October 29, 2021

The Small Island Nations that Got Big Action on Climate

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

In 2015, the landmark Paris Agreement was adopted. For the first time, nearly every country on Earth pledged to cut carbon emissions to tackle climate change. But in the years since, emissions have continued to rise. Now, an estimated 25,000 people are descending on Glasgow, Scotland for COP26, to hammer out the next steps after the Paris Agreement, and it’s fair to ask...do these climate talks even matter? We argue that yes, they do – and to show you how, we tell an incredible story: How small island nations took on the world’s biggest powers over climate change, and won – changing the world in the process.

Guests: Former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed; Dr. James Fletcher, Former Saint Lucia Minister of Sustainable Development; Prof. Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD); Dean Bialek, COP26 Climate Champions Team

Calls to Action

  • Call Congress! Right now, the lawmakers are debating whether to pass what could be the most consequential climate legislation in U.S. history.. Scientists have warned that to keep warming below 1.5 °C, the world needs to cut carbon emissions 45% below 2010 levels by 2030. Congress is currently considering legislation that’s (mostly!) in line with those goals – but lawmakers face pressure to water it down. If you’ve ever thought about calling your member of Congress, now is the time! Not sure how? You can find contact information for your representatives and ideas for simple scripts to help you call at Call4Climate.com
  • This article from the Guardian has more information on what’s currently in the climate package (but keep an eye on the news – it’s changing all the time!). You can find the full breakdown from the White House here.
  • For more tips on calling your representatives (and to hear Alex and Ayana model how to do it!) check out our episode, Is Biden’s Jobs Plan a ‘Skinny Green New Deal’?
  • Check out the Global Day of Action during COP26. Want to make your voice heard during COP26? Check out the Global Day of Action on Nov. 6, with events and rallies all over the world.

Check out our Calls to Action archive for all of the actions we've recommended on the show. Send us your ideas or feedback with our Listener Mail Form. Sign up for our newsletter here. And follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

This episode of How to Save a Planet was produced by Rachel Waldholz with help from Hannah Chinn. The rest of our reporting and producing team includes Kendra Pierre-Louis and Anna Ladd. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard with original music from Peter Leonard and Emma Munger. Our fact checker this episode was Claudia Geib. Special thanks to Ian Fry and Bill Hare and to Mark Hertsgaard of Covering Climate Now. 

UPDATE 11/02/21: An earlier version of this episode incorrectly stated that in the 30 years since the UN first began negotiating on climate change, we have emitted more greenhouse gases than in all of human history before that. It should state that in the 30 years since the UN first began negotiating on climate change, we have emitted more carbon dioxide (from fossil fuels and industry) than in all the years before that. The episode has been updated.

Where to Listen


Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg, and this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change, and how to make those things happen.

Alex: So today I'm joined by How to Save a Planet ace reporter Rachel Waldholz. Hey Rachel.

Rachel Waldholz: Hi, Alex.

Alex: You are here because today on the show, we're talking about this giant UN climate conference starting next week in Glasgow, Scotland. It's called COP26. And Rachel, you're gonna be there.

Rachel: That's right. I'll be there, along with something like 25,000 other people from all over the world who are expected to take part.

Alex: And these UN climate negotiations, as someone who cares about climate change and, in fact, hosts a climate podcast [laughs] I know they're supposed to be really important, but also I have a confession: I don't really understand what goes on there.

Rachel: Yeah. You are definitely not alone there.

Alex: [whispers] Thank God.

Rachel: I have to say, even for those of us who have been to these meetings, they can be really hard to follow. I mean, they're basically a forum for just about every country on Earth to come together and try to agree on what we need to do about climate change. So 196 countries—rich and poor, big and small—and a 196-way negotiation about anything would be confusing.

Alex: [laugh] Right.

Rachel: And this is about the fate of the planet and the structure of the global economy.

Alex: Yeah.

Rachel: So they are just massive and, like, incredibly complicated events.

Alex: I mean, there's so many things I don't understand. Starting with, like, just the name. Wait, why is it called the COP?

Rachel: [laughs] Right. Well, the name is actually just such a great introduction to the entire process, because it's just this big dose of UN bureaucracy. So COP stands for "Conference of the Parties," C-O-P, COP. And parties means "Participants in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change." So right away, we are deep in UN jargon here.

Alex: Right. And COP26. Does that mean it's the 26th one of these? We've been negotiating about climate change for 26 years?

Rachel: It is the 26th one of these, and we have actually been negotiating on climate change for longer than 26 years. I mean, the international climate talks go back about three decades at this point.

Alex: Wow.

Rachel: Yeah. And that brings up one of the most depressing stats that I’ve come across as a climate reporter, which is that in the 30 years we have been talking about dealing with climate change, we have actually emitted more carbon dioxide from fossil fuels than in all the years before we started talking about dealing with climate change.

Alex: [laughs] I'm gonna need a minute here just to sit with my head on the desk. Hold on.

