BY Sam Laird

Oct 1st 2021

Sustainable LivingTaking Action

Experts Weigh In on COP26

The View from the Western U.S.

Oct 1st 2021

The eyes of the world will turn to Glasgow for the first two weeks of November as Scotland’s largest city hosts COP26, the latest international summit aimed at controlling climate change. Top officials from governments around the world—as well as business leaders and climate activists—will be on the global stage trying to make progress toward managing the planet’s climate emergency.

In the complicated, overlapping world of climate plans, treaties, and policies, the annual COP gathering—which stands for Conference of the Parties—stands tallest. And COP26 is considered by many to be the most important gathering since leaders gathered in 2015 to negotiate the Paris Agreement. The urgency of climate action has been highlighted this year by images like California’s iconic Lake Tahoe choked by wildfire smoke. In Glasgow, observers hope to see nations big and small make binding commitments for reducing future carbon emissions as the world strives to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.

But if you’re an everyday person, questions are understandable. For example:

  • What will define success for COP26?
  • What are the main COP26 threads to follow?
  • How can a regular person take actions that are consistent with the goals of COP26?

To answer these questions and more, we recently queried a handful of experts on climate change and climate action. All four people we spoke to hail from the western US, where everything from water supplies to power grids are being impacted by climate change. Taken together, their answers illuminate the stakes of and context surrounding COP26. The experts we interviewed are:

Daniel Kammen is a professor of energy at UC Berkeley. Among a wide range of achievements, he has served as an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that provides scientific information about climate change to policymakers; its latest report was called a "code red" for humanity. Kammen has also worked for the World Bank and the United States State Department. On Twitter, he shares information and insights from the handle @dan_kammen.
Daniela Fernandez is founder and CEO of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA), a nonprofit that works to accelerate solutions to challenges impacting the world's oceans and is supported by Bank of the West. To date, the SOA has accelerated 45 ocean-focused startups, built a network of more than 5,000 local leaders in 165 countries, and funded more than 170 grassroots initiatives focused on protecting the ocean.
Mario Molina is the executive director of Protect Our Winters (POW), a Colorado-based nonprofit that mobilizes outdoors enthusiasts to protect the landscapes and ecosystems they love and rely upon for recreation. POW's worldwide network encompasses more than 130,000 supporters as it promotes non-partisan policies to protect the natural world.
Melissa Fifield is head of corporate social responsibility at Bank of the West, which has strongest environmental policies of any major US bank. The bank restricts or prohibits financing of Arctic drillingfracking, and coal-fired power plants. As a leader in sustainable finance, the bank recently surpassed a commitment to provide $1 billion in financing to clean, efficient, and renewable energy projects more than two years ahead of schedule.

Below, you’ll find a preview of COP26 through the eyes of Fernandez, Fifield, Kammen, and Molina.

This COP will be one of commitment and verification.”

—Daniel Kammen, UC Berkeley

What are the main storylines and themes you will be following at COP26?

Kammen: With the commitment now from the Biden administration—along with Japan, South Korea, and Europe—to be carbon-neutral before mid-century, and with China’s commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2060, all the right words are in place, but few of the right deeds are in place. So this will certainly be the COP of developing actual milestones and targets that are operational—not the kinds of targets that just pass by in the night like has happened so many times before. This COP will be one of commitment and verification.

Molina: One big theme I will be following is the ability for the US to take back a leadership position on climate, which it hasn’t had for the past several years. Then the other piece is about how we actually finance the energy transition with regard to developed versus developing countries. There was a pledge made at Paris 2015 for $100 billion in financing to flow from developed to developing nations, but by most estimates we’ve fallen short of that goal by 80 percent. Then, when we talk about non-state actors at the COPs, financial institutions have a huge role to play as far as what they will finance or will not finance.

Financial institutions have a huge role to play as far as what they will finance or will not finance.”

—Mario Molina, Protect Our Winters

Fifield: How is the world going to cooperate to create the systems of change necessary to achieve what we need to? This includes mechanisms of accountability, how we will pay for confronting this challenge, and how developed countries will help countries with fewer resources—countries which, in many cases are feeling the impacts of climate change most acutely despite having contributed very little to causing it.

Fernandez: One thing I’ll be following is what are the short-term goals and milestones these countries are putting forth? The biggest disappointment that I see constantly is that we have policymakers and heads of state continuously talking about their 2030 or 2050 goals without putting forth concrete two-to-three-year plans for how they are going to make active changes. Most of these leaders and politicians will be out of office by the time the big commitments are supposed to come to fruition, so they need to also be held accountable for translating their talk into tangible next steps for their communities.

