With the end of COP26, campaigners need to look to the next round, and look to set the most compelling narratives. Whether the next opportunity is the Conference on the Future of Europe or COP27, those who shape the conversation will win out.
Many around the world had their eyes to Glasgow for a few weeks, looking to see what leaders might do this time on the climate. Many hopes were pinned on this, and there was also a healthy dose of cynicism. Many poured their heart and soul into the fight for a hopeful outcome.
In the end, the outcome was a bitter-sweet and sour mixture. I wrote right before the summit that leaders were unlikely to deliver. And indeed, COP26 did not deliver, or get close to delivering, 1.5 degree target necessary for us to avoid disaster, and those most vulnerable are rightfully outraged. On the other hand, some milestones, like banning coal power, were broached for the first time, if not fully accomplished. If intergovernmental climate action was a truck stuck in a ditch, it would be as if the front wheels were out, while the back wheels dug deeper into the mud. So what do we do now? It’s important to highlight the levers for change and prepare for the next round.
One of the remarkable things about this climate conference as opposed to previous encounters has been the absence of climate change denial from the scene and from the narrative. There was no one who tried to claim that it wasn’t happening, or that it wasn’t human made, or that it was human made but wasn’t so bad. For the first time at a major intergovernmental meeting, everyone agreed that this was an emergency. Boris Johnson, a retrograde populist best known for his creative and effective deployment of fiction, this time chose to align with the facts and tell the world climate change was as urgent as a bomb that’s about to go off. That in itself, is a significant litmus test. There is now less talk about climate change, and more about climate emergency, less about global warming, and more about global heating. That in itself is significant, and a real source for hope.
And still, the political conversation is still stuck in a zero sum game between climate action on the one hand, and notions of necessary energy and industry on the other. Governments have still been talking about the notion of “shutting down industries” when it comes to phasing out coal. Climate action is still framed as a burden and a chore, something to be undertaken without enthusiasm, out of necessity only. That is as wrong as it is counter-productive.
Taking a moment to focus on these “soft” outcomes of COP26 rather than the concrete text and hard commitment is critical. Political narratives shape what publics demand, and what is plausible and possible for leaders to deliver. Narratives end up shaping reality in a very concrete and tangible way once the stories we tell ourselves lead to clear-cut actions or inactions. The narrative on climate did not change all on its own. Civil society, climate activists, and the scientific communities have worked and campaigned tirelessly to move the needle, word at a time. Yes, the fact that climate disasters are now more visible than ever helps, but leaders have ignored these in the past. The work of narrative-setting demands persistent resilient determination. The facts may be on the side of the scientists, but they need to be communicated in a story human beings find compelling enough to act on. Once a political leader feels that a story compels their electorate, they take action. Whatever success there has been at this COP, it is because leaders have been able to live within the narrative that says the climate matters. That in itself is a victory for reason, science, and human survival.
So now the upcoming battles need to be defined, in their next arenas. There is of course, COP27 in Sharm El Sheik in 2022. Before we get there, the EU has presented a milestone opportunity for commitment and agenda setting. The Conference on the Future of Europe aims to define the direction of this continent, and so far it has been invisible to the public eye, a dormant opportunity. What better a venue to raise a voice for vision and accountability from European leaders?
As campaigners approach these next rounds, whether it is the Conference on the Future of Europe, or the COP27, their narrative strategy needs to be clear. The Climate Emergency is now well established as the key, real time urgent red flashing light for leaders to tackle. The emergency is very real, and further action must be framed that. However, that is not enough. A positive message of prosperity and opportunity also needs to be injected into the debate. What does success look like? Just more of the same dreary ordinary world? Or is their something brighter, shiner, bigger and better up ahead? What does a sustainable world really feel like?
Sustainability and climate action are not a zero sum game, and they are not only a field for anger, frustration and disaster. If we succeed at tackling this global crisis, new sustainable technologies and innovation will bring on prosperity and wealth beyond belief, just like the revolutions of steam engines, light bulbs, electric grids, oil pipelines, and microchips have done in the past. Those who get ahead and get to zero emissions first will not simply have completed an unfortunate tedious hardship. They will have brand new shiny technology, that will allow them to win out in the 21st century, and if we are lucky enough to survive and get there, maybe the 22nd century too.
So now, as we move on from COP26 and onto the upcoming battles for sustainability, campaigners need to make their choices. Double down and press hard on the strategies that worked, and look up to fill the gaps that are still there. But determination and hope are still alive.
Photo: Guglielmo Mangiapane (Reuters)