which described the urgency of the moment and the global stakes in roughly the “right” terms; and did not worry that they would pay any price for the widening gap between what they were doing and what they were saying. Or, perhaps, that anyone would even notice, amid all the canned self-congratulatory applause.

In the U.S., it has become a commonplace of the political commentariat to lament that policy does not matter, that partisanship is now pure culture war, that elections can swing on trivialities and tribal grievances without much to do, really, with the candidates in question and the powers of the office they aspire to. That is what Andrew Breitbart meant by “politics is downstream from culture,” and liberals reckoning with the rise of Donald Trump and its aftermath have found it an illuminating, if distressing, bon mot. But the strange present state of climate geopolitics — in which slow-moving centrists go full Greta when the lights flip on — is a reminder that the same politics of virtual reality can govern the progressive side of things as well, including when the stakes are existentially high. Hypocrisy is a blunt and often irrational criticism of climate advocates, since politics is the method by which we aspire to be better together than we are as individuals (and since climate change can only be addressed at scale through systemic changes of the kind that must be at least midwifed by policy). But the same exemptions can’t apply to the actual people in power, who now find themselves embracing, in ever more heated and urgent language, temperature goals that are simultaneously growing ever more out of reach. Hyperbole doesn’t reduce emissions on its own, but our politics — climate and otherwise — increasingly puts it front and center anyway.

Boris Johnson is Exhibit A. In the run-up to COP26, he was already trying out the role of unlikely climate champion, or even “chief climate warrior,” a turn for which he has won praise from The Economist and the Washington Post and a million other outlets in between.

“We still cling with part of our minds to the infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure and we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality,” Johnson told the U.N. General Assembly in September, calling on the nations of the world — and especially those of the Global North — to radically elevate their levels of climate ambition and radically reduce their own emissions.

We believe that someone else will clear up the mess we make, because that is what someone else has always done. We trash our habitats again and again with the inductive reasoning that we have got away with it so far, and therefore we will get away with it again. My friends, the adolescence of humanity is coming to an end.

It is time, he said, “for humanity to grow up,” and, if we fail to act, “never mind what that will do to the ice floes.”

We will see desertification, drought, crop failure, and mass movements of humanity on a scale not seen before, not because of some unforeseen natural event or disaster, but because of us, because of what we are doing now. And our grandchildren will know that we are the culprits and that we were warned and they will know that it was this generation that came centre stage to speak and act on behalf of posterity and that we missed our cue and they will ask what kind of people we were to be so selfish and so short-sighted.

Here is Boris the geopolitical jester donning the costume of Pope Francis, and giving a credible-seeming performance of Laudato si’.

At COP26, he was just as vivid. “Two degrees more,” he warned, “and we jeopardize the food supply for hundreds of millions of people as crops, wither locusts swarm. Three degrees and you can add more wildfires and cyclones, twice as many, five times as many droughts, and 36 times as many heat waves. Four degrees, and we say good-bye to whole cities. Miami, Alexandria, Shanghai, all lost beneath the waves.” It was like he was reading from Mark Lynas’s book (or mine).

It isn’t just the activists in the streets who are seeing this alarmist turn as discordant. In the early days of the conference, the scientist Kevin Anderson gave an interview in which he dwelled at some length at the growing gap between the high-profile speeches onstage and what was being said by scientists and activists out of the spotlight in Glasgow. “I’m not witnessing the same level of ambition that John Kerry is,” he said. “This COP, like a lot of COPs, actually, is two separate planets. There’s planet politics, which is where you get these grand speeches and the climate glitterati flying in, making wonderful high-level statements which are pretty much vacuous nonsense. And you’ve got the other side of COP, which is where — whether it’s the scientific community or some of the civil-society groups, they’re talking about the scale of the challenge to meet the commitments that the policymakers have previously made, at previous COPs. These are two separate planets with almost no connection between them.”

The critique was echoed by Bordoff, which is notable given that, unlike Anderson, Bordoff is a technocratic realist who still speaks in the careful language of the empowered, even now out of government. Asked about the gap between climate ambition and energy reality, Bordoff replied, “I fear that it’s getting wider apart, because the ambition — fortunately — is being elevated, but the more the ambition is elevated, the more the gap widens, unless the reality starts to change as fast or faster. And the reality is, oil use is going up each year. Gas use is going up each year, coal is going up now — maybe it’s going to plateau. It’s not falling off a cliff.”

When does that untenable arrangement — growing urgency and little progress — reach a breaking point, Bordoff wondered, and how, if at all, could that be avoided? “The math is unforgiving,” he said, “so we need that reality to change much more quickly.” He repeated it again, the emphasis unmistakable: “Reality has to change.”

The New Politics of Climate Hyperbole