What is the connection we can draw between what happens in Glasgow and the impacts of climate change we’ve seen in the western U.S.?

Fernandez: As a California resident, I’ve seen firsthand the extreme events such as heat waves, raging forest fires, and damaging droughts. There are also less visible but equally damaging phenomena happening, such as ocean heatwaves and the degradation of marine ecosystems. Putting attention on world leaders is important, but we should also shift some of our attention to local policy makers when it comes to how we are addressing everything from plastic pollution to financing the transition to a sustainable energy sector. Not all places globally are facing these crises that California is facing, so the more we can speak up to share our stories and get more people involved in taking action, the better.

Fifield: What happens at COP26 is absolutely relevant to life here, but this is a global challenge. While we feel the impacts of climate change through drought and wildfire here, other places are being hit just as hard if not harder in their own ways, whether that be wildfires in Siberia, floods in Germany and China, or the storms we’ve been seeing in different parts of the world.

Kammen: A worry existed in the past that in California we were getting too far out of sync with places that didn’t have climate policies. Now that’s gone. Other states like Washington State, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have all joined us in setting policies that look like ours. So I think the language that California helped start, not only domestically but internationally, is much more understood. But only two countries have been verified by the international community to be on pace for their climate targets—Morocco and The Gambia. So that California rhetoric is on everyone’s mind, but now at the international level, we’re going to have to see the action match up.

To you, what will define a successful COP26? What would a disappointing or failed conference look like?

Molina: I think a failed COP would look like Copenhagen in 2009, when the parties basically walked away without any real progress. A successful COP would actually take on the issue of how we are going to finance the transition for the developing world, and would include legally binding domestic commitments from countries like the US, China, and India.

“Past COPs were talk-fests.”

—Daniel Kammen, UC Berkeley

Kammen: Anything that looks like past COPs will be a failure, because past COPs were talk-fests. A minimum sign of success will be the $100 billion per year fund that developing countries were promised actually being full of real money, not promissory notes. Racial justice also has to get a powerful seat at the table, not a seat at the table where a Yanomami Indian and a Navajo person are invited to a cocktail hour. We’re not going to solve climate without making justice coequal. And there has to be an actual set of statements about ending fossil fuel subsidies. Renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuels, we just have to take our fat finger off the scale. Offshore wind is kicking off, energy storage prices are dropping—what’s not dropping is our underhanded subsidy for the dirty economy.

Fernandez: The G20 nations account for about 80 percent of global emissions. Developed nations need to mobilize funding and move forward to help developing nations that have the urgent need to support their communities and infrastructure but don’t have the funding. Making that a reality is something that will define a successful COP26 for me. As far as a failed conference, the biggest fear I have is it becomes just another place where world leaders are throwing out ambitious numbers and figures but there isn’t a process to track progress to hold folks accountable and ensure that promises are actually kept.

People are calling this the most important COP since the Paris Agreement. What makes this particular conference, COP26, so significant?

Kammen: It’s true, because there was never a viable plan to make good on the Paris commitments until President Biden came in and said the world’s biggest economy is now on a plan to phase out fossil fuels in its power sector by 2035. When the US did that, the plans that were evolving in China, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere all looked much more concrete. So it’s the most important COP because there’s a viable path to success now. It still remains to be seen if governments and big business are going to show the muscle, but it’s all on the table now in a way I would say it wasn’t all on the table before.

Molina: All COPs are critical now because we are operating on a reduced timeline. So, every time we miss an opportunity to make significant progress it, just ups the stakes for the next time. It’s simply the nature of the problem—we have such a short amount of time to solve this.

What do you hope COP26 and the overall climate action movement can accomplish in the context of your area of work?

Molina: There are 50 million-plus people who identify as skiers, bikers, climbers, snowboarders, runners—and that lifestyle is directly dependent on healthy ecosystems. So we’re supporting candidates on either side of the aisle who are making this a political priority. Climate shouldn’t be a partisan issue at all; like national security, it should be a joint priority.

Fernandez: The ocean is disproportionately impacted by increasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are directly caused by human activities. The ocean provides us with over 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe but it continually gets left out of the conversation in regards to climate change. There is a lot of understanding around climate change as an entity and around things like the carbon capture of trees, but the role of the ocean has not been as prominently featured in these conversations. For example, it’s the most under-funded of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. So I’d like to see ocean stewardship play a larger role as countries negotiate.

