At COP26, It’s Domestic Politics, Stupid

Youth climate activists expressed their dismay over the inability to decarbonize the world economy in the weeks preceding COP26. The world’s negotiators seemed to be poised to deny the demands of the youth for drastic action to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

Barack Obama, a week after the conference began, arrived in Glasgow to offer encouragement and support for young climate activists. Youth activists have moved the needle, “building power” and “raising awareness,” Obama told a group of young climate leaders on the sidelines of the conference, insisting that the slow movement was the result of the slow wind of the democratic process. “It is not just cowardice on the part of leaders that prevents them from meeting these goals,” he said. “It’s the fact that, at least [for] those of us who live in democracies, there’s not yet a full consensus.”
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There are two things that can be said at once. One, science clearly shows that humanity must decarbonize quickly. Two, politics on the ground across the globe has metastasized and is preventing widespread changes that would truly help to keep the climate goals alive. It’s a reality that’s come to head at COP26. There is almost no discussion about the direction we should go here in Glasgow. Every country recognizes that we must reduce our carbon footprint. However, domestic politics are a major obstacle. These include concerns over energy crisis, highly-partisan legislatures, and fears of economic instability. “The politics within our various countries, at least those that are democracies, place constraints on even well-intentioned politicians,” Obama said.

But allowing domestic political concerns—as real as they may be—to get in the way of aggressive climate measures now signals deep trouble ahead. If governments can’t make reasoned policy now, how will they behave in the midst of the mass migration, extreme weather disasters and political anger that are now on the not-so-distant horizon?

ConsiderationsThe U.S. must be aware of how domestic politics plays in international climate talks. The current U.N. climate regime has been constructed to match the needs of the world’s largest economy. American rejection of the Kyoto Protocol in 2000 effectively killed it. In its place (a decade and a half later), negotiators developed the Paris Agreement, a new framework designed—down to its punctuation—to meet the demands of U.S. politics. Most importantly, the framers of the Paris deal knew they were limited to an “agreement” rather than a “treaty” that would require U.S. congressional approval.

After four years of the United States withdrawing from climate negotiations, it was a relief to see the world welcome President Biden’s administration when he took office. Biden was seen to be a committed actor in climate action and was viewed as at the minimum a trustworthy person. The Biden Administration was confronted with persistent questions by officials from other countries over the last year about its credibility gaps in U.S. engagements. While the administration said the right thing, it wasn’t clear what it actually could accomplish.

This is particularly true for climate finance measures that are being implemented in developing countries. In the final days of the Glasgow conference, the issue has emerged as a key sticking point—as it has been for much of the year. In particular, developing countries demand that other countries and the United States make commitments to cover the cost of climate change. This includes the adaptation costs.

John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy and president, has repeatedly recognized that the U.S. should help. Obama suggested that domestic politics is the key to this. Spending money requires action from a narrowly-divided Congress, and paying to help other countries address climate change isn’t exactly a political winner. According to climate activists and analysts, there are smart ways that the U.S. could fill the gap. One example is by using its influence over the International Monetary Fund, to obtain financing. “There is a need for the U.S. to think creatively,” says Oscar Soria, a climate campaigner at the activist group Avaaz.

There are political risks to any route. Already, the U.S. has increased its climate finance commitment for the developing world from $5.7 billion in April to more than double it in September. Kerry explained to me why such a small amount was difficult for them to give. “It comes at a tricky time when you’re trying to pass infrastructure and you’re trying to pass everything else. It’s just complicated,” he said. “So it’s not a huge amount of money… But people are apprehensive.”

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U.S. domestic politics may have more influence on the talks than those in its counterparts, but it’s far from the only country whose positions are hindered by what’s happening back at home. The European Union played an important role in maintaining climate momentum over the past few years while the United States sat by the sidelines. The E.U. was able to present a concrete path for reducing emissions by half this summer. For example, the E.U. has provided a path that will cut emissions by half within the next decade and more than any of its counterparts in climate finance. But in Glasgow many observers have criticized the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body, for not taking bolder steps to steer the talks. Frans Timmermans (the top E.U. climate policy officer) gave me insight into his domestic political concerns in September. “We did more in financial terms than others, and I’m willing to plead with the member states of the E.U. to do even more,” he told me. “But I can only do that if others do their bit as well.”

Non-democracies often get put in another bucket. They are then declared to be able to make whatever decisions they like. Reality is more complicated. Leaders in China, for example, don’t face the pressure of the ballot box, but the country’s political stability is widely understood to rest on the promise of continued economic growth. Any attempt to stop that growth will be considered a threat. It’s true, of course, that the oil economies in countries like Saudi Arabia enrich the country’s wealthy, but they also pay for the programs that feed and house ordinary people.

All around the world, even as countries make progress on programs to reduce emissions, there is growing recognition that the transition could pose a threat to political and economic stability if it’s not handled correctly. “You’re not going to manage to change the situation with the climate crisis without social justice,” Carlos Alvarado Quesada, the president of Costa Rica, told me in September. If you don’t focus on social justice, “you’re not going to recruit some of the people you need to have on board.”

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To deal effectively with these domestic problems on an international scale, it would probably take a major shift. Annual climate conferences, which are held under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s umbrella, tend to be slow-moving and focus more on high-level directions of travel than details of implementation. In Glasgow, some delegates are discussing whether there’s a need for a global framework that really digs into the details. A group calling for a treaty to ban the use of fossil fuels in the future is one example. This would help the least dependent countries and ease the transition from them. “But we’re going to need international cooperation, because there are so many countries that are not in a position at all to stop expansion,” says Tzeporah Berman, who chairs the The Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty, “because literally, they’re just expanding [fossil fuel use] to feed their debt.”

While it is obvious that such an effort will be difficult, international talks on climate change must address the domestic issues facing all countries. Until then, the parties involved in the negotiations need to appease the people who want the lowest common denominator. This could include oil exporters trying not to refer to fossil fuels, or large developed nations trying to reduce their financial responsibility.

Still, allowing those challenges to halt progress isn’t a solution. A report from Climate Action Tracker released on the sidelines of COP26 showed emissions rising 2.7°C if countries proceed only with the policies they’ve already enacted. This level of global warming will likely outpace any concerns we have today.


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