Activists And Vulnerable Nations At COP26 Seek More Than Promises

17:26 minutes

dozens of young people wearing masks hold up signs including one that says "cop 26 one last chance" and one that's a cardboard circle illustration of an earth with a frowny face with a thermometer hanging out of its mouth
Activists display placards during the march that took place during the Pre-COP Event on October 1, 2021 in Milano, Italy. Credit: Shutterstock

There’s a big international climate summit wrapping up in Glasgow, Scotland this week. COP26 is the followup to 25 previous United Nations meetings about how the world must respond to the climate crisis—and its shortcomings in doing so. This year leaders had a big conversation to tackle: Countries needed to pledge to reduce emissions even further to prevent a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. To do so, they needed to finish hashing out the details of how they will enforce the 2015 Paris Agreement’s provisions.

Meanwhile, island nations and other vulnerable countries, who themselves don’t emit much carbon, have continued to lobby for payment for what’s called loss and damages. That’s the harm they’ve already encountered as seas rise, threatening to obliterate their existence. 

The first week kicked off with bold pledges about methane emissions, coal phaseouts, and ending deforestation. This week, former President Obama spoke about the need for urgent action, and called out large greenhouse gas polluters like Russia and China for not attending. And a grim United Nations report was released, forecasting that despite all the bold pledges, the world was on track to warm a dangerous 2.4 degrees Celsius. The team of Threshold, a podcast that tells stories about our changing environment, has been reporting on these updates from Glasgow, talking to attendees and occasionally witnessing negotiations. 

In today’s show, Ira talks to journalist Amy Martin, Threshold’s executive producer and host, about her opinion on the outcome of COP26—and if transformative change can still come out of this year’s meeting.

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Segment Guests

Amy Martin

Amy Martin is a journalist and executive producer of the podcast Threshold, based in Missoula, Montana.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’ve been paying any attention this week, you know there is a big international climate summit wrapping up in Glasgow, Scotland this week. COP26 is the follow up to 2019’s COP25 meeting. And 24 previous UN meetings about how the world is and must continue to respond to the climate crisis.

And this year was supposed to be a big one– countries needed to pledge to reduce even more of their emissions and finish the details of how they would enforce the Paris Agreement’s provisions. Meanwhile, island nations and other vulnerable countries continue to lobby for payment for what’s called loss and damages. That’s the harm they have already encountered as seas rise and threaten to obliterate their existence.

The first week kicked off with bold pledges about methane emissions, coal phase outs, and ending deforestation. This week, former President Obama spoke about the need for urgent action and called out large greenhouse gas polluters, like Russia and China, for not attending. But what else has been happening in these halls of power, and can transformative change come out of this year’s meeting?

One group that has been on the ground in Glasgow talking to attendees. Our friends on the team of Threshold, a podcast that tells stories about our changing environment. Here with more is Amy Martin, the executive producer and host. She joins me from Glasgow. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY MARTIN: Thanks, Ira. Good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, so we know there’s a huge crowd for this meeting– something like 40,000 people. What is this COP trying to achieve in a nutshell?

AMY MARTIN: I think the simplest way to think about the purpose of this COP in the broadest terms is that if the Paris Agreement set the vision for what the world is going to do around climate change, this COP is supposed to be about how to implement that vision. And as anyone knows who’s ever had a vision, the devil is in the details.

As hard as it was to come to agreement on that vision, it’s actually probably much harder to figure out how to make the goals of the Paris Agreement real, how to hold countries accountable for their mitigation efforts, who’s going to pay for what, how much do they pay, and when. All those kinds of where the rubber meets the road kind of questions are what people are struggling over at this COP.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us what the vibe in the place is like. What does it actually feel to be at this event?

AMY MARTIN: It feels kind of manic. My current working visual is ants in suits. It’s like entering an anthill with everyone just running, crisscrossing in different directions. Everyone looks like they have an important purpose, and everyone is dressed in business clothes.

You enter this space that feels like a giant airport terminal. You get completely detached from anything that’s going on in the outside world. It’s intense, honestly. You can feel the urgency that everyone has here. There are not a lot of smiles and laughter. It’s like a lot of serious looks people, talking on cell phones as they walk busily by to this meeting or that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ll bet. I heard that some of your team made it into some negotiating rooms, maybe without clearance. Is that right?

AMY MARTIN: Yeah, if you just show up and walk in, sometimes you can see things that people–

IRA FLATOW: You own the place.


So what do you see? What did you learn when you got into those meetings?

AMY MARTIN: Well, what’s really fascinating about it– this is going to sound paradoxical– is how boring it is. Because it’s like if you’ve ever been to a school board meeting or a city council meeting and you’re entering an issue mid-stream and there’s all kinds of arcane language about a very specific detail of something. And yet, you can tell that the people who actually are inside that language and can decode it, there are these high stakes questions that are coming down to things like, I would like in paragraph 2A for the word to be “shall,” and somebody else wants it to be “will,” and somebody else wants it to be “might.”

