If you saw the smoke from western wild fires in the Maine sky this summer, you understand the there is no escaping the devastation brought by the global climate crisis.

Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, heat waves and other extreme weather events are already happening and are going to get catastrophically worse if we don’t quickly stop burning fossil fuels for energy.

That was the backdrop for the 26th UN Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP 26) where 200 of the world’s governments gathered for a global summit in Glasgow, Scotland. But in the face of a huge problem, their response looked small.

The agreement worked out  gives us more voluntary commitments couched in careful language. Coal, the dirtiest of all energy sources, will not be “phased out,” according to the final version of the agreement, but “phased down.” There are still no ways to enforce the promises made be the governments, but even if everyone does everything they promise, it won’t be enough to prevent warming by the end of the century to exceed 1.5 degrees celsius, the threshold for devastating effects.

But, it would be a mistake to write off the conference as a failure. Even though the governments did not go as far as they should, they have gone farther than they ever had before. The weak language on coal, for instance, is the first time the fuel was identified as a specific source of heat trapping gases.

And there is evidence that the kind of imperfect commitments that were made in at the Paris conference in 2015 have made a difference. According to the climate journalist David Roberts, we were on track for 4 degrees to 6 degrees warming by the end of the century. Now, based on the actions taken by governments, we are headed for 2.7 degrees of warming. That is much too hot to avoid catastrophic loss of life, a global refugee crisis and mass extinctions, but at least it’s on the right track. It’s not time to declare victory, but it does show that it’s possible to reduce emissions without creating a global recession.

Side agreements, like a global treaty on methane signed by 100 nations including the United States, will play a positive role going forward.

The next arena in this fight is Washington D.C., where President Biden’s climate and social spending package, Build Back Better, is teetering near an outcome. If it passes, it would spend $550 billion over the next decade, mostly in the form of incentives to transition from fossil fuel to renewable power. It would be the biggest such investment in history and is roughly the size in real dollars of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system program, which transformed the national economy in the second half of the 20th century.

This would not be a vaguely worded promise, but a firm commitment that would make a real difference. We can’t afford to miss this opportunity to keep making progress.


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