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Thomas L. Friedman: The climate summit was energizing — and terrifying | GUEST COMMENTARY

Climate activists protest outside the Grangemouth Oil Refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. "I spent last week talking to all sorts of people gathered for the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, and it left me with profoundly mixed emotions," writes The New York Times opinion columnist Thomas L. Friedman. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)
Climate activists protest outside the Grangemouth Oil Refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. "I spent last week talking to all sorts of people gathered for the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, and it left me with profoundly mixed emotions," writes The New York Times opinion columnist Thomas L. Friedman. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times) (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

I spent last week talking to all sorts of people gathered for the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, and it left me with profoundly mixed emotions.

Having been to most of the climate summits since Bali in 2007, I can tell you this one had a very different feel. I was awed by the energy of all the youth on the streets demanding that we rise to the challenge of global warming and by some of the amazing new technological and market fixes being proposed by innovators and investors. This was not the old days — everyone waiting for the deals cut by the priesthood of climate diplomats huddled behind closed doors. This was the many talking to the many, and I am buoyed by that.

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But for me, there was one question that hovered over every promise coming out of this summit: When you see how hard it’s been for governments to get their citizens to just put on a mask in stores or to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their neighbors and their grandparents from being harmed or killed by COVID-19, how in the world are we going to get big majorities to work together globally and make the lifestyle sacrifices needed to dampen the increasingly destructive effects of global warming — for which there are treatments but no vaccine? That’s magical thinking, and it demands a realistic response.

Here’s my reporter’s notebook that produced those conflicting emotions:

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The street where it happened

For the first time, it felt to me that the adult delegates inside the conference halls were more afraid of the kids outside than they were of one another or the press.

Clearly, the internet and social media are super-empowering young people, who daily are manifesting that power in Glasgow to call out the adult negotiators — who clearly don’t want to be flamed, blamed or shamed as “blah leaders,” or “bleaders,” who just “blah, blah, blah,” as wall posters slapped around Glasgow suggest. I was warned before a panel I was on that if any young protesters disrupted the session, simply let them have their say.

Gen Z — all those who were born between 1997 and 2012 and grew up as digital natives — is now the world’s largest population cohort, 2.5 billion strong, and their presence is palpable at the summit.

They know that later is over, that later will be too late and that sticking to our business-as-usual trajectory could heat up the planet by the end of the century to levels no Homo sapiens have ever lived in.

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“These young people don’t just want to purchase your products or vote for you. They want to take action with you,” argued Molly Voss Fannon, CEO of the Museum for the United Nations — UN Live, an independent organization that works to help people all over the world discover and flex their own power. “My oldest daughter, who is only 10, is the person who got me to become a vegetarian. My middle daughter recently ran for student council at her school on the platform of: ‘Vote for me because I can talk my parents into anything.’ With her, it’s like raising Al Capone with a heart of gold.”

The bad news for Gen Z (and the rest of us)

Good news, Gen Zers: You won the debate on climate change. And thanks for that. Both governments and business are now saying: "We get it. We're on it." The bad news: There is still a huge gap between what scientists say is needed by way of immediately reducing use of the coal, oil and gas that drive global warming and what governments and business — and, yes, average citizens — are ready to do if it comes to a choice of heat or eat.

As energy experts point out, it is never a good idea to take off your belt until your suspenders are on tight. Governments will not quit dirty fossil fuels until there is sufficient clean energy to replace them. And that will take longer or require much greater sacrifices than are being discussed in any depth at the summit.

Read this from CNBC’s website on Nov. 3 and weep: “The global supply of renewables will grow by 35 gigawatts from 2021 to 2022, but global power demand growth will go up by 100 gigawatts over the same period. … Countries will have to tap traditional fuel sources to meet the rest of the demand. … That shortfall will only widen as economies reopen and travel resumes,” which will spark “sharp rises in prices for natural gas, coal and electricity.”

We need to stop deluding ourselves that we can have it all — that we can do foolish things like close down nuclear plants in Germany that provided massive amounts of clean energy, just to show how green we are, and then ignore the fact that without sufficient renewables in place, Germany is now back to burning more of the dirtiest coal. This moral preening is really counterproductive.

Energy is a scale problem. It requires a TRANSITION, and that means a transition from fossil fuels to cleaner fuels — like natural gas or nuclear — to wind and solar and, eventually, sources that don’t today even exist. Those who propose ignoring that transition risk producing a huge backlash against the whole green movement this winter if people can’t heat their homes or run their factories.

Is there anything I can do?

Yes! Plant a tree — or prevent one from being chopped down — by supporting Indigenous communities, whose territories contain 50% of all the world’s remaining forests and 80% of the healthiest functioning ecosystems, according to Peter Seligmann, a co-founder of Nia Tero, an organization recently started “to ensure that Indigenous peoples have the economic power and cultural independence to steward, support and protect their livelihoods and territories they call home” — which also happen to be home to some of Earth’s greatest biodiversity treasures.

Mr. Seligmann (a donor to my wife’s language museum) introduced me to Teofilo Kukush, chief of the Wampis Nation, an Indigenous people, some 15,300 strong, who have been living for multiple generations on their own territory — 1,327,760 hectares (5,126 square miles) of mostly forest and watersheds, in the northern Peruvian Amazon.

And no wonder. Speaking in Spanish and Wampis, his Indigenous language, through a translator, Mr. Kukush explained that every year their still largely intact forested region — with which they live in harmony, using rotating agriculture — absorbs 57 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and stores millions of tons of carbon by keeping those trees standing.

But like so many Indigenous communities controlling tropical forests, his faces daily attacks from human predators — miners, loggers, animal parts traffickers, drug smugglers and industrial farmers. Indigenous leaders were brought to Glasgow by Nia Tero to highlight their critical role.

If you’re looking for an ordinary thing that could have an extraordinary effect, it would be protecting these biodiversity protectors.

Or, we could be the punchline to a bad joke; your choice

Two planets are talking to each other. One looks like a beautiful blue marble and the other a dirty brown ball.

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“What on earth happened to you?” the beautiful planet asks the brown one.

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“I had Homo sapiens,” answers the brown planet.

“Don’t worry,” says the blue planet. “They don’t last long.”

Thomas L. Friedman (Twitter: @tomfriedman) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.

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