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Leaders confess climate sins at COP26 – POLITICO

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GLASGOW — National leaders trooped into the Scottish Event Campus this week to take part in what’s become an annual rite of penance — apologizing for historic bad behavior on climate and pledging to eventually become pure, but not yet.

At the opening two days of the two-week COP26 U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, 115 leaders took to the summit pulpit — many to say how they plan to atone for their carbon sins, while countries being hit with the impact of climate change called for penance in the form of greater financial flows and steeper emissions cuts.

“Why should they suffer this immediate impact, this loss and damage, because [of] emissions that we in our country began to produce 250 years ago?” asked U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

But despite the regular observances, U.N. boss António Guterres said it was an “illusion” that commitments being made were enough.

“When will leaders lead?” asked Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley. “Can we … find it within ourselves to get the resolve to bring Glasgow back on track, or do we leave today believing that it was a failure before it starts?”

But the leaders’ often dull speeches are less about leading than following. The global climate system doesn’t impose any sanctions for missing emissions targets or not pledging to do enough to keep warming in check, rather it relies on moral suasion — the sense of shame of leaders before their peers if their countries are seen as laggards. The idea is to keep presidents and prime ministers coming back again and again to such events, each time squeezing out higher commitments.

“We have to repeat and repeat. It’s just awfully boring, awfully long, but absolutely necessary,” said Laurence Tubiana, a former French diplomat who is one of the architects of modern climate politics. 

The goal, Tubiana said, is to build a sense of inexorable progress, “the expectation that this will happen, it’s just inevitable … then you have the fear that if you are out of the loop, if you are not bandwagoning with the movement, you will be left on the side of the global economy.”

That explains why some of the most powerful men and women in the world were on stage in Glasgow, despite many not having anything decisive to offer.

U.S. President Joe Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen all gave speeches that didn’t make serious advances on pledges Guterres called “grossly insufficient.” Only Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi briefly stirred the meeting with a pledge to reach net-zero by 2070 with swift action during the 2020s.

Even by giving banal speeches, the leaders were “keeping the Paris prophecy alive,” said Stefan Aykut, a professor of sociology at the University of Hamburg. He’s coined a term for this style of diplomacy — “incantatory governance” — with the idea that rituals reinforce certain behaviors or change perceptions of reality.

The effort to stave off disastrous climate change is based on “a belief in magic … almost like a kind of hypnosis,” he said. This is “a social practice that is used in many social contexts and traditional societies” but also in the business world.  

Cross your fingers

The idea is that by saying the words, you start to believe.

There are concrete actions being taken in Glasgow. Over 100 countries signed on to a pledge to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, a crucial step in combating climate change, although one that also requires some suspension of disbelief as the pledge includes Brazil, where deforestation has reached its highest levels since 2012 under the rule of President Jair Bolsanaro.

A second pledge, also roping in more than 100 countries, seeks to lower global emissions of methane — the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide — by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030. Again, that pledge includes huge oil and gas producers like Nigeria and Gulf petro-states, which would have to undertake painful, and unlikely, policy changes to make it happen.

But there is a view that, even if some of the promises aren’t all that credible, at least there is movement. Tubiana said a pledge last month by Saudi Arabia to reach net-zero by 2060 was “crazy” and that, in negotiations with the Saudis in Paris in 2015, she had the sense that “for them, it was something that never has to happen.” But she said they felt “forced” to take action because of the ritual.

Those efforts were boosted by one-on-one confrontations between the sinners and those they’ve wronged.

In a meeting on Monday organized by the British hosts and chaired by Johnson, a group of leaders from the biggest polluting nations, including Biden, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and the smallest, most vulnerable nations were sat around a table and asked to give two-minute speeches on their fears about climate disaster. It was specifically “designed to be uncomfortable” for the polluters, said a U.K. official.

Surangel Whipps Jr, the president of the Pacific island nation of Palau, traveled through pandemic-disrupted international airports for five days to reach Glasgow and beg for his country.

“In a cruel and never-ending cycle of co-dependence, we look to partnerships with the very nations whose emissions threaten our existence in order to survive the devastation that they are responsible for,” he said.

Biden offered an apology for the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord under his predecessor, Donald Trump, and said the people of his country and his home state of Delaware had been wayward on climate change.

“Well they have as they say in southern parts of my state, seen the Lord,” said Biden, “and they are now finally, finally, finally realizing the sense of urgency that y’all are.”

No worship experience would be complete without the collection plate.

Rich countries have long promised poor countries that they will pay for the original sin of their early industrialization, which brought climate change to the world, by delivering money to help poor countries develop using fewer fossil fuels. The aim is to supply $100 billion a year in climate finance — a goal rich countries aren’t meeting, and which poor countries want dramatically raised.

Biden has taken a lot of heat, both from developed and developing countries, for the level of U.S. support for poor countries. The U.S. gives a lot less when compared to the size of its economy, but this failure is a collective one and Tubiana said it was the single most dangerous problem at the Glasgow talks. 

“It could kill everything,” she said.

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