World leaders, including (from left) President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, U.S. President Joe Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sit at a meeting at COP26. Credit: Justin Trudeau / Twitter

The decisions that emerged from the United Nations climate change meeting in Glasgow are impressive on their face.

The nearly 200 countries that took part recognize the “role of multilateralism in addressing climate change,” acknowledge that “climate change is a common concern of humankind,” note “the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems,” and recognize “the important role of indigenous peoples, local communities and civil society, in addressing and responding to climate change.”

And that’s just for starters.

Conference participants affirm “the importance of the best available science for effective climate action and policymaking.” But they express alarmthat “human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date” and that “carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.”

And so, the nearly 200 Glasgow countries “stress the urgency of enhancing ambition and action in relation to mitigation, adaptation and finance … to address the gaps in the implementation of the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

That all seems hopeful and upbeat. But when you get to the details that feeling of hope starts to evaporate.

The conference’s final decisions document states starkly that since “climate and weather extremes and their adverse impacts on people and nature will continue to increase with every additional increment of rising temperatures” it is necessary to “scale up” what it calls “adaptation action, and support.”

There is a sticking point, however. The drafters of the conference document do not see that scaling up happening near to the degree necessary.

While the Glasgow statement urges countries to integrate adaptation into local, regional and national planning, it does not indicate that such integration is currently happening. It seems the entire planet is behind the curve on adaptation to the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Worse in developing countries

It is tragically ironic that here in Canada, British Columbia was hit with a massive climate-engendered emergency in the form of floods and landslides just days after the end of the Glasgow conference.

As a country, Canada is woefully unprepared for – and highly vulnerable to – such destructive climate change-triggered events.

As for the developing countries of the global south, which are suffering the most severe impacts of climate change, the Glasgow document “notes with concernthat the current provision of climate finance for adaptation remains insufficient to respond to worsening climate change impacts in developing countries.”

At the Paris conference in 2015, the wealthy countries, including Canada, pledged $100 billion per year over five years to aid poorer nations in efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Only a small fraction of that money ever materialized. Now the United Nations climate change chief Patricia Espinosa is imploring wealthy countries to step up.

In her closing remarks at Glasgow, Espinosa tried to accentuate the positive. She said the meeting had built “a bridge between the admirable promises made six years ago in Paris to the concrete measures that the scientific evidence calls for and societies around the world demand.”

But when it came to finance, and the need to close the technical gap between rich and poor countries, Espinosa was far less sanguine.

“Much more support needs to be provided to developing countries,” the former secretary of foreign affairs of Mexico warned. “The most vulnerable cannot be ignored. Much more finance for adaptation is needed and it has to be predictable.”

Espinosa then expressed her frank chagrin that “the $100 billion pledge remains outstanding” adding, ominously: “We all know that this is not only about the $100 billion. Initiating the process for the definition of the new global goal on finance as soon as possible is critical.”

The cruel fact is that rich nations have not shown any interest in a “new global era on finance.” That is not what G7 finance ministers or heads of government fret about and discuss at their meetings. Nor do their citizens seem seized with the issue.

The subject of re-working the global financial system to address massive inequality on a global scale, and the similarly unequal threat of climate change, never came up during the most recent federal election here in Canada.

The fact remains that it was the wealthy countries which were principally responsible for the emissions that produced the global warming we now witness. And those countries, including Canada, are still, by far, the largest emitters per capita.

Back to politics as usual

The experts who drafted the UN climate change conference decisions document looked at the overall climate change picture. They then tried to hammer home an exceedingly uncomfortable fact: Even when we factor in all of the climate change measures taken or promised by all countries since the Paris conference, global greenhouse gas emissions levels will still be nearly 14 per cent higher than they were in 2010.

In that context, the UN calls on all countries, but especially the wealthiest, to accelerate the development of low energy systems and clean power generation.

Those efforts should include “the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”

Originally, “phasing down” coal was going to be “phasing out” coal. Two countries which are still highly dependent on coal objected. They happen to be the two most populous countries in the world: China and India.

The UN tried to put a brave face on the compromise wording, while continuing to urge “targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances.”

Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, has returned to normal now. The politicians, civil servants, non-governmental staffers, industry lobbyists and activists have all gone home. In each and every one of their countries other political and economic considerations are inevitably crowding climate change off centre stage.

For the first time in a long time, the government of the planet’s biggest emitter, the U.S., was back in action at the Glasgow meeting. The hostile, openly climate-change-denying Trump regime is gone – at least for now.

But President Joe Biden’s administration barely controls the U.S. national political agenda. Biden’s party lost a key election in Virginia earlier this month. All of the political soothsayers foretell a bad result for Biden’s Democrats in the mid-term elections a year from now, when a third of the Senate seats and all of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be in play.

One can hope Biden will find ways to push through at least some serious emission-reducing measures while his party still (more-or-less) controls both the legislative and executive branches of government. The fact that to get anything done Biden will need support of his Democratic colleague — Senator Joe Manchin — from the proud and change-resistant coal-producing state of West Virginia, will make any such progress all the more difficult.

In Canada, Parliament finally gets back to work next week, and Justin Trudeau’s minority government will have to deal with a myriad of challenges that are not called global warming – from reform of long-term care in the wake of the pandemic to a mounting housing crisis.

More important, in both the U.S. and Canada, and elsewhere in the developed world, political conversations are now turning to bread-and-butter issues such as affordability.

The voting public is worried about the rise of inflation, which few economists (and no politicians) had forecast. Alarming and unexpected spikes in the prices of many goods, especially food, have forced Canadians’ attention inward and away from global issues.

To people who are worried about the price of their next supper, the fate of the planet can seem like a fanciful and irrelevant concern.

It will take determined and courageous leadership to keep the climate change issue high on the political agenda. And it will require even more courage to take the necessary actions.

In an era when few politicians seem able to care about anything beyond the next election, can we hope for such leadership?

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...