COP26 and the Fragility of Climate Knowledge

By Isobel Akerman (@isobelakerman)

Mauna Loa Observatory.

On Sunday 31st October 2021, the 197 signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will gather in Glasgow to discuss the biggest issues facing our planet.[1] The 26th Conference of the Parties [COP26] is a two-week conference, designed for nations to negotiate climate adaptation, mitigation, science, technology, finance, and education. Whether or not this conference is defined as a success by commentators, it marks a fascinating moment in human history: global climate change has been agreed by state leaders to be an indisputable fact.

This fact was made official within the pages of the 2021 report by the International Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], an organisation set up to gather climate change research and present it to governments to inform policymaking.

‘It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land’.[2]

That word – ‘unequivocal’ – is important. The 2021 report was the first time the IPCC stated with such unquestionable scientific confidence that the planet was warming and that it was our fault. There were, with the publication of this report, no more corners of doubt in which to hide.

Global climate change now seems to many people to be a self-evident truth. Of course the planet is warming, of course it is human-induced: it is unequivocal. To historians, however, facts can’t be viewed in isolation: the world was warming long before the IPCC printed a report or Glasgow held a conference.[3] So, environmental historians ask themselves, how and why has the human influence on climate now become such a foundational part of scientific, political, social, and cultural knowledge? What are the precursors to COP26 that have given this idea so much political exposure? And how can historians bring this narrative to light so that the facts stay facts, the issues stay transparent, and anthropogenic climate change stays unequivocal and therefore actionable?

First, it’s important to remember that for most of us the global environment as an interconnected planetary system is a relatively new idea. The word climate itself derives from a Greek word that means ‘to lean’ – noting the different leanings or regions of the world. Historians have often pointed to a famous image taken by the Apollo 17 space crew in 1972 as a key marker of change. This photograph transformed the Earth from an abstract thing described through a jigsaw of words and pictures to something connected and whole: one big, beautiful marble.

The Blue Marble

In climate-science circles, however, an understanding of the global had been emerging long before this. In 1938 Guy Callendar published a paper linking global warming to CO2 emissions, and from the late 1950s atmospheric CO2 levels were being systematically measured at the Hawaiian Mauna Loa Observatory.[4]

Yet it was only in the late 1980s that human-induced planetary climate change became part of mainstream media. Within the space of three years, the renowned Brundtland Commission had laid out the urgent need for political leaders to address climate change as a social necessity; the eminent scientist James Hansen had taken to the floor of the US Senate to testify that human-induced global warming was a political reality and the IPCC had published its first report, providing a text that could connect scientific research with actionable policy.[5] At the 1992 Earth Summit, following the IPCC’s recommendation, international leaders (or ‘parties’) signed a non-binding UN convention on climate change.[6] Every year they would re-convene to discuss these issues and measure progress. And lo, the Conference of the Parties (COP) was born.

Twenty-six conferences later and here we are: 0.8 degrees warmer on average, and getting hotter.[7] The first legally binding emission-reduction contracts were signed by governments in 1997 but only by ‘developed’ nations (which didn’t include China). Some of the bigger emitters were even forced to quickly backtrack – the US Senate, for example, initially refused to ratify the treaty.[8] More recently, in 2015, all countries met in Paris to approve nationally determined emission-reduction contributions [NDCs], an agreement that was hailed as a landmark in geopolitical negotiations. But again, the US withdrew from this agreement under Donald Trump.[9]

It is clear from the political seesawing that the ‘fact’ of human-induced climate change can be a fragile thing. As eyes turn to Glasgow, it is hoped by activists that all nations will come forward with aggressive emissions targets, enhancing their existing NDCs. But with delicate economies recovering from the pandemic, there is a danger of focusing too much on one global reality at the expense of another and putting economies over the planet. Philosopher Bruno Latour has warned that if the narrative of environmental crisis is not sustained, we may lose sight of the difficult situation that faces us.[10] The historian has a responsibility to demonstrate the contingent nature of the past to protect the material reality of the present.


[1] https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-convention/status-of-ratification/status-of-ratification-of-the-convention

[2] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf

[3] Asdal, Kristin. “The Problematic Nature of Nature: The Post-Constructivist Challenge to Environmental History.” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (2003): 60–74.

[4] https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/qj.49706427503

[5] The World Commission on Environment and Development, ‘Our Common Future’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b5127807; https://www.ipcc.ch/report/climate-change-the-ipcc-1990-and-1992-assessments/

[6] https://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/background_publications_htmlpdf/application/pdf/conveng.pdf

[7] Relative to 1951-1980 average temperatures, compared with 1992 levels. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, [https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/]

[8] ‘Developed nations’ broadly defined as those with (or developing into) a market economy https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/docs/cop3/l07a01.pdf ; https://www.jstor.org/stable/2668508

[9] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/world-us-canada-40123293

[10] Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).

Image Credits:

Image 1: “Mauna Loa Observatories” by Christopher.Michel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Image 2: Blue Marble from Apollo 17 https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/images/55418/the-blue-marble-from-apollo-17

1 thought on “COP26 and the Fragility of Climate Knowledge

  1. A good post on COP26. Thank you 😊🌍

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