28 Dec 2022

World leadership is not coping with the threat of climate change

Dr. Yossi Mekelberg

Climate summits come and climate summits go, and evidently, they fail to convince anyone that there is a concerted global strategy to save humanity from the debilitating damage climate change inflicts on the only planet humanity has. Gatherings of world leaders always create big expectations, and never more so than those that deal with climate change, as this is a uniquely acute issue on which no progress can be made without truly global cooperation and leadership, especially as the world is fast approaching a catastrophic point of no return. In light of the magnitude of the threat from the consequences of global warming and the challenges to contain its devastating effects derived from letting temperatures rise unchecked, there is understandable anticipation that the annual COP meetings will come with clear implementable strategies to prevent climate catastrophe. And yet they always fall short of achieving this objective.

This year’s COP27, in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, was the first in Africa for more than a decade, and hence it was expected that it would also focus on the impact of global warming on that continent and on other low-income countries, and the needs of these countries as a result of it. UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the two themes of this climate summit as “justice and ambition”.[1] To be sure, the summit has made some progress in bringing about justice by agreeing the ‘Loss and Compensation Fund’ deal, but the ambition to keep the global temperature at no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, which requires greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, looks increasingly unlikely to be fulfilled.[2]

This is of particular concern since the evidence of global warming is undisputable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal when it states that human activities are altering the planet’s climate system, and unless drastic steps are taken will continue to do so. Without exception and for more than a century, surface temperatures have been increasing, leading to a rise in sea levels, unpredictable weather conditions, and with these unpredictable precipitation patterns.[3] The world is experiencing more cases of extreme weather events in terms of frequency and magnitude, including floods, droughts, and different types of storms.

This year alone many parts of the world were rudely awoken by Mother Nature to the deadly effects of climate change. Last summer, floods in Pakistan submerged a third of the country; Europe suffered its hottest summer in 500 years; typhoon Noru wreaked havoc across Southeast Asia; Hurricane Ian delivered widespread devastation in Florida; while in Sudan massive floods caused by heavy rain resulted in immense damage. Those global warming-fuelled disasters resulted in the widespread loss of lives and livelihoods, with millions of people forced to become climate refugees and diseases spreading among the affected populations.[4]

It was only three years ago that the name Greta Thunberg was on everyone’s lips, and not only did she manage to galvanise the young generation and make the environment a cause célèbre and their hill to die on, but she also energised and encouraged large segments of global society and leadership to make climate change their number one priority. It was a moment when everything seemed to fall into place, as the scientific community united in providing incontrovertible evidence that not only is global warming accelerating, but it is man-made, and if not contained will bring about an environmental cataclysm, leaving most climate change deniers on the very margins of their societies as the rest of us see daily evidence of the devastation caused by global warming, affecting many communities around the world. Moreover, the business community has discovered that there are great opportunities in a green economy, combined with the public’s awareness and readiness to adjust its lifestyle in order to save the planet.[5]

However, over the last three years, and unexpectedly, global priorities have changed rapidly – although they are far from being more important – pushing climate change down the pecking order. First, the world was hit by a global pandemic that sowed illness, death, and economic devastation, leaving long-term scars on most people and societies; then came Russia’s attack on Ukraine that shocked Europe in particular and gave the rest of the world yet another reminder of the destructive capability and the political futility of war. One of the consequences of these two momentous events was a sharp increase in the cost of living, much of it fuelled by higher energy prices that hurt almost every single society. Most governments switched to crisis mode to avert social and political discontent related to the skyrocketing cost of living, which put addressing climate change on the back burner despite it being the single most critical issue in determining the future of our planet and all species that live on it.[6]

On the eve of COP27, the Emissions Gap Report 2022 highlighted that, despite all the pledges made with much fanfare only a year earlier at the COP26 summit in Scotland, translating these commitments into reality has been sluggish, making “ a negligible difference to predicted 2030 emissions,” and that “we are far from the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C.”[7] The forecast is that if countries maintain this irresponsible behaviour, temperatures will have risen by 2.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and even if current pledges are fulfilled, they will only reduce global warming to a 2.4°–2.6°C temperature rise by the year 2100. For those who gathered in Sharm al-Sheikh, this should have been enough of a warning not to leave the place without an irreversible commitment to prevent this impending existential crisis. But disappointingly, the results of COP27 reinforced the report’s conclusion that there is no credible pathway in place to achieve 1.5°C, and that this is mainly due to a failure of leadership. When it comes to climate change, leadership is paramount all the way from the very top of international organisations, such as the UN and its agencies, to governments, and down to local communities. They can set the appropriate strategies and coordinate on an issue that requires common global strategies. However, without the governments of countries who contribute most to greenhouse gas emissions, which are also the ones who have the capacity to transform our economies to ones that are green and hence sustainable, we will keep sleepwalking with our eyes open towards the climate abyss.

The single most important achievement of COP27 was the historic decision to establish the Loss and Damage Fund, after three decades of constant pleas by climate-vulnerable developing countries.[8] The summit was extended by 40 hours in order to reach this landmark deal, which suggests that even this most obvious no-brainer of a decision was hard to come by. The fund is aimed at rectifying one of the biggest injustices of global warming – the damage caused to the developing world by the irresponsible behaviour of the wealthiest countries, who are also the main causes of it. Developing countries contribute very little to greenhouse gas emissions but suffer the brunt of their devastating consequences and lack the resources to contain or repair the damage.[9] There is currently no part of the world that is not vulnerable to the impact of climate change, and the poorest countries suffer most, as they are unable to protect themselves or adequately deal with the aftermath of disasters. The Loss and Damage Fund, for now, is far from being fully thought through in terms of who will pay for it, how much money will be set aside for this fund, what the criteria for dispersing the money will be, and which countries will be eligible for this compensation. For now, the financial commitment to the fund does not even scratch the surface of matching the devastation caused by global warming. Yet, an initial pledge was made which did not exist before.

