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Reflecting on COP26

Let’s be done with illusions and posturing

John Kerry, United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, speaks at the COP26 climate summit as President Biden leaves the stage. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

Reflecting on COP26
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The latest UN climate summit is finally over, and after two weeks of dialogue, discussion, and dithering, the Glasgow Climate Summit (COP26) has produced the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Climate science is complex. The natural world is an amazing, divinely ordained, dynamic system, and even though we have made great advances in recent centuries in our knowledge of God’s creation, much remains mysterious. We create new tools, including sophisticated modelling and measurement techniques, and discover new truths about the world. Human beings continue to advance our ability to understand more of the inscrutable diversity and complexity of creation, and this is to be celebrated.

As complicated as the technical science behind climate studies is, it is still categorically less complicated than the dynamics and complexities of climate politics. The rhetoric of collective action driving initiatives like COP26 is powerful, especially on the left, but the realities of finding consensus and agreement on the multifaceted challenges of global environmental stewardship make it dubious that anything substantial can truly be accomplished until there are structural changes to these conversations.

There are limits to what human beings can do to reduce carbon emissions, simply in terms of our technical abilities. But the more salient constraints have to do with the very human limitations of politics and economics—and the inherent limitations of massive global conventions like the recently concluded climate carnival in Glasgow.

The mainstream climate conversation, characterized by events like COP26, remains flawed and largely ineffective because the debates waver between false dichotomies fueled by radical ideologies. Those ideologies run into complicity with vested interests and the favored industries of the “green” revolution.

We will soon enter the third decade of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which was first launched in Brazil in 1992. And only now—with the Glasgow Climate Pact—has a reduction in fossil fuels been explicitly included in a formal summit agreement. The language of the pact in this regard is instructive: the agreement calls for “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” This is significantly weakened language from the original draft, which called for a “phase-out” of fossil fuels. The reason that this decades-long debate about fossil fuels has been so ineffective is that it has been hampered by the absolutism of climate ideologues. Would they rather that people shivered in the cold than continue to use fossil fuels?

At COP26 there were numerous instances where nuclear power was presented as an option that should be avoided. The International Network for Sustainable Energy (INFORSE) is a leading advocate of this radical approach, categorically opposing nuclear power as “unsafe” and “expensive,” and demanding a “nuclear-free” future. Despite the presence of more realistic and informed approaches to nuclear power in the larger discussion, this kind of dismissive approach undermines the legitimacy and seriousness of climate talks. If you are truly serious about ending or reducing the use of fossil fuels, clean and safe nuclear energy is an obvious alternative. And it’s real.

We need realistic tradeoffs while understanding there is no perfect solution to environmental challenges. Instead, these discussions are constantly beset by ridiculous contrasts between disaster and utopia, as if these are the only two possible futures. The true situation is more complex and nuanced. Tradeoffs will be necessary.

The politics and economics of climate change are not simply illusions to be promoted by invoking magic words like “sustainability” and “ecology.” The climate change movement will only begin to enjoy true success when its emphases on solidarity, preservation, and justice are seasoned with the insights of subsidiarity, stewardship, and economics.

Pretending that government planning—whether globally, nationally, or locally—can ignore these constraints and simply make policy that will unilaterally solve such intractable challenges is not realistic. It is actually counterproductive, since it trades utopian fantasies for concrete action that could help put the climate on a better trajectory.

Far too often, climate activists settle for empty statements of ideological purity rather than doing the hard but necessary work of realistic and meaningful compromise. And that’s why such agreements as the Glasgow Climate Pact remain largely aspirational and promotional. The world is not perfect and will not be made so by human activity. There are real and unavoidable tradeoffs in the choices that face us, individually and socially. We’d do better to face such realities head on rather than wish them away. That’s the true way forward for authentic development.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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