An Outer Banks reporter walks into a global climate summit

This column is to introduce a series of special reports by Catherine Kozak, who attended the COP26 climate conference held earlier this month.

GLASGOW, Scotland — At a global event the size of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26, North Carolina was barely a blip.merous people, even those from Western Europe and (gasp!) England, seemed to know little about our state, including the location of our famously angled Outer Banks coastline.

“It’s where the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is,” I said confidently. Of course, how much do we Americans know about the coasts of other nations, or even our own country? And yes, there were some Americans I spoke with at the conference who had no idea where the Outer Banks, and even North Carolina, were located.

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Catherine Kozak
Catherine Kozak
During the Oct. 31-Nov. 12 summit, which opened ceremoniously on Nov. 3 with speeches from President Joe Biden and other world leaders, North Carolina was merely part of the U.S that shares the alarming global impacts from a changing climate: rising and warming seas, hotter summers, intensifying rain and wind during storms.

As is the case in the rest of the world, wildfires, flooding and drought are likely part of North Carolina’s tomorrow because they’re part of North Carolina’s today and yesterday. It’s just a matter of timing and degrees.

Every state, every region, every nation, has different levels of threat, but judging from the breadth of attendees at the conference, every corner of the world feels under threat, whether current or looming.

And on the periphery, most of the world has been stressed by the prolonged pandemic, divisive politics and an uneven economy. In a word, that is the value of such global events: connection. Traveling is humbling and enlightening at the same time, but more importantly, it breaks us out of the enclosed room of our lives.

Even in the other world-ness of a sprawling mini-city of the COP, participants, observers, journalists were joined in a collective, sprinting from hub to hub for conferences, presentations and meetings, in several different “zones,” which often added up to many city blocks of distance. One man shared that another participant had told him that he had walked 30,000 steps the previous day, which adds up to about 15 miles.

Big screens in the Action Zone — where a large blue Earth hovered over an expansive gathering area filled with tables and chairs and lined with broadcast areas and small meeting rooms — displayed interviews taking part on a stage.

On Monday, Nov. 8., the room was abuzz about former President Barack Obama’s visit, which took place in another area where people had lined up to grab limited seats to watch in person. International press coverage of Obama’s speech was glowing, making our former president the big hit of the summit. Two days earlier, more than 100,000 marchers filled the streets in Glasgow, led by climate activist Greta Thunberg and other young people, to demand substantial and urgent action on climate change.

The second week concentrated on the meat and potatoes of the negotiations, which focused on finding consensus among global participants with disparate wealth, resources, populations, vulnerability, impacts and emissions contributions. Indigenous members of tiny island nations worked shoulder to shoulder with powerful representatives of wealthy nations into the night hours seeking solutions.

During the week, U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry could be seen dashing down long hallways, trailed by reporters. Kerry was also an active negotiator at the 2015 COP21 in Paris, when he was Obama’s secretary of state. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, several Congress members and 13 cabinet secretaries also showed up — Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg attended remotely — with some of their images flashing spectrally on various screens throughout the conference.

On Nov. 13, after days of intense negotiations, an agreement was announced. Hammered out by diplomats representing about 200 nations, the parties pledged to return next year to strengthen limits on greenhouse gas emissions and to encourage richer nations to double funds to help developing countries cope with the impacts of climate change.

It was an imperfect conclusion to the ambitious two-week gathering that hosted about 30,000 attendees from all over the world, including North Carolina scientists from Duke University and RTI International, among others.

In Glasgow, Biden had characterized the meeting as the world’s “last chance” to save the planet from the impacts of climate change. World leaders at the start had set a goal to reduce emissions enough to cap global temperatures increases at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels.

Biden pledged to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030, reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

But even with the nations’ new pledges and targets to reduce fossil-fuel emissions and limit deforestation, warming is projected to be 2.1 degrees Celsius, or 3.78 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2100, according to research group Climate Action Tracker.