This Advent season, there’s hope at COP 28

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. – Lyrics from the Christmas hymn O Holy Night[1]

As I write this, the COP 28 United Nations Climate Conference is still underway but wrapping up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 30 through December 12, 2023.

Hope is not necessarily the first word you might associate with these conferences of the parties. In general, the conversations focus on the growing-ever-more-visible-and-generally-negative impacts of global warming on ecosystems and human affairs, the inadequacy of national and international responses to the challenge, and the dire outlook ahead if we don’t dramatically step-up our efforts. Emphasis this 28th time around is on bringing fossil-fuel extraction consumption use and emissions under control – getting to net zero. Methane is also drawing attention, as are funding instruments for getting money from nations who have it to nations who need it if they are to play their needed role.

But hope is in the (still-inexorably-warming) air. Consider this message from Rick Spinrad, NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, reprinted in its entirety:

As the world gathers in Dubai this week for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), we do so against the backdrop of an unprecedented year of worldwide extreme weather events and record-breaking heat. The challenges we confront are daunting, and they demand our collective resolve, but they also require us to continue to foster a sense of hope that propels us forward in the fight against one of the greatest existential threats of our time. 

“Let me share a few reasons for hope as we confront the climate crisis:

“Science and Innovation: Science has never been more advanced. At NOAA, we have a deeper understanding of the Earth’s systems than ever before, including how they act and interact. Innovations in renewable energy, carbon capture and sustainability are within our grasp. Thanks to historic investments in renewables and green technology, we have the resources and tools to make a real impact as we advance these solutions.

“Youth and Activism: The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. The enthusiasm, determination, knowledge, and activism of the younger generation have ignited a global movement demanding action on climate change. They remind us that the future is not lost and that we must strive for a world that is sustainable, just and equitable for all.

“Global Collaboration: COP28 is a testament to the power of global collaboration. Countries, organizations and thousands of individuals from around the world are convening to collectively address climate change. When we are committed together, our determination is uncompromising.

“Hope is not a passive sentiment — it is a call to action. It reminds us that we are not helpless in the face of climate change. NOAA is in every community in the U.S., committed to working hand-in-hand with partners locally to build a ‘climate-ready nation’ and to sharing these best practices globally. No matter the need, people know they can turn to us for reliable, easy-to-use climate and extreme weather information to help make informed decisions that help save lives and livelihoods.

“As the Administrator of NOAA, as a scientist and as a concerned citizen, I know that our agency is committed to continuing vital work in climate research and prediction, supporting sustainable practices and sharing knowledge with the world. And I know that it is equally essential for all of us to play our part.

“In the spirit of international collaboration that powers COP28, let us remember that there is hope, and it’s a powerful force that drives change. Let it motivate us to make bold and ambitious commitments, to hold ourselves accountable and to work tirelessly to combat climate change every day.”

Well said. Worth noting, especially considering the source, for two reasons. At the institutional level, the message comes not from a COP-bystander, but from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose work and mission for many decades[2] has been at the heart of, and a major impetus for, the COP discussions. NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory has housed much of the work of Charles David Keeling and atmospheric chemists in monitoring the CO2 trends that are cause for concern. NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory gave us the early model results (Manabe and Wetherald, 1967) quantifying the connection between rising CO2 levels and atmospheric warming – results that would win Syukuro Manabe a quarter share of the 2021 Nobel Prize in physics.

At the individual level, throughout his career and in this message, Rick Spinrad has demonstrated those qualities we so hope to see from our leaders. This starts with clear-eyed vision and scientific integrity, to be sure. But it doesn’t stop there. It extends to an ability to inspire – not through mere empty words, but through establishing meaningful connections between work that needs doing and societal benefit.

But hope also entered COP28 from another quarter. The COP28 hosts established the first-ever Faith Pavilion for the participation of religious communities. The link provides extensive detail; this Pope Francis video message for the inauguration gives the flavor. Thoughtful and inspiring, it’s worth two minutes of your time.

Getting the science right? Acknowledging the profound spiritual issues such as equity, love, and responsibility at the heart of the problem? Laying out concrete international steps for getting to net zero; coping with the emerging methane challenge; financing the whole?

COP28 finds realism and hope existing side by side, working in concert.

[1] Full disclosure, this has long been one of my two very favorite Christmas hymns. Want to get in the seasonal spirit? Take time for this low-key video version by Malakai Bayoh and Aled Jones. LOTRW has considered hope in the context of O Holy Night and Advent in several prior years. In chronological order: January 2012 (a little late, I know); December 2012; 2013; 2014. Want to add a bit of variety? Try Mary Did You Know?, a hymn which captures the full global and personal  emotional impact of Jesus’ birth like no other. Here’s a version by Pentatonix.

[2] NOAA had yet to be established by that name at the start; the work began under antecedent agencies.

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