What 2021 Meant for the Fight Against Climate Change

Time to avoid climate change’s worse impacts is running out. What did 2021 change?

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
climate-change-storytelling-foreign-policy-illustration
climate-change-storytelling-foreign-policy-illustration
Foreign Policy illustration

2021

2021 was, it seemed, the year the world turned its attention back to climate. In much of the developed world, governments began to gain a measure of control over the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States—the world’s second largest carbon emitter—swapped an administration known for climate change denial for one that renewed the country’s commitments to international climate action. Meanwhile, the physical manifestations of the climate crisis were once again unmistakable: devastating floods throughout Western Europe and China, deadly heat waves in Canada, and raging wildfires in the American West and southern Europe. By the fall, an energy crisis was sweeping across the world, from China to Europe to the United States.

Compounding these trends was the release in August of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report—a “code red for humanity” that issued grave warnings on the consequences of environmental neglect: According to the latest research, some of the worst climate impacts, including rising sea levels and melting glaciers, are now inevitable. Only aggressive action now can minimize even worse damage and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Then, in November, the long-awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP26) took place in Glasgow, Scotland. Although its president dubbed it the “last, best hope” to save the planet, its final pact dashed hopes: With no enforcement mechanisms, it failed to sketch a clear path to limit warming, and at the last moment, India and China succeeded in watering down the pact’s language on phasing out coal. Even before the pact was signed, climate activist Greta Thunberg deemed the summit a “failure.”

2021 was, it seemed, the year the world turned its attention back to climate. In much of the developed world, governments began to gain a measure of control over the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States—the world’s second largest carbon emitter—swapped an administration known for climate change denial for one that renewed the country’s commitments to international climate action. Meanwhile, the physical manifestations of the climate crisis were once again unmistakable: devastating floods throughout Western Europe and China, deadly heat waves in Canada, and raging wildfires in the American West and southern Europe. By the fall, an energy crisis was sweeping across the world, from China to Europe to the United States.

Compounding these trends was the release in August of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report—a “code red for humanity” that issued grave warnings on the consequences of environmental neglect: According to the latest research, some of the worst climate impacts, including rising sea levels and melting glaciers, are now inevitable. Only aggressive action now can minimize even worse damage and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Then, in November, the long-awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP26) took place in Glasgow, Scotland. Although its president dubbed it the “last, best hope” to save the planet, its final pact dashed hopes: With no enforcement mechanisms, it failed to sketch a clear path to limit warming, and at the last moment, India and China succeeded in watering down the pact’s language on phasing out coal. Even before the pact was signed, climate activist Greta Thunberg deemed the summit a “failure.”

Still, Glasgow saw some developments in international climate action. These included a pledge to halt deforestation by 2030—with $1.7 billion earmarked to support Indigenous land rights—an agreement among 100 countries to slash methane emissions, and a long-awaited pledge by India to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. Perhaps COP26’s outcome is best summarized by one climate scientist: It “moved the needle in the right direction but only by a very small increment,” Daniel Swain told Foreign Policy’s Christina Lu. “There’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done.”

Beyond coverage of summits and climate disasters, Foreign Policy published stories this year that examined, among other things, how we tell stories about climate change, the rise of competitive climate statecraft, global inequities inherent to current international climate action, and the possibility of a green industrial revolution. Below are five of our top stories on what 2021 meant for the world’s climate change mitigation efforts.


1. The Tragedy of Stopping Climate Change

by Jessi Jezewska Stevens, Nov. 9

As the world continues to fall behind emissions goals, there’s a growing consensus that a new tactic—storytelling—is fundamental to addressing climate change. Gone are the days of bombarding the public with facts. Instead, novelist Jessi Jezewska Stevens writes, climate activists, analysts, and policymakers are trying to reshape public imagination with narratives that transcend typical binary thought, where only a utopia—or dystopia—awaits. As this shift takes place, Stevens asks: “What kind of story should we tell? And just how tragic or extreme does it need to be?”

What follows is a winding meditation on the realities of climate change—and whether climate storytelling is sufficient to marshal real change—that touches on everything from British novelist Jean Rhys to a 20th-century advertising tycoon to Shakespeare’s King Lear. But it centers on one odd gathering: the 2051 Munich Climate Conference, a real-life academic event in September where scholars and artists “presented” on climate attitudes in 2021 as if it were 30 years in the future.

At the heart of Stevens’s essay is the idea that in a world where measurable effects of climate change will be unavoidable—a world that has “entered the mitigation phase”—it is perhaps best to frame climate narratives in terms of avoiding extremes. It simply won’t be possible to avoid smaller tragedies and short-term costs, Stevens writes, and ultimately, “preparing ourselves for less tragic endings requires the open-endedness of continual compromise.”


