What’s at stake at the Glasgow climate talks

(Photo courtesy COP26/Flickr)
Friday, November 5, 2021

Representatives from nearly 200 countries are in Glasgow, Scotland this month for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, which aims to unite the international community in the fight against global warming. The latest climate talks will attempt to accelerate progress toward meeting the goals of the historic Paris Agreement, including the formalization of steps to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and other commitments to protect and restore forests and critical ecosystems under siege on a warming planet.

We asked several members of the Yale community, including some who are participating in the Glasgow summit, what they believe must be achieved during the climate talks — and, generally, by humankind in the coming years — to avert the worst outcomes of global climate change.

Dan Esty.

Dan Esty

Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, Yale School of the Environment, and Yale Law School

Climate scientists have made clear that humanity now risks transgressing planetary boundaries exposing us all to the prospect of irreversible climate change among other threats. This reality imposes a sustainability imperative on all of us and requires, in particular, a new baseline for business behavior. Fundamentally, we need to bring a halt to corporate practices that result in environmental damage — ending (as economists would say) uninternalized externalities. Simply put, we need to establish a new framework for environmental law that prohibits pollution and makes those who continue to cause harm pay fully for the burdens they impose on others.

A first step in this direction would be to require all companies to report on their emissions and perhaps more comprehensively on their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. A mandatory and rigorous ESG reporting could provide a trustworthy emissions database and the foundation for levying harm charges on polluters (perhaps beginning with an escalating fee on greenhouse gas emissions). To ensure that our global society does not exceed planetary boundaries and damage life-sustaining Earth systems, the ground rules of our market economy must be recast — a process that could begin at the Glasgow COP26 climate conference with an agreement among nations to move toward more robust corporate ESG reporting.

Mary-Louise Timmermans.

Mary-Louise Timmermans

Damon Wells Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

As a polar researcher, I get a first-hand look at the most rapidly changing part of the world. The Arctic region is warming at twice the global average rate. Air temperatures in the Arctic are already at least 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial values. Recall that the Paris Agreement committed to limit average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial values (or at least well below what we are already seeing in the Arctic). Countries need to act immediately on commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and transition rapidly to renewable energy.

During the COP26 summit, the U.S. needs to demonstrate strong leadership and convince other countries that its government is dedicated to tackling the climate crisis, and that we can be counted on in the long term to make and meet ambitious targets for emissions.

Walter Jetz.

Walter Jetz

Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Over the coming decades, climate change is poised to impact the health of ecosystems that we are part of and drive species to extinction, locally and globally. And it will disrupt and forever destroy intricate ecological networks that deliver specific daily benefits to people, imposing an immense cost on our own children and future human societies. The magnitude of this impact, however, is in our hands, and it will be determined by the commitments at the climate conference in Glasgow and subsequent actions.

Biodiversity and ecosystems are already suffering immensely from human activities, especially from land-use change and the loss of habitats. Our own work has shown that this is — and will remain — the main driver of biodiversity loss until climate change will with certainty take over in a few decades. Healthy and resilient ecosystems bestow central “nature-based” solutions for addressing the climate crisis.

Anthropogenic loss of species and ecological integrity is in many places already unravelling the fabric of nature that supports human lives and thus exacerbates the many impacts that climate change will have. The UN Biodiversity Summit in April at Kunming, China, on the heels of the UN climate meeting, could therefore not have greater significance and urgency. Realizing the dual need, and the synergies, for addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis will be central to sustaining human life on our planet.

LaRon Nelson.

LaRon Nelson

Associate Dean for Global Affairs & Planetary Health, Independence Foundation Professor, associate professor of nursing, Yale School of Nursing

The most important thing that could be achieved in Glasgow would be for the governments of the world to disincentivize activities that contribute carbon into earth’s atmosphere. This could include economic disincentives for health care systems that may spur innovations by nurse leaders and scientists for how to reduce their carbon output generated by healthcare operations, while increasing efficiency and effectiveness of care delivery.

Global health inequities will be exacerbated if there is inaction. This is because structural systems that already marginalize poor and racialized minority communities will function to overexpose them to the consequences of climate change, while in the process protecting wealthier, more privileged communities and their material interests. For example, I worry deeply about communities being forcibly displaced to make room for higher income earners fleeing elite coastal enclaves due to rising sea levels. The health impacts of this type of mass, forced migration and the disruptions of community social connections would be immeasurable.

