Column: The message of COP26: It is up to all of us to save the planet

For the Valley News
Published: 11/21/2021 10:00:25 PM
Modified: 11/21/2021 10:00:11 PM

The Glasgow Climate Change Conference began with the gravelly voice of David Attenborough expressing the hope that “young people alive today perhaps will give us the impetus we need ... to turn this tragedy into a triumph.” It ended with Greta Thunberg, surrounded by those same young people, declaring, “The grown-ups have failed us.”

The odds are that most of those who made the major decisions inside the halls of the Scottish Event Campus will be gone within a few decades. What does Greta know that we don’t? Back in 1992, before she was born, when the global carbon dioxide level was 360 parts per million, several thousand people from 178 nations, prompted by the United Nations, flocked to Rio Di Janeiro to set in motion a series of international climate conferences to return us to a safe level of 350 ppm by the year 2000. It was, by all reports, a joyful and hopeful event.

Now after 25 mostly annual meetings, COP26 concluded under the hottest annual temperatures human beings have ever known, with CO2 standing at 420 ppm.

Have we grown-ups failed?

Actually, there was a lot of good news. We agreed to harness methane emissions and to stop deforestation significantly. Furthermore, the U.S. and China publicly committed to work together to combat warming.

With booths touting everything from promising nuclear initiatives to fashionable handbags made from old firehoses, the event had a trade show feel, according to one reporter. And although neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Chinese leader Xi Jinping showed up, their delegations did. Representing the third-ranked emitter, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised significant cuts. President Biden declared that America was back, and former President Barack Obama received a standing ovation as he urged the young protesters — who were legion but almost all outside the walls — to turn their frustration to action.

Things were off to a pretty good start.

Within a few days, however, it began to go slack. We learned that the emissions claims of many nations had been grossly falsified, that despite efforts to ban them, some 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were present, and that even if nations actually met the goals they submitted, the total would leave us at 2.4 degrees Celsius, far over the mark necessary to avoid devastating consequences.

By the end, although fossil fuels were named for the first time as key drivers, the conference failed to achieve consensus to keep them in the ground in any significant way, failed to commit to phase-out coal or limit gasoline vehicles, failed to meet prior financial commitments of rich nations to poor (though promising to double them by 2025), and failed to establish accountability by requiring annual reports.

So it’s easy to throw up our hands and say that Greta was right.

But what if we think of it another way? What if we think of COP26 as catalytic rather than catastrophic?

That is: Of course the representatives of nearly 9 billion people won’t just all line up and march! And although these things take time — and we have been out of time for a decade already — the conference has catalyzed a higher level of concern and sense of urgency that promises to eclipse even the pandemic.

Moreover, it has brought activated and committed people together in exponential combinations around the world. In particular, young people are angrier and more determined to act than ever.

Not only has the climate conference moved from aspirational to accountability, but there is a rapidly growing recognition that governments will not be able to save us by themselves — that it will also take corporations, businesses and nonprofits to understand that if they don’t get on board, they will have no world left to serve (or exploit).

It is in the interest of all life on the planet that all of us, young and old, work toward the common good, to salvage a world worth living in for today’s young people.

That’s the message of COP26: It is up to all of us, not merely as isolated individuals, and not merely as youth, to pay attention and work together to change the systems that have brought us to this moment of peril, and ultimate responsibility.

Larry Daloz, of Hanover, is a co-founder of Senior Stewards Acting for the Environment (, the Kendal System-wide climate action initiative.

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