People and Community Science and Technology

University community reacts to ‘last best hope’ to save planet

Students and faculty and staff members with a keen interest in climate change say the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, which ended Friday, should have gone further to address anthropogenic climate change.
Protesters march at the COP26 summit taking place in Glasgow, Scotland.
Organizers march in an effort to raise awareness for climate justice issues in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo: Daniel Suman/University of Miami

It has been called the greatest problem of our modern era, and it is affecting all of the nearly 200 nations on the planet.

Yet, how each of these countries will respond to climate change is up for negotiation. 

After a rocky start, with Russia and China absent from the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, also known as COP26, the news last week that the United States and China—the world’s worst carbon emitters—pledged to cooperate to slow global warming during this decade breathed new life into the high-stakes summit. 

But many watching the conference across the University of Miami community were disappointed by the lack of real progress, and they wonder if nations will live up to the promises they made during the two weeks of talks. 

And their frustrations were only heightened last Friday, as the conference entered its final day with world leaders still trying to hammer out a deal to save the world from the most dire consequences of global warming. 

During the talks, a reported 197 nations came together to iron out ways to mitigate the effects of climate change. Chief among the goals: to limit carbon emissions by half in the next decade and to reduce deforestation practices, all to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. This is one of the impacts of global warming that scientists say is inevitable unless nations dramatically reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. However, with an ongoing pandemic hindering the economies of many nations, sincere commitments have been difficult to attain. 

Among the biggest pledges made at the summit, which U.S. climate envoy John Kerry called the “last best hope for the world to get its act together,” were: 

  • A promise from more than 100 world leaders to end deforestation by 2030. 
  • A global partnership between the U.S. and European Union to cut emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane by 2030. 
  • A commitment from more than 40 countries to shift away from coal, the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. 
  • An agreement from 450 financial organizations to support green technology like renewable energy and to shift finances away from fossil fuel-burning industries. 

At least two University of Miami faculty members attended the landmark summit. Daniel Suman, a professor of environmental science and policy at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, represented his native Panama and participated in a panel discussion on mangroves, promoting them as invaluable blue carbon sinks. 

Meanwhile, Xavier Cortada, a three-time University alumnus and professor of practice, took thousands of artistic name tags with him to engage delegates and decision-makers and to amplify the voices of South Florida. As part of his participatory art project “HELLO,” the name tags were distributed to conference participants, who filled them in, not with their names, but with their fears, hopes, purposes, futures, or elevations. The idea was to spark conversations about the impact of the climate crisis on vulnerable communities around the world. Read Cortada’s daily accounts from COP26. 

Many other faculty and staff members from across the University study and investigate how climate change is impacting our oceans, atmosphere, forests, wildlife, and communities through sea level rise, extreme weather, and increasing temperatures. And many of them paid close attention to what transpired at COP26. The following are the reactions they provided. 

Mauro Galetti is an associate professor in the biology department and serves as director of the Gifford Arboretum. His research focuses on the ripple effects of animal extinction and deforestation on tropical ecosystems, like the rainforests of Brazil and greater South America. 

“I think the resolutions of COP26 were too timid and will not solve the effects of climate change in time for the biodiversity collapse. We should be more proactive and have more effective measures to stop biodiversity loss and rainforest deforestation. The Amazon and Asian rainforests are burning at an alarming rate, and we cannot continue accepting products and companies that profit from rainforest destruction. We also need strong educational measures at global level to reduce our carbon footprint.” 

Gina Maranto, a senior lecturer in English and the outgoing co-director of ecosystem science and policy at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, wrote one of the first national magazine cover articles warning about climate change for Discover magazine in 1986. Thirty-five years later, she remains gravely concerned about the lack of a true commitment to decarbonization she saw during COP26. 

“At the time of my article, it seemed we would see greater action from the U.S. on what was not only a threat to the viability of our species but also a national security threat. Sadly, as Nathaniel Rich explored in “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” bureaucratic dithering and the lobbying influence of the oil and gas industry prevailed. So, what I watched most closely at COP26 is commitment to decarbonization—especially of the cement, chemical, and steel industries, as these are all huge carbon emitters. I also wanted a real commitment by world leaders to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. Some two dozen COP26 attendees have vowed to cease underwriting coal production, but we need more mechanisms for phasing out old fuels and speeding adoption of clean energy. And we need them quickly, because it is clear that keeping global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is now a pipe dream.”   

David Kelly is an economics professor and academic director of the Master’s in Sustainable Business program at the Miami Herbert Business School. Kelly has been watching the conference closely because his research looks at methods to improve the sustainability and resilience of businesses, such as carbon trading. A part of his research also deals with where banks lend their money. For example, banks are now weighing the risk of lending to places like oil fields, which may not be as profitable with more climate regulation and advances in green energy.

“I have a mixed reaction about the results of COP26. There’s been little if any progress with respect to countries and governments, but the private sector has taken important steps forward, especially in the finance sector [to redirect investment away from fossil fuels toward clean energy].”

