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COP25 Ends With a Whimper: A Few Takeaways

Politics
COP25 Ends With a Whimper: A Few Takeaways
Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres during Guterres' speech at COP25 on Dec. 11, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Jesus Hellin / Europa Press via Getty Images

The longest UN climate meeting in history extended two extra days for a marathon bargaining session, but ended early Sunday morning with little accomplished. Policy makers mostly decided to punt strengthening their commitments to lower emissions and to a market for carbon emissions, until COP26 in Glasgow next December, the AP reported.


Protestors denounced polluting nations for sacrificing the health of future generations. Policy makers shirked the calls from demonstrators, youths and scientists who said the only way to skirt a global catastrophe is a drastic and coordinated reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as CNN reported.

The UN secretary general tweeted his frustration early yesterday morning. "I am disappointed with the results of #COP25," wrote António Guterres. "The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis. But we must not give up, and I will not give up."

His disappointment was echoed by other conference leaders, including Chilean environment minister and conference president, Carolina Schmidt, who said, "The consensus is still not there to increase ambition to the levels that we need. Before finishing I want to make a clear and strong call to the world to strengthen political will and accelerate climate action to the speed that the world needs. The new generations expect more from us," as the BBC reported.

And Alden Meyer, a policy expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, "Never have I seen such a disconnect between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action. Most of the world's biggest emitting countries are missing in action and resisting calls to raise their ambition," as the BBC reported.

Here are a few takeaways from the conference:

Carbon Emitters and Fossil Fuels Prevailed

The U.S. and several other prominent polluters blocked a voluntary measure that would have set more ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions next year, as The New York Times reported. Rather than seek consensus and show generosity on the world stage, the Trump administration pushed back against an agreement that would compensate the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries for climate-crisis induced extreme weather, including storms, droughts, floods and rising seas, according to The New York Times.

The U.S. was not alone in obstructing progress. Brazil and Australia were also identified as main culprits in blocking action, along with Saudi Arabia and Russia. China and India also resisted improving their carbon emissions goals.

"Most of the large emitters were missing in action or obstructive," said Helen Mountford, a vice president at World Resources Institute, as The New York Times reported. "This reflects how disconnected many national leaders are from the urgency of the science and the demands of their citizens."

Activists Are Angry Over Inaction

Toward the beginning of COP25, nearly 500,000 protestors took to the streets of Madrid to demand action on the conference's first Friday. The protest coincided with a Fridays for Future protest and was led by the face of the movement, Greta Thunberg, who reminded the crowd, "The change we need is not going to come from people in power," said Thunberg to the the crowds, as the BBC reported. "The change is going to come from the people, the masses, demanding change."

Protestors continued to march on the streets throughout the conference and Extinction Rebellion blocked roads and camped out by the conference hall, demanding protections for indigenous people in Brazil's rainforest, as Vox reported. That same day protestors from Latin and North America held an impromptu protest, blocking the gates of the main hall, as the AP reported.

Youth protestors took over the stage on Wednesday, as the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program tweeted. Then protestors took over the hall in the waning moments of the conference

When Thunberg and other youth activists from around the globe addressed the conference the following, they had grown impatient with the inaction the nearly two-week conference had netted.

"Finding holistic solutions is what the COP should be all about, but instead it seems to have turned into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes and to avoid raising their ambition," Thunberg told conference members, as Vox reported. Several activists, including Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, joined Thunberg on the dais. Nakabuye accused the representatives of failing her generation as they have negotiated in vain for the last 25 years.

"So I've been taking part in these COPs for 25 years, and I've never seen the divide between what's happening on the inside of these walls and what's happening on the outside so large," said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, according to Vox.

Brazil Is the Big Loser

The winner of the ignominious Colossal Fossil award was Brazil. The satirical award for the worst climate offender is given out by the activist group Climate Action Network, which cited Brazil for "destroying the climate concretely on the ground and in the negotiations, attacking and killing the very people who are protecting unique ecosystems: indigenous people," Climate Action Network wrote.

The U.S. took home several Fossil of the Day awards for its refusal to help vulnerable populations and its refusal to accept the science around the climate crisis. Russia, Australia and Japan also won a few for their addiction to fossil fuels, especially coal, which they all refused to speak against.

Bad Timing

The conference fell at an awkward time for many countries. The U.S. is in the midst of impeachment hearings. China, Chile and France are all facing domestic unrest that threatens to undermine their climate priorities. Parts of Australia are crippled by brushfires and water shortages. And the UK went through a general election during the COP25 conference.

A European Bright Spot

At the opening of the conference, Spain's prime minister derided climate deniers and called for Europe to lead the way in fighting the climate crisis.

"If Europe led the industrial revolution, Europe must lead the decarbonization [effort]. At a moment marked by the silence of some, Europe has a lot to say," said Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, at the start of the conference, as El Pais reported. "The battle against climate change requires moving from words into action."

Back in Brussels, the EU commission laid the groundwork for the world's largest economic bloc, the European Union, to be carbon-neutral by 2050 with a massive overhaul of infrastructure and the economy, as EcoWatch reported.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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