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Interview - Issue #8

COP26: Commitments and Policies

An interview with Michael Mann

Where the Leaves Fall contacted global changemakers for their thoughts and responses to this year’s COP26 - the UN Climate Change Conference. Michael Mann is a distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. His research focuses on climate science and climate change. He was selected by Scientific American as one of the fifty leading visionaries in science and technology in 2002, was awarded the Hans Oeschger Medal of the European Geophysical Union in 2012. He received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement 2019 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2020. You can read the edited interview that was published in the print edition of Where the Leaves Fall here.

Where the Leaves Fall What do you feel are the most pressing issues for COP26 to address and why?

Michael We need to get industrial countries to rapidly decarbonise, agreeing to reduce carbon emissions by more than 50% this next decade, while getting developing nations to commit to leapfrog past fossil fuels and adopt renewable energy technology.

WtLF What outcomes (and practical measures) would you like to see emerge from COP26?

Michael Commitment on the part of all nations to the terms summarised above.

WtLF How optimistic are you that COP26 will deliver positive change, and why?

Michael I’m very optimistic because a lot of the needed work is happening in advance, that is, various countries making pledges to substantially ratchet up their prior (Paris) commitments. But this will need follow through in the form of policies that can accomplish the needed carbon reductions.

‘Despite what some (like Bill Gates) say, the obstacles are no longer technological. It’s simply a matter of political will, here in the US, and elsewhere.’

— Michael Mann

WtLF What do the world leaders, and everyone else, need to change on a personal level?

Michael As I emphasise in my recent book, The New Climate War, collective action is critical. While there are things we can and should do in our everyday lives to reduce our personal environmental impact and carbon footprint, what we really need is people banding together, voting, using their voice, to demand that our politicians support policies that will rapidly decarbonise our economy. Neither you nor I can provide subsidies for the renewable energy industry, put a price on carbon, or block new fossil fuel infrastructure. We need our politicians to do those things.

National Climate Emergency Summit, Melbourne Australia (Feb 2020) - Photograph by Julian Meehan

Dr Mann and Bill Nye (on the right) at the Washington DC Science March (April 2017)

WtLF Is it practically possible for nations to reduce carbon emissions by more than 50% in a decade? What would the first steps be toward that?

Michael What we need are policies, like carbon pricing and subsidies for renewables that will accelerate the transition already underway of fossil fuels. Despite what some (like Bill Gates) say, the obstacles are no longer technological. It’s simply a matter of political will, here in the US, and elsewhere.

WtLF Are decade long goals too easy for governments, who may be voted out of power, to renege on?

Michael It’s all too easy to make promises about the distant future (for example, 2050) when most of these politicians won’t even be around, and make generic pledges that aren’t backed up with actual policies that can deliver on them. That’s why we need near-term commitments that lead to the decarbonisation of our economy.

Even the conservative International Energy Agency has now said that keeping warming below dangerous planetary levels (1.5C) requires no new fossil fuel infrastructure. That means no more coal mines and no more gas pipelines. Both US president Biden and UK prime minister Johnson can be criticised for talking the talk but not quite walking the walk in this regard. The talk is good, but it’s cheap. We need real commitments and policies that back them up.

Painting by Matthew Sonstein

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