Rachel: Yeah.

Alex: Okay, I'm ready to continue. So I guess my question is: if this process has been going on for three decades, and all we have to show for it is double the emissions we had at the start?

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Alex: Does it even matter?

Rachel: Well, some people would say no. You know, the talks have clearly not prevented what they were meant to prevent. And that's definitely how a lot of climate activists see it. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, for instance, she said this last month:

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greta Thunberg: Build back better, blah blah blah. Green economy, blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050, blah blah blah. Net zero, blah blah blah. Climate neutral, blah blah blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words. Words that sound great but so far has led to no action. They've now had 30 years of blah blah blah and where has that led us?]

Alex: Man.

Rachel: Yeah.

Alex: Greta does not mince her words.

Rachel: No, she does not hold back.

Alex: So what—is she right?

Rachel: I would say it is a really fair critique, but my argument is, these meetings do matter.

Alex: Today on the podcast: Rachel Waldholz versus Greta Thunberg! Stay tuned! [laughs]

Rachel: Yes. [laughs] I would lose that fight. But today, I want to tell a story from these talks just to make my argument. It's a good one, full of political intrigue and unexpected heroes. And in the end, it's the story of how some of the smallest and least powerful countries on the planet took on the world's biggest players—including the US—and won.

Alex: Fantastic! So after the break, I'm gonna hand it over to you, Rachel, to tell that story. And then I'll be back at the end to weigh in on whether or not I'm convinced. And we're gonna talk about what all of this has to do with all of you, our listeners. That's coming right up.


Rachel: So the story I'm about to tell, it is all about this one number: the number 1.5. And I would argue that right now, this is one of the most important numbers in the world. It is driving political campaigns, government policies, the decision-making of some of the biggest companies on the planet. And it is unlikely that any of that would be happening if it weren't for these COPs, these annual UN climate meetings.

Rachel: So I'm gonna go back to the mid-2000s to tell the story of how this number became so important. At this point, the world had been arguing over climate change for more than a decade, without much to show for it. And one big question in the negotiations was: how much warming is too much?

Rachel: So back in the '90s, a sort of consensus had emerged, that it would be dangerous to allow the planet to warm by more than two degrees Celsius—or about three and a half degrees Fahrenheit—above the pre-industrial average. So that's the average in the late 1800s when the industrial revolution really took off, and humanity first began burning coal and oil in earnest, and pumping all that carbon into the atmosphere.

Rachel: And so there was a rough sense among scientists that this was a dangerous upper limit. Let's not go past two degrees. But by the mid-2000s, some people were starting to have second thoughts about that target, and one of the people thinking about this was Professor Saleemul Huq. He studies adaptation to climate change, and incidentally, he says he's attended every single COP since the very beginning. And he says it was becoming clear that some major impacts from climate change would show up well before warming reached two degrees, and that those impacts would fall heaviest on poor people in poor countries.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Saleemul Huq: And therefore, two degrees needs to be revisited because, while two degrees may protect the majority of people on the planet, that majority are the richer people on the planet. And it will not protect the poorer people on the planet. And if we want to protect everybody, then two degrees isn't going to do it. We need to go to 1.5.]

Rachel: 1.5. So that's the number that this story is about: 1.5 degrees Celsius. The problem is, to keep warming even below two degrees would obviously require dramatic cuts in the amount of fossil fuels the world burns. And this is the mid-2000s—the world was not prepared to make those cuts. The two largest sources of carbon emissions—then as now—were the US and China. In the US, the oil and gas industry had waged a long campaign to make climate action politically toxic. The US hadn't even joined the first attempt at a climate agreement in the late '90s—that was the Kyoto Protocol. The US Senate opposed it, in part because it only required rich nations to cut emissions, and not developing countries like China. When President George W. Bush came into office, his administration, which was very friendly to oil and gas, declared the protocol dead.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, George W. Bush: The approach taken under the Kyoto Protocol would have required the United States to make deep and immediate cuts in our economy to meet an arbitrary target.]

Rachel: Meanwhile, China and other big developing countries like India were saying, "Hello, we did not cause most of the problem here, and we have millions of people still living in poverty. We shouldn't have to compromise our economic growth to solve a problem caused by countries like the US. So striking a global agreement to keep warming under two degrees seemed pretty unlikely. 1.5 wasn't even on the table.

Rachel: And stuck dealing with the consequences of this standoff were those countries with the most to lose from climate change, especially small, low-lying island states threatened by rising sea levels. In 2009, countries were set to negotiate a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol. It was billed as the best chance for the whole world to get its act together and finally tackle climate change. The meeting would be held in Copenhagen. And in the lead up to Copenhagen, a group representing small island states, called AOSIS, met to strategize for the next round of climate talks. They announced they had no choice but to push for 1.5 degrees.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, AOSIS meeting: Mr. Chairman, AOSIS firmly believes that best available science requires bringing greenhouse gas concentrations to as far below 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent as soon as possible, and limiting temperature increases to well below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as soon as possible.]

