Street protesters understand climate change crisis more than politicians do

Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

COP26 has come and gone, but what emerges from the climate change summit will be with us today and tomorrow.

Finally, at least, there seems to be consensus that climate change is taking place, but my experiences at the summit last month in Glasgow, Scotland, suggest two starkly distinct perspectives on the severity of the social and economic impacts.

One camp, the naive optimists, believes that climate change impacts are overblown and will not prevent economic growth or improvements in human well-being. This view has been backed by the vested interests and financial support of the fossil fuel industry, which after first slowing the achievement of climate change consensus, has now engaged in a strategic pivot from climate change denial to minimizing the consequences.

The second group, the realist pessimists, comprised of many of the scientists and most of the street protesters, sees the impacts of climate change as far beyond a mere nuisance, a veritable “existential crisis” that will topple life as we know it and possibly cause the extinction of human life.

The optimists were most of the government people, venture capitalists and business people who saw growing concern about climate change as a business opportunity in a future that will be moderately affected. For example, President Joe Biden stated, “When I think of climate change, I think of — and the answers to it — I think of jobs.” In this scenario, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects that average life expectancy will continue to rise, poverty and hunger rates will continue to decline, and average incomes will go up simply because they always have. While climate change may drag down rates of improvement in human well-being, on average, the thinking goes, our futures will not be any worse than today.

My take is that while climate change is not likely to cause Homo sapiens to go extinct, it will make most of our lives and most of our descendants’ lives more nasty, brutish and short.

President Joe Biden arrives for the COP26 UN Climate Summit on November 1, 2021. (Photo by Adrian Dennis – Pool/Getty Images)

The sense I got at COP26 was that the protesters on the street had a more realistic understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis than the politicians and negotiators within the COP. They, and most scientists, are concerned not only about climate change but, moreover, many other human impacts on our environment that interact with the climate and one another in complex ways, many of which do not bode well. To wit, we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. Since 1950 we have caused the loss of half of the world’s coral reefs, and changes to Earth’s land surface (including the loss of roughly half of the world’s coastal wetlands) have resulted in annual losses of ecosystem services valued at over $22 trillion.

The many interactions I had with people inside the negotiations and at the protests lead to the conclusion that how we handle climate change is mostly, at this point, a political challenge. Governments, providing incentives for corporations and venture capitalists through strictly enforced policies and regulations, are the only institutions capable of bringing about the changes necessary to significantly mitigate the negative consequences of climate change. Going forward, voluntary individual efforts, such as not using plastic straws, driving an electric car, conserving water, putting solar panels on your house, or composting your food, will have minimal impact.

Unfortunately, the reality I witnessed at COP26 is that governments are not readily stepping up to the plate. They are not taking climate change seriously enough and they do not want to cough up money to help developing countries. India and China want to continue using coal, which does not bode well for staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Our best hope, then, may lie with pressure from the people on the street, who are driven by a love for humans rather than position. That was my biggest takeaway from COP26: an increasing sense that it will be the highly engaged, very informed, and inspiring people I met on the Glasgow streets, and others like them in Colorado cities and campuses and elsewhere, that will bring about the serious commitment necessary to enact more aggressive government policies addressing climate change.

May it be so.

Paul Sutton is a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Denver. Sutton was a delegate for the American Association of Geographers at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland. This essay was first published by Colorado Newsline.