The Trouble with Global Climate Summits
After COP26, a writer considers whether leaving the fate of the planet in the hands of world leaders is the right way forward
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Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying, and mostly failing, to engage in the news coming out of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. I have dipped in and out when I can afford to feel angry or dispirited. I have started podcasts and then abandoned them halfway through for something that’s easier to listen to.
It’s hard to know what to feel about the international community’s yearly attempt to create a livable future using pledges, commitments, and bureaucracy. On one hand, I can’t remember a time in the ten years since I graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz with an environmental studies degree where the climate emergency has dominated the headlines in such a way. So that’s something. But on the other hand, I cannot stomach the kind of incremental bureaucracy and UN-speak that defines events like this one. The hypocrisy and the private jets and the pageantry of it all just makes me want to tune out.
I think a great indictment of the climate movement over the past ten years is that creating real change is always framed as a compromise: If we want to preserve civilization and humanity, we must give up on some of the things we like. In other words, saving the climate has to be done at the expense of much of the progress, innovation, and comfort that capitalism has afforded us.
Never is it framed as an invitation—hey, have you noticed the way we’re living actually kind of sucks? With all the mental illness, inequality, loneliness, pollution, and the fact that you spend the vast majority of your life working while ignoring all the aforementioned ills because you simply don’t have time? And have you heard that the same things that would help the planet thrive once again would also help you and your community do the same?
Sadly, gatherings like COP26 are basically all we have when it comes to global cooperation. But I still think meetings like this, and the officials who attend them, frame the problem all wrong. A recent edition of the solutions-focused climate newsletter Hothouse quotes Peter Norton, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, who teaches through the lens of climate issues. He believes coming up with climate solutions requires us to reprogram certain deeply-held beliefs about progress and innovation.
When asking his students how to cool homes and buildings without air conditioning—thousand-year-old technologies deployed in everything from old Florida homes to Bedouin tents in the Middle East—many didn’t know where to start. “Even a mechanical engineer didn’t have a clue of ventilating a building without power,” said Norton. “I’ve learned to expect certain blind spots. The least expensive, most accessible, most proven, and most inclusive solutions are very often low to zero tech. The problems have to be reframed.”
So what does reframing this problem look like? I think it starts by taking stock of the many things we’ve willingly given up in exchange for all this progress. The list is long: A deep sense of place and time. The profound comfort of working within natural rhythms. The ability to truly, deeply rest. The deep ties and interwoven communities that make life rich and interesting—and also solve for many of the societal-level mental health issues we see play out in Facebook conspiracies and misinformation today. We’ve developed a misconception that we are individualized atoms optimizing for our own success, forgetting that we are actually nodes in living networks who thrive in concert with each other. In the name of having everything all the time, we’ve given up a lot of what it means to be human. And yet we still wonder why we’re so polarized.
I used to be a business journalist, so I know that to even come close to saying “we can solve the climate crisis by changing how we live our lives” is a big no-no. It’s no longer fashionable to suggest that individual actions play a pivotal role in solving such a global, existential problem. So forget cooperation, consuming less, and living at a slower pace—it’s all carbon taxes, renewable energy credits, and geo-engineering. Civilization as we know it can stay intact, we’re taught to believe, if we elect the right leaders and they find just the right mix of policy, technology, and innovation
And sure, all those things probably do play a role in solving this problem—in fact, at this point we’ll take anything we can get. But the policy fixes and technological shifts feel hollow to me without addressing the very fundamentals of how humans live and connect. It’s like “teaching chemistry in a different class from biology and physics,” as James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis put it. “It is impossible to understand these subjects in isolation because they are interconnected. The same is true of living organisms that greatly influence the global environment.”
At COP26 it feels like they’re searching for an answer that, in a way, we already have. Everything is going to change. We can choose to let the planet force that change on us and then try to innovate and engineer ourselves out of it using progress. Or, we can accept that the way we’ve been living is, in planetary terms, an aberration. It has to end. The latter choice is “the least expensive, most accessible, most proven, and most inclusive,” to use Norton’s words. It means giving up a lot, but it also means gaining a lot back, too.
I will concede that perhaps that kind of shift simply can’t be made in a conference room in Europe where diplomats wear suits and pop champagne when they sign a piece of paper about theoretical targets five years in the future. Maybe it can only happen at the scale of an individual life—each person figuring out how to live a bit more like a human, which means each community starts to wind itself back together, which means each ecosystem has a chance to find homeostasis once again.
For me it looks like this: foster a sense of place. Get to know my home. Pick tiny things about it that I can maybe change, or make better. Pay attention to cycles. Work within them instead of trying to outsmart them. Give and take from closer where I live. When I get distracted by shiny objects—a trip, an achievement, a comparison—ask myself what feeling I’m trying to ignore.
And I’ll be honest—these days, that work feels more productive to me than reading the news anyway.
Rosie Spinks is a freelance writer whose recent work focuses on how to create a meaningful life in a chaotic, unstable world. As a journalist, her work has appeared in the Guardian, Quartz, VICE, NPR, and many others. This essay was originally published in her climate and personal-development focused newsletter, What Do We Do Now That We’re Here.