COP26 ended the way climate summits always do, with promises for change from countries which have every intention of keeping the status quo. The only possibility for change lies with peoples mass movements.
This article originally appeared in Monthly Review Online.
Has COP26, which has wound up in Glasgow after two weeks of political showboating and grassroots protest, been a failure?
In one sense the answer is yes. Lobbying by fossil fuel interests has seriously weakened proposals to phase out subsidies for coal, oil and gas.
The richest nations tried to present themselves as climate saviours while shunting the blame onto developing countries: witness the way U.S. President Joe Biden accused China of “a lack of urgency” on global warming when U.S. emissions per head are more than twice China’s and will still be higher than China’s and India’s put together even if Washington meets all its 2030 reduction targets–which it won’t, if the trouble Biden’s green infrastructure legislation has run into in the U.S. Senate is any guide.
There have been impressive-sounding pledges on financial assistance to the developing world; but these may share the fate of the 2009 promise to offer $100 billion (£75bn) a year to help global South countries adapt to the threat of climate change.
The sum has not been met. It is dwarfed by the more than $3 trillion in subsidies G20 countries have provided for fossil fuel industries since 2015, or for that matter the $750bn spent by the United States on its military over the last year.
If the agreement sounds like too little, too late, the reality is worse, because the politicians signing up cannot be trusted.
Brazil has signed up to ending deforestation by 2030: yet under President Jair Bolsonaro this is accelerating, not slowing. This August we learned an area seven times the size of greater London had been felled in the last year alone, the worst assault on the Amazon in a decade.
Indonesia combines the same promise with plans to double palm oil production in the next decade: presumably if it is serious about retiring the chainsaws in 2030 that’s because it doesn’t expect there to be any forest left.
Indigenous representatives placing the blame on colonialism have a point, and the destruction goes alongside trampling on indigenous rights from Brazil to India, where the Narendra Modi government perversely claims conservation as a reason to expel adivasis from their ancestral lands–depicting them, without evidence, as a threat to endangered wildlife–before awarding logging and mining contracts in the “protected” areas.
The “too little, too late” narrative is misleading because it implies governments are acting to address climate change but need to get their skates on. In fact the world’s wealthiest countries show no sign of abandoning business as usual.
The reason is obvious: an economic system that rewards short-term profit over long-term sustainability cannot reconcile itself to the logic of “keep it in the ground.”
And as capitalism has evolved it has become shorter and shorter-term in outlook: the length of time investors hang onto shares has been shrinking for decades, from around eight years in 1960 to just five months by 2020, incentivising reckless asset-stripping and plunder over long-term resource management.
This is not a system which is capable of addressing climate change, so the summit was a failure. Real action requires taking public control of the economy and removing “investors’” profits from the equation.
Yet the other summit–the mass demonstrations, the trade union and NGO meetings, the climate activists who joined striking workers on picket lines–can still be a success.
Unity between the labour movement and demonstrators for ecological and social justice is a precondition for transformative change. Only organised labour can challenge the power of capital: and a broad-based anti-monopolies alliance of unions with community and campaigning organisations could carry real political weight.
Since the defeat of Corbynism in 2019 the Establishment has done its best to silence or belittle anyone who believes that another world is possible. But the riotous “alternative” Cop26 shows that millions still do.