As COP 26 began, Greta Thunberg summed up the whole thing quite succinctly using just one word, three times: Blah blah blah.
And as it ended two weeks later, she tweeted:
And indeed, COP26 was an epic fail, even by the dismal standards of the 25 COPs that preceded it, but at the same time the global climate justice movement made some much needed forward progress.
Why this COP was an epic fail
1. The process leading up to the COP was a blatant act of climate injustice.
Starting with the process leading up to COP26, we might well ask Why was it held at all, under the conditions of Covid-19?
Large numbers of delegates — and civil society, in its attempts to presence the world’s people — could not get to this summit. This is beyond the usual exclusiveness of all COPs, because ordinary people and activists did not have the means to travel, to be lodged, to miss work and income, and so on. This was built in by the ineptitude and lack of sincerity of the UK hosts, who had promised to make vaccines and entry requirements doable for those who wished to attend.
So this can be called the “Covid COP,” to connect two of the many global crises that beset us.
Or we might call it the “apartheid COP,” to connect the climate crisis to the existing cultures of violence the world suffers, from local policing to national-level militarism (both led by the United States, of course, the undisputed world number one in military spending and murderous police forces).
Asad Rehman, former climate spokesperson for Friends of the Earth International and current director of War on Want, derided the “shabbiest organizing” he’s seen in 15 years of attending UN climate conferences, while others called it the whitest, richest, most restricted and exclusionary COP ever.
Under these conditions, it would have been better to postpone, yet again, or have less-formal meetings and conversations open to the people of the world via Zoom.
2. Nicaragua calls it like it is at the opening plenary.
Perhaps Nicaragua said it best that day [and here I am bracketing for a moment the dismal situation that has been wreaked on the country by its president, Daniel Ortega, most recently in the November 7 elections the day before the country’s negotiator made the speech]. According to Third World Network’s excellent daily updates:
“Nicaragua said that the root of the climate problem is driven by the large capitalist economies through the destructive models of production and consumption. It said that the 10 largest emitting countries represent 83% of global emissions, while the 100 countries with the lowest emissions represent only 3%. It said that the group did not agree with reaching carbon neutrality in the second half of the century, adding that this represents a huge step backwards from the 2°C and 1.5°C targets, as the 2050 target is too late.
It added that it is imperative that countries of the world “adopt a model of civilization that defends Mother Earth, and where nature and human beings are a totality – and the totality of Mother Earth to replace the anthropocentric model … in which subject[s] nature at the service of humans. Concrete results from the COP26 must be based on the CBDR principle [Common But Differentiated Responsibilities, a pillar of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since its inception in 1992], and that illegal unilateral coercive measures must cease immediately. It also emphasised that loss and damage must be raised to equal importance as mitigation and adaptation. The commodification of mother earth must be avoided through the so-called cooperative approaches of Article 6, which includes establishing carbon markets…”
3. The good, the bad, and the ugly
The elephants in the room: The United States and China made empty promises and delivered nothing. U.S. President Joe Biden turned up for an inspirational opening speech, against the backdrop of the legislative death of a Green New Deal in the U.S. Congress. President Xi of China failed to show up at all, later issuing a bilateral pledge with the U.S. while doing nothing to halt or slow the emissions from coal that make China number one in the emissions standings for another year.
4. Fossil of the Day Awards
Many countries fought for the medals meted out for doing the biggest wrong things each day by Climate Action Now International’s newsletter ECO. These hotly contested awards went successively (on some days there was more than one winner) to:
- Norway: “Not a single Norwegian climate target has ever been met, the petroleum industry is the largest source of domestic emissions and exported emissions of Norway’s petroleum industry are around ten times higher than national emissions. Mind boggling.”
- United States: “U.S. president Joe Biden, supported by the UK Government and others, launched the new ‘AIM for Climate’ (AIM4C) initiative at the World Leaders Summit innovation event. Did Joe think we’d be stuck in the line too long to notice that this is a sneaky scheme to reframe industrial agriculture and disruptive technologies as climate action? Come on Joe, we’re not confused by lines, just frustrated. So it’s crystal clear that it’s the opposite and goes against any principles of justice, sustainable development and food security.”
