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The annual global climate change conference hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently closed in Madrid, Spain. Each year, the conference provides the global community an opportunity to substantively confront climate change. Outcomes are far from certain and each Conference of the Parties (COP) tends to disappoint attendees and climate devotees. This year was no exception. After an extended 48-hour negotiating period which made this conference the longest in its history, there was little to show except increased acrimony and decreased faith that global action can truly be coordinated to confront the defining challenge of our time.

The event appeared in peril before it even began. Venue changes and pre-conference dramatics created a sense of chaos and antagonism rarely helpful in contentious negotiations. That atmosphere discourages working with others to find solutions, and that is exactly what happened in Spain. In short, attendees were temporarily locked out while fossil fuel companies were not, verified science was summarily rejected in favor of partisan politics, and finance remained a barrier to progress.

We Won’t Always Have Paris

The outcome of the annual conference is never certain. COP21 in Paris in 2015 produced the landmark Paris Agreement and is considered a success. By contrast, COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, which started with incredible excitement and hope, became a highwater mark for failure as bickering and self-interest extinguished real cooperation. And conferences in between in places like Cancun (COP16) and Durban, South Africa (COP17) advanced technocratic agendas but produce few headlines and go unnoticed.

Achieving meaningful success in these conferences is not easy. In the case of COP21 in Paris, momentum had been built the year prior when China and the United States, the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, agreed to long-term emissions limits. Further, delegations sent to Paris were largely in agreement about global warming, which increased the likelihood of progress. Even though the Paris Agreement is severely lacking (it has no binding mechanism to truly hold participants accountable for inaction), it achieved a goal that has eluded previous gatherings: near universal agreement of a climate framework.

Civil unrest in Chile forced the climate conference to move. (Photo: Carlos Figueroa)

By contrast, COP25 in Spain was hobbled from before the beginning. It was originally scheduled to take place in Brazil but President Bolsonaro, hardly an ally to environmental causes, withdrew the offer to host under the pretense of economic reasons. Neighboring Chile assumed hosting duties but was forced to cancel due to civil unrest. With less than a month to go, Spain stepped in but a lack of time to prepare left many cash-strapped developing countries unsure of their participation. This matters given the disproportionate way in which these countries are impacted by climate change.

In addition, pre-COP drama infused the conference with an air of antagonism that began months before arrival in Madrid. In September, the United Nations held a Climate Action Summit in New York. Climate activist Greta Thunberg was invited to speak at the event and garnered much attention prior to the event by sailing across the Atlantic to protest air travel’s role in GHG emissions. Hers was a genuine opportunity for the kind of leadership that stirs power to action around a vision of what is possible. Instead, Thunberg gave what could generously be called a temper tantrum, scolding those present for a lack of climate action. The folly of children lecturing adults aside, her now meme-worthy performance did more to add to the enmity that overshadowed COP25 than set the stage for meaningful progress. That is unfortunate. These conferences need all the leadership moment they can get.

These are just some of the challenges that informed the conference prior to its official open. Compounding these difficulties was continued petulance from key counties like the Unite States. The superpower – currently devoid of any principled stance or evidenced-based position - chose continued obstinacy for its own sake. Petty grievances are the country’s current calling card at the conference. The result was not just another muddled conference. It was a conference that was so dysfunctional and adversarial that even being in neutral feels like more than just a few steps back.

Bring the (S)pain

Central to COP25’s agenda was setting goals ahead of 2020 and 2021 when the Paris agreement is expected to come into full effect. Key to continuing this progress is Article VI, which calls for creating a global carbon market to help balance each country’s climate change initiatives. However, actual implementation remains formidable. Challenges of double counting emission (i.e., two countries claiming the same reduced emissions related to carbon credits traded between them), and additionality (i.e., whether or not projects would have happened without Article VI was in place) have thwarted progress.

In addition, there is a very important outstanding question regarding efforts developing countries have already taken to mitigate GHG emissions. Were a carbon market to be established, it is unclear whether or not they can claim related credits. The developing countries that have these credits want them counted. Developed countries feel otherwise. They claim a disadvantage and want all parties to start from zero. This issue largely drove the additional 48 hours of negotiations past the scheduled conference close.

Equally frustrating, (and for the second year in a row) Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait, and the United States – all large oil producing nations – stymied the acceptance of scientific research. A data-driven and evidence-based report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) examining the urgency of solving global warming was merely "noted" as opposed to "accepted," thanks to these spoiler countries, effectively neutralizing the report's impact on further negotiations and decision making.

