Essay | Enough broken promises. Will leaders at COP26 keep their word?

In a crowd of people in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., a sign reads: "Planet BEFORE Profit: change the politics, not the CLIMATE!"

Protesters at a 2019 climate march in Washington, D.C. (Victoria Middleton/Planet Forward)

This month I’ve sat at my desk in the Planet Forward office in D.C., considering my hopes for this year’s UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, as organizers from across the country gathered just down the street for climate gatherings and negotiations of their own. 

During the week of Oct. 11, 655 people were arrested in Washington, D.C., while participating in Indigenous-led “People Vs. Fossil Fuels” demonstrations. Organizers demanded that President Biden declare a climate emergency and cease approvals of new fossil fuel projects. Indigenous activists occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs, demanding 110 million acres of stolen land be restored to Native Nations. The D.C. chapter of the direct action group Extinction Rebellion tweeted footage of an activist spraying the stairs of the Chamber of Commerce with an oil-like substance, alleging that the institution “used its power for years to deny climate change.” And on Oct. 20, five young people announced they were going on a hunger strike to demand that President Biden meet his climate justice promises––and that the reconciliation bill be passed with provisions to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030.

As a young person working in climate communication, I hear a lot of thoughtful conversations about how to convert climate change deniers into science believers. Yet, when I learn about mobilizations like these, I don’t see a cultural struggle for “hearts and minds,” but a material struggle for power. And I wonder if by emphasizing the beliefs of individuals, rather than the heft possessed by institutions, we overlook a different strain of mistrust.

The United States has a record of climate denial––from the obvious (like President Trump telling the secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, “I don’t think science knows, actually.”) to the insidious (like Big Oil crafting curricula to be taught in K-12 schools). Yet, even here, 70% of the population believes that climate change is happening, according to this year’s installment of “Climate Change in the American Mind.” The survey even reports that a majority of Americans, 60%, think that the trend of “global warming” is human caused! In 2020 the American people elected a president who avowed his belief in science on the campaign trail. He signified that belief by appointing a science advisor to his cabinet. He even had the U.S. rejoin the Paris climate agreement––the international agreement reached at the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference, which the U.S. pulled out from under President Trump.

So, why do climate activists persist? Hasn’t majority belief steered us away from the path of catastrophic warming? 

Not quite.

In September, U.N. Climate Change published a Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) Synthesis Report; that is, a report that assessed the climate commitments of each of the 191 nations signed on to the Paris agreement. When evaluated in conjunction, these plans suggest a path to a roughly 16% increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 as compared to 2010. Such a path leads to a global temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century––nearly twice the agreement’s “ideal” goal of 1.5 degrees C.

But the U.S.’s science-believing leadership is holding the line to curb emissions, right? 

Well.

This May, the International Energy Agency published a report finding that to travel the road toward net-zero emissions by 2050––the road on which we have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C––investment in “new fossil fuel supply projects” needs to end now. Yet, two months later, the Associated Press reported that approvals for oil and gas permits on public lands were on track to reach year-end numbers unseen since George W. Bush’s presidency. Despite Biden’s campaign promise to end new drilling on public land, the Department of Interior approved more than 2,100 permits to drill on public and tribal lands in the first six months of Biden’s presidency.

Protesting outside of the White House this month, veteran water protector Joye Braun of the Indigenous Environmental Network let the president know that his actions have not gone unnoticed.

“You made promises to the Indigenous communities across this land that you were going to uphold,” she said. “But you haven’t upheld those promises. You’ve been speaking with a forked tongue, just like that one that was before you.”

Braun directed her words at President Biden, but her meaning resonates beyond. Nearly 70% of young people say that governments can’t be trusted, according to a recent survey of 10,000 16- to 25-year-olds in 10 countries. Across populations, 65% of young people said that governments’ response to climate change is failing them. American youth’s trust in government is the lowest of all.

Leaders may believe science, but my generation doesn't believe leaders.

Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,” Greta Thunberg said last month at the Youth4Climate summit in Italy. “This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

These words may sound harsh, but to me they are a sign of optimism. Climate organizers know that solutions exist, if those in power have the courage and creativity to implement them. Progress is possible, but it’s not guaranteed. 

I am only 23, but I am old enough for the long line of inaction to hit me in cresting waves of deja vu. That tide engulfed me recently as I watched a clip of American student Anjali Appadurai addressing leaders at COP17 on behalf of youth non-governmental organizations in 2011. Ten years ago Appadurai told leaders, “You’ve been negotiating all my life.” Ten years ago she said, “You’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises.”

“The International Energy Agency tells us we have five years until the window to avoid irreversible climate change closes,” Appadurai, then a student at the College of the Atlantic, said. “The science tells us that we have five years maximum. You’re saying, ‘Give us 10.’ The most stark betrayal of your generation’s responsibility to ours is that you call this ‘ambition.’”

Those 10 years are up. The window to avoid irreversible damage has passed. The time for bold, decisive action has not. As I tune in to the events of COP26, I will be looking for something my peers and I can believe in. I’m not talking about science. I’m talking about leadership.

About the author:

Victoria Middleton is a writer, editor, and multimedia producer who serves as Planet Forward's Digital Content Editor. Victoria started at Planet Forward as an intern in the summer of 2019––a semester before she completed her B.A. in journalism and mass communication and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies––and stuck around to become a full-time member of the team.  She's most interested in stories that illuminate how climate connects to human elements of life, especially justice, labor, and food. Though she loves doing media production work, her favorite part of working at Planet Forward is engaging with students, seeing them grow as storytellers, and growing along with them.

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Editor's note: Please check back every day, leading up to the beginning of COP26 on Oct. 31, for new pieces from climate leaders in the Planet Forward network.

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