One of the priorities set for COP27 was to establish an adaptation agenda alongside the issue of mitigation in coping with the challenge of climate change.[10] Mitigation has for years concentrated on reducing the severity of the impacts of climate change by preventing or reducing the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Mitigation is achieved either by reducing the sources of these gases, through accelerating the use of renewable energies for instance, or by enhancing the capacity to ‘store’ these gases, which could be achieved by such methods as increasing the size of forests. Adaptation, on the other hand, focuses less on resolving the problem itself, and instead is concerned with anticipating the adverse consequences of climate change, preventing or at least minimising the damage caused by natural disasters, including building defences to protect against sea-level rise or changing habits that increase global warming. COP27 was more successful with regard to adaptation, as represented by the Loss and Damage Fund, than mitigation, which would have seen more resolve in achieving net zero carbon emissions.

But there were some positive signs that things can change for the better when political circumstances change. On the eve of the Sharm al-Sheikh environmental summit, the general election in Brazil brought back to power Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is likely to make a crucial difference well beyond Brazil, and particularly regarding climate change. His return to power was hailed as a vital victory in the struggle to contain climate change.[11] Lula, a left-leaning politician, narrowly defeated the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro, who presided over the mounting destruction of the rainforests. Hence, not surprisingly, Lula was cheered by participants of COP27 as he declared “Brazil is back” in the global climate fight, vowing to host COP30 in 2025 in the Amazon region.[12] Most significantly, he pledged to clamp down on illegal logging, mining, and land grabbing that under Bolsonaro accelerated the deforestation of the Amazon. Brazil also joined Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in a trilateral alliance, with the aim of cooperating in forest preservation. This is very positive news and demonstrates the importance of leadership in making a difference in meeting the challenge of global warming.

Catastrophe and cataclysm dominate messaging on the issue of climate change. What is still missing from the discourse is a clear and positive message that moving to green energy and a green economy is beneficial to everyone. It is right to emphasise the dangers of not taking more drastic and immediate steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but simultaneously, a green economy could be a gamechanger in driving home the benefits of having less pollution and less loss of biodiversity, and of generating wealth and guaranteeing a better quality of life by reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcity, and also of creating many millions of well-paid jobs, and by that substantially reducing poverty and creating more equal societies.

COP27 might not have produced the results many had hoped it would, but there was at least some acknowledgement of the urgent need for global cooperation and support for those countries who are suffering severely from the consequences of climate change despite barely contributing to it, and lacking the resources to protect their populations from the devastation it spreads. Next year’s COP28 will be held in the UAE, which gives world leaders a year to ratchet up the fight against climate change towards full commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Climate change denial has become less of a problem but apathy, vested economic interests, and weak leadership are preventing the green agenda from becoming a domestic and foreign affairs focal point. As Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, warned at the end of COP 27: “Too many parties are not ready to make more progress today in the fight against the climate crisis. There were too many attempts to roll back what we agreed in Glasgow. This deal in not enough [for cutting emissions].”[13] This warning should not go unheard and unheeded, and instead should help to re-concentrate minds on the goal that defines not just this generation, but even more the generations to come.


[1] United Nations, “COP27 Closes with Deal on Loss and Damage: ‘A Step Towards Justice’, Says UN Chief,” UN News, November 20, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5mL.

[2] IPCC, “The Evidence Is Clear: The Time for Action Is Now. We Can Halve Emissions by 2030,” April 4, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5mR.

[3] Jeff Tollefson, “IPCC Climate Report: Earth Is Warmer Than It’s Been in 125,000 Years,” Nature, August 9, 2021, http://bitly.ws/y5n3.

[4] Martina Igini, “What’s Behind the Record-Breaking Extreme Weather Events of Summer 2022?” Earth.org, October 24, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5iZ.

[5] Nick Grewal, “What Opportunities Will the Green Economy Bring?” Forbes, June 1, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5iF.

[6] United Nations, “Climate Change the Greatest Threat the World Has Ever Faced, UN Expert Warns,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, October 21, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5iW.

[7] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Emissions Gap Report 2022, October 27, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5jb.

[8] Adeline Stuart-Watt, “Why COP27 Will Be Remembered as the Loss and Damage COP and What to Expect Next,” LSE Commentary, London School of Economics and Political Science, November 28, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5ko.

[9] Fulco Ludwig, Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga, Jan Verhagen, et. al., Climate Change Impacts on Developing Countries – EU Accountability, European Parliament Study, November 2007, http://bitly.ws/y5kR.

[10] NASA, “Responding to Climate Change,” http://bitly.ws/oTGH.

[11] Matias Spektor and Guilherme Fasolin, “What Lula’s Return Means for the Amazon,” Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5mk.

[12] Bryan Harris and Camilla Hodgson, “Lula Promises COP27 That ‘Brazil Is Back’ in Climate Change Fight,” Financial Times, November 16, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y6w3.

[13] Fiona Harvey, Nina Lakhani, Oliver Milman, and Adam Morton, “Cop 27 Agrees Historic ‘Loss and Damage’ Fund for Climate Impact in Developing Countries,” The Guardian, November 20, 2022, http://bitly.ws/y5mw.

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