Rachel: Well below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That was their demand. And then they set out to convince the world that their countries—and their lives—depended on it. One country from this group that would attract a lot of attention was the Maldives.

[NEWS CLIP: The Maldives. Once a fishing village, now better known as a high-end tropical island paradise.]

Rachel: The Maldives is a nation of less than half a million people spread out over more than a thousand islands in the Indian Ocean. And the foundation of its economy—driving tourism, the country's fishing industry and a main source of its food—are its coral reefs. But warming waters had led to mass bleaching. Mohamed Nasheed was the president of the Maldives, and he said if the coral reefs die out, so will his country.

Mohamed Nasheed: We are the first generation to actually have seen the reef because we were the first people to have masks and goggles and that kind of gear in the Maldives. And then when I became president, it turned out that we are the first generation to see it dying. We are the first generation not to be able to hand over the reef as we found it to the next generation.

Rachel: Nasheed came to power in 2008 as the Maldives' first democratically-elected president after a 30-year dictatorship. He was a longtime democracy activist and former political prisoner. When he was elected, he expected to focus on issues like human rights reforms but, he says, it suddenly became clear there was an even bigger threat. It wasn't just the coral reefs—the country's beaches were eroding. The highest point in the Maldives is just over 15 feet above sea level. And rising seas threaten most of its land area.

Rachel: In the lead-up to the climate talks in Copenhagen, Nasheed thought, the world has to see what's happening here. They have to understand what's at stake. I asked why he thought the Maldives—this tiny island nation—could get the world's attention.

Mohamed Nasheed: It's the biggest accident of history that I became the president of this country. I had spent half my life, adult life, in jail, in prison. I had, by this time, by then been tortured twice. And then suddenly, we won the elections! And we felt that we can keep on winning against the odds, that we must be able to tell this story, and we must be able to galvanize the entire planet, all the people, to understand what was going on. So to impress the gravity of the issue, we thought we will show you how it would look like to us if you don't do anything about it.

[NEWS CLIP: It had all the trappings of a formal cabinet meeting, except that the government ministers were 20 feet underwater and wearing scuba gear. The president of the Maldive Islands and 13 other officials took their seats at a table on the sea floor below the surface of a lagoon.]

Rachel: Nasheed even staged an underwater cabinet meeting to draw attention to the threat of rising sea levels. There's amazing footage of him treading water after the event, and answering questions from the press.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mohamed Nasheed: If Maldives cannot be saved today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world.]

Rachel: In the lead up to Copenhagen, Nasheed and the other leaders of at-risk countries—from Grenada in the Caribbean to vulnerable African countries like Gambia—were everywhere, calling on big countries to face the existential threat to their nations. Speaking to the UN, Nasheed reminded wealthy countries that those most at risk from climate change had had the least to do with causing it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mohamed Nasheed: Please, ladies and gentlemen. We did not do any of these things. But if things go business as usual, we will not live. We will die. Our country will not exist. We cannot come out from Copenhagen as failures.]

Mohamed Nasheed: So we went into Copenhagen, and there were all these big, huge leaders from all over the world. You know, they are big countries that are very rich, and they had a lot of political experience. And I was very young. I was just impossibly young, too young. I was 41 years old then.

Rachel: And he was walking into this process that had been going on for 20 years, picking up layers of bureaucracy along the way. Just to explain how these meetings work: one country will propose some language for an agreement, perhaps, in a very famous example, that the text should say "Countries shall limit their carbon emissions." Then another country—say, the US—will disagree and propose different language: that nations "Should limit carbon emissions." "Shall" versus "Should." And then both versions will go into the document in brackets. And the whole point of a COP is you go through that document and try to resolve each of those disagreements one by one, until there are no more brackets.

Rachel: And hours and days are spent in these temporary conference rooms set up in giant convention halls under fluorescent lights, arguing over which word will emerge from the brackets: "Shall" or "Should." It is mind-numbing.

Mohamed Nasheed: You have to spend so much time trying to remove brackets and trying to find the absolutely proper adjective, the noun, the verb in your statement, and then everything for everyone was a process. And they were not even interested about the substance. I was trying to tell them, "Look, for God's sake, man! You know, the planet is dying, and you're talking about the process!"

Rachel: And in Copenhagen? That process did not work. The COP was a mess from the start. It was cold, it was disorganized. The US refused to agree to any kind of legally-binding agreement because the Obama administration thought that, like the Kyoto Protocol, they wouldn't be able to get it through the US Senate. China refused to commit to making new cuts.

Rachel: At one point, the island nation of Tuvalu brought the entire conference to a halt to demand a vote on a binding agreement with a 1.5 degree target. Here's Tuvalu's lead negotiator Ian Fry.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ian Fry: It's an irony of the modern world that the fate of the world is being determined by some senators in the US Congress. I woke this morning and I was crying. The fate of my country rests in your hands. Thank you.]

