‘How long are we to watch them die of thirst in the droughts? And gasp for air in the floods? What is the state of the hearts of the world leaders who watched this happen and allow it to continue? Our leaders are lost and the planet is damaged.”
That is the unacceptable reality of parts of Africa today, expressed by the young Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate. That reality should concentrate all minds at the UN's Cop26, which opens in Glasgow on Sunday. But will it?
The world’s grotesque wealth and power imbalance is clearly reflected at this conference. Single delegations from the richest states outnumber those of the poorest, most vulnerable countries many times over.
The richer countries, including Ireland, are also responsible for most of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, yet the cost of the crisis is currently borne most sharply by those least responsible, and least able to withstand its impacts. Back in 2009, $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020 was promised to redress this injustice. Shamefully, much less has been delivered. Cop26 must honour, and increase, this commitment. That said, the consequences of global heating are also already affecting many rich countries, much more rapidly and severely than even experts expected. This has been most visible in extreme weather events. The image of a German mayor breaking down in tears before the cameras of the world, after last July's floods devastated his region, epitomises this development.
Less obvious, but even more menacing, are the tipping points we are approaching as ice sheets melt, the oceans rise, and thawing tundra emits more methane into the lethal mix of heating gases which we continue to pump into the atmosphere. However, there are now some slim grounds for hope that we may avert the worst of the crisis, following the recent pre-Cop26 surge in emission-cutting promises from many countries, Ireland included.
Before the landmark Paris Cop21 in 2015, we were on course to heat the planet by four degrees at the end of this century, making most of it uninhabitable for our species. The latest commitments, if both feasible and implemented – and neither can be taken for granted – could bend the curve towards two degrees. But even that shift will still have catastrophic consequences. If we push heating down half a degree more, we could probably manage the crisis.
That would demand unprecedented shifts in behaviour, locally and globally. But the alternative, already so starkly manifest, should surely galvanise us to radical, innovative action. The question to be answered in Glasgow is whether our leaders, and their peoples, can find the heart to make the necessary changes, and the ingenuity to make them work.