The start of December 2018 in Europe resembled the many Decembers before it. Cities and towns across the continent decorated their streets, squares and trees, all in preparation for yet another festive season that now rarely resembles the white Christmas of the not-so-distant past. However, the holiday spirit in one city was temporarily put on hold by an issue that has become increasingly urgent with every year it has not been adequately addressed – climate change. Over the period of two weeks, representatives from all nations attended the 24th Conference of Parties in Katowice, Poland. Its aim: to develop a set of guidelines for delivering the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions agreed at the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015.
The Paris accords saw countries pledging to limit global warming to 2°C above preindustrial levels by 2100, with the aspiration of achieving 1.5°C. The 2°C target was set as far back as 1975 by the economist William Nordhaus. Its nature is more political than scientific: 2°C warming still means major threats to agriculture, ecosystems and low-lying regions and islands. However, this level of damage was decided to be tolerable with regard to the major emission cuts countries would have to implement to achieve this, and the associated implications to economic growth and job security.
The summit in Katowice was of particular importance. According to the World Meteorological Organisation findings, 20 of the warmest years on record happened in the last 22 years, with the last four years as ‘top’ hottest. Moreover, the global carbon emission levels rose to record high in 2018. If this was not enough, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released just a few months before the conference, argued for the need to limit the warming to 1.5°C: beyond this, a difference of even half a degree would significantly increase the risks of droughts, floods, heatwaves and poverty for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The Panel warned that we have just 12 years to make the changes necessary to achieve this.
If the conference itself had to be summed up in one word, ‘ironic’ would probably be a strong contender. Set in a country that generates 80% of its electricity from coal, one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions that is fuelling climate change in the first place, it was partly sponsored by Polish coal companies. Displays of coal could be seen all around the conference, while the guests were greeted by a coal miner band and had a chance to admire coal soap and coal jewellery. Moreover, the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, opened the summit by boasting that, since the country still has coal supplies that could be mined for another 200 years, ‘it will be hard not to use them’. This stance was in sharp contrast to the narrative in the previous summit, hosted by Fiji. Itself a small island state whose survival is threatened by the risk of increasing floods, Fiji is a stark advocate of strong climate action and an initiator of the Talanoa dialogue, aimed at helping nations deliver stronger climate targets.
Similarly, the outcomes of the summit are contradictory. On the one hand, in the context of three decades of disappointing climate negotiations that failed to deliver tangible agreements, Katowice was a big success. A major achievement, of course, was the agreement on a rulebook that would put the Paris pledges in place from 2020 onwards. The regulations provide a sort of monitoring and verification mechanism regarding the nationally determined contributions: that is, commitments pledged by individual nation states on how they will individually contribute to fighting climate change. The rulebook thus creates a sense of transparency, which was greatly lacking before, detailing the procedures for ensuring that countries cut emissions and provide support for poorer nations in accordance to their promises. This will allow countries to deliver on their targets without fearing that their contributions will be offset by others that continue with business-as-usual.
On the other hand, when considering the tangible impacts in fighting climate change, the reports of the summit’s success might have just been greatly exaggerated. The stated goal of the conference in Katowice, in line with Paris, was to keep global temperature rises below 2°C. If fulfilled, the pledges covered by the rulebook would still lead to 3°C of warming, which, scientists advise, would have catastrophic consequences for hundreds of millions of people around the world. However, no substantial progress was made in the conference to go further than the current pledges. Not only that – four countries refused to ‘welcome’ the scientific findings behind the IPCC report on 1.5°C. The usual suspects in the form of some of the world’s major oil producers – the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – ‘noted’ it instead. In addition, it is important to remember that the US is still on track to withdraw from the Paris agreement, albeit it will not be able to officially do this before 2020. Moreover, the rulebook has no formal enforcement mechanism – targets are set by countries themselves, and adherence to them hinges solely on peer pressure. As one delegate reflected, the outcomes of the summit is ’what’s possible, but not what’s necessary’.
There is no denying that the Katowice summit signifies a major shift in a world which for long years had known about climate change, yet which had been incapable of achieving a consensus and taking unified steps to fight it. However, in the grand scheme of things, not much seems to have changed in terms of political narratives surrounding perhaps the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced. Those who cared already continue to advocate for strong action and climate justice. Meanwhile, those indifferent or unwilling to do so find the validation for their inaction in cold weather. Just over a month after the summit concluded, polar vortex of freezing Arctic air, which usually spins around the North Pole, slipped southwards, chilling the Midwest and bringing sub-zero cold, bitter winds and record temperature lows to the US. This provided an impetus for the US president Donald Trump to tweet in celebration: ‘What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!’. The big chill seems to have made the devastating California wildfires that raged across the state just a few months before and were fuelled, according to experts, by the warming climate, nothing but a distant memory.
In a way, this reflects the wider narrative that in part explains why no strong climate action has been taken yet: a sense of hope or unwarranted assurance that somehow, just maybe, everything will simply turn out alright. Perhaps warming climate will turn out to be better for us – after all, humanity is nothing if not adaptable. In reality, the answer may be just as simple as it is alarming: whether scientific findings are welcomed or denied, whether one acknowledges the difference between weather and climate or not, the biophysical reality will inevitably challenge political narratives. The question is whether the change will come before or after we have forsaken the future of life as we know it.