IIt was inspiring to watch activists, especially young people and those from the global south, as this Glasgow police officer limped closer to his soft finish. They were aware of all the changes in the text and obtained important concessions from the big polluting countries. At the time of writing this article, it appears that the phase-out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies will be mentioned for the first time in a COP document, and that there will be more money for the nations of the global south to “adapt” to the climate crisis. The anger of the activists echoed in the hallways and was heard wherever in the world they were listening. To the extent that this cop worked, it is a tribute to his perseverance and creativity.
But was this a sea change in the way we deal with the global climate crisis? No – Glasgow moves us a bit down the road and the boxes in national governments a bit more, but it hasn’t changed enough. After 26 iterations, the truth about these cops is pretty clear – the results are largely determined before they even start. Yes, there is an endless succession of concerts, marches, seminars, negotiation sessions, speeches, ultimatums, statements, photo sessions; And yes, everyone works hard to create a sense of drama (especially the media). But history suggests that the holidays rarely go beyond what they were intended to do before their arrival.
I think this is not a cynical take; rather, it has always seemed to me that the best way to understand the annual police process, especially the big ones like Copenhagen, Paris or Glasgow, is to see them as markers rather than contests. They reflect how much of an effect civil society has had on the nations involved 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 so little movement in previous years, allowing a leader like Barack Obama to go home empty-handed and pay no political price. The global climate movement remedied that shortcoming before Paris: Many governments had no choice but to come up with some kind of credible deal, and thus a workable framework emerged, albeit without the real commitments to make it capable of the task. Glasgow was supposed to be the place where countries lived up to the resolutions they had proudly announced in France, and the decidedly mixed results reflect, at least in part, the difficulties activists have faced in recent years.
September 2019 may have been the highest point to date in climate organization. Millions and millions of people, mostly young people, took to the streets around the world as the school strike movement opened hearts and minds on all continents. Vanessa Nakate, Xiye Bastida, Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neuberger, Alexandria Villaseñor, Jerome Foster, and an almost endless list of very young climate leaders captured the imagination like no one before. Together they formed a wave that looked like it would continue to rise. But then came Covid-19, and it turned out that while it is possible to organize well in Zoom, it is not easy. In any case, the world faced a different crisis for a time, one that, understandably, consumed the most energy. The pandemic illustrated certain useful principles for the climate fight (pay attention to science, flatten the curves early). Ultimately, however, he turned his attention elsewhere.
Even before Covid, the landscape for activists had started to shrink. The rise of illiberal governments around the world: Trump’s United States, but also Xi’s China (even more restrictive than its predecessors in civil society), Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Erdogan’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 example, spent several weeks behind bars; now she is awaiting trial, and the police would not allow his trip to Glasgow.)
Most of the world’s largest countries are now out of the reach of protests and largely unresponsive even to international pressure. China issued a joint statement with the US vaguely promising future action, but also made it clear that it was not expecting the annual reviews of its climate targets that activists and scientists have demanded. And no one really has a clue how to counter this, any more than they know how to counter the fact that American polls find Republican voters. even more resistant to the reality of climate change than a few years ago. Given that there is a strong possibility that the Republicans will control Congress by the time of the Cop next year in Egypt, it is difficult to see what influence there will be to move the process forward.
But still. As vaccines spread, activism spreads again: the marches in Glasgow were as lively as any I’ve ever seen, and Thunberg, with his superb gift of saying and doing the right thing at the right time, helped. everyone to understand the meaning of Glasgow. with its “blah, blah, blah” framing. Yes, the other side is better at its game, too: Greenwashing has become increasingly complex, and dismantling claims like “net zero by 2050” has become a full-time occupation. But since these are lies, they will find themselves increasingly in disrepair, exposed by each flood and hurricane.
My guess is that the motions will accommodate crashes in the Cop process, and powerfully. I think more and more attention will be paid to the financial industry, partly because it is crucial to the fossil fuel machine, partly because it is located in places like New York and London, where protests of all kinds can still take place. And as Covid recedes, that rejuvenated activism will combine with the continuing horror of the climate crisis to produce more pressure for change. It would be better: the end of Glasgow makes it clear that when activists cannot push as much as we need to, inertia and vested interests remain powerful forces. The idea that the governments of the world will simply do what needs to be done is just a fairy tale.
In that sense, the police tell us not only what we have done in recent years, but what we have to do in the next few years. The planet is out of your comfort zone; We’d better get further away from ours.
Bill McKibben is Schumann’s Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, Vermont, and leader of the climate campaign group. 350.org
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism