Climate summits haven’t done much but their time may be coming

World | Gwynne Dyer

The key debate on the last day of the COP28 climate summit was about whether or not the conference should endorse a resolution to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels — or, in a less ambitious formulation, phase them ‘down’ (but not out).

It was like the famous debate about whether or not to eradicate smallpox. Oh, wait! There was no debate about using the smallpox vaccine to end the worst killer disease of all. Maybe because nobody was making money from people dying from smallpox — whereas the prosperity of whole countries depends on making money from fossil fuels.

I’m writing before the outcome of this year’s ritual debate is known, but my guess is it will be like the vote on phasing out coal at the Glasgow Conference of the Parties (COP26) two years ago. At the last minute it was amended to “phase down” the use of coal, which means precisely nothing.

This is the intended and almost inevitable outcome of the way the system was set up in the 1990s, when global warming first became an international priority. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was then much more powerful than it is today, and it insisted that every decision must be made by consensus.

That means every decision must be unanimous. Even a single one of the 197 countries at this year’s COP (including all 13 OPEC members) can veto any decision. Normally everybody else backs down without forcing the fossil fuel lobby to use its vetoes, and so the process continues to stumble forward, but very, very slowly.

It has long been my belief that this veto will be overridden when deaths directly attributable to climate change reach between one and ten million a year. We are probably in the lower end of that zone already, and it would be useful if someone reputable set up a site to keep track of that number (like the national Covid death trackers of two years ago).

But in the meantime we should carry on with this toothless wonder, for two reasons. One is that it’s the body the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (made up of scientists) reports to, and those reports are the most credible data on present and future warming that we have.

The IPCC’s reports all downplay the danger, because they are settled in wrestling matches between the scientists (already a conservative lot) and the governments (which don’t want reports that will oblige them to spend more money). But they are the closest thing we have to a trustworthy estimate of the risk.

The other reason is that when the vetoes are finally overridden, the COPs are the only foundation we will have on which to build an international executive body that coordinates the struggle to slow down what by then will be verging on runaway warming.

Two years ago the COPs went from five-yearly conferences to annual events. The next step, probably no more than five years away, will be standing committees that make executive decisions on matters like the enforcement of emissions limits and the possible deployment of geoengineering measures.

We already need such an authority. How did everybody fail to factor the probability of a big El Niño into their estimates of the speed of warming? Well, lots of people knew it was due around now, but nobody had the job of watching for it and adjusting the climate predictions accordingly.

How did nobody foresee that the clean-up of pollution in Chinese cities and the International Maritime Organization’s 2020 decision to cut the sulphur dioxide content in the fuel emissions of 60,000 merchant ships from 3.5% to only 0.5% would lead to cloudless skies and a big jump in sunlight reaching the surface?

It’s the practical equivalent to a half-degree Celsius jump in average global temperature in just three years, but nobody saw it coming because nobody was tasked to look for that kind of unintended side-effect.

Soon now we are going to have to admit that ‘normal’ is over. The crisis is here, and it will last beyond the rest of our lives. The international institutions through which we coordinate our efforts to cope with the crisis do not yet exist, because the great powers are not yet ready to cede them that kind of executive authority.

Maybe they never will, in which case we are doomed. But assuming that a shared danger elicits cooperation, we will have to build those institutions in a hurry. It’s quicker to re-purpose an existing organization than to spend years building one from the ground up.

So long live the COP. It has been almost perfectly useless at curbing warming for over 30 years, but it may yet have a vital role to play in the desperate days to come. ■