Did something resembling a win come out of the waning hours of the year’s biggest meeting on international climate action this week? You might see headlines to this effect: that, in a historic first, diplomats from almost 200 countries signed off on language calling for “transitioning away from fossil fuels… in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

The Rocky Road to Agreement in Dubai

This basic recognition was years overdue, but given the rocky start things got off to in Dubai, which we discussed last week, it might feel like welcome news. Here at the end of the hottest year since industrialization, there were worries the conference, presided over by the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, would amount to window-dressing while thousands of fossil fuel lobbyists worked to preserve a perilous status quo.

So to finally have an agreement spelling out the need to get rid of fossil fuels feels like... something. For comparison, in 2021, nations agreed to "phase down" (not phase out) coal (leaving natural gas and oil aside). 

Island Nations' Response: A Call for More Action

Yet a big part of the reason countries have spent years circling the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C is to protect small islands from rising seas. Representatives from such countries were unimpressed: “The process has failed us,” said Samoan negotiator Anne Rasmussen in the New York Times, complaining that the deal in Dubai passed while dozens of island nations weren’t in the room: “The course correction that is needed has not been secured.”

“The Republic of the Marshall Islands did not come here to sign our death warrant. We came here to fight for 1.5 and for the only way to achieve that: a fossil fuel phase out,” John Silk, the minister of natural resources and commerce for the Pacific nation of some 42 thousand, said in the Washington Post.

Significance and Limitations

So this does not feel like an occasion for champagne. Which brings us to what this deal means—what it changes. Perhaps not much. It’s nonbinding, after all, and contains “a litany of loopholes,” according to the Alliance of Small Island States.

But putting that aside, what we need to do is hardly a surprise: We need to stop burning fossil fuels. When we bring emissions down to zero, temperatures will stop going up. And the sooner we do this, the less sea level rise we lock in for the coming years. 

To this end, we need to rapidly scale up clean energy technologies like solar and wind. We also need to rethink vast international systems from finance to food and farming. And we need to help vulnerable populations get ready to adapt for a warmer world. There’s no shortage of meaningful work to do.

Getting started doesn’t require a trip to Dubai or any official signoff. All it takes is someone with the heart to make it their top priority. 

And okay, maybe also a little know-how. We can help with that last part. If you want to learn more about global climate policy and get a deep dive into the full climate change landscape, check out Terra.do's Climate Change: Change Learning for Action bootcamp.