The Key to Climate Resilience – Ignore the Obstructionists

By Hal Shepherd

Steady boys walk on

Our work is nearly done

No more we’ll till or plow the fields

The horses’ day is gone

And this will be our last trip home

So, study boys walk on

The excerpt above is from a song by Scottish singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan about the end of an era of draft horses that pulled plows to ready the fields for planting These majestic beasts were replaced by the tractor and other carbon-emitting machinery making it faster and more efficient to plow the fields and process the harvest. This was about the time we jumped headfirst into the industrial revolution which, in less than 200 years, heralded the most pronounced environmental crises in human history.

It is fitting, therefore, that representatives from 197 countries, recently completed a two-week-long summit in Glasgow, Scotland to discuss the looming catastrophic effects of climate change on humanity and ecosystems, and attempted to come to an agreement in the global effort to slow it down.

The sense of urgency during the summit known as “COP26” was palpable. With the ambitious intention of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the goals of the talks included securing commitments from countries in attendance to protect and restore ecosystems by phasing out coal; curtailing deforestation, and accelerating the switch to electric vehicles; contributing to an annual $100 billion fund to combat the impacts of climate change in third-world countries and other actions.

Fortunately, instead of the climate-denying Trump administration’s roadblocks, this time, representatives from the more climate enlightened Biden administration were at the table in Glasgow. The U.S. delegation also included seven governors and other officials from 15 states (the largest number of state officials ever attending COP) who were there to collaborate with each other and with other countries, cities, and the business community to meet the carbon reduction targets laid out in the December 2015 Paris Agreement.

In addition, government and business leaders gathered at the summit to discuss policies, practices, and strategies forbuilding healthier and more resilient communities and creating jobs and promoting climate action. The event also hosted a series of Ted Talks addressing everything from technology used to better detect pollution from smokestacks to removing and storing carbon, to preventing the worse consequences of rising temperatures.

Further, a myriad of side conversations took place simultaneously with the negotiations at the summit including one featuring Nobel laureate Al Gore. Gore pointed out that many people are already impacted by climate change (by way of fires, floods, atmospheric tsunamis, and other increasingly common disasters) and the political roadblocks to progress on this issue. Gore’s overall message was hopeful, however, concluding that a “net-zero future is possible, but first, we need to move from a feeling of denial and hopelessness to an understanding that we can stop the crisis.” One sign of hope, according to Gore, is that this has become "the biggest emergent social movement in all of history," and that this movement will lead to “the transformations that will make it possible to find a way out of it.”

Other participants at COP26 included representatives of black, indigenous, and other people of color who in many cases, are the most impacted by rising temperatures. Representatives for the Arctic indigenous organization, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, released a paper that includes several calls to action to address the dramatic impacts of climate change on Arctic Native communities and the subsistence resources that they rely upon.  These actions include unprecedented efforts to cap global emissions and the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge and participation of Native people in climate decisions and in international policy decisions that affect Arctic ecosystems.

The sense that the summit represented one of humanity’s last chances to pull out of the climate nose dive we have created for ourselves, was illustrated by the presence of multiple faith-based organizations. Interfaith Power and Light, GreenFaith, the Buddhist Action Coalition, and Plum Village’s Earth Holders Community were there to spread their message of hope and encouragement and engage in interfaith alliance building. According to Zen Master and Plum Village Founder Thích Nhất Hạnh "There’s a revolution that needs to happen and it starts from inside each one of us. We need to wake up and fall in love with Earth. Our personal and collective happiness and survival depend on it."

The efforts of so many participants and hopeful messaging surrounding COP26 paid off in some respects such as a  promise to end financing for coal plants abroad signed by a group of 20 countries, including the U.S. and major financial institutions, and over 100 nations that promised to cut methane emissions and to end deforestation by 2030. In the end, however, the summit fell short of many of the critical commitments necessary to achieve net-zero by 2050 and the major carbon-emitting nations did not commit to the full $100 billion originally promised to help developing countries build the kind of resilient economies and infrastructure necessary to adapt to the warming climate. Part of the problem was that, as one of the most influential delegates at the event, the United States did not have the leverage needed to obtain stronger commitments from other nations.  

For the past several months, for example, Congress has been negotiating a $1.75 trillion Reconciliation package that, if adopted would include spending $555 billion through grants, tax credits and other programs to achieve a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and to zero net emissions by 2050. President Biden’s hope that the bill would pass before he left for Glasgow was dashed when the bill was hung up by wrangling among democrats in congress. Still, no one seems to be talking about the real spoilers of the process – Senate republicans.    

The problem is that even though the Reconciliation bill incorporates traditional conservative themes including spending to create jobs necessary to conduct the transition to clean energy and for laying the groundwork for American companies to compete in emerging billion-dollar markets for such technologies, republicans in the Senate have refused to support it, likely for the simple fact that the legislation is sponsored by House democrats. This was a major factor in preventing Biden from having the bill in hand as proof of the U.S. commitment to reduce carbon emissions when he went to Glasgow to try and convince other countries to do the same.

Political leaders in Alaska are playing their part in obstructing progress on reducing carbon emissions as well. Because the Reconciliation package, for example, contains a provision that would revoke legislation passed in 2016 that opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, the state’s Delegation - Senators Lisa Murkowski, and Dan Sullivan and Representative Don Young, have vowed to fight to retain such drilling. In fact, Senator Murkowski said that because of “high energy prices, mounting inflation, and declining economic growth” oil and gas from Alaska should continue to contribute to spewing carbon into the atmosphere “long into the future.”

Similarly, Murkowski’s rhetoric that “House Democrats are intent on passing a bill to raise taxes and destroy jobs in Alaska,” is not only contrary to the disastrous consequences to the state’s economy of relying too heavily on oil and gas development but ignores the impacts that such development has on the subsistence-based economies and culture of Arctic Native communities. A case in  point is Bernadette Demientieff’s – Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee statement that “Our identity, spirituality, and culture is interconnected to the land, water, and animals… We never give up hope and look to the [Reconciliation Bill] to repeal the destructive and irresponsible Arctic Refuge leasing program….

Murkowski, however, appears to be unphased. Not only about the destruction of subsistence resources that drilling can cause, but the alarming impacts of increasing carbon emissions on Arctic communities from die-offs of marine and freshwater species and loss of access to traditional hunting and fishing areas. She even suggested that the State of Alaska sue the Biden administration for trying to stop drilling in ANWR prompting the litigious and extraction industry advocate Dunleavy administration to do just that.

Still, despite the hurdles thrown up by the oil and gas industry and their political allies, COP26 did realize a few critical wins that could pave the way for reaching a more ambitious agreement at the next climate summit. To this end, the key will be for states, municipalities, NGOs, scientists, faith-based groups, tribes, activists and the remaining broad spectrum of those working in earnest to resolve the climate crises will need to keep up the pressure on politicians. Consequently, we will need to go around the obstructionists, many of whom will likely never change even if civilization as we know it, collapses around their ears.

Author’s note: As of the publication date for this article, the House of Representatives had just passed the Reconciliation Act, the most ambitious investment in climate action and environmental justice in the nation’s history. Please contact your Senators (for Alaskans this is Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan) and tell them that, rather than engage in partisan politics, the Senate needs to do its job and pass a strong bill with the same commitment to climate action, job creation and environmental justice as contained in the bill coming out of the House.