Rachel: Finally, in desperation, the Danish hosts gathered small groups of world leaders to hash out a solution, which, by the way, is not how these climate talks are supposed to work. These are supposed to be consensus documents, worked out in painstaking detail, with input from negotiators from all over the world. Instead, on the final day of the conference, there was US President Barack Obama, fresh off a plane that morning, haggling over the text with a mid-level Chinese negotiator. In UN terms, that's like the CEO of McDonald's putting on an apron to flip the burgers himself. And in one of those chaotic final gatherings along with Obama, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK, was Nasheed.

Mohamed Nasheed: Finally they got 26 of us into a room.

Rachel: So at this point you're in a room. When you say 26 leaders, you're in a room with, I mean, the US, China, India, sort of the big emitters and powers.

Mohamed Nasheed: Yes. Yes.

Rachel: And you're sitting there as the president of the Maldives?

Mohamed Nasheed: Yes. I was sitting there as the president of the Maldives, and they were talking. They were saying that they can't accept 1.5 degrees. I said, "Are you mad? You're saying that you can't accept me to live, because you want to have a good life, you want to have a good time. Yes. I like to have a good time as well. But we have to live, we have to survive as a nation. And anything above 1.5 degrees is a death sentence on a quarter of the world's population." They didn't understand the gravity. I don't think they had a grip on the situation. They didn't think that this was real.

Rachel: In the end, Nasheed, AOSIS and their allies couldn't get the big powers to agree to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. In fact, there wasn't much of an agreement at all. In the final hours of the COP, Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously crashed a secret meeting between China, India, Brazil and South Africa, and together the five nations hammered out a compromise.

Rachel: The result was a vague three-page statement that many nations wouldn't even sign on to. Nasheed and the Maldives did sign on, but some members of AOSIS—including Tuvalu—refused. They were angry the agreement didn't include a target below two degrees, and felt betrayed that it had been negotiated behind closed doors.

Rachel: The final version of the Copenhagen Accord did commit all nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions—but without saying exactly when or by how much. So in the immortal words of Greta Thunberg, it was a lot of ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Greta Thunberg: Blah, blah, blah.]

Rachel: The media at the time agreed.

[NEWS CLIP: Well, it was supposed to be a historic moment, one that could have saved our planet. But it turned into something else.]

[NEWS CLIP: Diplomats around the world are trying to figure out what exactly they agreed to last week at the Copenhagen climate conference.]

[NEWS CLIP: Copenhagen climate summit ended in failure and recriminations.]

Rachel: But Copenhagen did include some breakthroughs. For the first time at a COP, countries committed in writing to holding warming below two degrees. It wasn't the 1.5 that AOSIS and Nasheed had wanted, but it was something. Plus, for the first time, big developing countries like China and India accepted that they, and not just the rich countries, would have to cut emissions. And the island states and their allies did claim one other victory, buried deep in the bureaucratic language of the Copenhagen Accord. Here's Prof. Saleem Huq:

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Saleemul Huq: And you may need to go and look at the fine print of the Copenhagen agreement. In the last paragraph or the penultimate paragraph, language that got accepted, which is that we must revisit the global goal. We need to have a scientific assessment of whether the two-degree global goal is sufficient.]

Rachel: The exact words in all their bureaucratic glory are these: "We call for an assessment of the implementation of this Accord to be completed by 2015, including in light of the Convention's ultimate objective. This would include consideration of strengthening the long-term goal referencing various matters presented by the science, including in relation to temperature rises of 1.5 degrees Celsius." In other words? "Fine. We'll take a look at this whole 1.5 degree thing."

Rachel: For many island nations, this felt like the smallest silver lining in a total defeat. But Nasheed? He saw the Copenhagen Accord as progress.

Rachel: On the plane home after Copenhagen, how did you feel?

Mohamed Nasheed: Well, I remember ringing my mum and telling her that I think something has happened. I think something has shifted. I remember coming out that morning and Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister was of course, very, very sad that it didn't turn out the way he thought, but I thought—you know, I thought, prime minister, no, I think something has happened. And I think we might just be able to save the planet.

Rachel: But Nasheed wouldn't be able to carry that work forward. In 2012, he was ousted in what his party called a coup. He would spend the next few years facing political prosecution, jail and exile. But many of the seeds planted by Nasheed and his allies in Copenhagen would bear fruit six years later in Paris.

Rachel: After the break, an unexpected alliance takes up the fight for 1.5.


Rachel: So Copenhagen had ended mostly in disappointment. And after that, countries started the painful process of putting climate negotiations back on track. The next year in Cancun, countries officially adopted the two-degree target first laid out in the Copenhagen Accord. And then in South Africa the year after that, they set a new deadline to hammer out a big international climate deal: 2015 in Paris.

