Our Burning Planet

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COP-Out 26: Breaking the paralysis of hopelessness that pervades our response to the climate crisis

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

Mass paralysis among the climate-conscious public might be the reason the world’s leaders get away with doing little of what they say they know must be done. With no immediate political consequences, climate change’s long suicide is their preferred option. We must replace confidence in the COPs with a consistent rejection of them.

Sometimes being right is the wrong outcome. Many people confidently predicted the failure of COP26, but there can be no joy in being right about this. When a British Conservative cabinet minister, Alok Sharma, serving as COP26 president, is almost reduced to tears by COP’s failure, panic is not an unwarranted response. Unless, that is, one agrees with Peter Willis’s passionately argued article in which he asks Daily Maverick readers to grow up. Like the mature response to unavoidable death, he effectively invites us to succumb to the inevitability of the climate catastrophe and to focus instead on how we express our humanity in those profoundly traumatic conditions.

I can’t agree with my friend Peter. More accurately, I don’t want to agree. Our species has consciousness, agency. Death is a biological given, unlike climate change. We wear raincoats when it rains. Not protecting ourselves from climate change is a challenge to what makes us human. Yet, I say this as someone who for more than eight long years has been describing humanity’s response to climate change as a “long suicide”. Peter has turned my wake-up call into a conclusion that I resist with Antonio Gramsci’s optimism of the will, despite the pessimism of my reason. Peter just can’t be right! The worst of climate change can still be avoided.

I’m more persuaded by the influential Swedish historian Andreas Malm’s idea that the already widespread climate activism will sooner or later morph into acts of sabotage. Indeed, it is highly likely that at some point there will be a mass uprising by the immediate victims of the many forms of climate catastrophe. But it will almost certainly be far too late by then.

With the pessimism of my reason, I must acknowledge that COP26 has been no different from each of the 25 preceding ones: they have all either ended in failure or proved to be illusionary hopes, as, for example, the Kyoto Protocol of COP3, in 1997. For the concerned public across the world, the constant of COP failures has been accompanied by increasing scientific knowledge and actual experience of climate change, not as something to worry about in the future but as an all-too-real experience for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Given the world’s unequal power relations it is important that the US and Europe have become centres of various forms of climate change disasters.

It is not only COP26’s president Sharma who weeps at yet another lost opportunity. Incomprehension, despair and depression are standard responses among millions to what appears to be a situation of hopelessness. With hopelessness comes paralysis. Yet, there might be cause for hope buried in this very hopelessness. Mass paralysis among the climate-conscious public might be the reason the world’s leaders are allowed to get away with, at best, doing little of what they say they know must be done. For as long as there are no immediate political consequences for them, climate change’s long suicide is their preferred option. Indeed, there are good reasons for seeing their inaction as a measure of their own paralysis, their own sense of hopelessness, of ambivalence born of being caught between equally unacceptable options.

It is simplistic to attribute the long history of failures at the COPs to the “vested interests” of the coal industry. It is likewise an exaggeration to hold the whole of the fossil fuel industry accountable. The leaders attending COP26 were no longer in denial about climate change. Even the incomparable Greta Thunberg acknowledges this:

“Many [people] are beginning to ask, what will it take for people in power to wake up? But they are already awake. They know exactly what they are doing.”

They remain unable to act because properly addressing climate change is (mistakenly) seen to threaten the integrity of (virtually) each economy of the world, with the threat being greater the more developed the economy happens to be. Donald Trump made this clear when explaining why he was withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement:

“It’s estimated that full compliance with the [Paris] agreement could ultimately shrink America’s GDP by $2.5-trillion over a 10-year period. That means factories and plants closing all over our country. … Not with me, folks.”

The US has now returned to the COPs but the reality Trump trumpeted remains as a tension shaping what happened at COP26. This is because all governments face (or fear they face) the challenge of serious economic disruption, including unemployment, if climate change is taken seriously. There is, nevertheless, no reason for doubting Sharma’s sincerity when expressing his frustrations at his failure to deliver on the transition from coal. Liz McDaid accuses President Cyril Ramaphosa of speaking with a forked tongue when he simultaneously says he supports the transition from fossil fuels while encouraging the exploration of oil and gas. The inconsistency is, however, consistent with his economic policy. That policy rests on attracting foreign direct investment in sufficient quantities to (supposedly) address the recognised scourge of poverty, unemployment and inequality. At issue isn’t his sincerity but his policy.

More important than understanding the contradictory pulls and pushes of all the COPs is freeing ourselves from the paralysis that allows the world’s leaders to get away with their failures.

This escape from their responsibilities as leaders of a world facing the first natural, global threat to the continuation of our species begins with the fundamental failure to recognise that our expectations of the COPs are fundamentally misplaced.

It is easy to agree with the Executive Director of War on Want, Asad Rehman’s assessment of COP26 as the “COP-Out in Glasgow” [email 15/11/21]. It is similarly easy to agree with the founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, that “it’s a fairy tale that world governments will fix our climate crisis. It’s up to us”. But to do what? He doesn’t say, other than to keep fighting. And he doesn’t develop the implications of not relying on the COPs as the forum of world governments.

Nevertheless, his dismissal of them does invite us to look much more closely at the fairy tale of the COPs. Lessons can be learnt after 26 annual such events, to say nothing of the many preceding events going back to the 1972 UN Scientific Conference, also known as the First Earth Summit. Over time, COPs have become the international forum for reaching agreement on the single issue of reducing fossil fuel emissions to a level consistent with stopping runaway climate change. Their manifest failures are not surprising.

Indeed, the main surprise is that we should ever have expected anything else. What Trump said about the impact of COP15 – the Paris Agreement – on the US economy is precisely what all other governments fear for their own economies, even though they seldom say so and certainly never so bluntly as Trump. Working within the prevailing – and false – binary of either economic growth or addressing climate change guarantees that the emission reductions are neither what are required nor are they properly enforceable.

