The tidal wave of broadly positive announcements at the COP26 Climate Summit this week has been met by a storm surge of molten hot media takes, far too many of which have singularly failed to engage with the historic significance of what might be happening in Glasgow.
For every potentially transformational net zero pledge, there have been naïve assessments of whether or not any given announcement represents a 'win' for the UK hosts. For each multi-billion dollar coal phase out plan, there have been accusations of hypocritical virtue signalling, as if governments and financiers seek to overhaul entire economies on a whim. For all the evidence the Paris Agreement has catalysed an era-defining array of clean tech innovations and a remarkable shift in public opinion, there have been baseless arguments that the entire COP process is an exercise in futility.
Like a CNN host reporting on the Glasgow Summit from outside Edinburgh Castle, too many media compasses have gone badly awry, the desire for simplistic headlines and Twitter likes superseding the huge complexity and multifaceted context that shapes COP Summits and defines the climate crisis.
I'm always pretty loath to criticise other journalists. As in any profession there are some bad faith actors, but the vast majority are trying to do an important and challenging job while navigating a rapidly changing cultural and technological landscape.
That said, the sheer number of bad and poorly-informed takes sparked by COP26 has been both hugely frustrating and risks doing serious damage, both to the on-going talks themselves and the long term effort to deliver on the net zero pledges that have been made over the past few years.
Here are just six of the COP26 hot takes that have routinely failed to reflect what is actually happening in Glasgow and what will happen as the net zero transition plays out.
1. 'What sacrifices are you willing to make for climate change?'
I dunno - survivable summer temperatures? How about we sacrifice those?
Honestly, is there a more parochial, reductive, and one-sided take on both the world's most serious environmental crisis and biggest and fastest industrial transformation than the loaded question about what sacrifices you are willing to make to reduce emissions?
The problem, as is so often the case, is the lack of context and balance. There's an understandable interest in the behaviour changes that may be necessary to curb emissions and it's obvious why these might be characterised as 'sacrifices' in some quarters. But leaving aside the fact there is a very live debate as to whether 'sacrifices' will be required at all to decarbonise, not to mention the fact few governments are actively talking about things like giving up meat or halting flights, there are two sides to this story.
There's plenty of evidence showing that the net zero transition will result in myriad economic and social benefits, while inaction could unleash a hell on Earth. This is not a simple story about what we might be willing to sacrifice.
Why is no one ever vox-popped about the green jobs, clean air, and habitable biosphere that they would have to sacrifice without climate action?
2. 'The UK will be disappointed'
Earlier this week, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the country would aim to achieve net zero emissions by 2070. Seasoned observers of UN climate talks applauded a significant diplomatic breakthrough and a major step forward for the global effort to stabilise the climate. Much of the UK press corps suggested the move represented disappointment for the British hosts of the Summit given India's target date was 20 years later than the 2050 goal adopted by most countries.
It was a bizarre take on two fronts. Firstly, the negotiations have always operated under the assumption that countries have "common but differentiated responsibilities". That is to say India has lower per capita and historic emissions than industrialised nations and is at a very different stage of its economic development, and as such it still has a responsibility to decarbonise but at a different rate to Western countries. Snap analyses were quick to suggest that a net zero target of 2070 for India was comparable to a net zero target of 2050 for the UK, even before you consider the potential for target dates to be pulled forward as clean tech deployments accelerate.
Secondly, as ECIU's Richard Black pointed out in a Twitter thread ahead of the Summit, the UK may be hosting COP26, but it is not the UK's event. It is the UN's process and is owned by all parties. It is one of the few (only?) truly multilateral conferences.
Now #COP26 is upon us it's noticeable how many political journalists are writing and broadcasting about it, which (speaking as a former science and environment hack who spent many hours inside the BBC arguing for climate change coverage across the board) is very welcome— Richard Black (@_richardblack) October 30, 2021
The UK does not set out its expectations, demand they are met, and then declare success or failure. In fact, such a didactic approach is a sure fire guarantee of deadlock and angry walkouts from developing country diplomats.