Fifield: I’m hoping to see a continued increase in public consciousness around the relationship between finance and climate. If humans continue pouring money into the dirtiest forms of fossil fuel extraction, we’ll continue down this same perilous road. But if we shift financing toward clean energy instead, that will help us make progress toward a more livable future.

Photo credit: Aaron Blatt, Protect Our Winters
The lifestyle for mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts is directly dependent on healthy ecosystems 

While critically important, it can feel like COPs happen at a level that is inaccessible to the everyday person. What advice do you have for someone who wants to feel like they are contributing to climate action and the goals of COP26?

Fernandez: The climate crisis is a human-centered problem because it’s a human-caused problem. So, as far as day-to-day actions, I encourage people to audit their everyday lives in terms of how they are living in relation to their values. This means everything from how they’re voting, to how they’re supporting different campaigns, to how they’re utilizing different forms of transportation, to how they’re banking as far as understanding what their capital is supporting. Many times people don’t realize that their dollars are actually working against what they believe in.

“Many times people don’t realize that their dollars are actually working against what they believe in.”

—Daniela Fernandez, Sustainable Ocean Alliance

Molina: Engage in the civic process. These things happen at a high level, but they all happen with or without the support of the people. So call your legislators and tell them you support the US committing X amount of dollars to the Green Climate Fund. From there, we all have networks of people we influence in one way or another, so what kind of impact can you have there? Can you impact your financial institution or the company you work for to do better? The risk associated with further fossil fuel development is far greater than I think many people realize—so where we put our money and what we finance is what we are putting our hope in the future toward. And my hope is not with a fossil fuel future.

Kammen: It’s now clear that in every state, installing solar and opting for electric vehicles are not only things that will contribute to the US getting to where it needs to be, but will also actually save a person money. Making good, climate-smart choices is no longer just for lefties or Birkenstock-wearers. It’s not just about individual choices, though—it’s also about things like mass transit and making racial justice right up front with climate action. Ultimately change is going to have to happen at an institutional level, but individual choices inform corporate and institutional behavior and that is something that is very empowering.

Fifield: There’s a saying I like, “action is the antidote to anxiety,” and I think it really applies here. We all have the power to take everyday actions—from how much we drive, to what types of cars we drive, to reviewing whether our financial institutions are responsible with our money. While small in the grand scheme of things, these actions are empowering. They can influence the behavior of others and also send a message to the corporate world and political leaders. But I think the most important thing people can do is be informed citizens who pay attention to policy at the local, state, and national levels and hold their elected officials accountable by voting.

Following climate news can sometimes feel like an unending parade of fear, anxiety, and sadness. With COP26 coming up, what gives you optimism that the world can come together to soften the impacts of climate change on human existence?

Molina: Most people want it done. Survey after survey shows that—regardless of political affiliation, age, geography—the majority of people see climate action as necessary. I think more and more people are seeing their passions affected by the impacts of climate change, and they are looking for ways to direct that passion into purposeful action. That gives me a lot of hope.

Fernandez: What gives me hope is working on a daily basis with young leaders who are dedicating their lives to this cause. Working with the 45 ocean technology companies we have supported and seeing how groundbreaking their work can be gives me a deep sense of excitement to see what the world will look like in the next five to 10 years, once these technologies are adopted and as even more people make working on climate solutions their livelihood. I do believe that we can solve the climate crisis if we all come together.

“We have an arsenal of solutions to the crisis. Now we just have to do it.”

—Melissa Fifield, Bank of the West

Kammen: Climate change is going to happen. Our kids aren’t going to see the same world we saw. But if we act now with the tools already in hand – and at the same time, we are opening new toolkits right and left – we could actually head off a lot of this. Plus, the fact that now we are talking about ecosystem health, resilience, how racial justice connects—we were not talking about all of this before. I think the overall climate story is more connected now in ways we didn’t see before. Considering all of that, I’ve never been more optimistic than I am right now.

Fifield: There will always be challenges we face, but it’s important to remember we’re not starting from zero. We know what we need to do, we have incredible scientists showing us what’s possible, we have amazing technologies and innovation we can deploy, and we have an arsenal of solutions to the crisis. Now we just have to do it.


Note: We define major U.S. banks as those with assets in excess of $90 billion.

Bank of the West is a proud member of Sustainable Ocean Alliance and Protect Our Winters.

Author image

Sam Laird Bank of the West

Sam joined Bank of the West in 2019 after more than 10 years in journalism. He’s also worked as a teacher, a grant writer, and a janitor, and prefers to spend his free time in nature.

Taking ActionRead Next