The ruthlessness of the global economic system sets each economy against all others. No government wants to be first in actually letting climate change demands determine their emission reductions. This ensures unavoidable and repetitive failure as all countries seek to protect their economies by not ceding competitive advantage to anyone else. This is the logic of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). On top of this, elected governments won’t take climate-necessary measures seen to disrupt their economies and cause still further unemployment. Ramaphosa is no exception.

Whether or not these are characteristics inherent in capitalism itself remains to be seen. But we can’t wait to find out. We have more than sufficient evidence to know with a high degree of confidence that we should not be expecting the COPs to deliver on the essential emission reductions any time soon.

Where, then, does this leave us, the tens, if not hundreds of millions reduced to despair by the inevitable failure of each successive COP?

We must replace confidence in the COPs with a consistent rejection of them. This means not engaging with anything to do with them, including as part of each individual government’s preparations for them. Any such engagements unavoidably mean legitimising them. We must explain our position in ways that attract the greatest and most sustained publicity.

Rather than broad demands like the Global Green New Deal being promoted by War on Want, we should be making much more effective single demands; demands, moreover, that do not directly prioritise carbon emissions. These demands should be the basis for global campaigns. They should be addressed to the political leaders of the world, probably, though not necessarily, within the framework of the UN.

In a recent article in the (British) The Guardian, renowned writer and campaigner George Monbiot draws on research showing that a critical threshold for effective action was passed when the size of a committed minority reached roughly 25% of the population.

Our demands, whatever they be, must not frighten away those people who are most concerned about the climate but feel trapped by what is on offer. This means acknowledging their fears of what they probably see as the stark choice between climate catastrophe or a return to some form of early industrial, if not pre-industrial, life.

These fears are well captured by Malena Ernman, Thunberg’s mother. Writing about Sweden, she notes, in Our House is On Fire:

“It’s not about listening and finding solutions. It has never been about that… All you have to do is get as many people as possible to defend their little part of the universe. Their job. Their home. Their holiday. Their car. Their money. It’s about scaring as many people as possible with the threat of change and decline. And doing it to such an extent that in principle they are prepared to do anything to stand up for their own microscopic part of this gigantic world.” [pp 248, 251]

Climate change is seen to be too personally costly even in enlightened Sweden. Or is it? Might there yet be a win-win way out of what appears to be a number of dead-ends, or a series of impossible either/ors? How do we get to the 25% of the global population, especially the articulate, self-confident 25%?

Change generally comes in two ways: gradually until a tipping point is reached when the change becomes very rapid. According to Monbiot, these triggers result in “cascading regime shifts”. Monbiot further tells us about research showing “how we could harness the power of ‘domino dynamics’: non-linear change, proliferating from one part of the system to another”. Achieving these shifts and changes do not in themselves guarantee victory over climate change. The only guarantee is our species’ extinction if we don’t achieve them.

Drawing on what should be an evocative Ethics of Sufficiency, might cars lead to “domino dynamics”? Rather than calling for the prohibition of all private transport, a more measured call, such as a prohibition on the sale of SUVs – the latest global status symbol – would probably be a popular one. In similar vein, would be restrictions on the weight and speed of cars, the size of engines and the number of models produced, along with the frequency with which they are updated and replaced. Four-wheel drive vehicles would still be available but only with a special licence granted on a proven need basis.

Cars, in other words, will still be available. But they will be compatible with the demands of combating climate change, as well as the other eight planetary boundaries creating the planetary emergency. These adjustments could be replicated throughout most, if not all, other economic sectors. Just think of cellphones and computers – and the related advertising and marketing – as representative of the whole complex of manufactured needs and throwaway obsolescence planned into our global economies. Again, the only change needed is a much lower number of “brands” along with a limit on their upgrades and new models. We must make such profligacy no longer socially acceptable.

Each one of these possibilities could ignite “domino dynamics” leading to “cascading regime shifts”. Each one has all the strength of single-issue campaigns, with the additional power of being precedents for further state regulation in an explicit context of a finite world with finite resources being overtaken by climate change.

What ought to be the most powerful incentive for human agency is Peter Willis’s stark alternative of accepting that, like death, climate change is unstoppable. Not to do a desperate “something” but rather to make very specific demands that are inherently appealing while also being potential “cascading regime shifts”.

We cannot knowingly just accept that today’s young people have a future likely to be hostile to human life. We cannot knowingly just accept that the children of today’s young people have a future in which that hostility is guaranteed. People have the unique power of consciousness. We use it mundanely when wearing raincoats when it rains. Our knowledge of climate change demands that we use it to ensure the future of our species.

We can’t stop death, but we could stop climate change. OBP/DM

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  • Thank you very much Mr Rudin, for this proposed approach, I also found Mr Monbiot’s article very thought provoking. It also may be an approach for people to get in involved in taking specific action in their communities, to bring about concrete changes. Making demands in respect of how their pensions and savings are invested also might have some impact. It is certainly a challenge to maintain hope!

  • Thank you Jeff,
    This gives us hope, and an obligation.
    I was especially struck by the research George Monbiot quoted that “the power of small groups comes not from their authority or wealth, but from their commitment to the cause.”

  • We are knowingly committing suicide of our species, and will kill most organisms on Earth, as collateral damage. Some life will survive, but for the next million years or so, the climate on earth will be hostile, and beyond the capacity of mankind to survive. The Climate Crisis is accelerating as a result of growing positive feedback cycles. I wonder if mankind can really grasp that we have run out of time, and that the process is already out of control, and running away from us. Our current actions are to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. So we buy SUVs, invest in oil and coal companies, and think that Tesla will change our future.