With a little more than four weeks before its launch, Chile has pulled out of hosting this year’s COP25 UN climate conference, largely because of sustained unrest in the country.
In what might appear as a pragmatic move—Santiago’s subway system has been heavily hit and will not be restored for months, meaning transport to and from the conference center would have been chaotic—Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has turned tens of thousands of climate diplomats, activists, and journalists into climate-conference refugees, begging cities around the world for a home. That’s not an easy task, because hosting a COP is not only a matter of logistics: Ministries of environment of host countries must take the lead on setting the conference agenda, and usually spend the preceding year meeting attendees and planning the best outcome possible for the conference.
Pulling out of hosting is, in some sense, relinquishing leadership and authority. It also signals an internal weakness. In Chile, the government is trying to clamp down on weeks-long protests over rising inequality.
Bailing on the COP is not uncommon. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro reneged on his commitment to host the event in November 2018, setting a discordant tone only three years after the historic Paris Agreement and more than halfway to 2021, by which year, per the 2015 conference, all signatory countries are expected to present plans to reduce emissions to meet net zero by 2050, with aggressive decarbonization between now and 2030.
Cooperation in the international community is key to the success of global climate actions. We know from the Kyoto Protocol that when one country backtracks, the entire agreement can fall apart. We saw in Copenhagen in 2009 that pitting developed and developing countries against each other delivered the weakest agreement possible. In contrast, Paris showed that consensus—owing greatly to the deft diplomatic leadership of the French hosts—was possible and powerful. It was not, however, eternal: The United States is slated to withdraw on November 4, 2020. This turn of events reveals yet another way global collective action can be threatened: When domestic issues get in the way, countries are likely to dampen their participation at the global level, slowly building a chain of weak links at a time when coordinated action is critical.
For those of us who have been clamoring for better, braver leadership on climate—the almost 8 million who made history demonstrating in cities all over the world, those who have been arrested for their activism, and who honor the memory of fighters who were murdered for their work—Chile’s abject failure to step up to the plate adds to both the urgency to act and the growing frustration and anger that our future is in the hands of people we cannot trust.
Because there are people who care deeply; they just don’t seem to be the ones in charge. The scale of mobilization around climate change has been unprecedented. It matches the scale of the emergency itself, and reflects how quickly the window for action is shrinking. Climate change is the issue of highest concern to both millennial and Gen Z voters in the US; “flight-shaming” seems poised to be slowing growth of the airline industry as travelers favor the train over air travel (Eurostar just had busiest August ever); Exxon’s profit-motivated climate denialism is finally coming under legal scrutiny; and after just about one year, Extinction Rebellion, “a global movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience” against climate inaction, is now leading demonstrations in 56 countries
The world is not just ready for climate action; it is demanding it. According to a recent study, most people worldwide feel that we are still able to avoid the worst effects of climate change even though it would require drastic and immediate changes in how we tackle it. They also feel that climate change is likely to destroy the world’s economy, flood cities, cause mass migrations and even regional wars, and that international bodies such as the UN and national governments are the most critical actors to bring about the necessary transformation.
Yet “leaders” applaud when they are criticized to their faces, as they indeed cheered on Greta Thunberg at the UN General Assembly in September; more frequent and more severe wildfires in California are attributed to poor, even unethical, corporate governance by PG&E; and the national pledge campaign led by the UN at the General Assembly, which sets the tone for the coming months, yielded only 77 commitments to net-zero emissions by 2050, of which 47 were made by the least developed—that is, least polluting—countries.
A new venue for the conference has not yet been announced, but in the past, when leading countries were not able to host the conference on their own territory, they did so at the UN climate headquarters in Bonn. Most recently, this was the case for COP23 in 2017, when Fiji led the negotiations but was unable to handle the logistical complexities of welcoming tens of thousands of people. While it’s important for international organizations to pick up the slack where countries fail, those same failures do not bode well for climate action more broadly speaking.
Perhaps President Piñera was acting prudently in the hope of avoiding yet another wave of protests if (or rather, when) thousands of climate practitioners joined his people in solidarity. Perhaps it was a realistic decision in view of the fact that infrastructure was damaged or weakened to the point that welcoming thousands of foreigners for two weeks would be chaotic if not impossible.
But one thing is certain: The president and his government have jeopardized an already difficult stage in a global effort to align policy with science. Adding instability to a fraught diplomatic process, President Piñera gave the world a glimpse into how his style of governing may have gotten him in this position in the first place. As we near the end of our window of opportunity to prevent a climate catastrophe, the fight is not only for climate action but for brave leadership as well.