The 27th Conference of Parties (Cop27) is under way at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh. With approximately 110 heads of state or government jetting-in and thousands of activists haranguing them, the mood is confrontational.
This is underpinned by huge mistrust between rich nations that have done the most to create climate change, and poor countries that are suffering the most. The blame game is a negotiating ploy to get the most advantageous deal out of Cop27, the latest in 30 years of talks, dismissed by Greta Thunberg as “blah blah”.
But this makes no allowance for the progress made. Climate change science has been elucidated and its deniers largely silenced. Clear pathways towards mitigation and adaptation have been elaborated, accompanied by a breathless pace of innovation to reduce the carbon footprint of everything we do.
People everywhere are changing lifestyles, in small and large ways. And despite the many geopolitical divides, there is unprecedented worldwide consensus with targets and timetables for reducing greenhouse emissions, even if we are off-course.
We are better placed now with tackling the existentialist challenge of climate change than we were at the beginning of the Aids crisis or Covid-19 when we knew little about what was killing us. In contrast, we have the essential knowhow and means to address climate change while debating the pace of actions undertaken.
But you would not believe this from the rhetoric surrounding Cop27. The tone was set by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres with his diagnosis that humanity is at “code red” and heading for “collective suicide”. He is right to emphasise the seriousness of the climate emergency and seek accelerated action. But apocalyptic language is unhelpful because it often disheartens, demoralises and disempowers those battling the crisis.
This is akin to doctors exhorting smokers to give up by asking them, in Mr Guterres’s words, to start “digging your own graves”. Such shock tactics can be counter-productive. No wonder some psychologists are doing a roaring trade as eco-anxieties of all types abound. Hopefully, they are also on call in Sharm El Sheikh because 45,000 traumatised delegates are not best placed to negotiate planetary survival.
This is important because Cop27 delegates face a serious reality check. Only fantasists now believe that it is possible to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as per the 2015 Paris Agreement. And even science fiction hesitates to compose a storyline of improbable technologies to quickly capture billions of tonnes of atmospheric carbon, to keep within the annual global emissions budget of 400bn tonnes. Even more fantastical are solar geo-engineering ventures seeking to physically cool the planet.
It is traumatising to give up on the dream underpinning so much passionate climate advocacy. Therapy here can be through making the mental shift towards realism. This is a pre-requisite for the resilience needed to survive a very different world that could be up to 2.5°C hotter on current trends of nationally determined contributions towards emission reduction.
Cop27 should lead by preparing us for an over-heated world instead of lulling us with false hopes of emission reductions that may not be realised in time. We must recognise that as global warming exceeds mitigation capacities, several planetary tipping points are inevitable, such as glacier melting. We saw its dramatic consequences with flooding in Pakistan.
This is not about admitting defeat or letting up in mitigation efforts to limit temperature rise as much as possible, and to reach the goal of "net carbon zero" earlier than 2050 if we can. But practical leadership recognises when a particular battle is nearly lost and shifts forces elsewhere so as not to lose the long-term war.
The primary battlefront is now with adaptation to maximise the saving of lives and livelihoods. The urgency is amply demonstrated by the increasing frequency and ferocity of disasters – such as heatwaves, droughts, fires, storms and floods – ravaging all continents.
Apart from the physical destruction of infrastructure and the environment’s carrying capacity, are massive secondary impacts. The most critical is hunger and famine, as in Somalia. The changing climate also makes people ill. It exposes them to disease outbreaks and potential pandemics from resurgent old conditions such as malaria and emergent novel organisms such as the coronavirus. Forced migration is already increasing; there are at least 22 million climate refugees. As competition for scarce resources such as water and energy increases, armed conflict is not far behind, especially in already unstable areas.
This is the new world normal, as more and more extreme weather events unfold with disastrous consequences. To adapt to them, we need massive resources. Most people realise this, and that is why the most troubling issue at Cop27 is climate finance.
The Paris Agreement asked developed nations to fund mitigation and adaptation in poor, climate-vulnerable states. The earlier Copenhagen Cop in 2009 had pledged $100 billion annually by 2020; OECD estimates that $83.3bn came. That was mostly loans for countries that were already highly indebted. And grossly insufficient in the era of exponentially increasing needs, estimated by some at $1-2 trillion annually by 2030.
What is adaptation? It is mostly better management to reduce disaster impacts. This means risk and vulnerability reduction through climate proofing infrastructure, and more effective early warning, protection, rescue, and relief, as well as speedy rehabilitation and recovery. The current adaptation spend in developing countries is about $46bn, while the UN Environment Programme estimates a requirement for $160-340bn by 2030.
That is not impossible to achieve through re-orienting official development assistance from donors that increased to $179bn last year. In addition, receiving countries could do more from their own budgets by re-configuring national development strategies, including designing convincing projects for private sector investment. According to the World Bank, every dollar on adaptation returns $4 in benefits.
Increasing aid for adaptation (or disaster management) is an expression of instinctive humanitarian solidarity because without it many lives will otherwise be lost. It also bridges geopolitical divides to foster much-needed borderless climate co-operation.
However, this solidarity is dangerously undermined by increasingly strident calls for loss and damage reparations from rich countries that have historically generated the most greenhouse gases to compensate poor countries who are least responsible for causing climate change. This is argued on the moral grounds of climate justice.
There is some merit in these demands. But only in the sense that acknowledging past wrongs helps us to learn from history and build better futures. But it is problematic to think that financial compensation can correct historical hurts with complex causation and diffusely distributed culpabilities. Parallel examples include the debate over redress for slavery or colonialism.
Besides, no government can afford to pay the punitive sums demanded for climate change without causing huge domestic unrest and generating further domestic and regional instability. And how do we measure and apportion the reparations fairly? How far do we go back in time when there was no understanding of climate science? Should the world’s largest emitter, China, responsible for 27 per cent of global emissions, be exempted because it is self-classified as a developing nation and has the right to catch up before de-carbonising?
Most serious is the lack of trust in current climate finance mechanisms because financial data are inaccurate and lack the consistency and specificity needed to track resource flows. Creating new funds to add to current ones is a recipe for further confusion. Serious efficiency, governance and accountability issues in relation to international financial institutions are also at play. Billions are at risk of being misallocated or lost through corruption unless these matters are fixed.
It is good that Cop27 is debating loss and damage questions for the first time. If this results in a sensible, streamlined new climate fund to replace the old, complicated ones it should be generously funded for mitigation and adaptation in poor countries. But it would be a pity if the loss-and-damage arguments become a divisive distraction and derail other key agreements.
Cop27 can earn its designation as the “implementation Cop” if it gets the world to accept that significant global warming cannot be avoided. It must prepare us to endure the difficult decades ahead, not through impossible demands and intimations of catastrophe, but by raising our resolve through sparking our shared spirit of solidarity.