It's time to admit it, even if it hurts: The COP process — the official international system of negotiations led by the United Nations to combat climate change — is broken.
After an entire generation of effort, major failures in Kyoto (in the 1990s), Copenhagen (in the 2000s), Paris (in the 2010s), and now Glasgow (in the 2020s) have put the world on a path to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, nearly twice the redline temperature rise that science says would give us a chance to preserve human civilization in line with environmental and social justice.
Bowing to national interests of the major polluting countries, the COP process has always been voluntary, based on words and pledges, not binding peer-led enforcement. Those pledges collectively have the world on a path to emitting 40% more carbon in 2030 than in 1990 when the process began, and nearly twice the level that would put us on a safe climate path.
We need a different path
Glasgow is failing because so far the focus has been diametrically opposed to the actual problem itself: a crisis of justice. Instead, through billionaire-funded side events and exclusionary attendance policies, the debate has focused on carbon markets, and appeasing the fossil fuel industry that has all but captured the official process.
"People think that the COP is sort of like the World Series, right? And that there's going to be some, you know, walk-off home run from China or the U.S. And it's not," Rachel Kyte, an advisor to the UK government, told NPR last week. "It's like an Iditarod, right? Lots of huskies, long and arduous, and maybe it never ends."
It's time for it to end.
This doesn't mean it's too late to fix climate change — in fact just the opposite. It means what was always true: Radical change won't be led by those who created the problems. The answer was always a reimagining of the social contract of human society. That work has been in progress for hundreds of years, and it's time to help it rapidly spread around the world.
The reason we've had 26 years of COP meetings isn't because the process has failed — it's because it's working exactly as it was intended to. Letting governments set their own climate targets reinforces the status quo, giving the fossil fuel industry and those that enable it a free pass while the rest of the world bears the brunt of the crisis. It's climate colonialism. It's an abject, willful dereliction of duty at the most important moment in human history.
And it doesn't work any more.
Real change won't come from politicians, it will come in spite of them
That's an uncomfortable truth for those of us who have spent our entire career trusting the process. Grieving this moment is part of what we have to do for the rest of our lives, alongside our life-long struggle for justice. That push-pull of grief + righteous anger, alongside struggle + solidarity is what will define the rest of our lives. It's what's going to deliver us a livable world for everyone.
A counter-COP, beginning today in Scotland, is a major step towards kicking alternative approaches into high gear. The People's Summit for Climate Justice is a hybrid summit for the climate movement, with in-person and online events so everyone can join. There are hundreds of events, all organized by the COP26 Coalition, a huge group of "environment and development NGOs, trade unions, grassroots community campaigns, faith groups, youth groups, migrant and racial justice networks – to name a few".
It's not our job to convince ourselves that what has happened doesn't hurt. When we admit that hurt to ourselves, there's a tendency to throw our hands up and give in to despair. I've been there. It's seductive. But it's also a luxury we can't afford to dwell inside of, and we have a duty to help our friends out of.
The plain reality is that these are going to be difficult years. But giving up is never an option. We are doing this work together, for each other.
This is the struggle we were born into.