More important still, especially for reporting on the crucial second week of the Summit, this is not a simple pass or fail scenario. There are many different ways to gauge the success or otherwise of a COP. Even the much maligned Copenhagen Summit managed to secure an agreement that enabled continued negotiations and laid the foundations for the success of the Paris Summit six years later.
COP26 has already succeeded in some ways - just look at the enormous expanse of net zero commitments, increased flows of climate finance, and myriad industrial decarbonisation initiatives. It will near-inevitably fail in other ways - some of the pledges made this week are not that credible, there is no way the world will be on a 1.5C warming trajectory by Friday, too many participants have felt marginalised and issues of injustice have gone unaddressed. The final assessment will have to incorporate dense legal texts finalised by diplomats and Ministers who have not slept in three days. Whether or not the UK ends up delighted or disappointed is a tiny part of the story.
3. 'In a move that will please environmentalists'
And while we're talking about simplistic framing, can we dispense with 'in a move that will please environmentalists'? Who is on the other side of this binary? People who love pollution?
Journalistic convention is so hardwired to force every story through a template of adversarialism that I'm guilty of this one myself, but as soon as you unpack it even a little its absurdity becomes obvious.
In the case of COP26, an agreement that advances meaningful climate action would not simply 'please environmentalists'. It would please myriad businesses, politicians, investors, and the vast, vast majority of the public that is concerned about the worsening climate crisis.
I tell you what, 'in a move that will please environmentalists' becomes acceptable when every report on cuts to Air Passenger Duty or expansions to road building programmes features the lede, 'in a move that will please polluters…'
4. 'Stop scaring people, climate change is not really an existential threat, fear is demotivating'
There have been some vanishingly rare incidences of people recklessly scaring young people with talk of imminent planetary collapse. Equally, if everyone were to stop having children right now it would bring civilisation to an end even more rapidly than a climate apocalypse. But most of those alleging that environmentalists are engaged in counterproductive alarmism tend to gloss over how genuinely alarming the climate crisis is.
Let's clear up this up once and for all. The use of the word 'existential' is entirely justified.
The warming trajectory we are currently on and the risk of climatic tipping points that comes with it implies pressures on vast tracts of the world that could very easily lead to societal collapse. Climate change is an existential threat to civilisation as we know it.
Is it existential to humanity itself? Could we go extinct? That's harder to gauge. But anyone who thinks climate breakdown afflicting nuclear-armed nations doesn't drastically increase the risk of annihilation is kidding themselves. On longer timeframes, as David Wallace-Wells has noted, all but one of the great waves of extinction in the fossil record was triggered by climatic change. The pace of climate change the world is experiencing currently is thought to be unprecedented. It is the height of anthropocentric arrogance to think we are not facing a potentially existential threat.
There are really encouraging signs we are starting to bend the emissions curve downwards. That the worst case scenarios that have sometimes been erroneously labelled as 'business as usual' are increasingly implausible. I'm more optimistic than most environmentalists that rapid progress is being made and we could soon reach market tipping points from which global decarbonisation finally accelerates.
But whenever I get too optimistic I am reminded of a speech I saw a few years ago from Mike Berners-Lee in which he noted that if an alien came to Earth and looked at the inexorably rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere they would find it impossible to detect that humankind was in any way aware of anthropogenic climate change. Throughout the decades we have known of the worsening risks, emissions have kept climbing, pausing only briefly for various economic disasters.
Even if emissions peak soon, concentrations of greenhouse gases and temperatures will keep climbing until true net zero is achieved. And with each fraction of a degree of warming the possibility increases of feedback loops being triggered that scientists admit they do not yet fully understand.
What of the tactical argument that focusing on 'climate fear' is demotivating? As I've argued many times before, that may be true of some people but it is not true of everyone. Equally, I cannot think of any great social or economic transformation that did not highlight the threats and injustices associated with the status quo. Some campaigners like to argue that Martin Luther King said "I have a dream", not "I have a nightmare". But the civil rights movement did not shy away from making the nightmare visible.
The idea that if climate campaigners stopped talking about how scary climate change is and instead focused solely on the benefits arising from climate action, government and public support for their cause would suddenly swell and decarbonisation efforts would magically accelerate seems ahistorical at best.
