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BEYOND THE COP27 OP-ED | Climate crisis – practical action begins with better understanding of planetary reality

Protesters demonstrate over climate justice, loss and damage, fossil fuels, human rights, the exploitation of poor countries by rich countries and other climate-related issues during the COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, on 12 November 2022. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

By Jeff Rudin | Daily Maverick | 09 Jan 2023 

Documents that were kept under wraps for 50 years give us insights that help explain why efforts to agree on climate change interventions have failed so far. The scale of the climate change catastrophe we face may seem overwhelming, but empowered by scientific knowledge, there are enough people who share the human traits of reason and consciousness who can use hitherto untried ways to persuade governments that it is in their interests to act on it.

How many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

So asked Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize laureate for Literature in 2016, in one of his immortal lines. He followed this question with another:

Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?

Sixty years after first asking these questions, his answer – “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” – needs updating. Besides addressing the question of gender, the answer is no longer blowin’ in the wind but is now howling in the hurricanes of climate change. As for the answer to his second question – “’til he knows that too many people have died” – the millions who have already been killed or uprooted by the ravages of climate change, alas, have not yet proved to be nearly enough. 

But a possible silver lining is not that far away: Climate change will either be Dylan’s ultimate answer, as we finally run out of time, or – and herein lies our hope – we will triumph over the final hurdle of an essential beginning. That beginning awaits the cognitive and emotional leap required for the disruptive understanding of why the UN’s latest international gathering on the environment – last year’s COP27 in Egypt – was more of the same blah, blah and blah heard at the UN’s first international gathering on the environment 50 years previously in Copenhagen.

Most attempts to explain the failure of COP27 involve considerations of the undoubted power of the global fossil fuel industry. Some – like here – argued that effective societal power has too often ignored or insufficiently recognised the political dimension of the industry’s power while overemphasising the economic one. Similarly largely overlooked is that socioeconomic stability is conditional on harmony between these two spheres of power. Governments – in all their global forms – are the ultimate seat of political power. Such is the usual (ultimate) unity between political and economic power, that governments naturally act on behalf of business interests. (See here for a South African study of when this doesn’t happen.)

A recently released secret British document offers a striking instance of how governments, acting in what they almost certainly see as the “national interest”, take steps to protect what then becomes the one and only “national economy”. 

The British journal New Scientist reported on 2 January 2022, on secret meetings in 1971 involving the governments of Britain, the US, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and France in a forum known as the Brussels Group. The details were revealed in 30-year-old British government records that were kept secret until the last week of 2021. 

Before saying more about the Brussels Group, a word of caution. Rather than reading too much into this group having been kept a secret for more than 50 years, it is apposite to see the details contained in the New Scientist as being the normal behaviour of alert and effective governments with economies to protect. This view of these conspiracies differs from the standard pejorative one in that it suggests that they are, purportedly, in the public interest. 

The New Scientist report merits retelling because, extraordinarily, to my knowledge, only George Monbiot, the British writer and environmental and political activist, has picked up on it. In contrast to Monbiot, Wikipedia, in its long entry on the Stockholm Conference, references the New Scientist report but only as the source for its unelaborated observation that “The conference was not welcomed” by the Brussels Group, which therefore “attempted to stifle the impact of the conference”.

Unless otherwise stated, what follows draws entirely from the New Scientist report.

As agreed by the UN General Assembly, the mandate of the Stockholm Conference – the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment – was seemingly innocuous: Nothing more than “stimulating and providing guidelines for action by national governments and international organisations” facing environmental issues.  Yet, it was precisely this modest mandate that alarmed the governments that formed the Brussels Group. Meeting for the first time in July 1971, nearly a year before the Stockholm Conference, the group had two primary objectives. First, the limitation of any environmental regulations restricting trade, and second, constraining the new UN environmental agency the conference was expected to create. Again, the fear was that such a body might impose environmental restrictions on their economies.