And these are the kinds of things that get tussled over in these negotiating rooms that end up having these real world impacts on how countries are required to report their emissions or provide funding to one another. I’ve never been in any room quite like it, to be honest.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. I know you just alluded to loss and damage a bit. Can you explain for us in more detail what that exactly is?

AMY MARTIN: Yeah, loss and damage, I think, is really going to be one of the headlines that comes out of this COP as well. And it’s something that people in the developing world have been talking about for a long time, but people in the wealthier countries may not be aware of.

There’s actually no officially formal agreed upon definition of “loss and damage” yet, which is something that the people who are advocating for loss and damage are pushing for. The easiest way to understand it is in comparison with two other terms– mitigation and adaptation. So mitigation is trying to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that we’re releasing into the atmosphere.

Adaptation is all the stuff people are doing to try to adapt to a warming world. It could be putting solar panels on your roof or strengthening the infrastructure of your city so it can handle higher powered storms. But Siobhan McDonnell is one of the lead negotiators for the island of Fiji, and she really wanted to make the point that not all aspects of climate change can be adapted to. Some things will just be lost.


– Loss and damage is about describing how sometimes you need to go beyond adaptation. That there are impacts that countries and states and people can no longer adapt to. We are talking about relocation and resettlement of atoll islands.

There are no measures of adaptation. No amount of seawalls, no amount of mangrove plantations. So this is really the heart of climate justice. This is the global south saying to carbon-emitting countries, we emit almost no carbon for the most part– particularly the Pacific– and yet we bear the brunt of these impacts through cyclones, through sea level rise, through changing weather patterns. Two category five cyclones in the last five years, as well as a drought.


AMY MARTIN: And Siobhan also really wanted to make the point that some of the things that are going to be lost because of climate change aren’t just physical structures, like buildings and roads, but entire islands may be lost, as well as less tangible things like communities, languages, and cultures.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve been hearing a lot about the $100 billion promise by wealthier countries to the developed world is that about loss and damage.

AMY MARTIN: That $100 billion is supposed to be about adaptation and mitigation, the two other categories I just defined a minute ago. Money for loss and damage has never been included in any of the agreements in any of the Conference of the Parties talks, the COP talks so far, and that’s what the people who are advocating for loss and damage are really pushing for at this COP. That it’s time to start recognizing that loss and damage is real and it’s happening.

Dr. Saleemul Huq is another person I’ve talked to about this. He’s the Director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh. And he says, the crucial thing to understand about loss and damage is that loss and damage is about countries who have contributed the most to the problem taking responsibility for their impact.


– This is a convention to tackle pollution by emissions of greenhouse gases, which come from burning fossil fuel, and have a very long history. So it’s a polluter pay principle here. Not charity, not rich countries helping poor countries. It’s polluters paying the victims of their pollution. That’s what the money is for. That’s what they promised to give, and they’re refusing to give.


IRA FLATOW: When Saleem says, “they’re refusing to give,” who is the “they?” Who are the players in this debate?

AMY MARTIN: I’m learning that here within the COP process, there’s this interesting dynamic that no country stands up and says directly, we’re opposed to providing compensation for loss and damage. That just doesn’t happen. The whole process plays out in this diplomatic language where intentions aren’t made plain.

And usually the groups who are opposed to something, they dance around a topic. They try to slow down the decision making process or block action. That being said, everyone says, I can’t really say for sure, but actually we all know it’s the wealthy countries and the blocs– the US, the EU, Japan, Australia– who are resisting action on loss and damage because those are the countries that have caused the bulk of carbon emissions.

Saleem says this resistance to action is a new form of climate denial. Not denying the science anymore, but just denial of the fact that the developing world has been bearing huge costs from climate change for many years. And he feels like leaders of the developing countries know this, but they just want to pretend that’s not happening.


– The question here in the COP is, are they going to recognize that reality? Are they going to do something about it? We hope they will. When I say “we,” I’m talking on behalf of the vulnerable countries who are here. We haven’t got very far with them yet. So let’s see. [END PLAYBACK]

IRA FLATOW: Very interesting to hear that from his perspective. What’s happening at the conference? Is Saleem feeling like there’s any progress being made? Because I know I’ve been to a lot of UN conferences in other places. You go on, like you say, talking, talking, talking, but does he get the feeling there is any progress?

AMY MARTIN: I would say his level of optimism is varying day by day, meeting by meeting. I would say overall though, Saleem and other people I’ve spoken with say the process here inside the conference, although there may be some incremental progress made, it just doesn’t match the reality of how much loss and damage is actually occurring right now.


– The problem of loss and damage has burst out of the negotiations. It’s happening in the real world, and the negotiators are not dealing with it at the level of importance that it requires. They’re dealing with it in a small, technical discussion. It’s simply not enough.


IRA FLATOW: And I know there have been protests outside this event since it started. Youth activists, including Greta Thunberg, Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate are petitioning the UN legally for an emergency declaration on climate change. Those protesting seem to feel that not enough is being done inside the event where the power is. Correct?

