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THE BIG COP-OUT OP-ED: Our skies are burning while our modern-day Neros fiddle at the UN Conference of the Parties

By Jeff Rudin | Daily Maverick | 14 Aug 2022 

With the 27th meeting of the UN’s Conference of the Parties – otherwise known as COP – now only months away, it is pertinent to ask: Who benefits from these annual gatherings of world leaders who each year regather to renew their repeated pledges to tackle climate change? Blah, blah, blah was Greta Thunberg’s pithy comment on last year’s COP26.

A very short history of UN’s involvement in climate change

Now, more than at any time during the United Nations’ long 50-year climate change involvement, a critical look is pertinent.

The first international conference to address environmental problems directly was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (the Stockholm Conference) in 1972.

In 1983, the United Nations convened the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). This commission addressed the further deterioration of the environment and depletion of natural resources and the societal impact of these conditions.

In 1988, the UN General Assembly endorsed the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC’s mandate remains preparing comprehensive reviews of, and recommendations on, the state of knowledge of the relevant sciences, the social and economic impact of climate change, and potential response strategies and other agenda issue items for future international climate change conventions.

The 1992 Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, was the first international conference since Stockholm in 1972. Among the summit’s conclusions was that sustainable development was an attainable goal for all the people of the world. The summit also adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is the body responsible for the global response to climate change.

This international environmental treaty came into force in 1994, with 196 countries ratifying it. There are now 197 nations and territories – called Parties – which have signed on to the framework convention. The convention also created the COP: the decision-making body responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the UNFCCC. The first COP, in 1995, took place in Berlin.

This briefest background history provides a timely 50-year lens for evaluating the global climate change scorecard.

Global climate change protesters. (Photo: Markus Spiske / Unsplash)

The sky is burning

The two most notable changes during this extensive period are (1) the world leaders attending the COPs now, overwhelmingly, make explicit their acceptance of the science of climate change; and (2) this acceptance is mirrored by the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have had direct experience of what, only a short while ago, were the distant “extreme weather events” predicted to be the new normal, unless appropriate measures were taken urgently.

Climate change is now a reality to many South Africans. The two deadly and devastating floods in and around Durban in April and again in May 2022 are not harbingers of climate change but the lived nightmare of those who survived them. Additionally, the enduring drought in and around the Nelson Mandela Bay area of the Eastern Cape is now threatening a zero-water supply to millions of people.

Climate change is now a fearful reality to virtually everyone in Europe, and many parts of Asia and the US.

Lest we forget, particularly for us South Africans, with our own problems and for whom the rest of the world is far away, the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported on 16 July 2022 under the headline: “‘Avalanche of fires’: what the front pages around the world say – From Portugal’s ‘panic and despair’ to ‘Hell’ in Croatia, newspapers in many countries are dominated by the wildfires”.

On the same day it reported: “UK Braces For Record Temperature As First Ever Red Heat Warning Comes Into Effect – Network Rail says to avoid trains unless absolutely necessary, with much of the country covered by extreme heat alert.”

The next day, The Guardian was full of reports such as “Scotland imposes Speed Restrictions on Rail Routes”; “Rail journey times may double”, amid fears of rails buckling in the heat; and “’Crumbling’ NHS buildings can’t adapt to heatwave”.

And, on the following day, 18 July, The Guardian carried an article, “The Terrifying Truth: Britain’s A Hothouse, But One Day 40C Will Seem Cool”, by Bill McGuire, a professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at London University’s UCL.

McGuire explained: “And this is just the beginning. When our children are our age, they will yearn for a summer as ‘cool’ as 2022, because long before the century’s end, 40°C-plus heat will be nothing to write home about in the climate-mangled world they inherit.”

In “The Sky is Frying”, Jeffrey St Clair, US author and editor of Counterpunch, wrote about the Armageddon happening at the same time in the US.

Here there are new fires, big mean ones, in Texas, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and California. Yosemite is burning. Fires are closing in on the Mariposa grove of Giant Sequoias, and across the Owens Valley to the east in the Inyo Range some of the world’s oldest trees, 4,500-year-old bristlecone pines, are threatened by the megadrought. The Great Salt Lake will soon be a great salt flat, a vast basin of toxic salt that will be lifted by westerly winds and blown into Provo and Logan and Salt Lake City.

