To turn climate ambition into climate action and climate justice, current political leaders must work harder and much faster to build trust and accountability, while future ones need to be skeptical, stubborn, and scientific, while never ever losing hope.
Such were the key takeaways from a student-focused COP 26 panel held last week at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and hosted by the newly-minted Columbia Climate School.
Asked what the Columbia Climate School can do to help decision-makers, Mary Nichols, former chair of the California Air Resources Board, said she hoped the new school would help students and faculty “train and challenge themselves to go out and be activists for the climate.”
Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former minister of environment and climate change, echoed Nichols’ insistence on the need to support activists, stressing the need to be both practical and attuned to the extraordinary complexity of the climate crisis.
Peggy Shepherd, co-founder and executive director of Harlem-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said she hoped the school would be a “strong anchor institution” that made local engagement a priority.
Asked how they see COP 26 dealing with questions of equity and justice, the panel said those questions aren’t being given the attention they urgently require.
“There’s really no presence here,” Shepherd said.
Reflecting on that absence, Nichols brought up intergenerational inequity, observing that “it’s human nature”—and a principle in policy and politics—to “postpone the tough stuff.”
“You do the easiest thing that you can possibly manage…and hope that you will gather the momentum to do the very hard things,” she said, an approach that she said needs to change immediately.
Shepherd reminded listeners that the phrase “just transition” can mean very different things in different parts of the world.
Recalling her work on Canada’s coal phaseout, McKenna stressed the need to listen to workers and communities who see the shift away from fossil fuels as an existential threat.
Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation and one of the architects of the Paris climate agreement, recalled that “it was very good to see the peer pressure functioning” as the deal took shape. What consumes her now, she added, is “how to build and reinforce credibility and accountability.”
With trust in such short supply, she added, “people must tell the truth” about the climate emergency.
Two students asked the panelists whether COP 26 had been just one big exercise in greenwashing.
“Figuring out how to build accountability cannot happen without dialogue and understanding,” Shepherd replied. “We all need to be in the same room together. We’ve got to have the people who are causing the problem, and we’ve got to have the people who are on the receiving end.”
She added that “greenwashing, where people claim to be something they are not, is a whole other issue, but we certainly need to be in dialogue together.”
Deputy White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi urged the students to be “skeptical and stubborn,” adding that this is where “data and disclosure and transparency come in, where regulatory action and setting hard standards come in.” He urged participants to “push your leaders hard,” and “to be scientists” who observe, analyze, experiment, fail, and try again.
With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and many other institutions declaring Code Red for humanity, Zaidi said he hoped that “in all the craziness we have unlocked for ourselves… we actually see a green light for action, a green light to reweave our economy into something more just, more sustainable.”