11 • 03 • 2021

World Leaders Must Lead on Climate Change at COP 26

By Stefanie Sekich-Quinn

“It’s time for humanity to grow up. My friends, the adolescence of humanity is coming to an end.” 

                                                                 —Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Prime Minister Johnson made this statement before the United Nations General Assembly in June 2021, exactly when extreme weather events were devastating the globe. He made the speech to ‘prepare’ world leaders for the upcoming COP 26 meeting, where delegates from around the world are charged with fulfilling goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Johnson’s direct statement about humanity needing to grow up perfectly encapsulates the urgency of the climate crisis.  

Within the past year, humanity has witnessed severe wildfires, hurricanes, rains and floods, heat waves and weather whiplashed. It is estimated the 2021 fire season cost Americans up to $90 billion and burned more than 6.5 million acres of land—including some of the oldest, tallest Sequoia trees in the world. Record-breaking heat scorched North America and land temperatures in the Arctic Circle reached an unprecedented 118 degrees Fahrenheit over the summer.  

Climate change-induced “vapor storms,” a newly coined term, are increasing extreme weather events. As our ocean and atmosphere warm, additional water evaporates into the air, fueling more intense hurricanes, rain and subsequent flooding. It is estimated that the 2021 hurricane season cost Americans $69 billion in damage. The unprecedented floods in Europe and Asia were equally devastating, costing Europe $7.7 billion in damages and costing China roughly $25 billion in economic losses ( figures do not account for flooding in southeast Asia). 

Empirical impacts of the climate crisis are ubiquitous nowadays. Five years ago, impacts were not as pronounced, despite scientists warning about the destructive nature of global warming. In October, Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed medical journal, released a study indicating that “Humanity faces a crucial turning point and climate change is now the defining narrative of human health.” Lancet’s study asserts climate change is creating ideal conditions for infectious diseases, such as malaria, dengue and Zika and the potential for outbreaks is increasing most in developed countries. The study also references the psychological burden that sea level rise and extreme weather events have on communities and people who might need to relocate.

Another study found that climate-driven coastal flooding in the U.S. will impact Black, Indigenous and People Of Color (BIPOC) and disadvantaged communities disproportionately.  The study focuses on how these communities were historically relegated to live in low-lying areas and now aging infrastructure, battered by climate change, is putting people, homes, and communities in harm’s way. This study amplifies what environmental justice advocates, coastal communities, academia, and other stakeholders have been working to highlight and solve for years. 

Despite the increasing impacts of climate change in 2021, positive advancements to rein in the climate crisis were made in the U.S., ranging from the federal level, all the way down to small townships. Nationally, both the Biden administration and Congress have made progress to uphold climate policies that were rolled back during the previous Administration.  

For example, Biden’s budget increased ‘coastal resilience funds' for NOAA. President Biden also issued a series of Executive Orders that focus on reducing Greenhouse gases, re-entering the Paris Agreement, pausing new offshore oil drilling, protecting 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030, improving environmental justice efforts and restoring protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

The House of Representatives introduced the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act of 2021 that aims to leverage the ocean in the fight against climate change. This landmark bill will improve ocean protection, increase Blue Carbon Ecosystems, promote responsible renewable offshore energy and help communities adapt to sea level rise. There are an additional nine pieces of legislation in the House that specifically focus on coastal and ocean implications of climate change. Together, this is a major improvement from the previous Congress and administration. 

Surfrider hopes world leaders double down on commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bolster coastal adaptation mechanisms at COP 26 meeting in Glasgow.  Afterall, time is of the essence and humanity can no longer idly sit by as the climate crisis barrels down on our coastal communities.  As Prime Minister Johnson said, “It’s time for humanity to grow up.”