Only Accountability Can Save Us: Reflections on COP26
By Lola Brown
As a young person in the climate movement, I’ve gotten used to pressure. My generation understands that we are the final defense against catastrophic climate disaster, not because the timeline snuck up on the world, but because of the inaction of our elders. This pressure compelled me to participate in COP26 as a delegate for the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Representing the Church at COP26 has been an incredible honor. I have learned so much about the science, politics, and human consequences of climate change. From learning about CAMFED, a girls education non-profit based in many African countries, to watching Secretary John Kerry explain the newest state of negotiations with China, I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so many intelligent, capable people striving to make the world a better place.
As one of my roles within the delegation, I followed the “ambition” workstream, tracking the commitments made by countries around the world. Ambition is an interesting tool for change, and much of the focus of COP26. So much of our advocacy as a delegation, as individual climate activists, and as participants in COP is on the front end, pushing for negotiations, policies, and pledges. The success of the conference rests upon the ambition of these goals.
Pledges, though, are effectively just wishes. While it is quite impressive to gather leaders of the world together to wish for the same things, wishes do not and will not solve climate disaster. We have seen before just how toothless these pledges can be. At COP15 in Copenhagen, wealthy nations agreed to start appropriating $100 billion USD per year by 2020 towards solving the climate crisis. By 2019, only $80 billion has been invested a year, and we are likely to fall far short in the coming years as well. Similarly, there was a pledge made in 2014, signed by the world’s leading polluters, to halve deforestation by 2020 and eliminate the process by 2030. This may sound eerily familiar, because a headline pledge from COP26 this week has nearly identical language.
These pledges are important; ambition is important. If we don’t drive our leaders to dream bigger and work harder on the front end, nothing else is possible. However, even the most ambitious commitments and pledges, and even the most fruitful negotiations with the most stubborn countries will mean nothing without follow through, accountability, and action.
Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, currently have no requirement for short term follow up or sanctions for failing to meet goals. Very few of the pledges signed at COP26 have binding language of any kind, much less penalties associated with them. This needs to change. Each agreement made needs to be a commitment, with real value, or else where is the value of having a conference in the first place? With no action or implementation, COP26 is effectively a two week debate camp. Accountability is integrity, and accountability is the only thing that will save us.
Throughout COP26, I have heard elder generations citing their “hope in future generations”, “hope in young people” as reasons they are optimistic for our climate future. While I understand the sentiment, young people don’t want your hope; we want your action. Hold yourselves, your communities, and your leaders accountable. Call your Congress members, implement green practices and investments in your own life, and organize for them in your parishes. As people of faith, integrity binds us – to each other and to God. Churches have always been institutions of change for this reason. Treating each other and this world with love is our foremost value, and it actively informs our choices. To all people of the Church, treat our climate crisis the same way you hold up our commandments, and perhaps then we can believe in real change.
Lola Brown is a junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, studying Political Science. Native to the Twin Cities, she attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis and currently serves as a delegate for the Episcopal Presiding Bishop’s delegation to COP26.