- Toward the end of the COP, the U.S. again took the prize: “As fossil fuel enabler-in-chief his administration has even outdone Trump by approving over 3,000 new drilling permits on public lands. Joe has refused to stop the Line 3 pipeline, expected to transport 760,000 barrels per day, and is keeping the fossil fuel lobby happy with sweet whispers of carbon capture storage and hydrogen. And the cherry on this carbon cake – the US shunned a global pact to commit to a coal end date.”
- France: “Word has reached us from AFP that all may not be as it seems. Apparently, they’re pushing for the integration of fossil gas and nuclear as ‘sustainable’ energies in the EU taxonomy.”
- United Kingdom: “The UK presidency insisted that COP26 was going ahead and was prepared to welcome the global community to ‘the most inclusive COP ever’… This spirit of inclusivity has showcased what the Brits do best – the art of queuing for hours in some cases.”
- Poland: “The Polish ministry of climate and environment decided that, despite being the 23rd largest global economy (forecast to grow further in the coming years, according to the World Bank) and with ambitions to join the G20, to put the country in the ‘poorer’ category.”
- Brazil: “Despicable behaviour is well documented in Brazil; invasions of Indigenous lands have skyrocketed; wildcat gold mining is polluting waterways, intimidation is rife and they have a vice-president who justified denying freshwater to COVID-hit villages because ‘the Indians drink from the rivers.’ We could go on to talk about rainforests and deforestation but think you get the idea.” On the country earning its second award: “Unfortunately, they … confirm the Brazilian Government’s illogical, and very dangerous, rationale. These sobering figures and comments make us wish we had a time machine to send Bolsanaro’s government back to the prehistoric age, where their ideas and policies belong.”
- Saudi Arabia: “Saudi Arabia gets their first Fossil for manipulating the rushed and restrictive decision making process, to keep the words ‘human’ and ‘rights’ out of the final text.”
- Mexico: “Mexico has worked hard to earn its Fossil of the Day award. Ranked as the 13th largest emitter of CO2 in the world, it’s not exactly spearheading energy transition. Its government is pumping more, not less, money into the fossil fuel industry, building oil refineries and delaying policies aimed at carbon emissions reductions.”
- Czech Republic: “When Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš used the COP26 World Leaders’ Forum to brand the EU Green Deal ‘ideology, not a deal,’ it appeared he had mistaken the Glasgow event for a climate change deniers’ conference.”
There was even a shout-out to New Zealand, which typically gets praise for its global policies: “We nearly fell off our chair when Mr. Shaw (who also chairs the transparency negotiations and is co-leader of the NZ Green Party btw) quite literally said that just because a refreshing of the NDC [Nationally Determined Contribution, or pledge for emissions reductions made at Paris in 2015] has been asked of countries ‘it doesn’t mean we have to.’ This comes from a country that gives off the ‘greener than thou’ vibe at the drop of a hobbit’s hat.”
- Australia: Australia actually won the award on no less than five different days, and took the overall gold for “No new policies to reduce emissions or phase out fossil fuels; Failing to deliver ambitious NDCs; Approving three new coal projects in the last months; Ruling out signing the Global Methane Pledge; An ‘inaction plan’ for EVs in favour of gas guzzling cars; Rolling out the red carpet for gas-giant Santos in their COP pavilion; Inviting consultation on ten new areas for offshore petroleum exploration; [and] Not updating the 2030 target.”
The climate justice stalwarts, on the other hand, were represented, as always, by a few delegations: AOSIS, the forty-plus nations of the Alliance of Small Island States, including the Maldives, with Mohamed Nasheed, climate hero of COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009 speaking for that country, Bolivia, and maybe Costa Rica … but who else?
Somewhat surprisingly, Russia was not a contender for the awards at this COP. Putin wouldn’t have been there in person in any case should they have gotten a nomination. The same goes for Narendra Modi of India, who did attend, to little effect.
The People vs. the COP
Meanwhile, most of the Global South was simply excluded and largely invisible, first and foremost, Africa, which might be called the front-line continent of the climate crisis. This is not to mention all the peoples of the world, the indigenous, the front-line youth, students, workers, women …
Youth clearly understood that they were being lied to. Brendan Montague reported for The Ecologist:
Cora, 15, from Edinburgh, said: “We need to really change how politics looks in our society. Having that one leader that makes all the calls even when they are not specifically educated in climate change? We need people who have had the experience of climate change impacts, say if they are from the Global South, in power. Having people who didn’t all go to Cambridge in government in a massive superpower would be beneficial for ordinary people, working class people, and people in the Global South, so we can have better policies.”
