I live at the base of Basalt Mountain, an ancient volcano that tops out at nearly 11,000 feet in the Roaring Fork Valley of western Colorado. An eruption 10 million years ago contributed to the contours of the landscape. In the mornings I drink strong coffee from a U.S. Forest Service mug, and I look out the window at the light on the peaks, at the wild turkeys pecking in the yard, at the deer so tame that I could touch them.
I have spent my career working on climate change — not theoretically but in the trenches, crawling under trailers to insulate them under a federal government program to help low-income families conserve energy, building solar farms, capturing methane from coal mines, bolstering the climate movement through various nonprofit boards and crafting policy at the state and municipal levels. I served as a state regulator and an elected town councilman.
I have also spent 25 years in the field of corporate sustainability, trying to figure out how business might become a meaningful part of the climate solution. Over time, I came to understand that the ethic being applied — the idea that free markets can solve societal problems and that even a monstrosity like climate change can be fixed without regulation — was a ruse that I had bought into, realizing that fraud only late in the game.
This year, Earth’s average temperature bumped, briefly but ominously, to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the preindustrial average. Climate scientists have been telling us that 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is the threshold we should not exceed, but at this point, more and more experts are saying it is all but inevitable.
As the global climate summit in Dubai has unspooled, I’ve read inexplicably cheerful social media posts from colleagues and friends, climate leaders I admire and total unknowns at COP28, the Conference of the Parties — which I’ve come to call the party at the end of the world. These “Look, Ma!” posts strike me as forced, naïve at best, trending toward willful blindness and delusion.
One “breakthrough” being lauded includes a purely voluntary commitment by fossil fuel companies to better capture methane, a potent greenhouse gas we absolutely must contain.
I know this issue intimately. The one man in America who fully understood the obscure problem of methane leaking from coal mines — Tom Vessels, a former oil and gas executive — partnered with me and others a decade ago to capture the gas to generate electricity. The project was a first in the nation, and while it was worthy of and received praise, it was also the only such project — because no federal policy existed to ensure the capture or mitigation of this super-warming agent.
For fossil fuel companies, committing to containing methane leaking from their pipelines and wellheads is a way for those businesses to appear beneficent while continuing to traffic in oil and gas. It is that very trafficking that causes the leakage that must be regulated, even as scientists tell us the essential action required to control warming is to stop burning coal, oil and gas.
A few years ago, I visited Tom in Denver as he was dying from mesothelioma, the result of home remodels done in his youth, when no regulations existed around asbestos. He was rail thin and ghost white. We sat on the couch drinking cans of seltzer. I told him: “You lived a good life. You did a good thing, and you were ahead of your time.” He died a few weeks later. Future generations won’t suffer his fate, thanks to strict asbestos laws. On methane, so far, future generations are mostly unprotected from its pernicious warming power.
In the missives I’ve seen from COP28, there are bad ideas pitched as magical solutions, such as the Rube Goldberg-like plan that John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, doubled down on. According to the investigative outlet The Lever, which reported on a leaked memo outlining discussion issues for the conference, the U.S. plan was to build “on existing voluntary carbon market standards for the international carbon market, as opposed to establishing a new robust framework with stringent standards.” This approach is undermining the United Nations’ effort to solidify an internationally regulated carbon market.
If we’re going to use these markets to reduce emissions, governments must administer and enforce them to make sure the reductions for which one polluter is paying another in the carbon market — the so-called offsets — are real.
At the same time, there were glimmers of hope. As the climate conference began, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced comprehensive new rules to regulate methane in the United States, at least. There are also plans to create a fund to help vulnerable nations hit by climate disasters, and to set a goal of tripling the amount of renewable power worldwide by 2030 (if high interest rates don’t derail that objective). There were also calls for a full fossil fuel phaseout.
But that proposed phaseout rattled the conference hosts in Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s leading oil producers. It is ramping up oil production. The idea was quickly scuttled. The head of the OPEC cartel called on its members to reject any plan that would threaten the production and sale of oil, gas and coal. And it was no idle threat: All 198 participating nations must consent to any agreement. So much for what the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, said would be a major benchmark of success for the summit.
Let’s be real, though. The summit’s proposals for voluntary commitments — on methane, on renewables, on phasing out fossil fuels — were theater. Imagine if in the 1960s Americans had responded to the civil rights movement not with legislation but with calls to please treat one another nicely.
That is one of the reasons that when I read optimistically pithy social media posts from colleagues visiting a petrostate hosting a climate conference led by an oil executive, I begin to feel the creeping tendrils of despair. The climate problem is complex and enormous, and the progress to rein it in has been slow. Meanwhile, carbon emissions continue to rise in what is expected to be the hottest year in recorded history.
And still, I make my coffee, holding it in my hands as I look out into my yard, thinking how good I have it. I am reminded of the biologist E.O. Wilson’s defining idea, “biophilia,” our innate love of life and nature.
I see even in Dubai, as the conference comes to a close, the outlines of a human inclination to protect, to hold on and to persevere.
These are mostly good people, after all, who convened to reduce carbon emissions worldwide, with the focus on this issue alone, for two weeks. Many are driven by the idea that we can’t let this unique and beautiful existence, on a spinning globe in the big empty, go down in literal flames. Sure, the event has been co-opted. At least 1,300 oil, gas and coal lobbyists were granted access to the conference. But there are also powerful forces pushing for success.
Thomas Keating, a Catholic priest who helped start St. Benedict’s, a now-closed monastic community near my house, lived among turkeys and deer like the ones I see from my windows. “Whether we walk down the street or drink a cup of soup,” he wrote, “divine life is pouring into the world.”
Can we really let it go?
Auden Schendler is the senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen One and the author of the forthcoming book “Terrible Beauty: Reckoning With Climate Complicity and Rediscovering Our Soul.”
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