Ingrid C. Burke.

Ingrid C. Burke

Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean; professor of ecosystem ecology, Yale School of the Environment

Coming out of COP26, particularly when you think of the many students from Yale School of the Environment, Yale College, and other universities from across the globe who are at the Glasgow talks, I would very much like to see a renewed emphasis on the role of universities as drivers of solution-based science. Climate change, biodiversity loss, and other urgent environmental problems have left us with no time to spare. We need to pursue solutions that can be tested, scaled, and implemented, or brought to market, at a very accelerated rate, and universities — particularly working in partnership with other universities, NGOs, or industry — play a critical role in advancing these sustainable solutions.

The “science” is only half of the equation though; we also need the participation of policy analysts, historians, sociologists, communications specialists, community and political leaders, and many others to stand a chance of success — and that, too, is where universities can play a vital role in helping to not only develop but implement these solutions successfully.

Robert Dubrow.

Robert Dubrow

Professor of epidemiology (environmental health sciences), Yale School of Public Health; faculty director, Yale Center on Climate Change and Health

The world’s fundamental task is to transition with all deliberate speed from fossil-fuel-generated energy to renewable energy. Continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure is incompatible with the urgent Paris Agreement goal of cutting anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Developed nations must agree 1.) to cease building new fossil fuel infrastructure and to rapidly phase down existing infrastructure and 2.) to provide “Marshall Plan” levels of funding to enable developing countries to “leap-frog” over the fossil-fuel phase of development directly to renewable energy. These steps not only will combat climate change, which is the greatest public health threat humanity is facing, but also will prevent millions of deaths globally each year from particulate matter air pollution, which, along with carbon dioxide, is emitted by fossil fuel-burning. For this reason, converting to renewable energy is a critical public health imperative in its own right, even if climate change was not occurring.

Furthermore, the fossil fuel industry and other special interests must not be permitted to use approaches such as offsets or direct carbon dioxide air capture and storage as justifications for continued burning of fossil fuels. A rapid transition to renewable energy is absolutely essential.

Willie Jennings.

Willie Jennings

Associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies, Yale Divinity School

We live in a world that is segregated by national and economic inequalities but profoundly connected by climate. The representatives at the UN climate talks must aim in their deliberations to weaken that segregation and deepen the sense of connection. In order to do this, they must insert a moral compass into the conversation about the climate threat. The current conversation that is dominated by cost/benefit analyses will only get us so far. In a world segregated by nationalism and money, we constantly imagine our worlds too small and our concerns too narrowly. The representatives must therefore draw on the religious wisdom of the world’s peoples, not just as sources of inspiration but as sources of instruction in creating shared policies that show that we indeed share this world. The representatives must embed policy commitments inside moral commitments that span across the national borders and that overcome the selfish thinking of economies. Such commitments require representatives to think about the interests of their peoples and their specific environs inside the needs of a shared world.

Christianity, even with its recent legacies of planetary exploitation, offers a profoundly compelling story of humans’ relationship to the natural world that centers on a God who has created the human creature for communion with all of creation and with the divine life. This life of communion with the earth entails seeing plants and animals, land and sea, landscape and the elements as animate and communicative, as persons requiring acknowledgement and respect. The story of creation articulated by Christianity is not the story of the creation of private property, obsessively manicured lawns, gated neighborhoods, or national borders, but of a world alive and listening, a world watching and speaking, urgently showing us how me must live together in order to live rightly with God. The story of Christianity in this way shares in some measure with the stories of so many other faiths and peoples who also speak of a speaking world and offer an environmental ethic rooted in learning how to listen to the world.

Paul Simons.

Paul Simons

Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs

COP 26 will be the most important global multilateral gathering since the 2015 Paris climate conference. Paris put into place an innovative, voluntary process with countries assuming responsibility for targets aimed at meeting a global temperature goal that would minimize the worst impacts of a warming planet. Glasgow represents the first opportunity to revisit those targets and raise levels of ambition. I’m optimistic. Over the past year, we’ve seen bold commitments to “net zero” emissions from the U.S., U.K., European Union, Japan, China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Australia. These commitments, if executed on plan, should hold the global temperature rise to 2.1 degrees, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).  That’s huge progress in just six years. Complementing central government commitments, we’ve seen a growing body of “net zero” pledges from universities like Yale, corporations, banks, and investors commanding large swaths of global capital. These have been prompted by unprecedented levels of stakeholder engagement.

