As the world prepared for the UN climate talks in 2019, ominous signs emerged. COP25 was slated to take place in Santiago, Chile, but struggling with nationwide protests over economic, environmental, and social issues, Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera cancelled the event. Organizers hastily moved COP25 to Madrid, where leaders from nearly 200 countries gathered, bickered and then went home firmly divided.
“I am disappointed with the results of COP25,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. “The international community lost an important opportunity.”
Amidst mixed reviews of COP26 (hello, eco-anxiety), a glance back at COP25 is a reminder things this year could have been much worse. A global agreement to end deforestation by 2030 was something; 105 signatures on the Global Methane Pledge matters; the commitment of $100 trillion in private financing for a net-zero economy was not nothing; the Indian prime minister even uttering the words “net zero” was a big deal.
Those steps forward to confront the climate crisis—whether you consider them big steps or small—were due, in part, to tireless work of climate activists and environmental organizations, and to public pressure—including 100,000 protesters taking to the streets of Glasgow during the UN event.
COP26 provides hope that world leaders can solve a worldwide problem—but it may not happen as quickly as many people want. With so much angst around these annual UN climate summits, it’s worthwhile to realize the world has come together multiple times to cooperate and to fix global problems. Here are four pivotal moments in world history that reveal the good stuff humanity is made of.
1. WHO and The Eradication of Smallpox
English doctor Edward Jenner had many patients on his ward suffer and pass away from smallpox in the 1700s, a then-common infectious disease. Medical data reaching back to the 18th Century is understandably incomplete, but researchers have argued that smallpox was the most deadly infectious disease for much of human existence—300 million smallpox deaths is one estimate since 1900 alone.
But Jenner noticed something that would change Western medicine’s approach to viruses forever: People exposed to cowpox, a related disease, seemed to be immune to smallpox. See where this is going? So did Jenner. He realized that controlled exposure to pathogens could protect the public from deadly and contagious diseases.
While inoculation was practiced in China, Africa, and India centuries prior, it was difficult to do safely and easily. Jenner’s status and social sphere lent momentum toward new experimentation, leading to a breakthrough inoculation method.
So how did one vaccination innovation in one part of the world lead to the worldwide eradication of a deadly disease? It wasn’t until Jenner’s big breakthrough was, more than a century later, paired with the power of WHO—the World Health Organization—that the incredible feat was possible. The result was not only the end of smallpox but a formula for global problem solving: Taking innovations from the brightest minds around the world and powering them with the reach and organizations of a global institution.
Here’s how it all went down: In the mid-1900s, the recently-formed WHO attempted to eradicate several diseases without success, including yellow fever and malaria. But in 1967, WHO began a new effort, the Intensified Eradication Program, to destroy smallpox across the world, particularly in the 23 countries and territories in which it was endemic.
The US eventually joined the cause via President Johnson in the spirit of “International Cooperation Year,” a UN initiative. The goal was set: to eradicate smallpox in 10 years.
The effort was not without hiccups. For the early years of the program, WHO didn’t allocate enough funds and seemingly dragged its feet—some members were skeptical it was even possible. Then there were floods and famine and civil wars across multiple countries. WHO workers almost gave up hope. But thanks to multinational efforts, persistence, and communication, WHO sent out vaccines that could be freeze-dried or stabilized at room temperature, allowing them to brave floods, war, and famine-plagued areas to deliver the vaccine across the world.
In 1977, a hospital cook in Somalia contracted smallpox, made a full recovery, and became the last recorded case of naturally acquired smallpox. Since then, the WHO has led a similar and ongoing effort to eradicate polio, which has been eliminated in all but a few regions of the world.
Of course, the WHO’s actions have not been perfect. Many criticized the organization for a slow response and poor communication related to COVID-19. Despite criticisms, as worldwide health organizations go, WHO is not only what we have—it also produces research on how climate change will affect world health, including advocacy work and partnerships with governing bodies. One thing is certain: when it comes to future problems of health and climate, we can learn from the problems of present as well as the global successes of the past.
2. The Nuclear Disarmament Movement
One million people flooded New York City’s Central Park area on June 12, 1982. “The smiling, hand-clapping line of marchers was more than three miles long, and the participants carried placards in dozens of languages,” was the New York Times‘ description of the event. It was the largest political demonstration in US history at the time: a protest against the use and hoarding of nuclear weapons called the Rally for Nuclear Disarmament. As one protestor proudly proclaimed to the NYT, ”There’s no way the leaders can ignore this now.”
World leaders had been ignoring the outrage for decades. After the United States’ devastating attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan during World War II, the lasting impact of nuclear fallout, such as radiation sickness, birth defects, and contaminated land, became apparent. Starting with the Soviet-backed World Peace Council in 1947, the movement’s goal was to stop the development of nuclear weapons and initiate arms reduction treaties.
The opposite happened. While the US held the only nuclear weapons (two) in 1945, that number grew to 23,368 by 1980. The Soviet Union’s stockpile reached 30,062 by that point, and the global nuclear weapons total was 55,411. Citizens had had enough. The 1982 New York protest was one of dozens across four continents. While not all demonstrations directly led to policy change, some experts connect the global movement to the UN’s future progress on nuclear disarmament.
