From November 6 to 18, the United Nations is meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt for the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as the COP27. There are over 30,000 people registered to attend the event, coming from backgrounds in government, businesses, NGOs, and civil society groups. COP27 involves speeches, negotiations, and the planning of large-scale changes to the financing and action taken on climate change. The countries, the 197 UN parties, assemble into blocs for negotiations, e.g., the Small Island Developing Nations, the Africa Group, and the G77 plus China. They then enter the “Blue Zone,” where the UN manages a section for negotiations to be hosted and all attendees are credited by the UNFCCC Secretariat. Proposals, deals, and ideas exchanged at UN conferences often lack accountability and the guarantee that plans will be seen through; however, previous UNFCCCs have been able to move the needle on global action for the climate. The fate of democracy and our climate are deeply intertwined, and as the destruction of both becomes ever clearer, the COP27 possess a unique insight into the future of both. The United States holds a lot of power on the global stage, and therefore its democratic instability poses a large threat to global climate action.
Two of the most monumental international agreements on climate action were created at UNFCCCs. At the COP3, the Kyoto Protocol was established. However, its success was limited. It was adopted in the 1997 and went into force in 2005. It set emission reduction targets for 37 industrialized nations. The Kyoto Protocol was a significant agreement because it was one of the first deals to acknowledge the responsibility of developed nations for their carbon emissions, and thus their contribution to climate change. Despite the diplomatic accomplishment of the protocol, its effectiveness was limited because the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, China and the United States, were not bound to their targets. This is because China was designated as a developing nation and the US did not ratify the protocol. The Protocol was extended to 2020 at COP18 in 2012, but that did not improve the inability of countries to reach their targets.
The Paris Agreement in 2015 sought to rectify the mistakes of the Kyoto Protocol and make substantial bounds to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The agreement was formed at COP21 in 2015, and was viewed as a success, though there are still pressing concerns. For example, there was still not strong measures to keep countries accountable, and we are not on track to reach the 1.5-degree goal. Again, the United States did not abide by its commitments, as former President Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement in 2017. At COP27, President Biden apologized for the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which—although his apology could be considered necessary—it also shows how internal turmoil and political polarization renders the United States unable to maintain commitments.
So, what does the United States’ history of a lack of accountability with climate pledges say about democracy? And more importantly, how does the United States’ democratic erosion further inhibit its ability to reach climate pledges? The US’s complicated history with maintaining climate pledges reverberates on the global stage; it certainly does not impress upon others that democracy improves accountability on global issues. Now, at COP27, these questions will be tested again. Climate financing is one of the largest topics to be discussed at COP27, and the US as a rich country and a large emitter will be expected to make significant contributions. Not only do other countries want the United States to act on climate change, but the majority of Americans support climate action. If the United States does not comply (if the next president were to pull out of a deal made at the COP27, for example), it would signal to interests abroad that its democracy is failing.
At the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York, Greta Thunberg addressed the UN to condemn a lack of meaningful policy to mitigate climate change. In her speech she emphasizes the failures of politicians and world leaders, claiming “the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you”. Her speech gained international acclaim, particularly because of her fierce “How dare you” motif, which made Thunberg infamous for a tenacious call out of some of the most powerful people in the world. Her sentiments are felt by many climate advocates; it can be extremely frustrating to wait for political leaders to take climate action, and to continue to hold UNFCCC’s that do not have fruitful results. The combined fate of US democracy and climate action can be even more demoralizing. The lack of American initiatives to work on more robust climate solutions, such as phasing out fossil fuels, can be directly traced back to the pendulum of political ideologies in the highest office of the country. Yet, hopefully, after the COP27 we will know where the United States stands—trusted to make a firm commitment to mitigating climate change or unable to get past its reputation of pulling out of deals after negotiations have ended.