Urgency pervades COP26 climate change summit as US grapples with environmental justice

October 29 , 2021

As the Earth warms, strokes and heart disease increase, as does depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Crops fail due to persistent drought, causing farmers in conflict zones to turn to terrorism to make a living. The inequities in communities of color in the U.S. worsen as “bad air days” disproportionately impact Black and Latino populations. 

The climate change risks we face are writ large in the form of supersized and more frequent wildfires, heat waves, floods, hurricanes, and depleted ecosystems. But as humans release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, all this activity is also having profound yet more subtle and harder to measure impacts on public health, national security, social justice, economic growth, worker productivity and a range of other everyday concerns big and small, scientists and experts say. 

“I’m in Texas where we have a lot of communities that host oil and gas facilities. These refineries and petrochemical plants are in places where people are invariably poor, where they don’t get the jobs or income, they don’t get the tax benefits. They get polluted. They get poverty. They get sick,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of environmentalism and sociology at Texas Southern University, in Houston. 

“Climate change is probably the single most important environmental justice issue of our time because it will accelerate and exacerbate existing inequalities in terms of access to good housing, health care, food, water and safe environments, and the U.S. in many ways is a microcosm of what’s happening globally,” Bullard said. 

This global picture will be discussed in Glasgow, Scotland, Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). It will be attended by world leaders, business chiefs, representatives from fossil fuel companies, climate activists and various other groups and concerned citizens.

The meeting comes six years after the Paris Climate Accords, when 196 countries pledged to start reducing their greenhouse gas emissions through a framework known as Nationally Determined Contributions. But few – including the U.S.  – have done so in a way that is compatible with the Paris agreement’s goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels, according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis website that tracks government action connected to climate change. 

Bullard will attend COP26 as part of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, established by President Joe Biden to strengthen environmental justice monitoring and enforcement in low-income and communities of color.

Biden, who will be in Glasgow Nov. 1-2,  is trying to push through Congress at least $500 billion in tax credits, grants and loans to fight climate change domestically as part of a roughly $2 trillion government infrastructure package. For now, Biden’s energy-transition plan is being blocked by a congressional stalemate.

Without that deal the U.S.’s ability to meet its emissions-reduction goals looks far out of reach. It remains unclear whether China’s President Xi Jinping will even attend COP26, an absence that does not bode well given that China is the largest carbon dioxide emitter, followed by the U.S., according to the International Energy Agency.

The world already has warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, according to a report released in August by United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Alok Sharma, a British lawmaker and COP26’s president, said he wants the Glasgow conference to reach agreement on several key targets, including:

  • limiting the increase in global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but preferably to 1.5 degrees
  • phasing out the use of “unabated” coal
  • earmarking $100 billion annually for developing countries to reduce their fossil fuel emissions
  • requiring all new car sales to have zero emissions within the next two decades
  • reducing emissions from methane
  • halting all deforestation by the end of the decade

Climate change erases security, stability

“If we look at the scale of the forest fires across the Northern Hemisphere this year, or the magnitude of just how extreme the heat wave was in the Pacific Northwest, or if we look at the rainfall events in Germany over the summer – these rates of change exceeded what the climate models told us would happen with our current levels of greenhouse gases,” said Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University.

Yet not all climate impacts are immediately visible or are at least more difficult to comprehensively track. Horton said major coastal flooding events have obvious short term impacts on displacement within one’s own country. But as climate change impacts intensify, and food and livelihood security worsen in one area, temporary displacements can lead to permanent and longer-distance ones, especially if there are other factors at play such as poor living conditions, few resources or threats from open conflict. 

“Climate hazards lead to instability, which encourages people to migrate,” he said. 

The impact of a changing climate on national security is not represented formally on the agenda in Glasgow but will be talked about on the sidelines of the event by participants such as Lt. Alex du Houx Cornell, a U.S. Navy reservist who in his civilian life is the president of Elected Officials to Protect America. EOPA, a non-profit group, brings veterans and lawmakers together to look for solutions to climate threats to public health, the economy and national security. 

“When I was deployed to Afghanistan (in 2018) during the Battle of Farah the Taliban actually tweeted out that they were taking the city for the water,” said du Houx Cornell, who noted that since 1948 there have been 37 incidents of acute conflict over water. 

“Climate change is a threat multiplier for our national security,” he said. 

Ronald Keys, a retired U.S. Air Force commander who was responsible for organizing, training, equipping and maintaining combat-ready forces for rapid deployment, said that climate change is leading to less resilient American military bases, making it harder for U.S. forces to execute missions and resulting in more interrupted training days. 

“If the issue is heat, which causes drought, that affects whether you can go out and do live fire drills. If we’re talking about rising sea levels, you can build a seawall but at some point you can’t build that seawall any higher,” he said. 

The White House recently announced that the U.S. intelligence community has completed its first ever National Intelligence Estimate on climate change. It concluded that our warming planet “will increasingly exacerbate a number of risks to U.S. national security interests,” including increased geopolitical tensions as countries argue over who should be doing what, and how quickly, to transition to clean energy.

One way climate change is having a deleterious impact is on public heath. A scientific paper co-authored by Horton in 2017 found that incidences of stroke and heart disease increased in places where mean temperatures had risen over decades. There are also correlations with higher temperatures and poorer birth weights and outcomes. A recent global study led by researchers at the University of Bath, in England, found that 75% of young people surveyed suffered psychological damage because they were sad, afraid and anxious about what the future could hold for them as they and their offspring stand to bear the full burden of living on a planet with rising temperatures. 

Another is on the American economy and financial landscape. 

“At the institutional level, there’s massive amounts of money moving into climate solutions, things like wind farms and solar and decarbonization strategies,” said David Callaway, a former USA TODAY editor-in-chief who now runs Callaway Climate Insights, a newsletter that analyzes what corporations, investment managers and the business community are doing to mitigate climate risks. Still, Callaway said that with oil prices at record levels many clean energy stocks have actually underperformed benchmark stock indexes recently, partly because they were overvalued in the first place. 

“If you’re waiting for the world to grow a collective conscience and invest in clean energy you’re going to be waiting a long time. But if you’re waiting for technology and business entrepreneurs to make clean and sustainable investments because they are more profitable than dirty ones then it’s going to come around a lot sooner,” he said. 

Horton said that because climate change is happening faster than than anticipated, with that comes impacts that are being felt sooner, too.

“The cliche I use is that two prize fighters are in the late rounds, they are sizing each other up, they’re exhausted, there’s going to be a knockout from an uppercut,” he said. “We just don’t know yet whether it’s going to come from climate change impact tipping points, which would be catastrophic, or a positive solutions story. But one of those things is going to happen this century.”