Rachel: And as that 2015 deadline approached, all eyes were on the US and China. They definitely weren't on the Marshall Islands, population less than 60,000, or its foreign minister, Tony de Brum. But de Brum was about to emerge as a key figure.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tony de Brum: Excellencies, fellow laureates, ladies and gentlemen ...]

Rachel: This is a speech de Brum gave in the run-up to Paris in 2015. He described how, when he was nine years old, he witnessed a US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tony de Brum: It was in the morning and I was fishing with my grandfather, when all of a sudden there was a silent, bright flash. And then a force, the shock wave. Everything turned red. I like to say that it was as if we were standing under a bowl, a glass bowl and someone poured blood over it. The ocean, the fish, the sky, my grandfather's net, everything turned red. And we were 200 miles away from ground zero.]

Rachel: The American campaign of nuclear tests left the people of the Marshall Islands with increased cancer risks and long-term environmental damage, and made this tiny island nation bear the brunt of a global conflict completely outside their control. De Brum had spent his life fighting for independence from the US and reparations for the nuclear testing. Now he saw the same pattern repeating itself, this time with climate change.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tony de Brum: We may be poor. We may be brown. We may be from remote Pacific islands that many struggle to find on the map. But we should not have been ignored six decades ago any more than we should be ignored today.]

Rachel: Like Maldives, the Marshall Islands is a low-lying island state—the average height is just over six feet above sea level. It stretches over 1,200 islands spread across 180,000 square miles of ocean. De Brum liked to say his country wasn't a small island state, but a big ocean state. And climate change meant that big ocean state was in trouble. So de Brum was determined to make the Paris talks count.

Rachel: And the Marshall Islands were part of AOSIS—the Alliance of Small Island States, that had played such a big role in Copenhagen.

James Fletcher: Tony's role in all of this really cannot be overstated. Tony played a really big role in almost being the father figure that rallied all of AOSIS together, that, you know, we needed to do this, not just for our generation, but for the generations to come.

Rachel: That's James Fletcher. He was the minister for sustainable development from the island state of Saint Lucia, and the de facto leader of a delegation of Caribbean countries in AOSIS. And AOSIS and other climate-vulnerable countries had spent the years since Paris building their case for 1.5. That bureaucratic language we mentioned inserted in the Copenhagen Accord? It led to a scientific review that concluded a two-degree goal was inadequate. Fletcher says heading into Paris, island nations like his Caribbean group made it clear that this time 1.5 degrees was non-negotiable.

James Fletcher: 1.5 was absolutely essential. You know, I spoke of our red lines, 1.5 was one of our red lines.

Rachel: And when you say red lines, you mean you were prepared to say "We are not signing a deal that does not have 1.5 in it."

James Fletcher: Absolutely. Absolutely. The Caribbean went in there saying that we had to see 1.5 in the text of the agreement.

Rachel: So the island nations were firm. But it was clear from Copenhagen that island states and other vulnerable countries probably couldn't pull this off alone. And so de Brum and his team decided they were going to need more allies. Unexpected allies.

Rachel: They had learned a key lesson from Copenhagen and past COPs: that right at the end of the negotiations, in the final days and hours, there was often this last push to delete all of the most ambitious language, the language that held anybody to any commitments, often backed by some of the biggest and most powerful countries.

Dean Bialek: We'd been through enough COPs to realize that in the end at a big moment like Paris, there was going to need to be a real fiber of friendship between key ministers when it came to the crunch.

Rachel: This is Dean Bialek. He's a former Australian diplomat who worked with de Brum and the Marshall Islands on climate strategy.

Dean Bialek: And it became very clear that you would need to have a progressive alliance of strong ministers who were willing to work together in the final hours of a conference, support each other and take the floor to say we're not willing to have XYZ deleted because that will rob the whole thing of its purpose.

Rachel: So de Brum began pulling together his alliance. He reached out to small island states like Tuvalu. Vulnerable African countries like Gambia and Angola. But also rich, developed countries responsible for lots of emissions. Countries like Germany, the UK and the European Union itself. They would eventually become known as the High Ambition Coalition. Here's James Fletcher.

James Fletcher: What became known as the High Ambition Coalition was important in getting together not a group of like-minded countries, but a group of countries that had very diverse agendas, but all wanting to see the same thing. Wanting to see that the Paris agreement negotiations were a success, and that we had a strong, legally binding agreement, whatever shape, form or content that agreement will take.

Rachel: And at first, not all of these countries were on board with a 1.5-degree goal. Fletcher says the EU, for instance, still opposed it. But heading into Paris, Fletcher and de Brum and their coalition had some things going for them. The politics had shifted since the climate talks in Copenhagen. The cost of renewable energy was in the midst of this historic drop. And suddenly, it seemed both technologically and economically feasible to imagine moving beyond fossil fuels. Plus, a series of major climate disasters were starting to show up in more parts of the world, affecting not just poor countries, but rich ones as well.

