Yesterday the negotiators at Glasgow issued their “Draft CMA Decision,” which is not a “decision” so much as a list of things that the signatories to the Paris Accord say they’ll keep in mind while actually negotiating the actual agreement (or rather what each of them will volunteer to do.)  Things like, “the importance of the best available science for effective climate action and policymaking;” “that the current provision of climate finance for adaptation is insufficient to respond to worsening climate change impacts in developing countries;” “that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5 °C compared to 2 °C” etc. 

Each paragraph in the Draft begins with an italicized word or phrase, and those alone tell the story. They come in two iterations: passive and active. The passive ones are that the “Conference of the Parties” (COP) “acknowledges,” “commends,” “emphasizes,” “expresses” (both “appreciation” and “alarm and concern”), “notes” (sometimes “with serious concern”), “reaffirms,” “recalls,” “recognizes,” “reiterates,” “stresses,” “underscores” and “welcomes.”  The active words are far fewer, and they include: “calls upon,” “decides,” “invites,” “requests,” “resolves” and “urges.”

Unfortunately,  even the active words are that  COP “invites Parties to consider further opportunities to reduce non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions;” “requests that Parties that have not yet done so to submit their adaptation communications;” “urges developed country Parties to urgently scale up their provision of climate finance for adaptation so as to respond to the needs of developing country Parties as part of a global effort,” etc.  And when we finally get to the truly active words, they preface platitudes, e.g., COP “decides to establish a work programme to urgently scale-up mitigation ambition and implementation during the critical decade of the 2020s” and “resolves to move swiftly with the full implementation and delivery of the Paris Agreement.”  

Nothing illustrates the COP process better than the excitement over the Draft’s sentence that “calls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” Twenty-nine years after George Bush signed the Rio Treaty, whose “ultimate objective” was “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” we’ve finally reached the point of actually saying, “We should get rid of the biggest source of those greenhouse gases and stop subsidizing production of the rest.” Not a whole lot of progress for three decades. 

To be clear, I’m not actually disappointed in the process itself; COP is only a reflection of our political institutions. While I don’t agree with Joseph de Maistre that “every nation gets the government it deserves,” I think an iteration of that is true: the world deserves the global institutions it gets.  The problem is that developed nations seem to think that as those collective institutions fail and the most dramatic climate consequences (famine, sea level rise, and the wars and forced migrations they will spur) start ripping apart the social fabric of tens or hundreds of millions of people, those events will be neatly confined by lines on a map.  

They won’t, but maybe we’ll understand that in time.