AMY MARTIN: Very much so, yeah. The whole Threshold team was out with the protesters pretty much for two days straight. The energy is intense. There are strong youth activists out there, but there really, it was very multigenerational. Grandparents to very little kids with one pretty clear message– do more, do it faster.

One of the people I talked with was a woman named Shannon. She’s in her early 20s, and I asked her what she thought was happening inside the blue zone, where all the UN delegates are. And she said, she thought it was just a fancy meeting.


– We have conferences like that every so often, and we have parliaments, we have politicians, but they don’t do what they’re voted on to do. They’re full of promises and they don’t do it. So leadership comes from the people on the ground, so I think you’re not going to see real change until you bring that and say stuff like that.


IRA FLATOW: So what do the protesters really want? What will they feel satisfied with? They know they’re not going to get everything, but what’s their bottom line?

AMY MARTIN: That is an excellent question, in part because I think it points to the way that these two groups of people who are here in Glasgow to try to work on climate change are disconnected from each other. The protesters, I mean I think that things that they want are big general statements like, stop burning oil and gas and stop digging up more coal.

And inside, it’s all extremely specific and extremely technical. And it’s almost like the worlds have diverged a little bit, and the bureaucracy and the incredibly detailed work that’s happening inside here, I don’t know if it would ever satisfy the protesters outside. In here, we’re not talking about massive system change, we’re talking about paragraph 4A and which words should go where. And I think that’s a really– there’s a tension there for sure.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the COP26 conference that’s been going on in Glasgow all week. I think probably the protesters hear the clock ticking, like we all do. They want the negotiations to go quickly, do it faster. I mean, is that message getting through?

AMY MARTIN: I think it is, but it’s like they’re working inside a machine that is not meant to go fast. And I think that there’s a lot of stress and struggle around that. I should say there are people here in the negotiations who absolutely don’t want it to go faster, who are working to slow things down.

Countries who would really prefer to keep burning coal, like Australia or oil like Saudi Arabia. They find ways to gum up the works for sure. I think that one thing that’s interesting that I’m learning from being up close is that there are a lot of passionate people on the inside who want it to go faster and do more and bigger just as much as the protesters outside do. We all share– or a lot of people share this goal, but it’s just really hard to actualize it, which is deeply frustrating.

I talked to Adele Thomas about this. She’s a lead author for the IPCC and a senior fellow of the Climate Change Adaptation and RESILIENCE Research Center at the University of the Bahamas. She’s also involved in the loss and damage issue, and she says that one thing that’s really troubling for her is that she heard a lot of things from US politicians leading into this COP that made her think there might be significant progress this time. But that there is always this huge gap between words and action.


– The negotiators are just doing their jobs. So if it doesn’t change from the top, then we’re not going to see changing IN individual negotiators’ minds. The pressure needs to be at the political level. We’ve seen the lip service, but now it needs to translate into policy and action.


IRA FLATOW: Incredible to hear that– translating into policy and action. I guess it’s hard to get meaningful action at these COPs, as you say, because of the bureaucracy.

AMY MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. And at the same time, that bureaucracy had to be created in order to try to have some sort of forum to deal with these things. I think President Obama referenced this in his speech this week that it’s actually really hard to get the whole world to do something together.

And I was thinking, yeah, it’s really hard to get a whole family to do something together, let alone all the countries in the world and to do so with urgency and with transformative, strong action. It’s a big ask, and yet it’s the ask that’s before us. We have to try to figure that out. So yeah, I also asked her, how can ordinary people put pressure on these negotiations or have any influence here at all.


– I think the pressure needs to be on the politicians to get them to actually reconcile what they’re saying in these speeches with what they’re telling their governments to do.


IRA FLATOW: Let me conclude with just a couple of news items to run past you. A new report from the UN earlier this week says we’re on track for 2.6 degrees Celsius. And in his speech Monday, former President Obama pointed out that some of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters, like Russia, like China, are absent from the meeting, and he scolded them for not attending. Now that might feel pretty dispiriting to people after all the buildup. So overall, how do you describe the value of this event, even if nothing big– no big changes come out of this meeting as it wraps up?

AMY MARTIN: I think it’s a tough question, but my off the cuff answer is that we don’t have time to invent an entirely different process for solving the climate crisis. This process, as flawed and frustrating as it is, is what we’ve got. And it’s certainly not the only thing we have.

I mean, there are things happening in the business sector, there are things happening in education, but we do need some form for global collaboration here, and this is the one that we have built. And so it’s like how do we use this flawed tool to solve, really, humanity’s biggest problem? I am fascinated, troubled by this question and going to be exploring it further on our show for sure

IRA FLATOW: Amy Martin is the executive producer and host of Threshold, a podcast that tells stories about our changing environment. She joined us from Glasgow, Scotland. Safe travels, Amy, on your way home.

AMY MARTIN: Thank you so much.

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