Rachel: And the US was ready to show up in a new way. The Obama administration, which had been in office less than a year in Copenhagen, had had six more years to get their climate strategy together. They proposed a format for the agreement that wouldn't need to be approved by the US Senate: instead of a binding international treaty in which countries had to stick to set targets, they proposed a kind of potluck approach. Countries would submit their own voluntary pledges to cut emissions. And years of US outreach to China led to a breakthrough. In 2014, the world's two biggest emitters struck a deal agreeing to cut their own carbon emissions. With that deal in place, it suddenly seemed like a global agreement was possible.

Rachel: But even with all that momentum, Professor Saleemul Huq, who was an advisor to some of the least-developed countries at the time, says big countries were still refusing to consider a 1.5 degree goal.

Saleemul Huq: What they would say behind closed doors would be, "It's just too hard. We can't do it." But in public they wouldn't say that, right? And our answer to them was it may be hard, but it's possible. And you have to do it. And if you don't do it, you have to publicly tell the world that we are not prepared to save everybody. We'll save ourselves, but the poor can go to hell. That's what you are saying. Say it publicly.

Rachel: On November 30, 2015, COP21 kicked off in Paris with a meeting of world leaders. And there were high hopes for a deal. The question was: how good a deal? And good for who? By the second week of the conference, there were warning signs. The old divides between rich and poor countries were surfacing again, and many countries were still refusing to consider a 1.5 degree goal. James Fletcher was tapped by the French hosts to facilitate conversations around the temperature goal, and he says countries were very clear: they didn't want it.

James Fletcher: And in fact, I remember the delegate from Saudi Arabia, when we met with the Arab group, coming to me and saying, "You will get 1.5 degrees Celsius over my dead body." I mean, those were his words to me, plain and simple.

Rachel: So De Brum and his allies went to work trying to bring countries on board with a more ambitious deal. One of their big targets? The US. Here's Dean Bialek.

Dean Bialek: So, you know, one thing we did was to host a big dinner with a whole lot of vulnerable countries, and we brought the US to the table to have a number of very uncomfortable conversations, for example, around 1.5, and to start to air those issues in a way that was no longer confrontational.

Rachel: And this dinner is now kind of famous. It took place at a Michelin-starred restaurant near the Louvre, and lasted until midnight.

Rachel: And at that dinner, I mean, for instance, what does a conversation about the 1.5 degree target at a dinner like that sound like? I mean, what is there to say at that point? You know, doesn't everyone know it already? Like, what do you say to the US to try to get them to come onboard with a 1.5 degree target, for instance?

Dean Bialek: Well, one is to reaffirm the kind of existential threat issue, but I think in addition it's like, if you're saying, "US, that you think it's not worth including 1.5 because you don't think it's achievable, well then at least just give it to us so that we can keep fighting for it."

Rachel: The argument, Dean says, was: you're worried because you don't think it's realistic? We're worried because we think we're going to disappear. So help us out here. Why not let us say we'll aim for 1.5 degrees? Later that week, de Brum's alliance went public, calling themselves the High Ambition Coalition.

Rachel: At a press conference, representatives from more than 90 countries announced that they agreed on a core set of principles—including a target of 1.5 degrees. And standing there alongside de Brum and vulnerable countries like Angola and Gambia, were the EU and the US. It was a signal that negotiators might finally overcome the traditional divides between rich and poor, big and small countries, that had bogged down past climate conferences.

Rachel: And one by one, more and more countries signed on to de Brum's High Ambition Coalition and its demands. One key moment came when Brazil signed on, separating from its traditional negotiating partners: India and China. But ultimately, the final negotiations would go down to the wire, exactly as de Brum had feared.

Dean Bialek: It was on the final Thursday night. We stayed up, actually. I went into a room with Tony at about three o'clock in the morning, and we sat there and we listened to a number of countries start to say, "We want this deleted, that deleted, everything deleted. Anything which connoted any potential ambition on reducing emissions, we just want it deleted." And I started to really freak out at that point, and I did go through a very nervous evening that night feeling like it all might sip away.

Rachel: But it didn't slip away. The alliance held. De Brum's coalition of countries—rich and poor, big and small—hung together. Enough countries pushed back on efforts to water down the deal, and the French hosts, responsible for assembling the final language, never let 1.5 degrees fall out of the brackets. The final language actually walks a line, not actually choosing between 1.5 and two degrees. Countries said they would hold warming to "Well below two degrees Celsius," and "Pursue efforts to meet 1.5." James Fletcher says it was a compromise, but it was also a victory.

James Fletcher: I remember the head of delegation for the European Union saying to me on the final day, he said, "Fletcher, you guys pulled off a coup! How did you get 1.5 in there?" They did not expect it.

