At U.N. Climate Conference, UW observers look to civil society to save the planet

Head of student with conference banner behind her.

University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Nova Tebbe, who works across disciplines from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to the La Follette School of Public Affairs, calls herself a climate newcomer. Yet, in early November, she joined 300 people who walked out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (or COP26) to protest the lack of significant commitment to combat climate change.

That last Friday in Glasgow, Tebbe was inspired by a People’s Plenary session. “Solidarity, camaraderie, community: I was able to be in the room, and I felt so driven and passionate by everyone else’s energy,” she says. She joined those who walked out of the COP venue to meet up with the outside protestors led by Fridays for Future, the youth climate movement spearheaded by Greta Thunberg.

Attending her third COP, Sumudu Atapattu, director of Research Centers and senior lecturer at the UW Law School and a member of the UW-Madison Global Health (GHI) Institute Advisory Board, says the value of COP is the convergence of civil society— the groups representing youth, women, Indigenous people, island nations and more—to support each other and put pressure on climate negotiators.

“The civil society coming together. The many like Nova who haven’t been before. The talking. The connections. The youth putting pressure on states to show they’re doing something. It’s heartening to see everything going on,” Atapattu says.

“There’s so much attention to the issue: I think we need to keep the momentum going.”—Sumudu Atapattu

 What is COP26?

In late October 2021, Tebbe and Atapattu participated in a Global Health Institute-hosted panel discussion, “What to Expect from COP26: How the U.N. Climate Talks Impact Everyone,” to explore opportunities and challenges for the 2021 U.N. Climate Conference. COP26 brought 200 nations together in early November to forge an agreement to accelerate action toward mitigating climate change, adapting to it, investing in infrastructure and technology, and working together to find solutions to benefit health for all. After the conference, COP President Alok Sharma called the Glasgow Climate Pact a fragile win. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged nations to go into emergency mode to reduce the use of fossil fuel, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help low-income countries offset the cost of a changing climate.

woman in front of icons for Sustainable Development Goals
Sumudu Atapattu sees human rights as a necessary umbrella framework for climate negotiations. (Photo courtesy of Atapattu.)

Tebbe was an observer at the conference through the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. She’s pursuing a dual master’s degree in public affairs and public health in the La Follette School and researches climate change policies rooted in climate and equity with Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute (GHI) who has dual appointments in the Nelson Institute and Department of Population Health Sciences. Tebbe also is completing an Energy Analysis and Policy Certificate.

Atapattu, a member of the GHI Advisory Committee and a Nelson Institute affiliate, has spent her career working for human rights across the world. She joined the climate conference as part of the delegation from the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights in Sweden, where she is affiliated faculty. She spoke about climate adaptation and human rights at a side event in the Nordic pavilion.

Finding some success at COP26

They saw small victories in the final agreement.

In terms of health, Tebbe sees including the “right to health” in the preamble as a win. She also applauded the COP26 health program to decarbonize the health sector and, for the first time a health pavilion at a COP. She appreciated the opportunity to talk to country delegates about how climate change impacts health. “We still have a long way to go to talk about why climate affects health,” she says. “This space gave us a space to pitch it, and that’s huge. There’s not another opportunity for me to talk to people from different countries about health.”

Atapattu found hope in Scotland’s $1.4 million pledge to support victims of climate disaster—a world first. Overall, she saw little movement on human rights or financial assistance for low-income and island nations facing the worst consequences of a warming planet. She knew going in that states would be reluctant to include human rights in decisions. COP gave her the opportunity to promote human rights to negotiators. “Even people working in this space don’t understand how important it is to include human rights as an umbrella,” she says.

The women agreed the Glasgow Pact did not go far enough and could lead to 2 or 3 degrees warming.

“It’s tough to expect these international agreements, which require consensus, to be these bold, ambitious things,” Tebbe says. “The global north can afford to take their time to 2050 (to reduce emissions). The global south and island nations cannot afford that.”

“The climate crisis is already here. People are dying because of it. There are no options.”—Nova Tebbe

Tebbe and Atapattu look to civil society—ordinary citizens and organized groups—to pressure governments for change. “We also need to get more action at the local level and state level and put pressure on the university to divest,” Atapattu says. “We’re still investing in fossil fuel companies. That’s unacceptable.”

Tebbe calls for rethinking systems, from the economy to energy to transportation. “We need to get rid of this extracting economy where we’re continuously using and wasting,” she says. “That’s not what’s going to fix the climate crisis. We need a circular economy.”

Civil society can push the world toward sustainability, Tebbe and Atapattu agreed. But civil society can only go so far. “We really need to get the major countries on board,” Atapattu says. “Or there’s no future, especially for small island states.”

Q&A Portion of the article starts here

Other Global Health Tuesday panelists weigh in

 GHI Director Jonathan Patz moderated the October 26 Global Health Tuesday panel hosted by the UW-Madison Global Health Institute. Dekila Chungyalpa, director of the Loka Initiative at the Center for Healthy Minds, and Greg Nemet, professor with the La Follette School and Nelson Institute, and a member of the GHI Advisory Committee, served as panelists with Tebbe and Atapattu. They also looked back on COP26.

Q: What is the most positive advance toward climate resilience that came out of COP26? Or, in other words, where do you see hope?

Dekila Chunyalpa

Chungyalpa: I was glad to see that early in the UN climate talks, more than a hundred countries (that account for over 85 percent of the world’s forests) committed to stop deforestation by the end of this decade. We are at a point where everyone—including the finance institutions there—acknowledges the interconnectivity of environmental issues instead of siloing policies and strategies into different buckets, which is partially why it is so hard to end climate change. However, we face exactly the same accountability dilemma as we do with nationally determined contributions of countries on carbon emissions; how will these commitments be interpreted into action? Can they be enforced if the nations decide to not honor them? Who monitors the quality of implementation?

