The United Nations climate talks ended with a pretty mixed bag of results. The good? That there was a deal at all plus a number of commitments outside what is now the Glasgow Climate Pact. But the bad piled up, too. Many of the pledges are nonbinding and a last-minute gut punch to the pact watered down language around fossil fuel subsidies and ending coal.
Some of this outcome is tied to the UN process itself. Every country gets one vote, meaning consensus can be hard to come by. But as with the real world, so much hinges on the actions and will of a few nations. Tuvalu’s foreign minister can claim the moral high ground and make an impactful plea from the middle of rising seas, but countries like the U.S. hold many more cards, particularly powerful ones like money and an outsize control over how the world economy works.
The U.S. positioned itself as a leader at these talks, but that’s only half the story. It rejoined the High Ambition Coalition, a group of countries committed to the 1.5-degree-Celsius (2.7-degree-Fahrenheit) goal that would give the poorest nations a fighting chance. It issued a joint pledge with China and signed onto a side pact to reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030. But it also refused to pony up money for the climate damages it has caused and let the language around coal and fossil fuel subsidies get watered down.
It’s easy to blame President Joe Biden or John Kerry or the entire Republican caucus and Sen. Joe Manchin, who held up the Build Back Better Act that would’ve given the U.S. a stronger hand at the talks. But there’s also something to be said about the dangers of an unengaged citizenry that’s not demanding more of them.
I loathe—loathe—blaming climate failures on individuals. The problem is systemic and the burden to act primarily falls on state and corporate actors who benefit from the polluted status quo. But I’m here to beg you to wake up and give a damn about climate talks and strong climate policy that bends the curve of fossil fuel production to give the world a shot at a better future.
The U.S. is the biggest historical emitter. It is the richest country. Yet, according to Google Trends, it ranked around 40th in terms of Google search interest for what is, essentially, the conference that will play a key role in determining the fate of humanity. Millions of lives—and countless more unborn—will be impacted by what happened in Glasgow and the climate talks of the years to come at the start of this decade.
The U.S. was, by many accounts, a nebulous force in the backrooms of the Glasgow climate talks, where deals were cut, even as it trumpeted signing onto pledges that lack meaningful substance. Year one of the Biden administration is better than the Trump years, to be sure, but that’s hardly a significant bar to clear. The U.S. could be a stronger force for good with a bigger mandate back home and a more engaged populace who wants to see a just climate future. But most people can’t seem to even care enough to do a quick Google search.
The reason these talks—and strong climate policy at home—hinge on an informed and engaged populace is because the forces aligned against them are strong. Oil and gas companies constituted the biggest delegation in Glasgow. Meanwhile, fossil fuel trade groups have been working behind the scenes to undermine the Build Back Better Act. The antidote to ensuring they don’t get their way is a greater show of force by civil society that sends the message to lawmakers they need to follow through on passing popular policies.
Now, look. I’m not an idiot. Republicans in Congress and fossil fuel corporations turning our discourse into a toxic waste dump. Purveyors of denial have left us in a pretty dark place. Joe Manchin continues to exist. Even journalism has far too frequently failed to live up to the moment.
Search volume for “COP26" or “UN climate talks” is a mere pixel in the full picture of how much people in the U.S. are engaged in climate-related issues. But it is indicative of a deficit of urgency Americans feel about what is literally the most important issue of our age. As a Washington Post/ABC News poll found this month, 67% of U.S. adults view the climate crisis as a “serious problem”—but that figure has remained virtually unchanged for seven years. Polling by Yale and George Mason University has found a majority of Americans are similarly worried about climate change, but only 35% talk about it “at least occasionally,” the barest minimum for engagement. We—you, me, our neighbors and friends and family—need to feel that urgency like our lives depend on it. Because they do.
The outcome of the conference in Glasgow, the Build Back Better Act’s fate, and what follows over the next few years will have an outsize influence on the world. An engaged citizenry is absolutely essential at this moment. Simply put, if you’re invested in a future that doesn’t leave millions suffering through severe heat, rising seas, and skyrocketing inequality, it’s time to be all in.
Engaging with climate talks is one avenue. It’s hard, though, to feel that a single person can change the course of the world that’s been on the fossil fuel track for nearly two centuries. But cracks are beginning to form in the coal, oil, and gas armor. The more people that show up with hammers, the faster the armor will shatter. Just a week ago, 10 countries stood up to say enough is enough; they’re members of a group that will no longer extract oil and gas in line with the world’s main climate goal.
“The Stone Age did not end because of the lack of stone,” Danish Climate Minister Dan Jørgensen, whose country created the coalition along with Costa Rica, said. “It ended because better, newer technologies were found. In the same way, we need to end the fossil era, not because of the lack of fossils that will still be down there, but because we have better alternatives and because we need to.”
Those countries (along with California and Quebec) are the future. They’ve seen the urgency of the moment, felt the pressure of their citizens, and are ready to chart a new course. If you want to follow that path, then your country needs you. If you want to protect the lives of millions, you need to get engaged. Talk about climate with friends. Call you senators and representatives. Read more climate news to spur media executives to increase investment in climate coverage. Elect more climate champions. Tell your city to ban new gas hookups and incentivize heat pumps. Do anything, everything you can. Because the world depends on it.