Climate Change Is a Problem. Big Summits Are Not the Answer.

Anxious about this week’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland? According to climate activists, the gathering of world leaders is humanity’s “last chance” to take action against climate change. “If we don’t really take the decisions that are vital now, it’s going to be almost impossible to catch up,” Prince Charles said in an interview with the BBC earlier this month.

Perhaps it is time to relax. True, climate change driven by man-made carbon emissions is real and carries large downside risks, though perhaps not quite as nightmarish as Greta Thunberg, the Extinction Rebellion, and the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would like us to believe. Climate change also warrants policy action, even urgent and costly actions, aimed at decarbonizing the world’s economies at a much faster pace.

Here is the catch, though. Climate summitry, painstakingly negotiated multilateral agreements and protocols, and pledges to meet specific emissions targets are at best tangential to the (very much worthwhile) aim of ending humankind’s dependence on fossil fuels and shielding the vulnerable from climate change’s adverse effects. At worst, they are a tool that geopolitical competitors and bad faith actors can use to extract concessions from Western democracies.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which started the era of multilateral efforts at tackling global change, had no discernible effect on carbon emissions. The two-week Copenhagen summit in 2009, meanwhile, failed to produce a binding agreement to reduce emissions. In a bow to reality (and to some disappointment of the activist class), the Paris Accord of 2015 was a qualitatively different and looser kind of agreement: one that relied on voluntary pledges, emissions targets set by countries themselves, and also eschewed sanctions for non-compliance.

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