In the event, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) did emerge from the conference.According to its own website, UNEP is “responsible for coordinating responses to environmental issues within the United Nations system”. Its “mandate is to provide leadership, deliver science and develop solutions on a wide range of issues, including climate change, the management of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and green economic development. The organisation also develops international environmental agreements; publishes and promotes environmental science and helps national governments achieve environmental targets.”

After more than 50 years of its existence, UNEP still remains largely unknown to all but specialists. Yet, even before its birth, it was fingered as a problem by the Brussels Group. The Wikipedia entry is again telling here.  It informs us that, in 1972, environmental governance “was not seen as an international priority”. Indeed, the main, if not only, reason developing countries evidently supported the creation of UNEP was because its HQ was to be in Nairobi, thereby making it the first UN agency to be based in a developing country.

The fact that this innocuous agency was seen as a sufficient threat to bring the Brussels Group into being is a mark of the measures to which major governments are prepared to go to protect “their” economies.

A more concrete idea of the aims of the Brussels Group, according to the New Scientistreport, is to be found in a note laying out Britain’s position before a secret meeting in Geneva in December 1971, one of a number of such meetings in the run-up to Stockholm.

Written by an official in what was then the Department of the Environment, it says that Britain wanted to restrict the scope of the Stockholm conference and reduce the number of proposals for action. In an indirect reference to what would later become UNEP, the paper says a “new and expensive international organisation must be avoided”. However, it concedes that although “a small effective central coordinating mechanism… would not be welcome”, it “is probably inevitable”.

It goes on to detail the subjects that Britain wanted left out of Stockholm. Topping the list were controls on sonic booms from aircraft and pollution in the upper atmosphere. These measures would have been detrimental to the economics of the Anglo-French supersonic airliner, Concorde.

The British government was also firmly opposed to any international standards regulating environmental quality or polluting emissions.  “Universal guidelines… could cause moral pressure for compliance with philosophies of doubtful validity or benefit,” say the papers.

When not even “moral pressure for compliance” was acceptable to the governments forming the Brussels Group, there should be no surprise at the subsequent 27-year failures of all the UN’s COPs. What has changed during this period – and changed by an order of magnitude probably inconceivable to the Brussels Group – are the substantial changes required in today’s standard economic activities, if humanity is to save itself from climate change. 

Governments’ primary concern remains the protection of “their” economies, which are in cutthroat competition with all other economies. To expect them to do what they know must be done – with ever-increasing urgency – is, therefore, to condemn humanity to suicide. 

But the situation is not hopeless – at least, not yet. And not yet for a different reason than that offered by Mark Heywood. The situation is as dire as it can get when someone like Heywood writes: “‘We shall overcome’ Really? I’m beginning to doubt it…” And follows that up with:

“We live in desperate times. Many of us often insist we have not given up hope. But, be honest for a moment, how many of us hide that nagging feeling that actually we may have? The heart hopes and the brain calibrates; but mine feel at odds with each other and are sending different signals.”

Heywood ends his gutting despondency with the challenging question: 

“At the end of the day I can’t abandon hope, because if I did, what would I do with the remains of my life?”

This, the most personal and despairing of questions, is not an individual one. We are all, everywhere and indivisibly, social individuals. Behind the question he asks himself, as an individual, is a societal answer. The mediations of early infancy that give us a common humanity also leave us needing meaning and a purpose in and for life. Both are orphaned without hope. And there is hope aplenty in the hopelessness of his observation that, contrary to logic, “billions of people still place their hope in a stranded asset called ‘capitalism’, mainly because they have been taught to fear its alternative, ‘socialism’”.

Read in Daily Maverick: “‘We shall overcome’ Really? I’m beginning to doubt it but not giving up yet

Combining the many meanings of socialism, there are more than enough socialists in the world to make a difference. Central to this difference – in my view – is a better understanding of capitalism. Capitalism is considerably more than the capitalists. Capitalism – like all the dominant economies of their day worldwide – is a living and self-reproducing organism that differs from others in its unprecedented complexity.  Capitalism’s unique social relations of production create and recreate poverty as an integral part of its production of wealth. The role of the state, at all its levels, is to manage the contradictions within the privileged sectors no less than between the rich and the poor, which is the class antagonism most recognise, if it is recognised at all. 

