World Leaders’ Backs Up Against the Wall At COP 26 As the World Burns

The “Conference of the Parties” (COP) 26 United Nations Climate Conference is to begin in Glasgow, Scotland next week.

But unlike previous climate conferences, this one comes with a “code red for humanity.”

Unless nations arrive with plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and force new policy measures to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy, we are looking at a bleak, catastrophic future.

This is literally our last chance to preserve a habitable planet as many locations are already unlivable.

UN secretary general António Guterres recently warned:

“We are on a catastrophic path. We can either save our world or condemn humanity to a hellish future.”

Texas Tech University and Nature Conservancy chief scientist, Katharine Hayhoe, warned in a recent Guardian piece titled “The Climate Disaster is Here“:

“We are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet. The temperature has only moved a few tenths of a degree for us until now, just small wiggles in the road. But now we are hitting a curve we’ve never seen before.”

Natural disasters get worse and more frequent every month, and each month shatters another record.

Several previously optimistic about our ability to mitigate the worst of the climate emergency are now becoming more cynical.

Some phrases climate experts are using are “record-shattering,” “out of time,” “unprecedented,” and even “irreversible.”

What could a future absent radical climate policy look like?

This year alone was a harbinger.

In July, smoke from West Coast wildfires stretched as far as New York and New Jersey, degrading air quality for millions thousands of miles away.

The Northern California “Dixie Fire” has become the largest single fire in the state’s history.

Wildfires ravaged Greece.

Lake Powell’s water level saw the lowest it’s been in half a century.

Temperatures in Portland, Ore. spiked to 116 degreeshotter than it has ever been in Dallas, Miami, and New Orleans.

British Columbia, Canada saw record temperatures hotter than those typically found in the Sahara desert: 47.9 degrees Celsius118.22 Fahrenheit–that buckled power cables and melted roads.

The Siberian town Verkhoyansk–normally one of the coldest places on Earth–hit 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit–the highest temperature ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle.

Unprecedented storms in Europe causing the worst floods Germany experienced in nearly six decades were responsible for hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information, last month was the fifth-warmest September since 1880.

Last winter ranked among the top-10 warmest in the Northern hemisphere.

A recent study in the journal Nature concludes anthropogenic climate change could soon cause the collapse of ocean currents carrying warm water between the tropics to the North Atlantic.

And pandemics?

Climate change threatens to exacerbate them.

Entire countries are at risk of annihilation within a century.

In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report warning Earth faces uncontrollable global warming unless nations take drastic measures to eliminate greenhouse gases.

The report unambiguously explains humans are unequivocally to blame for this crisis responsible for “widespread and rapid changes,” concluding that, based on carbon emissions presently in the atmosphere, average global temperatures will likely rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius–2.7 degrees Fahrenheit–above preindustrial levels by 2040.

That report gave us 12 years to halt coal consumption and slash carbon dioxide emissions, but we have already crossed so many tipping points, even if we limit warming to 1.5 Celsius, some long-term damage is irreversible.

Only drastic emission reductions can save us from the worst of future catastrophe.

Going back to the way things were is not an option.

And yet, as the world burns and we hold out hope, many are skeptical COP 26 will produce much effective progress.

UN secretary general António Guterres said himself, “[We are] seemingly light years away from reaching our climate action targets.”

As climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote in a recent op-ed piece in The Guardian:

“2021 is currently projected to experience the second-biggest emission rise ever recorded, and global emissions are expected to increase by 16% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. According to the International Energy Agency, only 2% of governments’ ‘build back better’ recovery spending has been invested in clean energy, while at same time the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidized by $5.9 trillion in 2020 alone. The world’s planned fossil fuel production by the year 2030 accounts for more than twice the amount than would be consistent with the 1.5C target. This is science’s way of telling us that we can no longer reach our targets without a system change. Because doing so would require tearing up contracts and abandoning deals and agreements on an unimaginable scale–something that is simply not possible in the current system.

“In short, we are totally failing to even reach targets that are completely insufficient in the first place.”

IPCC scientist Jim Skea explained:

“Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”

Can we institute those changes in time, or will the world’s most profligate carbon polluters continue tinkering around the edges until it’s too late?

It isn’t hopeless.


As Thunberg wrote:

“Hope is all around us. Because all it would really take is one–one world leader or one high-income nation or one major TV station or leading newspaper who decides to be honest, to truly treat the climate crisis as the crisis that it is. One leader who counts all the numbers–and then takes brave action to reduce emissions at the pace and scale the science demands. Then everything could be set in motion towards action, hope, purpose and meaning.”

There is literally no more time left to dither.

Image credit: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, and Medium.