This will be my first COP representing Yale. For the past five COPs, I spoke for the IEA, an authoritative global center of energy and climate change analysis. Since Paris, the IEA has mapped out concrete benchmarks needed to turn ambitious climate pledges into reality, centered around raising investments in clean electricity, energy efficiency, and innovative energy technologies. But implementation has been slow and uneven. For me, the greatest achievement of COP 26 would be to move from ambition to implementation on the part of all concerned parties — above all, central governments and major corporations. Realizing this goal will require drawing the energy and climate change communities together in a closer, more trusting partnership. Climate advocates need to acknowledge the critical role that legacy companies play in delivering secure, reliable, and affordable energy to a growing world. Meanwhile, traditional energy suppliers and their supporters need to recognize the urgency of the climate challenge and become active parts of the solution. Glasgow should be the venue for that partnership to take root.

Jodi Sherman.

Jodi Sherman

Associate professor of anesthesiology and epidemiology (environmental health science), Yale School of Medicine; director of sustainability, Department of Anesthesiology

Credible, ambitious, actionable pledges by the highest emitting countries, including the U.S., to rapidly decarbonize over the next decade would be the single most important outcome of the COP 26 meeting. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has advised that we must limit temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C to avert the worst predicted harms to human health. This means we must cut emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

Health care organizations are the frontline responders to the health impacts of extreme weather and other environmental damages. At the same time, the health care industry is responsible for nearly 5% of worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and similar fractions of toxic air pollutants, both stemming from fossil fuel combustion. One quarter of these emissions arise just from U.S. health care, despite only accounting for 4% of the global population, and performing the lowest in terms of access to quality care amongst all high-income countries. These emissions arise directly from health care facilities and indirectly from the supply chain of health care goods and services.

Health systems must mitigate emissions, adapt and build resilience to a changing climate and pandemics alike, and develop action plans for providers to deliver low-carbon, quality, equitable care. The climate agenda has been deferred because of the pandemic, but we do not have the luxury of dealing with one public health crisis at a time. Fortunately, many of the solutions are the same. We can decarbonize health care by being better stewards of our resources, and by leveraging our collective purchasing power to drive innovation in industry and in models of care delivery.

The climate crisis is a “code red” for humanity, and health systems need to step up to do their fair share to decarbonize the health care sector and lead the way for a just transition to a sustainable world.

Cajetan Iheka.

Cajetan Iheka

Associate professor of English, Faculty of Arts and Sciences; scholar in Yale’s Environmental Humanities Program

Rich countries, which are also the world’s largest carbon emitters, must commit to and implement an ambitious emission elimination program while supporting low-income countries — which contribute the least to carbon emission — to finance decarbonization and climate adaptation projects. Humanity lost the edge due to the failures of previous climate summits — that is, the failure to adopt radical climate policies and the slow or non-implementation of existing agreements. Robust climate solutions cannot wait, which is why I hope the urgency of the now guides the deliberation in Glasgow. It will be a tragedy for the planet if Glasgow, like the preceding gatherings, becomes synonymous with the procrastination of responsibility. The largest emitters must take responsibility for their actions, overhaul their carbon infrastructure, and address inequities in exposure to climate risks by financing comprehensive clean energy projects at home and abroad. Ultimately, the conference will have to listen to and act in the interests of marginal groups, those most impacted by the climate crisis such as the Least Developed Countries, the African Group of Negotiators, and Small Island Developing States.

In my ongoing junior seminar on “Postcolonial Ecologies,” my students and I are discussing literary works highlighting the cost of extraction, tourism, and conservation on the most vulnerable populations in the Global South, and literature’s ability to center marginal human and nonhuman subjects in texts such as Amitav Ghosh’s “The Hungry Tide” and Helon Habila’s “Oil on Water.” It is the capacity for foregrounding the marginal, the distant, and its worldmaking license that make literature an appropriate tool in our arsenal against climate change. Literature is not constrained by formal and political pressures that could limit the vision of the official documents central to the climate conference proceedings. Literature permits multiple, radical, and capacious imaginings, crucial catalysts for the climate future we want.