Perhaps the most damning fact is that no one expected very much. Despite a barrage of alarming, infuriating, and downright apocalyptic reports published in the weeks before this year’s Conference of the Parties—or COP, as the United Nations’ conferences on climate change are informally known—the summit was expected to be a largely “technical” meeting, one at which not much happened, or not much that could be understood by mortals not fluent in the obfuscatory argot of climate technocrats. Next year’s COP in Glasgow would be the one that really counted, the experts said. It would be there that the 187 parties to the Paris Agreement, minus the one that has announced its intention to withdraw, would unveil new and updated commitments to meet the modest goal, agreed to in Paris in 2015, of “pursuing efforts” to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Every word is a battlefield in the world of international diplomacy, so it is not at all accidental that the parties chose merely to “pursue” efforts, as you might jog after a greyhound that has slipped its chain and that you don’t expect to catch. Should they succeed, and all current data suggests that they will not, a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature would still expose more than 132 million humans to devastating drought and raise sea levels by a foot and a half. No matter: This year’s two-week-long summit, the 25th such gathering, was to be devoted to building “momentum” toward Glasgow and to ironing out the last details left outstanding in Paris—namely rules for carbon trading and a mandated review of a mechanism to alleviate “loss and damage” from climate-related disasters.
It would not go smoothly. On the afternoon of December 13, the last scheduled day of negotiations, youth activists were already declaring the COP a failure. Late the next morning, more than 12 hours after the conference was supposed to have ended, the COP’s leadership circulated the draft of a final text that included enormous loopholes for polluters but not even a lukewarm nod to the need for “enhanced ambitions” going into next year’s summit. In a hastily called press conference, analysts for climate advocacy groups called the text “disgraceful,” “shockingly weak,” “appalling,” “a betrayal.” A delegate from the Alliance of Small Island States, some members of which are already beginning to disappear under rising seas, called the proposal “insulting.” It would not get better from there.
What went wrong this month in Madrid has been wrong for a very long time—at least since European caravels began shipping gold and human beings from Africa’s west coast in the 15th century, setting up the power relations that have prevailed for the last half millennium—but the first obvious hiccup came in November of last year. Brazil, which had just elected Jair Bolsonaro president, abruptly withdrew its offer to host the climate conference. (Bolsonaro selected a foreign minister who dismissed climate change as a Marxist plot.) The venue was hastily changed to Chile. Then in late October, a month and three days before the summit was set to open in Santiago, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced that the “difficult circumstances” prevailing in the country—anti-austerity protests had spread across Chile, and Piñera had ordered troops into the streets, killing more than two dozen people and injuring thousands more—meant he couldn’t host it either. Spain stepped up and, in a whirlwind logistical effort, readied Madrid’s convention center and slapped #TimeForAction posters all over the capital.
For the length of the summit, activists and advocates referred with increasing weariness and outrage to what everyone was calling “the disconnect,” by which they meant the gulf between the business-as-usual pettiness, politicking, game-playing, and obstructive deceptions that characterized the negotiations inside the conference rooms and the world-shaking urgency of the crisis everywhere outside them. It was obvious before you stepped foot in the halls. Emerging from the metro at the Feria de Madrid station meant passing through a tunnel papered with stark, alarming messages—40% of the anarctica ice melting—but you had to look close to notice that the black-and-red font matched the logos for Acciona, one of several corporations with major ties to the fossil fuel industry that the Spanish pulled in as sponsors. (Acciona builds pipelines and storage facilities for natural gas; two major utilities with extensive natural gas holdings also chipped in.) Heavily armed police lined the sidewalks outside the convention center.
Inside, blue-suited delegates, executives, and lobbyists hurried through the vast, windowless halls, sharing the hard, gray-carpeted floors, if little else, with Amazonian activists in feathered headdresses. In the first hall you came to, a few plywood and particle-board booths were reserved for environmental NGOs, but the next two halls felt more like a trade show, or some creepy, technocratic offshoot of Disney’s Epcot Center, with blond wood and sparkling glass pavilions for the wealthier nation states, development banks, and at least one carbon-market trade association. Cocktail receptions abounded, and panel discussions with titles in baroque bureaucratese (“Investing in New Frontiers Through Blended Finance,” “GEF/GDC Coordinated Engagement in the Next NDC Cycle”). Scattered shrubs in terracotta pots added to the green theme, or they would have, except that so many of them were evidently dead.
Some realities did sneak in. It was easy to find indigenous people from the Amazon sharing stories of the decimation of their land by logging, ranching, and mining; indigenous people from Oklahoma describing how their communities are being ravaged by pollution from refineries and fracking; indigenous people from Canada and Scandinavia telling of their fight for their people’s lives as the landscape transforms around them. Some of their stories even made it into the negotiating halls. Tina Stege, the envoy from the Marshall Islands, told her fellow delegates of 16-foot swells that had displaced 200 people as the COP began, and of her own nephew who had fallen ill with dengue fever, which has been spreading as the climate warms.
Mainly, though, it was what wasn’t there that mattered. Ammar Hijazi, the delegate from Palestine who chaired the G77 bloc of developing nations, spoke of “the trust that is missing in this process” as the wealthier countries, and particularly the United States, did everything they could to avoid taking meaningful action. Balance too was missing, Hijazi said. It had been smashed by the withdrawal from the Paris accord of the country responsible for the largest share of historical emissions—“without being accountable at any level, while everyone else is held accountable.”
Then there were the various gaps. There was the “emissions gap”: the distance between the cuts to greenhouse gas emissions agreed to in Paris and actual emissions, which are still rising and have put the world on track for a catastrophic 3.2 degrees Celsius rise in temperatures by 2100. (Imagine a world without Shanghai, Miami, Osaka, where the Rockies are without snow, where Earth’s great rivers run dry.)