5. 'Look at all those jet-setting, virtue-signalling hypocrites - COPs are a futile waste of time'
In a competitive field, this is surely the dumbest take of all, although like all bad takes it draws its strength by containing a nugget of truth.
The hypocrisy of world leaders and business elites absolutely does dilute public support for climate action. Jetting in to climate summits and chowing down on steak is a bad look. Tribal leaders absolutely could help advance the net zero transition by being among the first to embrace electric vehicles and planet-friendly diets.
But that said, so many of the accusations of hypocrisy are made in bad faith by people who have never expressed any interest in exploring how to advance climate action.
'How can they ask us to give up flying, when they are jetting around?' they ask, wilfully ignoring the fact that, for better or worse, no one in government is asking anyone to stop flying. 'Hypocrisy undermines public support,' they insist, while ignoring the fact public support for climate action remains remarkably robust. 'Why won't they practice what they preach,' they protest, while fixating on diet choices and travel arrangements, and completely ignoring the policy hypocrisy that really drives emissions through reduced aviation taxes or approval for new oil fields.
These performative accusations of hypocrisy bleed into the idea that it is ridiculous that world leaders should even travel to a climate summit, and that if they absolutely have to come they should just ignore the unfortunate fates that befell too many of their predecessors and leave their security details at home. From there it is a short leap to the idea the entire UN climate process is a deeply flawed waste of time.
It is notable that the only two camps who insist that COPs are an exercise in futility are climate sceptics and deep green activists. The latter group should perhaps ask how they have found themselves in agreement with their fiercest opponents.
The reality is that the Paris Agreement was arguably the most significant diplomatic achievement of the post-war era. As a growing library of evidence has shown, it has triggered an unprecedented wave of clean tech innovation, climate policy-making, and public engagement. So much so that well over two-thirds of the global economy is now covered by net zero targets of one form or another, at the same time as clean tech costs are plummeting. Yes, countries and corporates now have to deliver on what they have promised, but urging them to 'do what you have said you will do' is much more powerful than imploring them to 'do something'.
This progress has been accelerated and shaped by world leaders meeting regularly to develop the policy and geopolitical framework that enables increased investment and more robust regulation, and deliver the speeches - the 'blah, blah, blah' - that provide market signals for businesses and investors to follow.
That is why the Paris Agreement was structured to create these big theatrical moments every five years. And that is why one of the ideas under discussion at COP26 is to try and make such moments more frequent. Because the simple act of meeting and the co-ordinated flurry of announcements matters, even if they are sometimes oversold. They create the impression that the climate crisis is deadly serious and the efforts to tackle it are inevitable and intensifying. If enough people start to believe that is the case, that fossil fuels are on their way out, then markets will move and emissions will start to plummet.
The UN process remains flawed. Accusations that it has not done nearly enough to tackle issues of climate injustice are justified, as are concerns over the credibility of the various net zero targets it has secured.
But anyone suggesting it is futile, that we would be better served by Boris Johnson and Joe Biden staying home and cooking a nutloaf, is being hopelessly, and probably wilfully, naïve.
6. What about the cost of climate action?
What about it? It will be lower than your leading question implies. It will be dwarfed by the cost of inaction. And what's your credible alternative plan for tackling the climate crisis? Because, I don't think you have one. And that's because, I don't think you really accept climate change is a problem worth addressing.
It really is long past time we retired this 'project fear' narrative and properly engaged with how to build a cleaner, healthier, more prosperous economy for all.
The problem with all these various takes is that, despite their enragingly obvious weaknesses, they do matter. A key priority for any COP Summit is the signals it sends to markets and the public. And when there is no clear and agreed mechanism for determining the success or failure of a Summit, the way it is perceived and the signals it sends is informed to a large degree by journalists and opinion formers' reaction to it.
We do not yet know how the denouement to the Glasgow Summit will play out. But if the media allows the response to COP26 next week to be stripped of context, shorn of nuance, and shaped by climate sceptic talking points, then the efforts of thousands of people to deliver an historic step forward in the global mission to avert climate disaster will have been done a grave disservice.