Teddy L’Houtellier serves as the University’s sustainability manager, leading all the GreenU programs through the Facilities, Operations, and Planning Department. He hopes that the conference will produce some form of carbon dividend that would level the playing field for alternatives to fossil fuel. 

“There is a lot of hope. I just saw that at least 23 countries have recently made new commitments to phase out coal power, including five of the world’s top 20 coal power-using countries. And I saw that major international banks are committing to end all international public financing of new unabated coal power by the end of 2021.” 

Joanna Lombard is a professor of architecture with a joint appointment in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine and is a faculty scholar in the Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. Lombard’s projects deal with neighborhood design and health, and she investigates the impacts of greenness and greening initiatives in her work. She has been following the commitments from nations and companies to keep temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius, as well as the corresponding climate finance conversations. 

“These two issues are integral and essential to adaptation and resilience planning. It’s essential to hold the line at 1.5 Celsius; and without commensurate financial support, it won’t happen. Going beyond that threshold takes adaptation and resilience into another scale of global hazards. It’s also very encouraging that more than 40 countries have pledged to a net zero emission path; and given the scale of health care systems, that will have a significant impact.”  

Liv Williamson, a Ph.D. student in marine biology and ecology at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, is dedicated to advancing the conservation of coral reef ecosystems through research, outreach, and media. Her research focuses on finding ways to help threatened reef-building corals survive in changing ocean conditions. Specifically, she is raising coral juveniles in the lab and exposing them to heat-tolerant algae that could make them more tolerant to marine heat waves. 

“I’ve loved keeping up with the COP26 Virtual Ocean Pavilion, which has included lots of information on coral reef conservation and restoration, with groups like the International Coral Reef Society and the International Coral Reef Initiative represented. My research and career are based around finding solutions to help save the world’s threatened coral reefs; so, I’m very happy to see these groups represented for the world to see during this event. Although local actions are very important for accelerating adaptation and rebuilding dwindling populations, none of our efforts will be successful in the long term without collective global action to reduce carbon emissions. I am impressed with the targets that many countries have announced and the pledges made. But none of it will matter without individual countries following through and making real drastic policy changes—and fast.” 

Katharine Mach is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and a faculty scholar at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. Her research assesses climate change risks and response options to address increased flooding, extreme heat, wildfire, and other hazards. Through innovative approaches, she informs effective and equitable adaptations to those risks. She was a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report. 

“COP26 is an important moment for collective global action on climate change. For governments, the private sector, and people across the globe, there are a number of crucial areas of action, especially reducing emissions of heat trapping gases over the next few decades, increasing preparedness for impacts that cannot be avoided, mobilizing finance, and working out the Paris rulebook. My research focuses on climate change adaptation and preparedness, and I have been watching progress on that front, including work on loss and damage and adaptation finance. Ultimately, however, keeping the amount of climate change in check is the most important form of making sure our efforts to keep societies and nature safe have solid prospects for success. Ongoing efforts to support an ambitious and just transition this week are central. I am excited about current momentum toward building out clean energy systems across the globe. Our climate policies have a central role in this transition, which includes an imperative for equitable socioeconomic development and diversification of livelihoods to minimize risks from the transition itself.”  

Pamela Geller, an associate professor of anthropology, has written and teaches about humanity’s “Age of Plastics” in terms of learned behaviors. She was disappointed, but not surprised, that single-use, disposable plastics were not recognized as a huge part of the climate change crisis during COP26.

“Aside from the water bottles and coffee lids that appeared in photos, plastics were never explicitly invoked during COP26. Yet, if not regulated, the gas and oil industry will soon pivot to the production of virgin plastic resins. The wheels are already in motion. Plastic production is expected to grow 30 percent in the next five years. Corporations have initiated construction or the permitting process on dozens of new petrochemical plants designed to produce virgin plastics. And while captains of industry like Jeff Bezos pledge $2 billion to restore natural habitats and transform food systems, their companies are silent about changing business models that rely on single-use plastic packaging. Will Amazon (and by association Whole Foods) invest in the infrastructure to recycle the packaging they distribute? Will they hold the corporations from which they get their plastics accountable for emissions during production? In the wake of COP26, industry still wins while the planet and those who inhabit it still lose.” 

Lynée Turek Hankins is a Ph.D. candidate at the Abess Center who researches how heat is impacting communities, and she advocates for solutions that address the intertwined issues of heat, housing, energy, and livable neighborhoods in Miami’s frontline communities—with a focus on climate justice. She was more heartened by what she heard from advocates outside the conference than leaders inside. 

“I think the rise in climate activism, and particularly youth-led activism, has changed the game for the better. And I hope that the added pressure will provoke better mitigation outcomes. From COP26, I wanted to see heat recognized as both a hazard in its own right and as a player in a web of other hazards. We need to shift from discussing one hazard at a time to seeing and preparing for compounding and cascading impacts. I also wanted local leaders to share adaptation success and failure stories. Much of the focus is rightly placed on national mitigation promises, but I think there is a great opportunity to build cross-country learning for meaningful adaptation at the local level.” 