There was the “production gap”: the gulf between those same Paris goals and the emissions locked in by the current levels of mining and drilling of just 10 coal, oil, and gas-rich countries. (Among its many weaknesses, the Paris accord put no limits at all on fossil fuel production, imposing only voluntary and self-selected “targets” for emissions.) There was the “finance gap”: the yawning divide between the amount of money needed to shift the planet away from fossil fuels and sums so far committed to that purpose. And perhaps most troubling, there was the “ambition gap,” bureaucratic shorthand for We’re not even trying: the widening gulf between the goals countries set for themselves in Paris (in climate parlance, their “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs) and what actually needs to be done.
This year, there should have been no excuse. The science is devastatingly clear, the public demand for action urgent and widespread. On the first Friday of the summit, half a million people marched in central Madrid demanding that world leaders treat the emergency like an emergency. Five days later, activists tried to make themselves heard inside the summit itself. Just before a “high level” plenary session was scheduled to begin, a whistle blew in the crowded hall and activists began unfurling banners, ululating, and banging pens against metal canteens in a roving cacerolazo. “Shame!” they yelled. A few dozen sat in a circle as a panicked UN security officer pleaded: “You guys know you can’t demonstrate! It’s against UN rules and regulations.” They ignored him and kept chanting. Before long, a line of security officers had linked arms, a loading dock door appeared where no door had previously been evident, and about 200 protesters found themselves standing suddenly outside in the cold.
The message could not have been clearer. Inside the plenary hall, Ana Botín, executive chair of Santander bank, which has provided $15 billion in financing to fossil fuel projects since 2016, was on stage, praising herself for balancing customer credit card purchases with carbon offsets. The same message would be delivered again and again: This was a place for the wealthy and powerful. Greta Thunberg might be invited onstage to deliver a brief scolding to thunderous applause, but dissent would be indulged only if it played by the rules. The much-discussed “disconnect” was not an error or an accident. It was the hum of the system itself, this year made painfully obvious by the severity of the crisis at hand.
The result, in the end, was nothing much at all. Climate advocates had hoped this year’s COP would produce a strong agreement to return in 2020 with new and ambitious commitments to lower emissions. (Only 80 mainly small and poor countries have thus far announced plans to enhance their NDCs.) If they couldn’t do anything this year, in other words, at least they could promise to try harder next time. Yet even that modest goal was elusive. On the final Friday, with only a few hours left before the summit was scheduled to end, a negotiating bloc that had dubbed itself the High Ambition Coalition called a press conference. Grenada’s environment minister warned that although everyone understood “what needs to be done…there are a few voices dictating the agenda to the many.” His counterpart from Costa Rica took the rare step of naming them directly: “Australia, Brazil, and the US.”
Two days later, and 44 hours after the summit was scheduled to end, the final texts were released. The language on ambitions was tepid at best and did not include the word “emergency.” No agreement was reached on the most contentious issue taken up by the summit, the rules for carbon markets, which will have to be addressed again next year. That may be a good thing. Many climate advocates regard carbon trading as a false solution that uses clever accounting to allow countries and corporations to keep emitting greenhouse gases. Most agreed that no deal was a better outcome than a deal that would—if India, China, Brazil, and Australia had their way—have effectively gutted the Paris accord, creating loopholes large enough to fit many dozens of coal plants.
The last substantive issue this COP was supposed to grapple with was what gets called “loss and damage.” Having successively failed to help vulnerable nations “mitigate” the crisis, and more recently to “adapt” to the changing climate, the international community—which seen up close looks more like a bar brawl, or a mugging—is now faced with the astonishing fact that after 25 years of such meetings, no coordinating bodies and no funds have been dedicated to helping countries suffering from climate-related catastrophes. The rich countries, and particularly the United States, have fought for decades to kill off any formal mechanisms for what these days gets called “climate justice” and was once called simply “equity.”
“They are still bullying and blocking,” Harjeet Singh of the NGO Action Aid told me the day before the conference was supposed to end. “Things are absolutely stuck.” The United States was fighting, as always, to make sure that rich countries would not be held liable for any damage caused by its emissions, and was now demanding that even countries no longer party to the Paris Agreement be allowed to serve on the committee governing loss and damage, “which means,” Singh said, “they can continue to cripple and sabotage any progress that it makes.”
In the end, that issue too would be punted. The final texts “did not produce an outcome” on the stickiest issues of governance and did nothing whatsoever to create concrete funding mechanisms for countries facing climate emergency—an abiding demand of poorer and vulnerable states. “The US has done its job well,” Singh concluded.
Fortunately, the bureaucrats in the negotiating halls were not the only people at the climate summit. If this year’s COP is remembered for anything, it won’t be for them but for the kids. Hundreds of youth activists from all over the world were there. I spoke to teenagers from Chile, Uganda, Canada, Sweden, and New York who over the last year had begun taking action where adults have clearly failed. Many had met before on social media, but in the otherwise mirthless halls of the COP they found a chance to share stories and experiences, to stand together and build something that feels more like a movement with every passing Friday.
They were angered by the failure of the UN process, but none of them seemed surprised. “The only solution that we see as possible now is from the people,” said 17-year-old Tamara Toledo, who had traveled to Madrid from the central Chilean city of Concepción. There, she pointed out, it was youth who led the protests that in October had erupted into a national uprising with the same root causes as the climate crisis: a small and arrogant elite bent on protecting its privileges at the expense of everybody else. “In Chile,” Toledo said, “the youth finally were able to wake up an entire society that was sleeping.”
One of her compatriots, Joël Peña, an indigenous Mapuche from the country’s south, agreed. “This is one of our main messages,” he said. “We needed to wake up and we woke up. Now why not you?”