Saying we have good reason to be scared, Bill McGuire argues we have even better reason to “channel this emotion into action”. However, we have only silence, instead of the immediately required action.

British journalist George Monbiot before being arrested by police during an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, Britain, 16 October 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA)

George Monbiot, the British author, Guardian columnist, and environmental and political activist, asks, “Can we talk about it now?” referring to “the subject most of the media and most of the political class has been avoiding for so long. You know, the only subject that ultimately counts – the survival of life on Earth. Everyone knows, however carefully they avoid the topic, that, beside it, all the topics filling the front pages and obsessing the pundits are dust. Never has a silence been so loud or so resonant.

“This is not a passive silence. It is … a fierce commitment to distraction and irrelevance in the face of an existential crisis. It is a void assiduously filled with trivia and amusement, gossip and spectacle. Talk about anything, but not about this. But while the people who dominate the means of communication frantically avoid the subject, the planet speaks, in a roar becoming impossible to ignore.”

But the governments of what they like to call democracies have ignored the roar. Even worse, they treat climate change as little more than an optional extra, a nice to have provided other pressing circumstances allow. Removing whatever economic and political threat they see Russia posing is far more important than climate change.

Thus, with egregious cynicism, they are ready to equip and pay for the last Ukrainian willing to die fighting the Russians. Saying this is not in any way to justify the Russian invasion. However, apart from the calculated provocation of Russia and their own longer histories of similar invasions, it does underscore that the governments of North America, the EU and Britain, are, for short-term economic and political reasons, eager to spend the money they claim not to have for climate change and other essentials.

These governments are further prepared to expect their populations to pay for and suffer the consequences of their hypocritical opportunism. Notwithstanding their rhetoric – to say nothing of their actual COP commitments to make the necessary transition away from fossil fuels – they have sanctioned the increased usage of oil, gas and coal (read here and here).

Indeed, the EU has given notice to its biggest energy users that unless new non-Russian fossil fuel sources can be found quickly, a compulsory energy reduction will be imposed. This is to say, the EU is prepared to take the very action required by climate change but deemed to be impractical. What these governments have made clear is that putting Russia in its place is far more important than climate change.

The sobering truth is that, apart from being good for advertising and media coverage for politicians to say something reassuring when faced with the latest “extreme weather event”, climate change remains a disposal extra.

So, what is to be done?

The need for boldness

Why boldness is needed is well addressed by George Monbiot . It’s an argument deserving a longish quote:

“We’re facing the greatest existential crisis that humanity has ever faced … In response, we want you not to use so many plastic bags, and to replace your cotton buds which have got plastic shafts with ones with paper shafts, and stop using plastic straws.

“I’ve begun to see that mainstream environmental movements have made a terrible mistake … Their strategy … goes something like this. There is too little time and the ask is too big to try to change the system. … So the only realistic approach is incrementalism … After years of persistence, the small asks will add up to the comprehensive change we seek and deliver the world we want.

“But … the radical right insurgency has swept all before it, crushing the administrative state, destroying public protections, capturing the courts, the electoral system and the infrastructure of government, shutting down the right to protest and the right to live. While we persuaded ourselves that there is no time for system change, they proved us wrong by changing everything.”

System change

System change is now accepted by the mainstream of the broad left in South Africa and other places in the world. This wasn’t the case, for instance, in 2011 when the Cape Town-based Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) took the initiative in calling for what became the One Million Climate Jobs Campaign.

However, even when capitalism is named as the system in need of change, there are many different and often conflicting understandings of capitalism. The main challenge remains how to turn the slogan into action. To my knowledge, no one or group anywhere has yet offered a viable strategy of how to inspire and mobilise the active involvement of 25% of the population said to be needed for any persuasive theory of societal change.

Confounding the achievement of such a climate change strategy are the various reasons given for the 50-year failure of the UN to deliver on what it knows must be done. Human stupidity, ignorance, complacency, greed, political tribalism and even Freud’s death wish have been invoked as obstacles.

