The agreements coming of COP 27 are, like so much in our crisis ridden era, ambiguous at best. For those who see the glass half full, there was actual progress around the ever-contentious issues of finance, especially around “loss and damage.” For those who see the glass cracked and leaking rapidly, the gathering was a sobering reminder of the power oil rich Gulf States and their allies wield. While much recent commentary has focused on China as the roadblock to curbing emissions, it is obvious the House of Saud has a very strong hand and is willing to risk planetary catastrophe to win market share.
Though critical details such as who will pay, how much they pay and who benefits, remain murky, the very fact the issue of reparations ( which this is not) was on the agenda has been hailed as a milestone for the glass-half-fullers. Much of the credit for the “breakthrough” is being placed on the delegation from the E.U. However, the fact that, according to Reuters, countries “felt pressured to give up on tougher commitments for limiting global warming to 1.5 Celsius in order for … the deal to go through,” demonstrates how low the bar of “success” actually is. A cynic might view the proposed fund as just another promise, like the $100 billion per year promised to impacted nations in 2009, little of which has materialized. The language in the agreement points to a variety of existing sources, including financial institutions, rather than relying on rich countries. This initiative may also swell the ranks of populist right-wing parties who always resent funding that flows from North to South, white to Brown and Black. Guess we’ll see.
Thanks to Saudi and Russian intransigence, the final agreement was altered at the last minute to include the need for “low-emission energy” (fossil fuels + carbon capture, methane, etc.). Eliminated was language that called for the “phasing down” of fossil fuels. This carbon capture ruse was but a small part of the elaborate greenwashing effort the Saudis are currently engaged in. Under the guise of “net zero,” they extol tree planting, green hydrogen, and the building of a futuristic “eco-friendly” city called Neom with their obscene oil wealth. All while temperatures in their own country verge on unbearable for the mostly migrant workers who already suffer abuse.
It has been obvious for some time that the Saudi strategy hinges on being the last oil producer standing while selling the last drop of their reserves — consequences to the planet be damned. They can produce it the cheapest, and their distribution network is protected by the overwhelming dominance of the U.S. military. The Saudis are our friends because Iran is our enemy. Despite the “energy independence” rhetoric of politicians in both parties, it is of course U.S. oil producers who will suffer in this price war with Middle Eastern oil giants. But as Liz Truss discovered in her brief tenure as British prime minister, it is markets and not politicians who have the final say.
A Capitalist Playground
The COP pavilions have always been flashy, money-wasting spaces for corporate greenwashing and intense lobbying, and this year the spectacle only intensified. According to reports, 636 people linked to fossil fuel companies attended, with thousands more of their business allies manning glitzy booths. As Kali Akuno, who reported live from Egypt, put it, the space and process is designed primarily for “capital formation.” Protest was muted. Although there was criticism about the role host country Egypt played in facilitating back-room deals, the mainstream press said little about human rights or the plight of Egypt’s 65,000 political prisoners including Alaa Abd El Fattah, the demand for whose freedom became a rallying cry of activists in attendance.
By focusing on Saudi Arabia, I don’t mean to suggest other high-emitting nation-states have now embraced the tenets of climate justice. Having observed 30 years of this cynical COP process, it is obvious this body will never vote to strand the assets of any petro-state or fossil fuel major. Useless debates around who is a “developing nation” will thwart binding agreements (for instance, Saudi Arabia is listed as one, along with China). Every high-emitting nation will deny responsibility or liability for the crisis. Action will never match ambition, no matter how well intentioned.
The world is a stage, and the ecocidal act playing out at these COP forums should be increasingly obvious to the climate justice movement and beyond. The power and influence of capitalist petro-states is the result of a long, brutal history of uneven and combined development. Geo-strategic competition between and within these states is threatening the existence of those least responsible for the crisis. At the end of the day, it is the logic of accumulation that is the star of the show in all its grotesque malevolence.
It therefore remains the case that it is up to social movements to force climate action. With enough focused pressure, governments can be forced to halt the obscene subsidies propping up global fossil fuel exploration and production, estimated to be 5.9 trillion (with a t) in 2020. Fossil fuel corporations still in private hands can be nationalized and shut down, with workers transitioning into green jobs. The first step is lifting the veil on the COP and its “blah blah blah.” Then we put our energy where it can achieve real results.
Dave Jones is a retired fishing guide and autodidact living in western Montana. He is the father of three amazing women and husband to a fourth. He is a founding member of the Zootown Zapatistas and is active with DSA as well as with System Change Not Climate Change.