Gordon Pollock ‘22

Gordon Pollock '22

COP 26: The Importance to Taking a Holistic Approach to Climate Change

As we are all aware, the COP26 climate talks began on the week of October 31st and the politicking has already started to pick up. As a background, this is the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference, in which participating states create a forum to discuss new developments in climate science as well as the fight against it. In recent decades, the conferences have become the origin of binding and nonbonding multilateral agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accords, which have had varying degrees of recent success. Recent COP conferences have been used as an area for states to renegotiate their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), a mechanism of the Paris Agreement in which individual countries lay out their own goals and benchmarks towards eradicating climate change and increasing the use of renewable energy. From the start, there has been some friction from developing states over the perception of their NDC; India originally argued that their state had a duty to eradicate poverty first and foremost ahead of reducing reliance on coal, which meant that their benchmarks were less ambitious than other, more developed states. In a similar vein, China has defended itself against criticism that it's the top polluter in the world.

On November 4th, the top Chinese official at COP26 defended his government from criticism that China wasn't taking climate change or the Paris Agreements seriously enough. Earlier, President Biden had criticized Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin for not showing up to the talks, an apparent sign of their lack of concern for climate change. In response, Xie Zhenhua argued that China (who is responsible for ~28% of global emissions) has adopted ambitious goals for green energy production. Although China has the largest fleet of coal power plants in the world, Xi (through an open letter) defended his country's efforts and demanded the global community as a whole do more to pick up slack in the climate fight.

This diplomatic spat is interesting to me because it is a microcosm of some of the difficulties of climate talks and treaties. From a pragmatic standpoint, developing nations contribute vast amounts of CO2 and other pollutants to the atmosphere, chief among those being China and India. However, these states have neither the technological capacity or standard of living that other, greener, more-developed states have. These developed, Western states, the same ones that criticize the Chinese government for not doing enough or showing enough initiative, were able to obtain high qualities of life and GDPs during the first and second industrial revolutions through the exact same polluting manufacturing processes that China and India are now using. In many ways, this seems a slight, in which developing states are effectively locked out of developing further by the same states that kickstarted widespread climate change and CO2 pollution in the first place. However, it's not clear who is ethically at fault; while developing states may have more of a right to use technologies such as coal as a means to "catch up", that still doesn't effectively do anything to stop the immense dangers of climate change, especially in a world where one country absolutely dominates CO2 emission levels. From this current situation, many questions arise: What should be done? Is it fair to say that the West is trying to shift the blame for past mistakes to countries currently doing the same thing they did to become wealthy and powerful? Should China be doing more?

Climate change is an incredibly complex topic; it makes sense that a phenomenon that is bound to affect quite literally all aspects of our lives would be. As is such with many other societal ills, the effects of climate change have been shown to disproportionately impact poorer communities; even though they both have to deal with the impacts of similar levels of sea level rise, there is doubtlessly a gap in preparation between the Netherlands and Bangladesh. However, to shun developing nations for using their natural resources seems wrong to me. After all, the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America (the same one that eventually begot high levels of affluence) was the historical event that essentially kickstarted climate change. This presents a paradoxical legacy: the same event that has the world dealing with climate reverberations for decades is also the same event that allows us in the U.S. to invest significant resources in alternative energy R&D. Altruistically, while China and India do contribute significant amounts to global CO2 emission, it could be argued that an incremental approach on their parts will help those countries enjoy the same fruits that the West did from the Industrial Revolution and eventually help them lead the charge to a greener world. 

In their ratification of the Paris Accords, the Indian delegation made it clear that their government had obligations to both eradicate poverty domestically and help defeat climate change abroad. I think it’s time we took a more holistic approach to climate issues, understanding that it manifests differently in different states and can, accordingly, be solved in different ways on different timelines.

Gordon Pollock ‘22
November 2021