Why what happens – or doesn’t happen – at the COP26 climate summit matters to Maine
Leaders from around the globe are converging on Glasgow, Scotland for what has been billed as the most consequential United Nations climate summit in years. While much of the discussion at COP26 will be about worldwide or country-specific emissions levels, what emerges will shape policy decisions at the local level. It's why Maine Public will be undertaking a special reporting project on Maine's response to climate change over the next year and beyond because what happens – or doesn’t happen – in Scotland will hit close to home.
In downtown Bangor Thursday, Ralph Moninger and Tiffany Tran took a break from their business to answer a reporter's question about the UN climate summit in Glasgow, where leaders from more than 200 countries are expected to set aggressive targets for slashing emissions of climate-warming gases.
“I’m aware of it,” said Moninger of Bangor. “I know they want to, that Biden wants to get the infrastructure bill passed ahead of the conference so he can go and look like he has some credibility on getting things done . . . It does seem like they kind of talk up the subject but there is no real progress on, ‘Hey, this I the plan, this is what we hope to accomplish by the plan.’ We just don’t seem to have any of that not just in this country but worldwide.”
“I would say I would want to see tangible policies that really would maybe reduce emissions by a certain year,” Tran said.
But for a small number of activists, students and other observers from Maine, COP26 — short for the 26th Conference of Parties — is a potentially historic event with major implications globally and locally. It's important enough for some to make the trip across the Atlantic to help pressure leaders for meaningful commitments. Many others will closely monitor developments from here in Maine.
“Yeah, it will certainly trickle down to every country and every state in the world. What happens in Glasgow is going to impact all of us,” said Susie Arnold, a marine biologist with the Rockland-based Island Institute. Her job is to help fishermen and coastal communities adapt to the changes already happening – such as shifting fish species and stronger storms battering critical island infrastructure.
Arnold is also a scientific advisor to the roughly 40-member Maine Climate Council charged with plotting a course to achieve a 45% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 and a carbon-neutral Maine by 2045. Gov. Janet Mills based those goals on the Paris Climate Agreement set during the 2015 summit. And the state is backing them up with tens of millions of dollars for initiatives that include residential heat pumps, electric vehicle charging stations, and thousands of trained "clean energy" workers.
But a recent U.N. report warned that the industrial world is already falling well short of the reductions agreed to in Paris just six years ago — reductions that scientists say are needed to avoid worldwide climate catastrophe.
"If action isn't taken in Glasgow these next few weeks here, yeah Maine is still going to stay the course. But that is not going to be sufficient to change the global trajectory," Arnold said.
Hopes for progress in Glasgow are measured, at best.
Russia, China and several other major emitter countries have yet to announce new, lower goals. There will be pressure on the richest nations to help poorer, developing countries prepare and adapt. And President Biden appears likely to arrive in Glasgow without congressional support for the Build Back Better plan that is the financial backbone of his climate agenda.
Hannah Pingree, who co-chairs the Maine Climate Council and the governor's Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, will be watching events from afar. Pingree says Biden's plans will directly impact every state, including Maine, which Pingree acknowledges accounts for a tiny portion of U.S. emissions.
"But obviously, that's the argument every state, city, country can make,” Pingree said. “If we don't all commit to similar goals, we are not going to get this under control.”
It was state, city and municipal leaders from around the country that pushed for achievement of U.S. commitments to the Paris agreement after former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the international pact. And even though the Biden administration will be fully engaged in Glasgow's climate negotiations, Pingree says the political turmoil in Congress over Biden's "Build Back Better" plan illustrates the critical role state and local governments will play.
"Presidents can change, administrations can change,” Pingree said. “But states taking climate action seriously, continuing our progress regardless of changes at DC, that is really what I think states and governors are thinking about."
Among the thousands of activists and climate organizations from around the world that will be in Glasgow is a group of students and at least one alumnus from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.
This will be the third COP for 2020 graduate Ania Wright, who now works as a grassroots climate action organizer for the Sierra Club in Maine. But Wright acknowledges she wasn’t sure she wanted to go this time.
"It's a really difficult space to be a part of,” Wright said.
Wright says the hope and optimism that she felt at the start of COP24 in Poland dissipated as she watched key players – and particularly the Trump administration – stymie negotiations and block progress. The following year’s COP in Madrid wasn’t much better.
"There's a lot of I guess just frustrating politics that come out at the COP and I think it's partly of why I personally got really interested in working in Maine, because you see the level of inaction that is happening at the international level,” Wright said.
But Wright says there were also inspiring moments.
In Poland, she helped arrange interviews and media appearances for a certain Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, whose reprimand of global leaders at the summit would make her a hero among youth climate activists worldwide. And at COP25, Wright was overcome by the sights and sensations of being part of half-million strong crowd that marched through the streets of Madrid.
In deciding to travel to Glasgow, Wright says activists have an obligation to "show up" to keep pressure on those who will make the decisions.
"I think you have to have hope that these negotiations will be different than the last ones,” Wright said. “After all, it an international space where people are coming together to try to solve things -- so definitely necessary to be there, even though it's not always fun."