Rachel: Crucially, countries also called on the UN's panel on climate science, the IPCC, to study the difference between 1.5 and two degrees of warming, and to look at how the world might meet the more ambitious target. On the last day of COP21, members of the High Ambition Coalition walked into the final meeting arm in arm, and the Paris Agreement was officially adopted on Dec.12, 2015.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Laurent Fabius: L'Accord de Paris pour le climat, est accepté.]

Rachel: Tony de Brum spoke after the agreement was gaveled through.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tony de Brum: In adopting the Paris Agreement, all 196 countries in this room have joined the High Ambition Coalition. We have together grasped this once-in-a-generation opportunity to lay the foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and safe planet for our children. I want to introduce you to one of them now.]

Rachel: And then he passed the mic to Selina Leem, an 18-year-old youth delegate with the Marshall Islands.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Selina Leem: Thank you Mr. Tony.]

Rachel: She mentioned the coconut leaves that the Marshall Islands delegation had handed out to members of the High Ambition Coalition.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Selina Leem: I hope you keep it and show it to your children and your grandchildren, and tell them a new story about how you helped a little island and the whole world today. This agreement is for those of us whose identity, whose culture, whose ancestors, whose whole being is bound to their lands. Thank you.]

Rachel: And as for Mohamed Nasheed, who had worked so hard to get the world to care about the threat to small island states?

Rachel: Where were you when Paris passed, actually?

Mohamed Nasheed: [laughs] I was in jail!

Rachel: So how did you hear about it?

Mohamed Nasheed: But it was really happy though. I was allowed a lawyer's visit, and they said that there's been an agreement in Paris that would limit global temperatures rising above 1.5 degrees since the Industrial Revolution. And I thought, well, yeah, it's worthwhile to be in jail. I didn't think that it would be possible to say that it's done and dusted. It's another step, but it's a big step.

Rachel: These days, Nasheed is out of jail. He's the leader of the parliament, and survived an assassination attempt—a bombing—earlier this year. But he will be at COP26 in Glasgow, once again calling on nations to do more.

Rachel: Tony de Brum passed away in 2017, hailed as a champion of the Marshall Islands and a hero of the Paris Agreement.

Rachel: In the six years since the Paris Agreement, that sentence, "Pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C," has taken on a life of its own. One of the biggest moments came in 2018. That's when the IPCC, the UN's top body on climate science, released its report laying out in new detail the difference between 1.5 and two degrees.

[NEWS CLIP: A stark warning from the United Nations' panel on climate: unprecedented changes are needed across the world to prevent a temperature rise.]

Rachel: At two degrees of warming, the report says, coral reefs would "mostly disappear." Millions more people would be exposed to flooding from sea level rise, and hundreds of millions more would be frequently exposed to extreme heat waves. The report also put a deadline on how much time the world has left to meet the goal of 1.5 degrees. Essentially, carbon emissions need to be cut nearly in half by 2030—and reach net-zero by 2050.

Rachel: Suddenly, the numbers 1.5 and net-zero by 2050 were everywhere. They became a rallying cry for climate activists. The EU enshrined them in law. The US Congress is fighting right now to pass big climate legislation to meet this target. And major companies around the world have pledged to revamp their businesses to be in line with the 1.5 degree goal.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Satya Nadella: Today we are making the commitment that by 2030, Microsoft will be carbon negative.]

[NEWS CLIP: A bold announcement from General Motors. The automaker says it plans to be carbon neutral by 2040. And have 40 percent of ...]

[NEWS CLIP: McDonald's says it aims to cut its global greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The target covers everything from the beef in its burgers to the lights in its restaurants.]

Rachel: And I would argue that none of that would have happened without those meetings, the COPs. As bureaucratic and maddening as they can be, they were the venue for small, poor countries to hold big countries to account, and put 1.5 degrees on the agenda in a way that it never would have been otherwise.

Alex: I'm back! Hello!

Rachel: Hello! Welcome back.

Alex: Thank you very much. And thank you for that story. That was a—I would say that's a really compelling argument for why these talks matter.

Rachel: Well, I'm glad you think so. But now I have to warn you that it comes with a giant caveat at the end.

Alex: [laughs] Caveated again by you! Oh, yes.

Rachel: And that caveat is that, while it is great that countries have made these commitments, now they have to keep them. And as of right now, most countries are actually not on track to meet their Paris commitments. And in fact, even if every country met the commitments they'd made under the Paris Agreement, we as a planet would still not be on track for 1.5 degrees of warming. So ...

Alex: Womp womp.

Rachel: [laughs] Yeah. And this, in fact, is the point of COP26 in Glasgow. You know, the Paris Agreement includes this provision where countries have to come back every five years and submit new and more ambitious pledges. And so this is the first test of that mechanism, and countries are supposed to show up this year with their new pledges.

Alex: So, like, this isn't gonna keep us on track for 1.5, and so at Paris they said, okay, so everybody go back and do better, and present what you can do at Glasgow, basically.