2. Welcome to the Era of Competitive Climate Statecraft

by Carolyn Kissane, Feb. 8

One narrative that has gained prominence this year is climate competition. As climate has moved to a top-tier international priority and most of the world’s big economies have announced net-zero emissions targets, U.S.-China relations expert Carolyn Kissane wrote that a new era of competitive climate statecraft is here. This is particularly the case for the world’s “two carbon hegemons”: the United States and China.

Although one might think these shared climate goals would usher in cooperation and coordination, differences in national pathways are far more likely to bring greater green technology and energy competition, Kissane argues.

And that’s not necessarily bad—in fact, Kissane writes, competition could prove to be incredibly beneficial in mitigating climate change’s effects, especially in the face of rapid U.S.-China decoupling.


3. Present at the Creation of a Climate Alliance—or Climate Conflict

by Adam Tooze, Aug. 6

In an essay this summer, FP columnist Adam Tooze highlights an under-analyzed aspect of international climate action: the U.S.-EU relationship. “The world has the makings of a carbon trade war between two major economic blocs,” Tooze writes, “both of which are committed to decarbonization.”

That’s a shame, Tooze says, not least because a North Atlantic decarbonization partnership is essential to the world’s rapid decarbonization, which the United States and Europe have a chance at leading. The problem is while the two are committed to decarbonization, they are at odds on how to achieve that goal, particularly in their systems and proposals for carbon border adjustment policies and carbon pricing. (The latter, Tooze writes, is effectively dead in Washington, where only infrastructure and regulation are viable options.)

Yet trans-Atlantic climate and trade policy could succeed, Tooze argues, if Washington and Brussels focused on industrial policy instead: specifically, on cooperation in global manufacturing sectors, including steel, the auto industry, and aircraft manufacturing. Bringing the two blocs together to frame the North Atlantic economy as a springboard for decarbonization “requires an act of political will,” Tooze writes, but the future of trans-Atlantic climate policy—and perhaps that of the world—depends on it.


4. Rich Countries’ Climate Policies Are Colonialism in Green

by Vijaya Ramachandran, Nov. 3

“Let’s call a spade a spade: Norway is advancing the green version of colonialism,” economist Vijaya Ramachandran wrote as COP26 took place, putting forth a provocative argument on rich nations’ unjust means of pursuing climate goals. For Ramachandran, Norway—the world’s most fossil fuel-dependent rich country—is emblematic of wealthy Western nations working to keep the global south poor.

Nordic and Baltic countries, including Norway, have been pushing for the World Bank to stop financing natural gas projects in places like Africa. Meanwhile, at COP26, 20 countries said they would halt all funding for overseas fossil fuel projects starting in 2022. Yet, as Ramachandran points out, less than 1 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, for instance, come from the more than 1 billion people in 48 sub-Saharan African countries—and these are the people most at risk of climate impacts. Furthermore, low-cost, low-carbon energy sources are not yet a reality for many developing countries.

Essentially, rich countries are trying to achieve their climate ambitions by imposing restrictions on others without curtailing enough of their own oil and gas production and consumption. But if these countries are, in fact, “committed to equitable and sustainable development,” as they claim to be, Ramachandran writes, then they need to be honest about the developing world’s energy needs and devote serious resources to clean technology and infrastructure abroad.


5. Fossil Fuel’s Downfall Could Be America’s Too

by Adam Tooze, Dec. 3

One upshot of COP26, at least in the eyes of U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, is climate policy has become something of a business opportunity rather than a contentious political issue. Whether this is realistic is up for debate, but although there’s compelling evidence for the imminence of a global energy transition, Tooze warns that “the question of politics cannot be wished away”—certainly not for a country like the United States.

Tooze’s essay takes us through the history of the United States’ “existential entanglement with fossil fuels,” which has long made it difficult “to square the realities of America’s political economy with the climate threat’s urgency.” Over the past decade, North American fuel production has only surged. If the world decarbonizes rapidly and demand for fossil fuels plummets, as a recent study suggests, U.S. oil and gas producers will face serious blows in a country that “has a lamentable track record of managing and mitigating the job losses and social dislocation that follows deep economic change.”

This comes with a bevy of concerns, not least economic insecurity and deepening polarization. Tooze argues there’s little chance Democrats will be able to pass a Green New Deal-style program that gives an overarching climate plan the robust political platform it needs to help those affected by the transition. But, Tooze writes, there’s still a glimmer of hope: If the United States can learn to see an impending energy transition not in terms of climate mitigation but as part of an “agro-industrial transformation,” where cheap wind and solar energy is offered throughout the country, there is a chance a green industrial revolution will take root.

Chloe Hadavas is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hadavas

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