It's a Fairytale That World Governments Will Fix Our Climate Crisis. It's Up to Us

Bill McKibben / Guardian UK
It's a Fairytale That World Governments Will Fix Our Climate Crisis. It's Up to Us Bill McKibben. (photo: Wolfgang Schmidt)

Thank climate activists for the fact that any progress was made in Glasgow. Unless we push hard, powerful interests don’t budge

It was inspiring to watch activists – especially young people and those from the global south – as this Glasgow Cop limped towards its mushy end. They were on top of every twist in the text, and they won significant concessions from the big polluting countries. At the time of writing, it looks as if the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels will be mentioned in a Cop document for the first time, and that there will be more money for nations of the global south to “adapt” to the climate crisis. The activists’ anger echoed through the halls, and was heard in whatever parts of the world were listening. To the extent that this Cop worked at all, it’s a tribute to their perseverance and creativity.

But was this a sea change in the way we deal with the global climate crisis? No –Glasgow moves us down the track a little and boxes in national governments a little more, but it has changed not nearly enough. After 26 iterations, the truth about these Cops is pretty clear: the results are largely determined before they even begin. Yes, there’s an endless succession of concerts, marches, seminars, negotiating sessions, speeches, ultimatums, declarations, photo-ops; and yes, everyone works hard to build a sense of drama (the media especially). But history would suggest that the parties rarely go beyond what they’d intended to do before they arrived.

This is not, I think, a cynical take; rather, it’s always seemed to me that the best way to understand the process of the annual Cops – especially the big ones like Copenhagen or Paris or Glasgow – is to view them as scoreboards rather than contests. They reflect how much of an effect civil society has managed to have over the nations engaged in the negotiations, and the strength of civil society relative to the power of the fossil fuel industry and its friends in the financial community.

Copenhagen failed because there was too little movement building in the years preceding it, allowing a leader like Barack Obama to go home empty-handed and pay no political price. The global climate movement remedied that deficiency before Paris: many governments had no choice but to reach some kind of credible deal and hence a workable framework emerged, albeit without the actual pledges to make it capable of the task. Glasgow was supposed to be the place where countries lived up to the resolutions they’d proudly announced in France, and the decidedly mixed results reflect, at least in part, the difficulties activists have faced over the last few years.

September 2019 may have been the high point to date in climate organising. Millions upon millions of mostly young people took to the streets around the world as the school strike movement opened hearts and minds on every continent. Vanessa Nakate, Xiye Bastida, Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neuberger, Alexandria Villaseñor, Jerome Foster and an almost endless list of very young climate leaders captured imaginations like no one before. Together they formed a wave that seemed as if it would continue cresting. But then came Covid-19 – and it turned out that while it’s possible to do good organising on Zoom, it’s not easy. In any event, the world faced a different crisis for a while, one that understandably took up the most energy. The pandemic illustrated certain useful principles for the climate fight (pay attention to science, flatten curves early). On balance, though, it focused attention elsewhere.

Even before Covid, the landscape for activists had begun to shrink. The rise of illiberal governments around the world – Trump’s America, but also Xi’s China (more restrictive even than its predecessors were on civil society), Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Erdoğan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia. Much of the world is largely off limits to activism, especially the global kind exemplified by the climate movement. (The leader of the youth climate movement in India, for instance, spent several weeks behind bars; now she’s awaiting trial, and the police wouldn’t permit her travel to Glasgow.)

Most of the world’s biggest countries are now beyond the reach of protest, and to a large degree unresponsive even to international pressure. China issued a joint statement with the US vaguely pledging future action, but it also made clear that it didn’t look forward to the annual revisions of its climate targets that activists – and scientists – have demanded. And no one really has an idea how to counter this, any more than they know how to counter the fact that American polling finds Republican voters even more resistant to the reality of climate change than they were a few years ago. Since there’s a very good chance that Republicans will control Congress by the time of next year’s Cop in Egypt, it’s hard to see what leverage there will be to move the process forward.

But still. As vaccines spread, activism is spreading again too: the marches in Glasgow were as spirited as any I have ever seen, and Thunberg – with her superb gift for saying and doing the right thing at the right time – helped everyone understand the meaning of Glasgow with her “blah, blah, blah” framing. Yes, the other side is also better at its game: greenwashing has become steadily more complex, and taking apart claims like “net zero by 2050” has become a full-time occupation. But since these are lies, they will look steadily more shabby, exposed by each flood and hurricane.

My guess is that movements will adapt to the blockages in the Cop process, and powerfully. I think there’s going to be ever more attention on the financial industry, in part because it’s crucial to the fossil fuel machine, in part because it’s located in places like New York and London, where protest of all kinds can still be carried out. And as Covid recedes, that rejuvenated activism will combine with the continuing horror of the climate crisis to produce more pressure for change. It had better – Glasgow’s finish makes clear that when activists aren’t able to push as hard as we need, inertia and vested interest remain powerful forces. The idea that the world’s governments will simply do what needs to be done is just a fairytale.

In that sense, the Cop tells us not just what we’ve done in the past few years, but what we have to do in the ones ahead. The planet is out of its comfort zone; we had best be even further out of ours.

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