At a more specifically systemic level, the fossil fuel industry is simplistically identified as the major/only obstacle to climate change progress. Not addressed in this understanding is that the fossil fuel industry has never been and is still not recognised by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC recognises only governments via their political leaders.

Left therefore unanalysed is the tight and complex symbiotic relationship between the dominant economic and political interests in all societies, notwithstanding the differences that sometimes occur between them. This reality adds still more complexity to any strategy intended to counter climate change.

Organised labour and the working class more broadly have, since the Communist Manifesto of 1848, been seen by the Marxian left as the major drivers of societal change.

In the US, Matthew Huber is prominent among those extending this thinking to placing a radical transformation of the US electricity trade unions at the centre of his proposed strategy. However, by his own acknowledgement, these unions are weak, representing well below 25% of even the electricity workers [See, for instance, his Climate Change as Class War (2022) Verso Books].

Likewise, electricity workers in South Africa, while occupying a strategic position within the economy, are weak and divided not only among themselves but also within themselves, as we are now witnessing with Numsa. Organised labour is, indeed, very weak in the US and South Africa (and elsewhere). With time running out for stopping climate change, radicalising even parts of the labour movement is a long-term strategy.

Seeing that Monbiot figures in what I’ve already written, it is both appropriate and practical to confine myself to what he has to say about system change.

He begins with the very assured premise that “… only a demand for system change, directly confronting the power driving us to planetary destruction, has the potential to match the scale of the problem and to inspire … So let’s break our own silence. Let’s stop lying to ourselves and others by pretending that small measures deliver major change. Let’s abandon the timidity and tokenism. Let’s stop bringing buckets of water when only fire engines will do. Let’s build our campaign for systemic change towards the critical 25% threshold of public acceptance.”

He then offers us doughnut economics, an ecological civilisation and participatory democracy as the rallying cries. Despite leaving all these concepts unelaborated, he concludes “so, some of us are very clear about the system change we want to see, but very few of us are actually prepared to call for that system change. And that has been our great failing.”

What, then, do I offer?

Opting out of COP as a contribution to a broader strategy

The starting point is the irrefutable fact that, measured against what is required to keep the global temperature increase to a maximum of 1.5°C, the COPs have been a singular failure. This failure is not specific to any COP but to all 26 of them. It is safe to say that all COPs since COP21, in Paris in 2015, have ended in global disappointment and despair for the tens of millions of people expecting each specific COP to be different from all the preceding ones.

COP26, in 2021, was different from Paris only in so far as the depth and breadth of the disappointment is concerned. The let-down left increasing millions with a sense of hopelessness. Sustaining action becomes even more difficult in the absence of hope. This growing hopelessness can be seen in the declining numbers of trade unions, faith-based organisations, NGOs, NPOs, other organs of civil society and, more recently, youth groups, which have attended the post-Paris COPs.

Is it not therefore time to accept that the COPs, rather than providing radical and enforceable solutions, are an integral part of the problem? Instead of ever-diminishing expectations being measured in a passive stay away from COP26, the alternative is an active and very public and organised opting out from COP27. Expecting COP27 to be any different from all the preceding ones is to continue to give credence to the COPs as currently structured.

Bolstered by the hundreds of millions of people who have now directly experienced climate change, the active opting out of COP being suggested here requires the largest possible worldwide agreement. A consequence of this agreement would be to draw the largest possible attention to why the COPs are unable to deliver on what they have pledged to do.

Active opting out of COP could also mean holding an alternative COP27 to coincide with the official one, with virtual attendance allowing for a much wider participation. Doing this offers the possibility of coverage by the media attending the official COP. Such an alternative COP provides a forum for the elaboration of the various theories of how to capture the imagination of people in numbers sufficient to make a difference.

In the words of German climate activist Luisa Neubauer: “If activism is saying, ‘It cannot be business as usual, it cannot be government as usual,’ then surely we must be saying to ourselves, ‘It cannot be activism as usual’.” DM/OBP

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick

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