Looking for the Pain Threshold: Why COP26 Won’t Deliver

26 October 2021

“The world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7°C of heating,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres. “There is a high risk of failure of COP26.” That’s the global climate summit that meets every five years (but was postponed last year because of the pandemic) to plot a course away from climate disaster. And it really isn’t looking good.

COP26 starts on Saturday (30 October) in Glasgow with over 100 world leaders and 25,000 delegates in attendance, but much that should already have happened has not happened. The draft texts that are normally negotiated before such meetings are only half-done due to the pandemic. Neither China’s President Xi nor President Putin of Russia is even showing up.

This meeting is the last chance to keep average global temperature below +1.5°C. That target was adopted at the last summit in Paris in 2015 because it would avoid the most extreme storms, floods and heat-waves. It would also not trigger the ‘tipping points’, where some feedback in the climate system causes a sudden lurch upwards in temperature.

Reaching that Paris goal, however, would require a 45% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. That’s not unthinkable if we treated this as an existential emergency – it’s only 5% a year – but the grim fact is that we have never yet managed to cut global emissions at all.

“We are not going to get to a 45% reduction,” admitted a UN official who understandably wished to remain anonymous, “but there must be some level of contributions on the table to show the downward trend of emissions.” Why would a conference full of highly educated, well informed and mostly well intentioned people behave like this?

They’re not wicked people, and almost all of them do know the truth. They just cannot afford to get too far ahead of the people they lead. A majority of citizens in almost every country worry about global heating, but dramatic change isn’t possible because it hasn’t reached their ‘pain threshold’ yet.

That phrase acquired its political meaning during the American war in Vietnam. The idea was that a gradually escalating US bombing campaign would make the North Vietnamese government stop trying to reunite the country by force when the damage to North Vietnam reached its ‘threshold of pain’.

‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ lasted three years, but it never did find the Hanoi regime’s pain threshold. Similarly, the accumulating damage to people and property done by various sorts of wild weather has not yet reached the population’s pain threshold anywhere except for a few low-lying island countries that are already close to going underwater.

It was always clear that the attitudes of people in the rich countries could not be shifted by images of other people in the global south suffering from climate-related calamities. Only when the catastrophes struck close to home would they take the message to heart – and frankly, many despairing climate activists were counting on that.

That’s why the killer wild-fires, heat-waves and floods of this year in the US, Canada, Germany, Greece and other developed countries led some people to hope that there would be a general mobilisation of public opinion in favour of climate action. There certainly has been some movement in that direction, but by the look of COP26, probably not yet enough.

On our current track, we will irrevocably commit to +1.5°C by 2029 or 2030, but the time lag with CO2 means that the immediate effects of even that abject failure might not be severe enough to shock a critical mass of people into action.

So what can usefully be done while we wait for the heating to reach our collective pain threshold? The best hope at the moment is the Global Methane Pledge, whose supporters promise to cut their methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

Methane has accounted for at least a third of the warming so far, but it allows for a quick partial fix for two reasons. It stays in the atmosphere a far shorter time than CO2 – eight years instead of 200 – so emission cuts show quick results. And one source of methane in particular is cheap, low-hanging fruit: the fossil-fuel industry.

Just stop flaring unwanted gas and fix all the leaks in almost 3 million km. of gas pipelines, and the 30% cut is a done deal. Not only that, it will practically pay for itself, since you can burn the saved methane. It will produce carbon dioxide, of course, but that’s a 200-year problem and we need results now.

Almost forty countries have already made the methane pledge, including the US, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria. We could even delay +1.5°C down into the 2030s, and something else might turn up by then. Grasping at straws, perhaps, but what’s the better option?
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“It was…enough”)