Ultimately, parliaments perform this essential and, broadly speaking, managerial function. Here, governments are the first in line. The revelations by the New Scientist offers no more than a peep into governments’ role in safeguarding their respective national economies.  They do so, not as a conspiracy, but as a natural part of the division of labour within the ruling class. Regardless of the name used for this group, it is important to recognise that those privileged by the specifically capitalist social division of labour have a shared interest in protecting capitalism.  This shared commitment is further cemented by a practice so common and universal that it has its own name – the revolving door; the door through which leading businesspeople become politicians and politicians become businesspeople. To this is added the bonds of education, marriage, family, friends, sport and other leisure activities.

This makes the already mammoth task of addressing climate change even more difficult. The so-called economic vested interests most frequently offered as an explanation for the enduring failure of all the COPs, must include the most often ignored political vested interests.

More daunting still is that it is now the very scientists advising the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for comprehensive assessment reports on the state of scientific, technical and socioeconomic knowledge – who say that the system change most socialists and others call for is not a tweak here and a further tweak there. The UN censored its own report prepared by scientists in early 2022 and issued as the Working Group III report on Mitigation of Climate Change of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), authored by 278 scientists from 65 countries, and drawing on about 18,000 scientific studies. The uncensored scientific consensus indicated that “incremental” change was not sufficient to address climate change, with its “lock-in” of high-emissions technologies, and that an “ambitious transformation” with a “systemic approach” aimed at a fundamental social transition, overcoming “vested interests”, was required. The scientists further noted that “rapid GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions and fundamental structural changes at global scale” were required to meet climate goals and that “accelerated policy development” was therefore essential. They additionally observed that “pathways consistent with limiting global warming to below… 1.5°C entail rapid emissions reductions and a fundamental transformation of all sectors and regions in order to reach net-zero CO2 emissions.”

One doesn’t have to be a socialist to support these scientific conclusions, while reminding ourselves that, being unpalatable to the UN governments, they were removed from the public report issued in the name of the scientists.

But we now know what happened. Being thereby empowered by science, we can make a difference because of our numbers. This is especially so where governments are elected.

Making this difference begins with what makes (most) people the same. With rare exceptions, we all have reason and consciousness. We all have the need to give meaning to our lives and purpose to our individual existence.  Yes, capitalism fragments in ways unthinkable even to Thomas Hobbes who, in 1651, spoke of the war of all against all. 

Yet, out of all these contradictions comes the possibility of hope. We still have to scale the final hurdle successfully. We need to take the disruptive leap allowing us to accept – and act on – the realisation that our leaders and policymakers are profoundly resistant to the fundamental changes called for by the scientists.  But resistance doesn’t mean they are permanently closed to persuasion. Rather, as suggested by the evidence, they are firmly closed only to all current forms of persuasion. Our task is thus to make them accountable in hitherto untried ways (while acknowledging that Extinction Rebellion has now given upon its current form of direct action). 

Shaping these uncharted methods must be the recognition of the unity between the economic and political spheres of power. This means moving beyond blaming economic “vested interests” for the failure of the COPs. Going beyond the COPs, it could mean putting concerted pressure on selected heavy greenhouse gas polluters sufficient for any government or groups of governments to take the lead in actually doing what they say must be done.

But all this begins with a more comprehensive understanding of, in Heywood’s memorable words, the “stranded asset called capitalism”. Rather than abandoning hope – which is tantamount to abandoning life – a better understanding of what must be changed could be the spring of hope.  Whether it comes as a few drops or a torrent depends on us. With climate catastrophe as a guaranteed future, our choice couldn’t be starker.

In words taking an Arundhati Roy to pen:

“What lies ahead? Reimagining the world. Only that.” DM

 Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC).

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick

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