I cannot find much hope within the COP mechanism given how complicit it is towards protecting neoliberal economic interests. It is worth noting that the fossil fuel industry had the largest delegation to COP26, with over 500 lobbyists accredited to attend the summit, many of whom were listed as members of country delegations including Canada and Russia. These lobbyists outnumbered the global Indigenous representatives 2 to 1. The IETA (International Emissions Trading Association) sent over a hundred delegates alone including people from BP, which we should all find extremely concerning given the obvious conflict of interest. Not surprisingly, some kinds of climate finance were more successful than others, for example, there was traction on cross-border carbon trading but not on something more substantive like an Adaptation Fund. So, where do I find hope? I find it in the hundred thousand plus people who mobilized in Glasgow and who represent a rapidly growing global climate movement of hundreds of millions of people around the world who are more concerned about protecting the lives of the most vulnerable than protecting the financial interests of the wealthiest 1%. Without the unyielding pressure from activists all around the world, we would be in a far worse condition than we are today.

Nemet: For me the most important outcomes of COP26 were details within the Glasgow Climate Pact: 45 percent reduction by 2030, existing NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) +14 percent by 2030, and phasing down coal.  I also thought the additional agreements outside the office U.N. process were also important: on reducing methane by 30 percent by 2030, on ending deforestation by 2030, and US-China cooperation on climate.

Patz: Two brand new pledges emerged from COP26. First, a pledge to reduce methane 30 percent by 2030, agreed by 105 countries. This is important because

Jonathan Patz

methane has a warming potential 30 to 40 times that of CO2, the most abundance greenhouse gas. The second new pledge, signed by 100 countries, was an agreement to stop deforestation by 2030. Mature forests serve as important absorbing sinks of CO2 in the air, and forest conservation has other major benefits to biodiversity and human health. But most meaningful to me was that finally after a quarter century, human health made center stage for the first time ever at a COP, and instead of just World Health Organization (WHO) holding side-meetings, WHO had a pavilion in the official “Blue Zone” of the meeting.  More than 600 health organizations, representing over 46 million health professionals from over 100 countries, sent an open letter (“#HealthyClimatePrescription”) to Heads of State calling for urgent climate action for our health’s sake.

Q: Overall COP26 is being criticized for not doing enough to slow climate change. If you could have added one more piece to the agreement, what would that piece have been and why?

Patz: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “1.5°C Report,” to keep average warming to just 1.5°C above pre-industrialized levels, the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent by 2030—just 9 years from now. That’s fast!  I would have liked world leaders to have committed to end fossil fuel subsidies—not just limit building of new facilities in other countries. And regarding the burning of fossil fuels, world leaders need to acknowledge the near-term human health damages (especially from air pollution) and medium-term health costs from climate extremes as a key consideration and rationale for putting a price on carbon.

Chungyalpa: I saw a headline somewhere that called COP 26 “the climate conference that failed the global south” and given how weak the outcomes are in terms of addressing the most critical impacts facing vulnerable communities; including damage and loss due to climate disasters; I have to agree. The $100 billion the industrialized countries committed to in Copenhagen to provide annually by 2020 so that developing countries could adapt didn’t materialize. I find it interesting that while the coverage on how India and China weakened the language from phase-out to phase-down has been rightfully substantial, there has been almost no coverage on how richer countries scuttled the proposal for a loss-and-damage fund for poorer countries. None of the rich countries would be where they are without profiting from fossil fuels. None of the poor countries would be where they are without bearing the externalities of those profits. Climate change by itself is not inequitable, the neoliberal system we humans have put in place is. Compared to the trillions of dollars climate change will cost us, $100 billion is not that much. It represents good faith that developed countries understand what they have cost the poorest countries and a promise they will not leave them stranded. They should live up to that good faith and promise.

Q: What are the best actions for individuals and communities to take to bend the curve toward more action? Or, in other words, can we make a difference?

Greg Nemet

Nemet: My biggest source of optimism about addressing climate is the tremendous advances in low-carbon technology over the past 10 years.  In addition, the emerging consensus on net zero emissions by mid-century and the consequent shift of valuing fossil fuel infrastructure as liabilities rather than assets are real consequential long term shifts.

“It is going to take every one of us to make the difference; to work with all the opportunities available to us and in all communities we belong to.”—Dekila Chungyalpa

Chungyalpa: I work with faith leaders and culture keepers of Indigenous traditions on climate issues because it is going to take every one of us to make the difference; to work with all the opportunities available to us and in all communities we belong to. We have to look for and find influential mechanisms and actions in our everyday lives that affect as large a number of people as possible. For some of us, that might mean canceling our credit card accounts with the most egregious climate financiers and calling them out on social media. For some of us, it will be carrying out important climate science or behavior change research. For some of us, it may be talking about climate change and normalizing it at the dinner table. We have a tendency to think in binaries; this action is good, that action is bad or mitigation is most important or adaptation is. However, we need all of us—in all of our circles of influence— to do what we can to protect the most vulnerable while also creating systemic change. Doing it in community can be a joyful and reaffirming experience and reminds us that we are not alone in our determination to make this necessary difference.

Patz: Channeling the modern environmentalist Bill McKibben, the best thing that an individual can do … is to be less of an individual. Join like-minded groups and amplify your voice through the power of many. While we should all lead by example, we must also not fall into the trap of thinking that if only each of us consumed less, we would solve the problem; that’s what industry and major polluters want us to think. We need to hold large emitters and public officials accountable. Sure, everyone should indeed switch to using LEDs, low- or no-meat diets, and fly less, but climate change is not something that can be solved by massive individual choices. We’ll need system-wide change at every level.