She added, “We all know that COP is just a theatre run by capitalists. We know that when COP is finished we will just have empty promises and false solutions. We can expect that again and again. We are letting those people who are putting profit over the people and the planet run it, letting them be in charge. We’re letting them get the photo op and drink the fancy wine. They know they can get away with it.
“Letting that kind of capitalist theatre run every COP, we are never going to see the change that we need now. It will come back to doing stuff without that kind of world negotiation. It has to come back to individual countries; they need to start adopting their own policies. We know that COP is never going to work. The capitalists cannot do it.”
She concluded, “We need system change. We need the massive companies taxed, and taxed properly. The just transition is going to cost a lot of money. … To get that change we have to start taxing the top one hundred companies that are actually responsible for emissions. I am vegan, but that alone does not create that change that we need to see.”
Outcomes: The winners and losers
Here’s the official line on the outcome, in the words of Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, drawing extensively on the metaphor of a bridge:
“At COP26, Parties built a bridge between good intentions and measurable actions to lower emissions, increase resilience and provide much needed finance.
“A bridge leading to the historic transformation we must make to achieve rapid reductions this decade and ultimately towards the 1.5C goal.
“A bridge between the admirable promises made six years ago in Paris to the concrete measures that the scientific evidence calls for and societies around the world demand.”
Then she had the audacity — the shamelessness, really — to go further:
“This was clear outside the formal process as well….
“We heard from the activists who marched in peace and plead for you to listen to their cries for climate leadership.
“We heard from women, from youth, from cities, from regions, from businesses large and small, from academics, scientists and countless others….”
The tone of defeat is easy to read between these lines, which are sad to take at face value, and tragically devastating to contemplate.
As Asad Rehman said on Democracy Now!, “We should not call it a Glasgow pact, we should call it the Glasgow suicide pact for the poorest in the world, because it does not keep us below the 1.5 degree guard rail…. They’re ramming through so many loopholes that it makes a mockery of these climate negotiations.”
The winners of COP26 were the indefatigable voices of civil society, whose actions were load and clear: On the final Friday many, many organizations walked out of the COP in protest, reminding me of the 2013 walkout I witnessed and took part in at COP19 in Warsaw.
The COP26 Coalition of dozens of groups from everywhere issued an inspiring and damning document called the People’s Declaration, a set of ten demands that laid out what we actually dream of seeing from the next COP:
- Global North countries pay their climate debt;
- Deliver a Global Goal for Adaptation;
- Address climate injustice and pay up for Loss and Damage;
- Urgently deliver your fair share of action;
- Reject false solutions;
- No trade-off of Human Rights;
- Big Polluters removed from this process;
- Deliver Just Transitions;
- Co-operation and Solidarity;
- Do not exclude the People.
In an echo of Greta Thunberg’s succinct condemnation of the COP, the preamble concludes, “People are tired of waiting for governments to prioritize people and the planet over profits while so many lives are being impacted and lost. We are out of time and out of patience.”
So, what now, then, for climate justice?
That is the real question that we should be discussing and that we will be discussing, in the days and months to come.
This is the perennial challenge at the heart of the global network of movements for climate justice, a lace made of an almost uncountable number of groups, some prominent and many more well under the radar.
For my part, and in this conversation among climate justice radicals I work and advocate for confronting the climate crisis in two fundamental and complementary ways, that:
- We continue building the global climate justice movement together, and that
- We put our hands, hearts, and heads to creating systemic alternatives in our communities.
The strategy for achieving both of these is the network model, the creation of increasingly fruitful, mutually supportive connections among groups, movements, NGOs, and individuals.
One of the visions I hold is for an intersectional ecosocialism, inclusive of all folks in the 90 percent, all races and ethnicities, all gender identities, that is multigenerational, flexible, open, and vibrant.
The only way forward for Northern ecosocialists is to learn about and embrace “intersectional ecosocialism” or an “ecosocialism of the global South” (understanding that there is a South in the North consisting of communities marginalized by all the axes of power we are talking about here).
Doing so might be of benefit to the global climate justice movement as a whole, while just possibly making our struggles equal to the pressing crises that beset us.
John Foran is a member of System Change Not Climate Change and a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is also involved with the programs in Latin American and Iberian Studies, Global and International Studies, Environmental Studies, and the Bren School. The illustration is courtesy of DownToEarth.org.