“When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions…”. William Shakespeare of course, summing up 21st century feelings 400 years after his work was first published. Quite how Claudius might have spoken about his 2020s experience we will never know, though likely he would have tweeted it and it would have been immediately lost in a blizzard of ‘#snowflake’ responses…
There is no quiet to the modern world, and little peace to be found. Rolling news feeds our fears with an emotion-shredding reel of global troubles which have neither solution nor end. The problems of the world seem too enormous, too complex, too written into our history and destiny to even begin to understand how we might escape them.
Consider climate change and its implications, perhaps the one truly universal issue, and one for which only a genuinely global approach might work. Here are just some of the worrying recent statistics;
- In the period 1980 – 1999, there were 3,656 ‘climate-related’ disasters; in the following two decades this rose to 6,681
- In 2022, glaciers in the European Alps experienced a new record mass loss in a single year; in June – September 2023, the level of sea ice in Antarctica was 17% lower than the previous year
- The summer of 2023 was Earth’s hottest since global records began in 1880; experts believe there is now a ‘99% chance that 2023 will become the hottest year on record’
- For January to September 2023, the global mean temperature was 1.40°C higher than the preindustrial average (1850-1900)
- The current internationally agreed target for global warming is to “limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”
Freak weather events are more frequent and more severe in impact than we have known; wildfires, floods, drought and frost have destroyed communities and devastated food crops on every continent. No pressure, then, on the latest outing for the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties…?
For yes, it is time for the return of the world’s longest running COP show (beating the UK’s ‘Silent Witness’ by 12 months…). COP 28 begins on 30th November in the United Arab Emirates and, as usual, it arrives with its favoured entourage of controversy, debate, accusations of self-interest and lowered expectations.
Prior to last year’s COP in Sharm El Sheikh I wrote that participants needed, “to recognise the ‘fierce urgency of now’ and make some brave but necessary choices”. I think it fair to say that the outcome of that conference disappointed anyone who shared a similar view. While a fund for poorer nations was agreed in principle, bigger decisions on e.g. the future of energy and food production, were left without any clear targets and gave critics of the process plenty of rocks to store up and throw at its successor.
And what of its successor? Well, the President this time round is Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who aside from being his country’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Now, to many environmentalists, this choice is akin to appointing Wile E Coyote as President of the Road Runner Protection Society… Indeed, the choice of oil-rich UAE as a venue for a conference where the phasing out of fossil fuels is a key topic sits uneasily with many (I am being kind – check out the opinions online, the hurricane of indignation could probably solve the energy crisis, if it could be harnessed…).
So, do we want to / need to exclude all countries, businesses or individuals whose interests could be perceived to conflict with the aims of COP? Do we want them inside the tent chucking oil out or outside the tent pouring it in? There are very complex geopolitical challenges within the (very necessary) need to phase out fossil fuel use. As we have seen in the last two years, the connectedness of global energy markets makes countries who are not self-sufficient (i.e. most of them) vulnerable to big changes in supply. In turn this affects a nation’s economy and its people equally. Therefore there has to be a transition and a clear strategy for energy supply from alternative sources for future generations. It is difficult to see how an agreement on a meaningful strategy can be reached without the input of the world’s current global energy suppliers. That is not to say that they should dictate the agenda, merely to acknowledge that real change rarely happens through collaborating only with those with whom you agree 100%. If you want an example of how difficult a ‘green’ energy strategy can be to establish, consider the hazy, mazy journey of nuclear power in the popular imagination…like a one-man play where the hero and assorted villains are all played by a chap with a bag of uranium 235…
One thing that must be commended in the agenda for this conference is the continued focus on food production, its impact and sustainability. This includes a very welcome return for the Food Pavilion (which is hosting sessions on regenerative agriculture, nutrition and health, and alternative proteins) as well as the hosts putting forward an ‘Emirates Declaration on Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Action’ (the contents of which I cannot wait to see…). Reports from IPCC and FAO in the last two years have suggested that a less impactful version of agriculture, maximising the potential of biotechnology and changes in consumer behaviour and expectations will all be required if our current climate targets are to be achieved. We can only hope this is the beginning of a genuine global move to more sustainable food production.
In his seminal 1942 report, which gave the UK a blueprint for the modern protection of its citizens, Sir William Beveridge said, “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.” COP28 begins in 10 days…the time for patching is, I think, already past…