Rachel: Yeah. I mean, the sort of genius of the Paris Agreement was the understanding that it is very politically hard to make these commitments. And so the idea was that, as the technology gets better, and as countries see that they can actually go further, that they'll be able to ramp up their commitment over time. It's called sort of a ratchet mechanism.

Alex: That's a good theory, I think.

Rachel: Yeah.

Alex: The politics become easier as the technology improves, and as more and more people start to do it, and as markets develop and as it starts to become a thing that you can start to see.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. And it is, in fact, working. Most countries have submitted new targets ahead of Glasgow, but the UN reported just this week, in fact, that with all of these new current pledges, we're still on track for 2.7 degrees of warming.

Alex: Right.

Rachel: That is way better than where we were before Paris, but, you know, that would still be catastrophic. So the ratchet is working, but it needs to keep cranking.

Alex: It needs to keep cranking. Got it.

Rachel: Yeah.

Alex: And I guess there's one other big caveat to your caveat, which is even if the countries make these commitments, to actually follow through on those commitments, they still have to pass their own domestic legislation. They still have to pass laws in their own countries, essentially. Right?

Rachel: Right. Yes. And so this is the real limit of the power of these international climate talks.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Rachel: They have been this incredibly powerful forum for small countries to hold big countries accountable, and to set these targets and set these really ambitious goals. But whether or not countries actually meet those targets, that doesn't get decided at a COP. That gets decided back home, you know, inside every country. It depends on what laws are passed and how fast renewables are deployed and how fast fossil fuels are phased out. And so the real power of these meetings is that they create these targets for civil society to rally around and push for, but then ultimately the real game is back home, internally, inside countries holding our own governments accountable.

Alex: Right. And that brings us to our calls to action for this week, because this is exactly where we are right now in the United States.

Rachel: As we speak.

Alex: As we speak! [laughs] Lawmakers are furiously, furiously scrambling to write what would be one of the most sweeping climate bills ever in the United States.

Rachel: Absolutely.

Alex: And this is really heating up in the US Senate, which has a perfect 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans. All the Republicans in the Senate are standing in opposition to this legislation, so to get it passed, every single Democrat needs to come on board. And right now, there's one Democratic senator—Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia—who's opposing some of the key climate provisions in this bill, specifically those aimed at phasing out fossil fuels.

Rachel: Yes. And so once again, climate legislation for the US—and by extension the climate targets for the entire world—come down to the US Senate. This is exactly what happened 10 years ago right before Copenhagen, when Congress last tried to pass significant climate legislation. It's what happened with the Kyoto Protocol. The US Senate is where climate legislation goes to die.

Alex: Right.

Rachel: And so now, once again, a US president is going to an international climate talk, and he is trying to persuade the Senate to pass something that he can take with him to prove that the US is serious about climate change.

Alex: And so if there was ever a time to make your voice heard on how you feel about the need for climate legislation, now is that moment. If you have never called your congressperson before, your Senator before, now is probably the time to call, because literally this is the moment where the debating this legislation, and this is the time that they need to hear from as many of us as possible, as forcefully as possible, that this is something that we need, our country needs and our world needs.

Rachel: And the news reports have been all over the place, but at this point, sort of the real question is: will Congress pass meaningful climate legislation that would cut carbon emissions in half by 2030? That's the whole ball game.

Alex: Right. That's the whole ball game. And so if you've never called before, now is the time to call. And we can recommend a resource that makes this really easy. It's a website: Call4Climate.com. That's Call—C-A-L-L—the number 4, climate dot com. There you will find everything you need to know about how to call your representative, and some simple scripts to follow. Once you get their staff person or their voicemail, or maybe even them on the line—maybe you'll get Nancy Pelosi when you call, who knows? Anyway, Call4Climate.com. And we will also put instructions on how to call your representatives in our show notes and our newsletter.

Rachel: And if you want an example of how to do that, you can listen to our episode "Is Biden's Jobs Plan a Skinny Green New Deal?" where Alex and Ayana actually did the call.

Alex: We do it.

Rachel: So you can hear exactly how it goes, especially when you reach a voicemail.

Alex: It's fun, actually. [laughs] Do it with a buddy. And if you want to make your voice heard during COP26 but you can't be in Glasgow, there is a Global Day of Action on November 6. And, you know, the people who are there negotiating these things in the conference rooms over the stale food, they do pay attention to how much the rest of the world is actually demanding action and cares about climate. And so the more people who are out while this is happening, the more impact it really does have. And so we'll link to more information about that in our show notes as well.

Alex: Rachel, thank you so much for that amazing story.

Rachel: Yes, my pleasure!

Alex: And now all we have left to do is to credits. How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg. This episode was produced by Rachel Waldholz with help from Hannah Chinn. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis and Anna Ladd. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman, with help from Katelyn Bogucki. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch.

Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard and Emma Munger.

Alex: Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. Special thanks this week to Ian Fry and Bill Hare. And to Mark Hertsgaard with Covering Climate Now. Thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week!


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