Daniel Suman is a professor of environmental science and policy at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and he holds an adjunct appointment at the School of Law. He is a participant in the U-LINK project “Native American and Global Indigenous Studies (NAGIS),” which is developing an interdisciplinary Indigenous Studies Program. At COP26, he attended a daily side event organized by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. Panels focused on climate justice issues for Indigenous peoples throughout the world with robust participation from trans-Amazon, Andean, and Arctic peoples. “The shared message was clear: Indigenous peoples are stewards of nature and continue to be victims of colonization and genocide,” said Suman, adding that climate justice must protect indigenous lands and cultures. 

“Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement mentions carbon markets that would create the possibility of companies in developed countries offsetting their greenhouse gas emissions with the purchase of carbon credits from activities that create carbon sinks, such as prevented deforestation. Indigenous people at the COP expressed concerned that the model of carbon offsetting can adversely impact Indigenous peoples. Therefore, the Indigenous Peoples Caucus at COP26 encouraged the final COP26 agreement to expressly mention the protection of human rights and indigenous rights to the land and self-determination in various subsections of Article 6. Indigenous peoples are stewards of the land and are not responsible for climate change. They consider that the key to climate change mitigation is securing indigenous rights to their land, allowing Indigenous peoples to continue their traditional cultural practices, and protecting indigenous lands from mining, dams, colonization, and genocide.”

Naresh Kumar is a professor of environmental health in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine. His research and teaching are dedicated to preventing and managing the environmental disease burden. A novel aspect of his work includes engaging communities in prevention measures through a personalized real-time environmental risk surveillance system. 

“A major focus of my research is to understand, investigate, and manage direct and indirect health effects of our changing climate and extreme weather. Thus, I am paying attention to plans and policies aimed at mitigating the burden of diseases and disability exacerbated by changing climate and associated intensifying extreme weather. While the measures to reduce CO₂ emissions are critical for checking the pace of global warming, their impacts are unlikely to be realized in the near future. In short term, the most critical aspects are to identify the potential health effects associated with changing climate and extreme weather and to focus attention on adaptation and mitigation strategies that can be implemented immediately. These strategies can be beneficial in the future as well. For example, measures can be taken to identify populations that are susceptible to heat waves and hurricanes and to develop real-time health-risk warning systems to provide timely information to these populations, so that they can prepare and adapt to such adverse exposures. At COP26, the link between health and climate warranted more focus, as such a topic humanizes changing climate, which is one of the most contentious issues of the 21st century.” 

Kenneth Feeley, an associate professor of biology and forest ecologist who studies the effects of climate change on tree populations, said he was glad to see that many nations made pledges to stop deforestation, which causes habitat and species loss, as well as extinctions. Also, in the process of cutting down trees, lots of greenhouse gases are released, he explained. So, if nations agree to stop doing that, it will undoubtedly help reduce carbon dioxide emissions. 

“When we think about why we are losing biodiversity, the number one driver is deforestation and habitat loss—we are reducing the amount of natural habitat for species to live in,” said Feeley. “The fact that Brazil, which has the highest rates of deforestation and the largest patch of the Amazon rainforest, signed on to an agreement to reduce deforestation was very encouraging. However, countries have made these pledges in the past to very little effect; so, I am skeptical that this will result in concrete changes.” 

He also worries that if temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, it will have devastating impacts on the rainforests of South America, which absorb carbon dioxide. “Many of the species there are already living at the hottest temperatures they can tolerate. So, as temperatures increase, we may see many species suffer and collapse,” he added. “We need to slow climate change and reduce deforestation; because by doing that, you’re giving plants and animals the best possible chance to respond to climate change.” 

Lisa Beal is a professor of oceanography in the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, with expertise in ocean currents and how they are impacted by a warming climate. During COP26, Beal said she was paying close attention to any changes in programs that are part of the United Nations Decade for Sustainable Development of the Ocean. She added that while oceans are considered the last true wilderness on earth, they are also a critical component of climate change because they buffer the planet from the worst effects of humans’ addiction to fossil fuels. Oceans absorb more than a third of the carbon dioxide emitted, and more than 90 percent of the excess heat from global warming, Beal said. The drawback of this is that global warming also leads to ocean acidification and sea level rise, as well as marine heatwaves and toxic algal blooms.

“That there is any language in the COP26 agreement calling for the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and a phase out of coal is monumental,” she said. “Still, the new commitments of each country to reducing their carbon emissions is not nearly enough. We cling to the myth that there can be perpetual economic growth on a finite planet and we labor under the illusion that everything we hold dear is measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), when what truly sustains us is the natural world. I remain hopeful that we will shed our delusions soon.”

—Compiled by University Communications staff writers Janette Neuwahl Tannen, Maya Bell, Barbara Gutierrez, Robert C. Jones Jr., Michael R. Malone, and Ashley A. Williams.