Zimmerman: Taking action after a useless U.N. climate conference
Image courtesy of Pixabay.

It is a surprise to no one—or no one familiar with climate diplomacy—that the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) has failed to produce a significant agreement on addressing the climate crisis.

As it stands, mankind will not limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In the unlikely event that countries stick to all the agreements made at the COP26, we are still looking at a rise of 2.4 degrees.  Even if we reach the weaker targets set during the Paris agreements, also unlikely, that puts us at a trajectory of more than 3 degrees. That equates to major changes in your everyday life.

How did we get here?

As you may recall from my column two months ago, the recently-released sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that the world, and its occupants, are teetering on the edge of global environmental change. This year’s COP meeting was the Luke Skywalker of the environmental movement—our last, best hope to address climate change before the consequences are irreversible. And well, let’s just say that Obi-Wan Kenobi would be disappointed and the fossil fuel empire certainly wasn’t defeated. However, we don’t have time to wait for the sequel.

Words are not enough

The biggest thing that needed to come out of the COP26 was action, and that didn’t happen. For decades, politicians and global leaders have been using words to shift blame and assuage our climate fears. For example, the Kyoto protocol was heralded as a benchmark in climate diplomacy, but has had mixed results. It certainly hasn’t stopped, or even slowed, global warming. Even with laughably low benchmarks, many countries failed to reach their Kyoto commitments, or only did so through the purchase of carbon credits.

Big promises were also made at the COP26. For instance, “the United States has pledged to further reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030,” despite the fact that “its emissions are currently projected to remain mostly unchanged over the coming decade.” It is another empty promise called out by many environmental activists. Greta Thunberg has accurately labelled the COP26 a “failure” and a “PR opportunity.” The time of raising awareness and fostering discussion is over. This won’t stop the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure or halt the deforestation of the Amazon.

In general, countries—i.e. politicians—and companies—i.e. shareholders—are going to place power, profits and convenience over the environmental good. Global leaders know about climate change, and have made the intentional choice to do nothing or actively fight against climate action.

Since the international community is failing us, it is time to turn to our state and local governments. California is the most populous state—and fifth wealthiest—in the union. This comes with buying power and influence. As a progressive state we can raise our environmental standards and force anyone wanting to do business with us to do the same.

We can also legislate locally. San Jose has done a good job putting promises into plans, and translating plans into action. For instance, natural gas is banned in new homes. The city has also divested from fossil fuels, and invested in clean energy with San Jose Clean Energy.

San Jose is setting a good example, but we can always encourage the city to do more. How about providing support for retrofitting older buildings to make them more climate friendly? This is an essential step in combatting climate change.

Be a big fish in a small pond

If your elected officials are not taking proactive steps against climate change, then they are actively working against your interests. Period. They aren’t protecting the economy, either, despite what they claim. What they are protecting are their political interests.

Write to your city councilmember, or your county supervisor. Call them and leave a message, or speak with their staff—as I often have. Show up at council and school board meetings. It is their literal job to listen to what you have to say and take it into consideration when creating and voting on legislation. Elective officials respond to their most active constituents. Join the rebellion.

The fact is, global agreements were our best hope for addressing climate change, but not the only hope. We can continue our fight to protect the global commons with renewed efforts to protect the common good of our communities. One act of city, county or state legislation at a time.

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley Chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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