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Will This Summer’s Extreme Weather Affect the World’s Resolve to Tackle Climate Change?

Environmental Policy Brief # 123 | By: Adrian Cole | August 9, 2021

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Photo taken from: Yale E360

Policy Summary

COP 26 is the latest climate gathering in a process which began with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The United Nations Framework Convention (UNFCCC), established then, is comprised of 200 members who commit to meeting annually in a Conference of the Parties (COP).  This year the UK will host, and has the presidency. The meeting has been billed as the  last, best chance” to deal with climate change. What are its goals?

At the 2015 Paris COP, the delegates agreed to limits on emissions which would allow for around 2.0 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100. (This target has been subsequently revised downwards by scientists  to 1.5 degrees.)  In the Paris agreement all countries committed to updating their emissions reduction targets every five years, and 2020 represented the end of the first five-year cycle.

 The commitments made in Paris in 2015, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) did not come close to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. As of the end of July, the UN has received updated NDCs from only 58% of parties pledged to present them ahead of COP26. Furthermore, according to the UNFCC these new NDCs are insufficient. Collective efforts fall short of limiting warming to even 2 degrees. COP 26 is therefore urging all countries to now update their NDCs to reflect this priority.  The COP 26 website says that much more action is necessary:

The world needs to halve emissions over the next decade and reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century if we are to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees.

COP 26 will urge participants to come up with more aggressive 2030 NDCs, in order to achieve this goal. More specifically, the UK COP presidency says it is cooperating with countries on three main goals— the ending of coal power, scaling up clean power, and increasing energy efficiency. (India recently failed to show up at a preliminary meeting in London, and another pre-COP26 meeting in Italy failed to achieve agreement on phasing out coal).

Finance, to help poor countries reduce emissions,  is key here also, and COP 26 has set a goal of raising 100 billion in climate finance per year—a goal set in Paris and not achieved as of yet.  Another major focus of COP 26 will be China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. China has yet to submit an updated NDC.

Policy Analysis

For its part, the UN certainly gets it: “The most recent and accelerating climate change impacts constitute a clarion call to action,” read its climate Twitter feed in late July.  

The summer of 2021 has been something of a wake-up call to all COP nations—and the world in general:  Unheard of temperatures and “heat domes” in the otherwise temperate Pacific Northwest; inundations and flash floods in Germany and northern Europe; “5000” year flood events in China’s Henan Province; mudslides in India and river flooding in Uganda, to name just a few of the most notable events, all of which combine to make of 2021 a shocking year in terms of climate change, killing thousands and destroying billions of dollars of property. 

These events have prompted climate scientists to rethink basic assumptions about the scale and speed of change. Such events, according to many of these scientists, would have been impossible without anthropogenic climate change.  If this much climate disruption happens at our current level of around 1.2 degrees of warming, even 1.5 will be disastrous.

Photo taken from: Daily Express

Will this summer fuel COP 26 with renewed motivation to achieve its goals? As people experience the affects of climate change, will there be more calls for aggressive climate action?  The answer is yes….and no.  Common sense might suggest that extreme weather events such as experienced in Lytton, B.C., will spur rapid action on climate, and there is some truth to that.  One study conducted in New York State explored the psychological theory of experiential processing and applied it to individuals’ perception of weather. They found that those who believed in—especially human-caused  (anthropogenic)—climate change were more likely to connect extreme weather to climate change. 

But Jennifer Marlon of the Yale Program on Climate Change writes that people may interpret similar experiences differently. A hard rain may fall on a town of hundreds, and multiple narratives will emerge about about the origins, causes and consequences of that rain, and the future of humanity’s relationship with falling water. In the United States, as an example, sixty percent of Democrats polled nationally say they have experienced global warming, whereas the same is true of only 24% of Republicans living under the same skies. 

Photo taken from: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

The Yale Program on Climate Change conducted an experiment using twelve years of survey data to assess whether there are some kinds of weather that people associate more with climate change. They found that hot, dry weather is much more likely to make people feel that they have experienced global warming. The 2011 drought in Texas showed up as a clear influencer of people in this regard, as did the droughts in the West in 2008, 2010, and 2014, and in the Midwest in 2012 and 2013.  Extreme precipitation, however, was not so closely associated with climate change, even though there are clear causal relationships between global warming and rainfall.

Ominous clouds are on the horizon, for COP 26, especially in the East. China’s Communist party, perhaps the major player at COP 26, might well be driven to take climate seriously, out of self-interest, and there are certainly noises to that effect from the leadership. But as of yet, the party has been downplaying the relationship between this summer’s extreme rains and climate change, preferring instead to highlight heroic acts of bravery, its own rapid response, and random acts of nature. In conclusion, the events of the summer of 2021—as of this writing—will likely affect some people’s views of the seriousness of changing weather patterns globally, and in nations in which popular will translates to legislative power this might move the needle.  Politics and ideology, however, are as always, the two curve balls which will likely act as a drag on a serious response, especially from the world’s most populous nation.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

Website for the UK host of COP 26:

https://ukcop26.org

Statement from Patricia Espinoza, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change:

https://unfccc.int

Yale Program on Climate Change:

https://yaleclimateconnections.org

Article from The Conversation on how the summer of 2021 has influenced our understanding of climate change:

https://theconversation.com/how-summer-2021-has-changed-our-understanding-of-extreme-weather-165268

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