Protesters at COP25, demanding action. (Photo Ruta de Clima)

Adding fuel to a contentious fire, some attendees staged a raucous protest demanding countries meet established climate commitments. They were removed, a decision that looked especially egregious as representatives of fossil fuel companies continued to coolly roam the venues and halls of the conference. The protesters were eventually readmitted but only after agreeing to abide by established rules for conduct.

This vehement atmosphere overshadowed other conference topics of real import. Among them were loss and damages due to growing climate change, indigenous people, openness regarding necessary climate action, and gender. Future progress on all of these issues was postponed to next year’s meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.

Why Delay Matters

There’s plenty of evidence underscoring the urgent need for climate action and how dithering makes a bad situation worse. Increasingly, we see environmental degradation rooted in our use of fossil fuels. Last year, coal plants set a record in GHG emissions. Increased damage from intensifying storms is an almost daily occurrence. Venice suffered tremendous damage and loss due to excessive rainfall and commensurate flooding earlier this year. An unpredictable and unsustainable combination of floods and droughts threaten a lifeline of commerce and survival through countries in southeast Africa. Our food supply is in jeopardy. Connected to this is a delicate biodiversity facing extinction.

Venice, besieged by unprecedented flood waters. (Photo: NPR/Getty Images)

All of this damage comes with a hefty price tag. From 2016 through 2018, the world spent $650 billion on climate related disasters. Skeptics will say these events would have happened natural. Such an argument is too simplistic and misses the point. Even if the events were going to happen, man’s impact on the environment is a threat multiplier.

Here at home, the pathetic state of our infrastructure magnifies the spectre of climate-related damage. Estimated costs to rehabilitate our crumbling roads and bridges is around $1 trillion. However, that cost does not include measures necessary to withstand the levels of damage expected from storms fueled by a worsening climate. These costs will eventually be borne by consumers and taxpayers.

Finally, delay matters because climate change exacerbates ongoing global maladies. It worsens drought, hunger, unemployment, all of which are underlying contributors to irregular migration patterns and protracted conflict. Global challenges require a global response. Unfortunately, climate detractors and opposition are becoming more globally organized and are extremely well funded, allowing them to influence policy, shape the landscape, and entrench the status quo. Therefore, the longer a binding climate resolution and meaningful change elude us, the less likely we are to solve these far-reaching challenges.

So What? Is All Lost?

No. Not entirely. While COP25 was a disappointment to many, incremental progress, for whatever it is worth, was made. The European Union, the alliance of Small-Island Developing States (SIDS), and a few other countries agreed to more aggressive plans for climate adaptation and emission abatement. Together they showed more leadership than individual countries more than ten times their collective size.

Unfortunately, until more reasonable and level-headed leadership returns to countries like the United States, we may have to rely on other quarters for environmental leadership. Fortunately, there are plenty of reasons to keep hope alive and continue the fight.

Climate leadership abdication, as drawn by The Washington Post.

For example, trade provisions can be an effective way to implement environmental protections. Were the World Trade Organization (WTO) to adopt regulations accounting for environmental impact, it could go a long way to achieving many of the same goals as a global pact. Global financial firms can also play an outsized role in shaping the landscape. Some insurers are refusing to back further coal projects. Investment houses like BlackRock, one of the world’s largest, has been assessing the cost of climate risk and is considering total coal divestment for its nearly $7 trillion portfolio.

In the private sector, many American companies, knowing their future customers will be more climate sensitive than previous generations, are asking for a carbon price. Equally notable are members of the world’s largest oil lobby group requesting a carbon tax. In addition, judges are blocking drilling projects due to potential climate impacts. And despite recent increases in global coal emissions, the largest coal company in the United States is bankrupt, while the country’s ever-growing “green economy” is worth over $1 trillion. All of these point to a future more aligned with necessary climate considerations.

The good work is not confined to the US. Brazil’s indigenous population is not taking Bolsonaro’s environmental mismanagement lying down. In the United Kingdom, activists are fighting to restore land impacted by global warming. In the Pacific, New Zealand continues its forward-leaning leadership on global challenges with humanitarian visas for people displaced by climate change.

This might cause some to say that the UNFCCC has failed, that governments should get out of the way, and that the private sector should lead. They are wrong. There is still a very strong role for a global pact to serve the environment by sending signals that shape norms, behaviors and consumer choices. The Montreal Protocol, created to deal with the threats posed by a compromised ozone layer, stands as a testament to what can be done when nations work together to solve big challenges. That spirit needs to be harnessed again, but it is not likely to happen until respected, serious, and worthwhile leadership returns to the fight. That applies to large countries as well as civil society. Until the slate of participants comprises people ready to fight together instead of each other, we will waste what precious little time we have left.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.


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