Updated: Dec 3, 2021
The Conference of the Parties… calls upon parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies … including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances …. (Glasgow Climate Pact, Section 4, Paragraph 20)
Welcome to global climate change diplomacy, where foreign ministers wear a suit and tie and stand in the water, and presidents say their nations might as well be bombed.
I am, of course, talking about COP26, the 26th annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which met recently in Glasgow, Scotland to high expectations of, among other goals, limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 Celsius over pre-industrial readings, and to provide money for climate change adaptation. Among the expectations was to follow the action of 40 nations and “phase out” coal, which is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, and hence a major global warming culprit.
Excuse me, climate change.
To illustrate the effects of climate change, Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe addressed COP26 via video while standing in knee-deep water to talk about climate mobility and how his nation intends to retain its sovereignty even if it drowns and people flee, which everyone in the world with an internet connection has already seen. Fortunately, he didn’t say “climate refugee.”
Then came Palau President Surangel Whipps, Jr. “There is no dignity to a slow and painful death. You might as well bomb our islands instead of making us suffer only to witness our slow and fateful demise,” Whipps remarked, live on stage in Scotland as he asked the world to spend $4 trillion to fight climate change.
Despite the rhetoric at the last moment, the world’s four largest coal users, China, India, the United States, and the European Union, retreated into a closed-door meeting upon alleged threats from India— per media reports that India is currently denying—to sabotage the agreement.
What emerged from the 14-day gathering was an agreement to “phase down,” rather than “phase out” coal, in addition to pledges of financial assistance. Let’s consider two aspects of COP26: coal and climate funding.
According to a Times of India article published on Nov. 17, the U.S. and China introduced the “phase down” language, and Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav questioned the Glasgow Conference how India could phase out coal, and how fossil fuel subsidies could be phased out and still meet its development and poverty eradication goals.
Coal is a cheap (so long as environmental and health costs are left out of the equation) and reliable energy source for much of the world. Like steel, coal has an industrial pedigree; it fueled mass industrialization and turned poor countries into wealthy nations. It is also incredibly filthy, emitting both carbon and lung-clogging sediment.
When Democrat Joe Manchin of coal-heavy West Virginia first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, he fired a rifle shot through the Cap-and-Trade bill, which would have capped carbon emissions and created credits that could be bought and sold. He now wields outsized influence in the Senate.
When a single mine in coal-rich Xinjian Province flooded in April, bitcoin mining, the process of vast computer systems creating new bitcoins by solving mathematical problems, dropped by 35 percent. Turns out cryptocurrencies need a lot of cheap energy. It also endangered the lives of dozens of coal miners.
The U.S. and China, the world’s two largest coal burners, have entered into talks for some sort of climate change agreement. Coal will be a big factor for any treaty ratification in the U.S. Senate.
Nations have made an additional pledge to provide funding for a vague area called “Adaptation Finance and Investment,” that is essentially the ability to respond to emergencies caused by changing climate such as typhoons and droughts. Much of this adaptation sounds remarkably like disaster response: early warning systems, resilient infrastructure, mangrove and wetland preservation, resilient water systems.
Many developing nations have a less than stellar record when it comes to transparency of foreign aid. If an island republic can’t build a road, how can they build a road more resilient to storm surges? There are legitimate questions to be asked, and legitimate expectations of accountability. Will such financing go to build seawalls, or to reward a village chieftain so that he can build a restaurant, staff it with foreign labor, and depart on the next flight for permanent residency in a donor nation?
Giving a speech in rising water or telling the world that climate inaction is equivalent to war gets attention on social media. Going to a global conference is dramatic. Building a road that can withstand a storm surge is not.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to email@example.com.