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North Carolina climate experts give mixed reviews to Glasgow pact

Joni Deutsch

Was the recent United Nations climate summit in Glasgow , Scotlan d, a success? For climate experts in North Carolina , the reviews are mixed.

"It's a nuanced answer," said Susan Joy Hassol, an Asheville-based consultant and contributing author on the U.N.'s Sixth Assessment Report in August. "Everybody wants the simple answer: It was a success or it was a failure. In this case, it was both."

 Susan Joy Hassol
Susan Joy Hassol

Hassol, who also helped write three U.S. National Climate Assessments in 2000, 2009, and 2014, thinks "real progress was made" on curtailing forest loss, climate financing for developing countries and reducing methane emissions - which are a more harmful short-term greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

"But what was agreed is wholly insufficient to the scale and speed of the problem," Hassol said.

In U.N. climate summits going back to Kyoto in 1997, Paris in 2015 and now Glasgow, world leaders have gradually been wrapping their brains around the idea of climate change, but not yet around solutions.

Deke Arndt is an Asheville-based climate scientist who oversees climate monitoring for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For him, agreements like the one in Glasgow are all about "turning the ship."

"I'm actually quite optimistic that we'll be moving coherently in the same direction increasingly in coming years," Arndt said.

But asked if we're moving fast enough to meet our goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he said, "I don't know. What I do know is it's never too late to start to turn that ship. Every day that we do something, we've bought ourselves two or three days on the back end."

Methane deal is a start 

Hassol said Glasgow's agreement to deal with methane is a start. Methane is 80 times more heat-trapping as carbon dioxide for 20 years after it enters the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is bad because it remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Both are greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, which leads to a cascade of environmental and health issues.

"Just the improvements in short-term health outcomes (from limiting methane emissions) are enough to pay for all the changes we would have to make to take these methane emissions down," Hassol said.

Methane leaks during drilling for oil and digging for coal, and it's extracted as natural gas for energy. It also comes from rotting food and organic waste in landfills. So world leaders agreed in Glasgow to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030 globally, from 2020 levels.

The Glasgow Climate Pact will likely become a household word just like the Paris Climate Agreement six years ago. But it's also noteworthy for what leaders didn't do: Pledge to eliminate fossil fuel emissions. In the waning days of the summit, negotiators bowed to pressure from India to change wording in the final agreement from "phase out" to "phase down" coal and fossil fuel subsidies.

"I was watching the live stream when that happened, and my heart sank," Hassol said.

That means we'll continue to allow the use of fossil fuels, which doesn't square with the scientific imperative to get rid of them altogether. The agreement relies on still-unproven technologies like carbon capture — physically trapping carbon at smokestacks and storing it underground.

At least they mentioned fossil fuels 

Even so, Hassol sees a silver lining. COP26 in Glasgow (for Conference of Parties) was the first to even mention fossil fuels in a final agreement. "So, look, from that standpoint, this is progress,” Hassol said. “They're mentioning the real cause of climate change, burning of fossil fuels."

For climate experts, there are other reasons for optimism. Reporting on climate change has exploded in the 24 years since Kyoto, and awareness is growing. And that's helping to press leaders to action.

Despite debates among political leaders, most Americans now favor actions to address climate change. A survey by Yale and George Mason universities in September (just before the Glasgow meetings) found two-thirds of Americans polled think we should be doing more.

A growing number (66%) believe the U.S. should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, no matter what other countries do. That was up 5 percentage points in six months.

"It's changed pretty dramatically," said Arndt, the Asheville-based climate scientist. "I think the acceptance of climate change is something that's happening. It's not 100%. But the conversation has definitely moved from, 'Hey, scientist, justify this concept to me' to 'Hey, scientist, what does this mean for me?’"

 Deke Arndt
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Deke Arndt

Three levels of action 

And if you're wondering just what climate change means for you, Arndt said: "I tend to think of it as kind of a three-layer cake." Those are: personal actions, community actions and changes at the broader social and policy level.

Arndt noted that the Glasgow COP was the 26th in a series. "This is an intergenerational issue. It's going to take solutions hammered out over a long time," he said.

And we are not alone. "This is an issue that we share with everyone in the world, right? And we share it with people that haven't even been born yet. And when you make decisions in that space, you kind of have to make them together," Arndt said.

COP26 has ended, but world leaders agreed to meet again next year (at least this is the plan) to increase their commitments to slowing global warming. That's critical, Hassol said, because current commitments are expected to result in 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100 from pre-industrial levels. Scientists say we need to keep it to 1.5 degrees.

"That's not good enough. We've got to get that below one and a half," she said. Already, global temperatures are up 1.2 degrees Celsius, bringing disasters.

"This summer was a nightmare of drought, fire, heat waves, heavy rains, floods," she said. "Holy smokes, we are in the thick of it. it's only going to get worse."

A longer version of this article appears in the WFAE climate newsletter on Nov. 26, 2021, along with an update on the proposed Piedmont Lithium mine in Gaston County and Mecklenburg County's efforts to fight climate change. To subscribe, enter your email below.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.