The two most important locations for international climate diplomacy — this year and last —have both been turned into field hospitals.
In Glasgow, it’s the giant Scottish Event Campus that’s now lined with beds. Until last week that venue was set to host the United Nations annual climate talks in November; the coronavirus has forced a delay of the conference, known as COP26, until 2021. In Madrid, it’s the airport-sized Ifema fairground that now looks more like a scene from 1918 Spanish flu than the site of last year’s COP25, which drew over 26,000 people with a carnival-like atmosphere that included Harrison Ford and Greta Thunberg.
Just like everyone else, climate diplomats have replaced physical gatherings with online video meetings. But, as you’ve probably discovered firsthand, working from home is not the same. There are more distractions. Things move more slowly, even by the slow standards of climate diplomacy. And, as it turns out, human touch counts.
Preliminary climate meetings such as the one initially scheduled in Bonn in June — now postponed to October — are essential for technocrats to start drafting agreements ahead of the year-end COP. In climate diplomacy, individual personalities really do make a difference. Unlike smaller gatherings such as the G20, the talks that go into COP meetings focus on charismatic, talented diplomats from smaller countries. Representatives from the Marshall Islands or Costa Rica can turn the tables. Friendships forged over many years of negotiations have sometimes allowed opposing nations to find middle ground.
Physical meeting spaces matter, too. The end of a lease for the venue of climate talks has sometimes been a more compelling argument for countries to sign deals than elaborate scientific research or political reasoning. Veteran diplomats have fond memories of how the 1997 Kyoto protocol was signed while construction workers tore down walls in preparation for a runway show set for the following day. COP25 in Madrid went nearly two days into overtime, so hopes had run high for a quick agreement at COP26 because Elton John had been set to play that same arena in Glasgow a few days later.
At first sight, of course, postponing COP26 looks like bad news for the climate.
Countries had been expected to submit more ambitious goals for the first time since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015. Teenagers that mobilized millions in climate marches across the world last year would weigh heavily on talks that have traditionally been led by experienced bureaucrats. Newly formed citizen assemblies would give the wider population a chance to shape the debate.
Some worry that the sense of urgency and the momentum building for many months around climate action will now disappear as the world deals with the worst public-health crisis in more than a generation. That’s a real risk. But it’s also true that the failure of COP25 in Madrid last December has not really been a debacle for the global climate movement. In subsequent months, large forces in the private sector such as BP and BlackRock made huge green pledges. Even billionaires at Davos turned climate change into the top issue this year.
The debate over global climate action remains very much alive in the middle of this pandemic, as demonstrated by the dozens of essays published by academics and think tanks over the past few weeks calling for a green coronavirus recovery. “The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is showing that the nations of the world can come together to tackle global challenges, and that the policy landscape can shift quickly when there is sufficient political will,” says Alden Meyer, president at the Union of Concerned scientists. He’s seen what worldwide cooperation looks like from the inside, having witnessed every U.N. climate negotiation since Kyoto.
BlackRock manages $7 trillion in assets, and its chairman, Larry Fink, shook the finance establishment in January when he called for a “fundamental reshaping of finance.” Fink warned that climate change will have a profound impact on the global economic system. Last month he used his first letter to shareholders after the pandemic was declared to strengthen that point. “The pandemic we’re experiencing now highlights the fragility of the globalized world and the value of sustainable portfolios,” Fink wrote. “When we emerge from this crisis, and investors rebalance portfolios, we have an opportunity to accelerate into a more sustainable world.”
By the time the next big U.N. climate conference finally arrives in Glasgow, after the field hospital is gone, perhaps we’ll be able to see signs of that acceleration.
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