Spin doctors of death: playing up COP26 as some sort of success.
Lauding the Glasgow climate pact's "successes" obscures the frightening dimensions of its failures.
So, the #COP26 (Conference of Parties) summit in Glasgow is over. As I predicted at its beginning, it was a dismal failure—but you wouldn’t know it from scanning the headlines and hot takes on it over the weekend. Most of us who are realists on the depth of the climate crisis were dismayed, enraged and not at all surprised at the colossal scale of the failure of world powers to achieve anything substantive. But almost immediately we had takes containing words like “positive steps” and “I know you’re disappointed, but…” and sober-sounding sound bites about what we must do “going forward.” All of these takes completely miss the point. COP26 was a wholesale sell-out to fossil fuel interests. The fossil fuel lobby, in fact, was the single largest delegation at the conference. No real solutions for climate change were on the table: immediate and unconditional abolition of fossil fuel subsidies, immediate and unconditional moratorium on all future drilling and exploration, closure of refineries, seizure and expropriation of fossil assets, prosecution and punishment of fossil fuel executives, nationalization of energy companies, and crash programs for renewable energy scale-up. But the shovel brigades were out there this morning, trying to spin this worthless piece of paper as some sort of progress for climate action. The spin, frankly, enraged me.
The failures of the Glasgow agreement are legion. India waited until the last moment to stick a knife in the world’s back by watering down the “strongest” existing language in the document, by changing “phase out” of coal plants to “phase down.” The tepid language about phasing out subsidies for “inefficient” fossil fuel projects is being spun as a victory for the climate because, the reasoning goes, all fossil fuel projects are by their nature inefficient. This belief is hopelessly naïve. You don’t think Shell and ExxonMobil, and their bought-and-paid-for stooges in the world’s governments like Joe Manchin and Boris Johnson, won’t exploit that loophole for all its worth by labeling every project they ever do “efficient” within the meaning of this provision—and that they will get away with it? That means they will go on drilling, pumping, burning and killing with impunity, forever, without consequence. Believing that they’ll be policed assumes that signatory governments will ever enforce these provisions against their own corporate citizens. They won’t. Not ever.
The agreement’s supporters are also playing games with the degrees of warming that the Glasgow agreement—if enforced—commits us to. In certain best-case-scenarios, if enforced, the Glasgow agreement might hold warming down below 2° C by the end of the 21st century. Emphasis on the might. Even the agreement’s staunchest defenders admit that the original target of the Paris Accords six years ago, 1.5° C, is now a stretch—despite the slogan of the conference being “Keep 1.5° Alive!” So, the world is asked to just suck up and accept another 0.5° of warming as a cost of doing business. Um, no, I will not accept that, in point of fact. More realistically, the Glasgow agreement puts us on track for 2.4° of warming—which is a death sentence for civilization, meaning economic and social collapse, global war and millions dead. This is what they’re spinning as “progress,” as if an agreement to cause the deaths of 50 million people, as opposed to agreeing that 100 million deaths is the correct number, is a “step in the right direction.”
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann, the creator of the famous “hockey stick” graph, penned an editorial over the weekend that makes many of the apologists’ points and similar ones; here it is. I admire Michael Mann, but I found this editorial extremely troubling. His arguments are strained, stretched, based in wishful thinking, and demonstrate a breathless lack of understanding of history and how international agreements work in practice. Dr. Mann’s editorial is full of language like “real progress,” “meaningful,” “can be built upon” and “reason to believe that’s possible” (meaning the 1.5° by 2100 target, which Dr. Mann, as recently as a few years ago, argued correctly was itself too high because it’s measured from temperatures in 1850, not pre-Industrial Revolution). Yes, Dr. Mann’s editorial also acknowledges “disappointment” and “righteous anger on the part of young people.” That last dig is frankly insulting. You can tell I have a fair amount of “righteous anger,” and I’m 49, but as I’m not young I guess my opinion on climate change doesn’t matter. Yet I am still asked to accept this agreement as positive progress, so long as we “hold leaders accountable.”
