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COP26 Climate Summit & the Global Age of Shams: ‘The intellectual & political disarray on display in Glasgow was terrifying’

By Walter Russell Mead

If there is one thing the world should take away from the Glasgow COP26 summit, it’s that the most dangerous greenhouse-gas emissions come from the front ends of politicians, not the back ends of cows. Pandering is much more dangerous to human civilization than methane, strategic incompetence a graver threat than CO2; and dysfunctional establishment groupthink will likely kill more polar bears than all the hydrofluorocarbons in the world.

The 19th-century writer Thomas Carlyle wrote of an Age of Shams in prerevolutionary France, when the chattering classes and political leaders had so fundamentally lost contact with the underlying realities of the day that they could no longer understand the political challenges facing the French social order, much less respond to them. The elaborate rituals of court life in Versailles persisted, the ministers and bureaucrats went through the motions of governance, and intellectuals sparkled in the salons—while the French monarchy sailed, like the Titanic, toward its rendezvous with destiny.

COP26 was the kind of hollow ritual that characterized Carlyle’s Age of Shams. As one politician after another committed their countries to carefully crafted unenforceable pledges, none had the bad manners to observe that no country anywhere fully honored the climate pledges made with such fanfare in Paris six years ago. Even the pledges are insufficient to meet the stated goals of the U.N. climate process, and nobody is keeping the pledges.

The intellectual and political disarray on display in Glasgow was terrifying. President Biden boasted about America’s new climate goals and its dedication to them. Yet in the same week he begged OPEC+ to bail out the world economy and his presidency by pumping more fossil fuels. Let future presidents face the rough contours of a world without fossil fuels; this one means to get re-elected, no matter how much greenhouse gas spews into the sky.

Emerging-market countries had their own demands. The old magic number of $100 billion in annual climate finance to emerging markets has been discarded as pathetically insufficient. India alone now asks for $1 trillion by the end of the decade, and the total annual bill for emerging economies is estimated at $1.3 trillion. The only thing certain about this bill is that it will never be paid.

On the positive side, as more than one breathless journalist reported, after 30 years of intense United Nations negotiations over climate change, the final declaration in Glasgow mentioned fossil fuels for the first time. Admittedly, those 30 years of patient diplomacy have seen an inexorable rise in greenhouse-gas emissions, but that is a minor detail. One trembles with excitement to contemplate the wordsmithing breakthroughs from the next 30 years of international conferences.

No one should be surprised that COP26 failed to solve the climate problem. No coherent strategy for addressing a major, technically complex and politically sensitive issue has ever emerged or will ever emerge from a gathering of 30,000 people representing more than 190 countries and uncounted industry and nongovernmental groups.

Like much of what happens in international life, COP26 was less about solving difficult problems than helping politicians survive their inability to provide effective leadership on issues that matter. European and North American politicians bask in the coverage of their pledges and their declarations of concern; Asian and African leaders make sure the folks back home know how hard they are fighting for that trillion-dollar payout. Emissions continue to rise.

Climate change joins a growing list of vital problems that neither national governments nor international institutions seem competent to solve. The Covid pandemic left international institutions and national governments looking helpless. On the U.S. and European Union borders, mass migration produces a tragic mix of humanitarian crisis and populist rage. Almost 15 years after Vladimir Putin set about to dismantle the post-1990 order in Europe, neither the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nor the EU has found a way to counter him.

China has converted its illegal islands in the South China Sea into military bases without an adequate response. Iran roams unchecked across the Middle East. Developments in cyber and biowarfare threaten to make arms control obsolete. Jihadi violence rages in more places today than 20 years ago; democracy is receding globally, as much of Latin America sinks into deep crisis; ethnic and religious conflicts in countries like Ethiopia, Syria and Nigeria point to a dimming future for much of the world.

Our problem is not that the climate is changing. It is that the world is becoming unmanageable. An Age of Shams must eventually end, but there’s no guarantee it ends well.