The Uneven Global Response to Climate Change

The Uneven Global Response to Climate Change
A protester holds a sign reading “Fossil Fuels Out” during a demonstration at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 12, 2022 (AP photo by Peter Dejong).

Recently published climate science ultimately underscores the same points: The impacts of climate change are advancing faster than experts had previously predicted, and they are increasingly irreversible. One blockbuster report, from a United Nations grouping of biodiversity experts in May 2019, found that 1 million species are now in danger of extinction unless dramatic changes are made to everything from fuel sources to agricultural production. Despite these warnings, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s August 2021 report confirmed that the world remains on pace to blow past the goal of restricting the rise in average temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, with likely catastrophic consequences.

Persistent climate skepticism from key global figures, motivated in part by national economic interests, is still slowing diplomatic efforts to systematically address the drivers of climate change. In particular, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement upon taking office in 2017 immediately undermined the pact, and the coronavirus pandemic hobbled further diplomatic efforts in 2020. Last year’s COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, raised questions about the relationship between climate justice and social justice, given Cairo’s human rights record, and resulted in disappointing outcomes in terms of new climate commitments. But the conference did produce a historic breakthrough when the wealthier, industrialized states of the Global North agreed to fund a “Loss and Damage” mechanism to help states of the Global South address the costs and impact of climate change that can no longer be reversed. This year’s COP28 also generated controversy for being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a major fossil fuels exporter. While the conference’s final communiqué included a call for the world to shift away from fossil fuels for the first time, it failed to deliver significant concrete progress on other sticking points to climate action, including much-needed financing for countries that can’t afford the costs of the green energy transition.

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The Paris agreement has nevertheless proved more resilient than many initially feared after the U.S. withdrawal. The European Union, Japan and South Korea all pledged to achieve carbon-neutral economies by 2050; China announced a target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. And in one of his first moves upon taking office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order returning the U.S. to the Paris agreement. He further signaled his commitment to high-level climate diplomacy by naming former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy and convening a summit of the leaders of major emitting countries, at which he announced the U.S. would double its emissions reduction target to 50 percent by 2030. And congressional passage in August 2022 of a $370 billion climate bill to promote the transition to renewable energies marked the first such legislation in U.S. history.

Whether renewed U.S. leadership on the issue will be enough to break through some of the obstacles facing climate diplomacy remains to be seen, as evidenced by the mixed bag of results that came out of the most recent summit in Dubai. In the meantime, frustration with the slow progress and persistent challenges toward achieving increasingly urgent targets has spurred newfound activism, particularly among young people, for whom addressing climate change is a question of intergenerational justice. The gains made by Green parties in the European Parliament elections in May 2019 as well as in a series of national and local elections in Europe since then—including entering Germany’s coalition government after elections in 2021—show just how potent a voting issue climate change can be.

WPR has covered climate change in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will youth activism upend existing political orders and usher in new, climate-focused leaders? Will the Biden administration’s climate diplomacy have a meaningful impact? And will the green transition become yet another arena for international competition, rather than cooperation? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Climate Financing and Peacebuilding Go Hand in Hand

Addressing climate resilience needs in fragile states is one of the biggest outstanding gaps in climate finance. However, recent research suggests it is also one of the biggest opportunities, including for addressing crucial conflict drivers. COP28 will bring together the major stakeholders needed to tackle this problem.

Impact, Mitigation and Adaptation

The developing world is actually leading the way on mitigation and adaption efforts. Morocco has invested heavily in solar power. And Uruguay’s transition to renewables can serve as a global model. It’s no surprise that some of the most ambitious mitigation and adaptation efforts are coming from countries that are most immediately menaced by the effects of climate change. But those efforts are often constrained by limited resources and the failure by developed countries to follow through on promises to help fund them.

Climate Change Politics and Diplomacy

The global effort to address climate change continues to make incremental progress. But it is unclear if global leaders will ever agree to measures that rise to the level of what is needed. Success hinges particularly on the continued participation of major emitters, including India and China, which is not guaranteed. The effort received a much-needed boost when Biden moved quickly to recommit U.S. leadership and resources after taking office. But whether the U.S. and the world will match words with actions in time to make a difference remains uncertain.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

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