Climate negotiations are not greenwashing waffle

COLUMN

11 November 2021

hands raising placards about climate change

Anyone seeking to be both demanding and specific should think beyond slogans on placards, Mikael Karlsson writes.

COLUMN. While every scientifically well-founded study shows that emissions must be reduced both vastly and rapidly if we are to achieve adopted climate goals, to say that ‘they’ are engaging in greenwashing is at best unfounded and lacking in insight and at worst counterproductive. So writes, Mikael Karlsson, senior lecturer in climate leadership on the subject of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

Mikael Karlsson, senior lecturer in climate
leadership. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

I see demonstrators walking and hear the drums beating. In Glasgow, hundreds of thousands of people are protesting against climate change. The protests are peaceful and popular. Placards call for decisions at COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Many call for the prohibition of fossil fuels and demand climate justice. Others, however, claim that the conference is all about platitudes, an endless ‘blah-blah-blah’ that does nothing to reduce emissions, that ‘they’ – the politicians and other negotiators – are simply engaged in ‘greenwashing’.

There is a critical line of demarcation between these types of criticism. While every scientifically well-founded study shows that emissions must be reduced both vastly and rapidly if we are to achieve adopted climate goals, to say that ‘they’ are engaging in greenwashing is at best unfounded and lacking in insight and at worst counterproductive.

It is unfounded because the meeting has not yet concluded. It lacks insight because international negotiations address difficult issues in a world where each country’s possibilities and challenges differ. And it is counterproductive to speak of some collective ‘they’ when the conference is attended by parties and stakeholders with widely differing apprehensions, most of whom are probably keen to accelerate while fewer apply the brakes. If those arguing day and night for more stringent climate policies are subjected to the same criticism as those objecting climate policy, too harsh tones may result in diminished levels of ambition. Those who take on the fight need a pat on the back, not a rhetorical gut punch.

While it is entirely understandable that many people are outraged by the inaction of world leaders in the face of the climate crises, and the broad coalition of protestors has certainly put significant pressure on politicians in many countries, protesting on its own is an easy path to walk.

Anyone seeking to be both demanding and specific should think beyond slogans on placards. Then it becomes clear that promises to phase out coal power plants are a bare minimum, but that plans to halt deforestation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions have substance and should be welcomed. They also see that India’s latest commitments not only place pressure on other countries but also bring estimates of global temperature increase below two degrees Celsius for the first time. Of course, uncertainty remains regarding the gap between words and deeds, but rather global warming at 1.8 than 2.7 degrees.

The fact is, ambitions, plans and governance instruments have been gradually improving since the historic Paris Agreement of 2015. Even if all research demonstrates that present measures are insufficient to achieve adopted climate goals, to dismiss climate negotiations as greenwashing waffle is unreasonable and ignorant.

It is important that large numbers of people continue to demonstrate their frustration over the gap between words and deeds. It is entirely reasonable to point out that the climate crisis is the most ruinous problem that humankind has thus far inflicted. And it is vital to remind politicians to listen to science. That said, science does not dictate values and priorities. It may describe the limitations of different emission budgets and which paths will lead towards climate goals most effectively. It can also study strategies that promote a just climate transition and methods to ensure participation.

What it cannot do in a democracy is to make policy decisions, no matter how easy or hard they may be. Policy is made by elected representatives, after political discussion and debate. While forming opinions and protesting are given elements of the democratic policymaking process, much would be gained if the most strident voices in civil society also were to attempt to grasp the complexity of the political landscape. Perhaps then the constant criticism of the blah-blah-blah at climate conferences sometimes can be replaced by cheers for decisions that lead to progress. And, who knows, perhaps more people would then view the transition as both possible and desirable.

Mikael Karlsson, Associate Professor Environmental Science, Senior Lecturer in Climate Leadership at the Department of Earth Sciences