After a year of waiting, over 200 countries and 25,000 delegates gathered in Glasgow, Scotland to attend the twenty-sixth United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26. Hailed as the world’s most prominent climate change negotiations, COP26 provided hope for progressive action on behalf of global political leaders. For the first time, Boston College received observer status for this event. Dr. Praveen Kumar, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, was one of the few faculty members allowed to participate in this monumental conference.
Revolving around the intersection of climate change, social justice, and energy access, Dr. Kumar’s research focuses on the effects of climate change on individuals' health, particularly in low-income communities. His attendance at the conference gave him ample opportunity to collaborate with other professionals on his research as well as provide insight into the inner workings of climate activism.
While news reports critique the progress—or lack thereof—made at the COP26 summit, Dr. Kumar has a slightly different view.
“I would say that I’m most sanguine in my deduction about COP26. I’d say that I’m cautiously positive [about] it,” he explained in an interview with The Gavel. “What I argue [about] the nature of COP conferences is that they are all about negotiations. It's all about agreements which are non-binding in nature. So you can’t really ask a fish to fly, because the very nature of the fish is to swim and not fly, right?” Fundamentally, COP conferences are never places in which effectual change can be achieved. Instead, the reliance on negotiation and compromise limits its ability to create impactful resolutions.
He accredits some successes to the conference: the implementation of health as a pivotal topic, negotiations on coal consumption, and pledges to reduce methane consumption.
Financial agreements, however, continued to be an overlooked and unresolved topic of discussion at the summit. The Paris Agreement, a piece of legislation created in a previous COP conference, outlines a $100 billion yearly commitment from developed countries to the aid of developing countries. Developed countries fell short of their promises in the last year, garnering only $79.6 billion and leaving the other $20 billion unaccounted for. Developing countries utilized this failure to push for more financial compensation, according to Kumar.
“So the developing countries, or rather the low- and middle-income countries (LMICs),” he said, “were really using this excuse as an instrument to really pressurize the richer countries to increase their financing because of this trust deficit.”
Financial compensation was a major topic of discussion at the summit. Low- to medium- income countries rely on the financial support of developed countries to cover the cost of both adaptation financing as well as loss and damage financing. The precarity of our climate today demands protection from its extremes. The responsibility of this falls on wealthier countries—they are the ones producing the majority of greenhouse emissions.
“The role of the developed countries, particularly the US, is to provide adequate finances to the lower-middle-income countries but particularly the sub-Saharan African countries,” Kumar explained. “And, I will say, to also provide reparations…to the loss and damage that has already occurred because of climate change.”
He also explained that developed countries are responsible both for providing technologies to aid developing countries in adapting to the evolving climate and raising awareness on climate injustices. Developed countries have continually pushed back against these obligations, feigning ignorance of the catastrophic consequences that accompany global emissions. Financial distributions between developing and developed countries remain at the forefront of worldwide environmental change.
Globally, financial compensation for LMIC’s remains one of the most promising approaches to climate change mitigation. In the United States, however, Kumar argues that there is a more pressing issue that needs addressing.
In the US, marginalized people bear the brunt of environmental consequences of climate change. Natural resource contamination, air quality, natural disasters, and food shortages are just a few of the consequences that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. The way to combat these inequalities, Kumar argues, is through legislative action.
Kumar explained his ideal approach to combating climate change: “I would really want to see legislation that corrects this to create a more environmentally just society, centering in racial justice.”
The ideal future, however, is one free from these anxieties and inequalities.
“To basically advance or create a society that does not require fighting for nature or fighting for justice” is the end goal of climate activism according to Kumar.
The hope for this future, Kumar argues, can be seen in young people and youth activism. Climate change is one issue on which young people globally do not hesitate to expend intellectual efforts. Whether that's because they lack the luxury of its ignorance or because the environment is a communal resource we all value, the youth stand as the biggest advocates of environmental justice.
Pressure from young people, however, will go unnoticed if not legitimized by positive, direct action. Young people can advocate all they want. However, real change requires palpable action.
“Hope is a great thing, but that has to be substantiated with positive change.” Kumar expresses. He cites the abundant attendance of young people and youth organizations at the summit as an indicator for eventual positive action. Not only is the future generation demonstrating monumental passion and pressure for environmental justice, but they are also being given a place to do so.
While the fate of the Earth still balances precariously amidst squabbling nations and legislative inaction, the commitment to yearly summits and climate conversations affords hope for eventual productive change. Will that change ever actually happen, though? Is there a future for us and our environment? Dr. Kumar has an answer for this too.
“I started this interview with the word sanguine. I will say that I’m sanguine that we will be able to win this climate justice war.”