CNN Chief Climate Correspondent Bill Weir attended COP26 last week, an international climate summit where global leaders are trying to limit future global warming.
Just past the giant model Earth slowly spinning overhead there winds a labyrinth of booths and displays competing for eyeballs. Around them, world leaders and delegates mingle, each one sent to Scotland to negotiate for climate action on behalf of their nations.
On paper, their challenge is simple enough for a 4th-grader to understand: The same fossil fuels that built the modern world are now destroying it. The same energy sources that powered the innovation that extended human life spans are now shortening the lives of the most vulnerable. Something must be done. ASAP.
But in practice, this “something” will be the most difficult problem humans ever solve, and the sensory riot in Glasgow’s OVO Hydro arena – named for a natural gas utility – is proof.
Take Australia, for example. There was buzz that the booth from Down Under had the best coffee, and while I was unable to investigate, I can that confirm that the booth of the nation led by former climate change skeptic Scott Morrison is branded with the logo of Santos, an Australian oil and gas company.
While leaders from China and Russia were conspicuous in their absence, there’s a faux birch forest at Sweden’s display, while over in France’s, the #MakeOurPlanetGreatAgain signage feels like a leftover from 2020, back when Donald Trump pulled the United States from its Paris Agreement promises in one of the most egregious dine-and-dashes in human history.
Many COP props are illustrated with scenes from nature or the gaze of disappointed children, but few stop you in your tracks like the display from the tiny Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu, which features a large, cartoonish sculpture by eco-artist Vincent Huang with frightened polar bears huddled together in orange life jackets and a penguin hanging from a noose. It is up to the viewer to decide whether the poor thing was executed or suicidal.
“A combination of diplomacy, trade show, and circus,” is how science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson described the Conference of Parties ritual after receiving his invite. His latest dystopian novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” is titled after an imaginary United Nations task force that formed after a heat wave in India killed 20 million people in a week.
Against a backdrop of industrial sabotage, bioterrorism and Bitcoin busts, protagonist bureaucrats in the book scramble to deploy moon-shot feats of geoengineering, like sorties of jets rigged to spray forms of sunscreen across the sky in a desperate effort to shade the planet, turn down the heat and buy our self-destructive species some time.
Such an idea is no longer the stuff of fiction. We’ve reached a point where the climate models are so grim, brilliant minds from Harvard to Cambridge are actively working on break-glass-in-case-of-emergency ideas, just in case this COP ends up like the first 25, with an increase in planet-cooking pollution.
But no one came to Glasgow to discuss the best sunscreen for the sky. They came for signs of hope, and after a summer witnessing firsthand the reality of the climate crisis, I arrived on the River Clyde desperate to find something – anything – to silence the inner Debbie Downer that lives in the head of everyone on this beat.
While filming upcoming stories in Montana, I waded rivers too warm to fly fish and saw how Western wildfires turned the famous Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park into Going to the Smoke.
I ventured to Greenland, where ash from those same fires darkens the ice sheet and hastens its demise. We floated past chunks of what glaciologists call “Jesus ice” made from snow that fell 2,000 years ago but is now melting thanks to 150 years of burning fossil fuels.
And in Charleston, South Carolina, I learned how the city and the Army Corps of Engineers are planning a billion-dollar sea wall to protect the historic tourist town from all that melting Jesus ice, and how homeowners who can afford it are jacking up their 200-year-old mansions to adjust for the shocking increase in sunny-day flooding.
I flash back to these examples in Glasgow, watching the thousands of folks line up each morning – some adapting their African dashikis or Amazonian headdresses with scarves and mittens against the Scottish chill – and it was comforting to imagine that humanity is capable of well-funded, science-based, life-saving cooperation.
But then I check Twitter and see West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, back his silver Maserati away from a blockade of young people in Washington DC, all shouting-mad over his refusal to back strong climate legislation. Further doom-scrolling brings the realization that even the most miraculous technological breakthroughs require the acceptance of people who would rather punch a flight attendant than wear a mask.
A Washington Post investigation found many countries are grossly underreporting their levels of planet-cooking pollution, while a check of the COP26 roster shows that the biggest contingent in COP26’s morning lines represent fossil fuel companies, including those accused of hiding the science and pumping disinformation into public discourse for decades.
So far, not a single promise at COP26 involves shutting down an active oil well or coal mine in this vital decade. Even the greenest, most progressive nations like Denmark won’t put an end date on fossil fuel production until mid-century, and all of the vows include the caveat “net-zero.” This is a massive loophole that allows countries to burn as much fossil fuel as they’d like, as long as they remove just as much from the atmosphere. It’s a promise based on incredibly expensive technology yet to be proven on a large scale.
“I am pleased to announce that I’ve decided to go net-zero on swear words and bad language,” tweeted Greta Thunberg, blasting a hole the net zero logic in her signature blunt style. “In the event that I should say something inappropriate I pledge to compensate that by saying something nice.”
“How do we close the gap between what’s necessary for our survival and what seems politically possible right now?” former US President Barack Obama asked during his speech on Monday, a day devoted to Loss, Damages and Adaptation. “There are times where I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late. And then, images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams. And yet, whenever I feel such despondency, I remind myself that cynicism is the recourse of cowards.”
It’s impossible to come to Glasgow and not pinball between hopeful invigoration and cynical despair. At times it feels like a global Gamblers Anonymous convention held in a casino.
But then you see the sustainable light in the eye of an earnest soul as they describe all the things worth saving. You remember Mr. Rodger’s advice to “look for the helpers,” put down the dystopian fiction and pick up a poem like a favorite from Clarissa Pinkola Estés:
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
Then you grab a coffee, nod at the swinging penguin and keep reaching.