Multiple treaties and talks have occurred since, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 by 181 UN members, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons of 2017, which became the first international agreement to stop producing nuclear weapons altogether. There are currently five Nuclear Weapons Free Zones in the world.
Full disclosure: This is not a case-closed situation. More than 13,000 nuclear warheads remain in the world, and not all countries are on board with disarmament. But the large-scale protests of the 1980s were a turning point. The number of nuclear weapons in the world went steadily up until 1989, and they’ve been falling ever since.
The fact that worldwide public support helped influence treaties, talks, and policies is a powerful message: From youth activists to conscious consumers, the efforts of the public do matter in the pursuit of global solutions to complex problems.
3. The Building and Use of the International Space Station
On October 4, 1957, a decade after the start of the Cold War, the USSR used a ballistic missile to send the first man-made satellite ever into space: a large, round, silver-toned craft called Sputnik. “US Missile Experts Shaken By Sputnik,” wrote the New York Times, eight days after the launch. The article fumed with anxieties and explanations for Russia’s superiority in space flight, adding that “Now the Defense Department seems determined to close the gap.”
Determined, indeed. The US launched its own satellite on January 31, 1958, Explorer I, and created NASA to devote federal workers and funds to exploring the great unknown. The Space Race had begun.
But what began as a bitter and dangerous rivalry (remember all those nukes?) morphed into a global alliance that would permanently expand the footprint of human civilization into the cosmos. In 1993, US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin came to a surprising agreement to work together to bring the rest of the world with them to space. The agreement would lead to January 29, 1998, when government officials from the United States, Russia, Canada, and 12 other countries met in Washington, DC, and signed an agreement for the development of an International Space Station.
With the cooperation of 15 countries utilizing five space agencies, NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, brought components to the ISS from 1998 until 2011. Over time, it grew into research facilities, life support, and living spaces, providing international science and engineering experts the space to learn more about low gravity, biology, Earth, medicine, communications, and more.
The station is now roughly the size of an American football field, with crew members visiting from 18 countries in over 50 scientific and engineering fields having lived on the station. When NASA’s three active transport shuttles were retired in 2011, Russia had the only shuttle to the space station for humans, which American astronauts still use. Transport vehicles from Japan and Europe also retain access to the ISS, as do commercial companies. Despite any lasting political difficulties between the United States and Russia on the ground, the ISS compels governments and their scientists to cooperate while orbiting the planet.
4. Closing the Hole in the Ozone Layer
In 1985, scientists Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin were measuring the activity of the Antarctic ozone layer as part of their research work when they noticed something unnerving: The ozone layer had developed a hole. Yikes. After nearly twenty years of fairly stable readings of ozone, they concluded that since the late 1970s, the amount of ozone had been declining to one-third of the level that should have been there.
The researchers published the first paper ever on losses of ozone over Antarctica, prompting scientists across the world to investigate until they confirmed the culprit: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Suddenly those sky-high 80s hairstyles set in place by CFC-propelled hairspray were a crime against both style and nature. And they weren’t alone: Spray-on deodorants, bug sprays, paints, refrigerators, and air conditioners all commonly used CFCs at the time. These compounds floated into the atmosphere as waste and broke down in the presence of UV radiation, which in turn caused the O3 to dissociate in order to stabilize the foreign atoms.
With a speed that would shock today’s climate activists to tears, the world quickly swapped its Aquanet obsession for planetary health. In 1987, 24 countries signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Each country in the protocol agreed to phase out CFC and related chemical production and uses. At first, Dupont and other corporations which used CFCs fought legislation restricting their use, but eventually, they joined the cause. Science won.
In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly declared September 16 as the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer. Since its inception, 197 countries have joined the Montreal Protocol, all working together to prevent ozone damage, and the cooperation has paid off. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it, “perhaps the single most successful international agreement.”
How successful? The Antarctic ozone hole closed in January 2021. The ozone layer is still delicate—it can still develop holes pretty easily, but the outcome remains profound. Not only are the ozone’s oxygen stores on track to return to 1980 levels by 2070, but had the Montreal Protocol not occurred, the world would be headed toward an additional 2.5 degrees Celsius of climate change and facing a looming ozone layer collapse by 2040. Once again: yikes.
The World’s Next Success: The Race toward 1.5
If the world can close the ozone layer, can it not limit climate change to 1.5 degrees? Sure, curbing climate change is more complex and larger in scale. But the threat and the players required to solve it are virtually the same. The Montreal Agreement proves that world leaders can prioritize planetary health and act to prevent environmental disaster.
While COP26 may not have solved climate change full-stop, none of the other big international wins described above were quick or easy either. They never are. The Guardian called COP21 “two weeks of fraught negotiations” and full of “frustrations and drama” before The Paris Agreement was finally signed. While activists may feel dissatisfied by the end of this year’s talks, that frustration can be channeled the way of the Rally for Nuclear Disarmament: continued agitation and pressure on world leaders. If the threat of climate change seems too terrifying and intractable to bear, consider how the same generation of kids who hid under their school desks during the Cold War grew up to work in the International Space Station alongside Russians. And know that the world is now rife will brilliant minds like Dr. Jenner’s with hundreds of innovative solutions to climate change.
If we take to heart lessons from our past global successes, we can hold on to the belief that the world can come together to stave off the worst effects of climate change. And that belief can keep powering action.