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For those inclined to see them, there were plenty of bad omens last week as the latest round of international climate negotiations—COP26—got under way in Glasgow. A storm that lashed England with eighty-mile-per-hour winds disrupted train service from London to Scotland, leaving many delegates scrambling to find a way to get to the meeting. Just as the conclave began, Glasgow’s garbage workers went on strike, and rubbish piled up in the streets. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his opening speech, compared the world’s situation to that of James Bond, who often finds himself “strapped to a doomsday device, desperately trying to work out which colored wire to pull to turn it off, while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation that will end human life as we know it.” As one commentator pointed out, in his latest movie—spoiler alert!—Bond ends up dead.
Joe Biden’s performance in Glasgow, too, was inauspicious. In his formal remarks to COP26, the President declared that the United States was “back at the table” and “hopefully leading by the power of our example.” Later that day, Biden was undercut by Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who announced that he wasn’t quite sure he could support the $1.75-trillion spending package on which Biden’s claims rested. The timing was, as the A.P. noted, “unfortunate.” In separate, unscripted remarks in Glasgow, Biden circled back, acknowledging that the U.S. is not leading by example—or, really, leading at all. “I guess I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact the United States, in the last Administration, pulled out of the Paris accords,” he said, referring to the set of climate agreements negotiated at COP21, in 2015. He added, by way of understatement, that this has “put us sort of behind the eight ball.”
COP26 is a sequel to COP21, which was an attempt to recover from the mess of COP15, held in Copenhagen in 2009. To really appreciate America’s fecklessness, however, you have to go all the way back to the conference that preceded all these bad COPs—the so-called Earth Summit, in 1992. At that meeting, in Rio de Janeiro, President George H. W. Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which committed the world to preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” At the United States’ insistence, the convention included no timetable or specific targets for action.
With no benchmarks to meet, there was, it turned out, no motive to do anything. At an early Conference of the Parties—COP3, held in Kyoto in 1997—an addendum, or protocol, was added to the treaty, laying out different emissions-reduction targets for different countries. The U.S., which at the time was by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, was supposed to cut its annual output by seven per cent. President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, but the Senate wouldn’t ratify it, and, under George W. Bush, the country withdrew from the agreement.
Over the next decade, the U.S.’s emissions didn’t drop by seven per cent; instead, they rose. In the meantime, China, which, as a developing nation, had no Kyoto target, overtook America as the world’s biggest emitter on an annual basis. (The U.S. retains the title on a cumulative basis.) By 2009, it was clear that the planet was headed for dangerous warming and beyond. That fall, President Barack Obama flew to Denmark and pledged that the U.S. was, at last, ready to act. Nevertheless, COP15 ended in bitterness, with no agreement on how to move forward.
At COP21, in Paris, nations were invited to submit their own, voluntary emissions targets. This choose-your-own-adventure approach was aimed at avoiding a repeat of Copenhagen and also at circumventing the U.S. Senate, which would have had to approve a new binding agreement. When all the voluntary targets were tallied, analysts concluded that the world was poised for warming of almost three degrees Celsius—roughly five degrees Fahrenheit—a disastrous prospect. Then Donald Trump announced that the U.S. wouldn’t honor its commitments.
All of which brings us to Glasgow. The Paris accords stipulate that countries return to the negotiating table every five years to offer new commitments, which are supposed to reflect each nation’s “highest possible ambition.” (Owing to the pandemic, five years became six this time around.) The Biden Administration has indeed submitted a more ambitious target, pledging to cut emissions by fifty per cent over the next decade. But even if the Manchin-delayed bill, which contains some five hundred billion dollars’ worth of clean-energy investments and tax credits, does pass the Senate, it’s hard to see how the country could meet this new target, U.S. politics being what they are. In fact, America is barely on track to meet its old, more modest Paris target. As Laurence Tubiana, a French diplomat who helped craft the Paris accords, told the Guardian, the U.S. has a “historical climate credibility problem.” Meanwhile, China’s commitments have been criticized as “highly insufficient,” and President Xi Jinping didn’t even attend COP26. “We showed up,” Biden noted, chiding Xi and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, another prominent absentee.
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Last Tuesday, as Biden was preparing to leave Glasgow, there was a flurry of announcements. More than a hundred countries, including the U.S., pledged to cut their emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Roughly a hundred countries also pledged to halt deforestation by 2030. On Thursday, twenty countries, the U.S. among them, vowed to stop spending tax money to finance fossil-fuel projects abroad. These announcements were hailed by many as a reason for optimism, and perhaps they were. But as no less an expert than the U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, noted on Twitter, “Signing the declaration is the easy part.” (Among the signatories of the forestry pledge is Brazil, where deforestation has surged in recent years.)
The sad fact is that, when it comes to climate change, there’s no making up for lost time. Every month that carbon emissions remain at current levels—they’re running at about forty billion tons a year—adds to the eventual misery. Had the U.S. started to lead by example three decades ago, the situation today would be very different. It’s still not too late to try—indeed, it’s imperative to try—but, to quote Boris Johnson, “humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the November 15, 2021, issue, with the headline “Against the Clock.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for “The Sixth Extinction.” Her latest book is “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.”
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