When has a leader, a country, a fossil fuel executive or a carbon-spewing company ever—once in all of history—ever been “held accountable” for not meeting an international climate target? By being “held accountable,” a phrase a lot of people are using today but no one seems willing to try to define, I mean an actual economic or political consequence, and not just a headline in The Guardian or BBC News about how they failed to do something. Here is a picture of leaders being “held accountable” in the past.
What does “held accountable” mean? Being voted out of office? (Try that one on Putin or Xi Jinping, neither of whom, by the way, were at COP26). Criminal charges? I’m sure the great and powerful International Criminal Court at The Hague will get right on that one. Execution? Something tells me that is not a consequence many defenders of the Glasgow Agreement are willing to say they mean when they want leaders to be “held accountable.” So what do they mean, and what are they willing to do to enforce this accountability? When you ask this question, you hear crickets in response.
Another common response to the failures of COP26 is a message, usually addressed (again) to young people, to the effect of, “We know you’re disappointed, but keep moving forward, we support you.” In fact, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, gave this exact message in a tweet posted on Sunday. While I understand that he can’t out-and-out demoralize people by admitting the failure of his actions, the Secretary-General’s message, I think, does more harm than good. The message infantilizes the whole issue of global warming by projecting it totally on the young—whose wishes can be ignored with political impunity. “Aw, isn’t it cute, little Juanita, that you care about climate change? *pat on head* Grow up big and strong, and maybe someday you can do something about it!” If he really does support action on climate change, why doesn’t António Guterres resign and push for the appointment of a ferociously aggressive replacement as Secretary-General, several decades younger than him, who actually would do something about climate change? Greta Thunberg, perhaps? But of course not; she’s only 18 and the idea of a teenager as UN Secretary-General is absurd. So I guess we’ll have to wait 54 years (Guterres is 72) before anyone who actually cares has a shot at being in a position of power, by which time civilization will have collapsed anyway. That’s a convenient dodge, isn’t it?
I hate to sound like a history teacher, but I’m going to get all history teacher on the asses of the defenders of the Glasgow Agreement and suggest they need to read some damn history. Maybe they should read about the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which took the bold step of outlawing war forever—in 1929, a decade before the world’s most destructive war erupted among the signatories of that treaty. And, as always, the most instructive history to climate change, I think, is the Russian Revolution, which is a story about how people became fed up with the lack of institutional solutions to their problems, and so they decided to change the institutions—violently. I continue to argue (and to be ignored when I do so) that it could not be plainer that this sort of response is the inevitable future we face so long as political and economic leaders refuse to do anything about climate change. Belief to the contrary is the same sort of self-delusion that Neville Chamberlain famously employed when he got off a plane in October 1938 and waved around a piece of paper, remarkably similar to the Glasgow Agreement in spirit, that he proclaimed was “peace in our time.” That’s another historical event the COP26 shills might want to read about.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should give up and declare “game over” on climate change. In fact, quite the opposite. The people of the world, who will die in their millions if the Glasgow Agreement is implemented, will definitely not allow anyone, much less sniveling politicians, to declare “game over.” What I’m suggesting is that we be cognizant of what it will truly take to end the climate crisis. What it will take is massive economic and political upheaval, a complete upending of human civilization, which will have the effect of sorting the world into a totally new set of winners and losers. We need to be prepared for this eventuality. So do the leaders of COP26, who demonstrated dramatically this week that they intend, whether they like it or not, to be among the losers. It gives me no pleasure, and in fact causes me significant anxiety, to predict this outcome. I would desperately like to be wrong. But the clowns, charlatans and criminals who met in Glasgow these past two weeks have a long way to go to convince us that they mean business. The toilet paper that emerged from COP26 doesn’t do it. Period.
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