Diplomats Are Lowering Expectations Ahead of COP26

Don’t let them off the hook.

United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in Washington, DC. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

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We’re on the cusp of a major climate event — the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland — and already world leaders are lowering expectations. But it’s essential as journalists that we remember our responsibility to the public and not let politicians and diplomats treat us as stenographers. The summit, which runs from October 31 to November 12, has been called humanity’s “last best chance” by the COP26 president to keep average global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The world has no choice but to aim high and demand that leaders rise to the occasion.

Those who live in the poorest nations and also suffer the greatest climate impacts will be watching. In a position paper, more than 100 developing countries, representing half of the world, declared “COP 26 must be a key moment of delivery and there can be no more excuses for unfulfilled promises, particularly climate finance.” They’re working to raise expectations as rich countries have failed to meet their Paris Agreement pledge to provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries quit fossil fuels and protect against climate impacts.

So in the face of that reality, how are some world leaders lowering expectations? The leader of the host nation, British prime minister Boris Johnson, said last month it will be “tough” for developed countries to meet their financing pledge to developing countries. He gave it a “six out of 10” chance. Then, on Monday, Johnson told Bloomberg that negotiations at COP26 will be “really tough.” And last week, US climate envoy John Kerry told the AP that at the summit “there will be a gap” between emissions targets that are promised and those that are required.  The tried and true tactic of letting us down gently is well underway.

At COP26, President Joe Biden hoped to have strong climate legislation under his belt as he aims to show US leadership on climate. He won’t.

The centerpiece of Biden’s climate plan — a $150 billion clean electricity program — has been dropped from the budget bill due to unanimous, lockstep opposition from Senate Republicans as well as resistance from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. It’s worth noting that most congressional Republicans still deny climate science and that, in this election cycle, Manchin is the largest beneficiary of donations from the oil and gas industry in the Senate.

Biden now faces an uphill battle in trying to persuade major countries to reduce their emissions. Kerry said if the US Congress fails to pass major climate legislation, “It would be like President Trump pulling out of the Paris agreement, again.” So here we are.

As diplomats and politicians work overtime to manage our expectations ahead of the crucial climate summit, journalists must remember their responsibility to the public. We are not tools for diplomats and politicians. So take this as a rallying cry to hold their feet to the fire before, during, and after the COP26 summit. In interviews, ask the questions that citizens want to know, and hold them accountable. Do not let yourself be used.


Pre-COP26 Press Events

  • Today. UN Secretary–General António Guterres, who is at the heart of COP26 negotiations and will likely also attend the G20 summit, will speak to CCNow partner journalists for a press conference at 3pm US Eastern Time today. Note, you must be a CCNow partner to participate. RSVP here.
  • October 26. COP26 President Alok Sharma will answer questions about the crucial climate summit from CCNow partner journalists on Tuesday, October 26, at 12pm Eastern Time. You must be a CCNow partner to participate. RSVP here.
  • October 28. CCNow and Climate Central will host a press briefing on COP26 goals and imperatives. Our panel of experts will discuss what a successful summit would look like, and brainstorm story ideas around 1.5 degrees Celsius. RSVP here.

COP26 is a local story, too: In a new column for Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, CCNow deputy editor Andrew McCormick explains why the UN summit in Glasgow is essential for local newsrooms to cover — and offers advice on how to do it. Check it out.

New climate poll.  CCNow, the Guardian, and VICE will release the results of a poll on Americans’ views about climate change and oil companies’ decades of lying about it on Tuesday, October 26. Two days later, oil company executives are expected to testify before the House about their roles in spreading disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming. This could shape up to be a landmark day in climate crimes history.


Excellent news. The premier of Quebec François Legault announced this week that the Canadian province he represents will stop extracting oil and gas, in a move welcomed by environmentalists. Quebec, which has faced public opposition to fossil fuel extraction projects, joins Greenland, Ireland, and Denmark in banning future exploration. By Jenny Uechi at The National Observer…

Bad for you. Climate change is “the greatest global health threat” humanity faces, the Lancet has warned in its annual report on climate and health. Global warming will worsen heat and respiratory illnesses and trigger disease outbreaks, but rapid efforts to curtail carbon emissions could avert millions of unnecessary deaths. By Sarah Kaplan at The Washington Post…

Leaked. A trove of documents seen by the BBC shows how some countries are trying to change an upcoming UN report aimed at tackling climate change. Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Australia are some of the countries asking the UN to downplay the need to move away from fossil fuels quickly. And some rich nations are also questioning climate aid pledged to poorer countries. By Justin Rowlatt and Tom Gerken at the BBC…

Double extraction. Though governments have pledged otherwise, leading fossil fuel producers plan to extract double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be necessary to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a new UN Environment Programme report. From Al Jazeera…

* In the US, coal-fired output will increase by 22% for 2021, it’s the first year-over-year rise since 2014, according to new federal data. By Dharna Noor at Gizmodo…

Dixie’s weather. The year’s largest wildfire, the Dixie Blaze in California, was so intense that it created its own weather, including massive firestorms. Using high-resolution radar data, the graphics team at The New York Times shows what the soaring storm clouds looked like, in 3D. By Nadja Popovich and team at The New York Times…

Deadly data. This interactive visualizes how climate impacts — heatwaves, floods, wildfires, and crop failure — are predicted to change as the world warms. Select your world region and move through various scenarios of global temperature rise. You’ll see  the models change to show what could be in store. From Oliver Milman, Andrew Witherspoon, Rita Liu, and Alvin Chang at the Guardian…

Accountable. A European Space Agency satellite spotted a massive methane leak in Russia in June, which led the Russian energy company Gazprom to repair it. In a different era it may have gone unnoticed. But satellites locating and measuring the leaks are creating new opportunities for holding fossil fuel companies accountable. From Steven Mufson and team at The Washington Post…

Covering climate, now. The media’s coverage of climate change is slowly getting better, but given the stakes there’s a lot of room for improvement. The authors propose a five point-plan to help journalists and the media to do better. By Amy Westervelt and Mary Annaïse Heglar at The Nation…

Case closed. The scientific consensus about human-caused climate change has surpassed 99.99%, putting it on par with the level of agreement about plate tectonics and evolution, according to a survey of nearly 90,000 climate-related studies. The public does not yet grasp the level of scientific certainty, which an earlier survey put at 97%, and it is not reflected in political debate, especially in the US. By Jonathan Watts for the Guardian…


The following stories deserve special consideration for republication by CCNow partners:

COP26 backgrounders from the Guardian:

For partner outlets: To submit stories for sharing, please use this form. Instructions for republishing and the full list of stories available for republication can be found in our Sharing Library.


COP26 webinar. On Wednesday, October 27, SEJ and the UN Foundation are bringing together UN policy experts and journalists to discuss what to watch for at COP26. RSVP here. 

Jobs. The Victoria Advocate in Texas is seeking an environmental reporter. New Hampshire Public Radio is still looking for a climate change reporter. The Seattle Times is recruiting a climate change reporter. High Country News has a climate justice fellowship opening. TIME is recruiting a senior editor for health, science, and climate.