Why COP26 will fail, spectacularly.

For 40 years politicians have failed to lift a finger to stop global warming. Why would anyone expect them to change?

This article is part of a long series of my thoughts on the role of climate change in history, which interfaces with the collapse of American democracy. For other articles in this series, see here, here, here, and here.

So, the global climate summit known as COP26 (Conference of Parties), or perhaps I should say #COP26 because it’s more of a hashtag than a reality, has begun in Glasgow, Scotland. I won’t be watching or following the news on the proceedings. In fact I’m going to add #COP26 to my list of hashtags to mute on my Twitter feed. I don’t care what the leaders do, what they say or what goals they will pretend, once again, to agree upon. The goals and pledges will be meaningless and will dissolve into nothingness as soon as the TV cameras and social media elites stop watching. How do I know this, absolutely 100% for certain? For two reasons. First, politicians and world leaders have never, for the 40-something years global warming has been on the public agenda, done anything substantive to reduce it. Why would anyone expect them to change? Second, because they, and other economic and business leaders, have let the dire and urgent problem of global warming languish so long without solution, it is now beyond the capacity of institutional politics to solve.

Don’t get me wrong: that doesn’t meant that global warming will not be addressed. It will be. I’m sorry to say that I think it will be addressed, brutally, violently, and with incalculable economic, political and human consequences. But these politicians, and the business and economic interests they represent—let’s dispel ourselves of the illusion that they represent us—won’t be the ones to do it. In fact, the regime that does finally do something about global warming will have to push these same leaders aside in order to do it. As I’ve said on this blog before, you aren’t going to like who finally steps up to the plate to address climate change. It sure as hell won’t be Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi, Joe Biden or BoJo. At least some of them mean well—Boris Johnson clearly doesn’t, but I believe some of the others do—but political posturing is all they really know how to do.

Look at the photo at the top of this article. Just take a look at it. When I saw it and the related headline I thought it was something from the Onion. It depicts G20 leaders, meeting in Rome this past weekend in advance of #COP26, tossing coins in Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain for “good luck” at Glasgow. This is their answer to the world’s most important, most dire problem: a cheesy photo op. It is not cute, or funny or good-natured. It’s contemptuous. It’s insulting to the intelligence. It’s enraging. And it is literally the only thing these leaders can think of in response to the climate crisis. They will not do anything else. Not a single thing.

John Kerry, former Secretary of State, represented the U.S. at the 2015 conference that resulted in the Paris Accords. He’s worked hard on climate issues, but has he accomplished anything?

Most of the international efforts to address climate change have been based on a powerful precedent. In 1987, a multi-year United Nations effort resulted in a treaty, the Montreal Protocol, which every country in the world signed, banning and phasing out CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in commercial and industrial uses. CFCs were a major contributor to the degradation of the ozone layer. You haven’t heard much about the ozone layer since about 1990, have you? That’s because the Montreal Protocol was fabulously successful. Every country signed it, even rogue states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea. It has resulted in a dramatic resurgence in the ozone layer.

In the early 1990s, the thought was, “Well, that worked for CFCs, let’s do it again for greenhouse gases!” This was the operative idea behind the long negotiations, stretching out through most of the 1990s, that eventually yielded the Kyoto Accords of 1997—which is basically the Montreal Protocols with GHGs (greenhouse gases) instead of CFCs. But we know how successful that has been. The Kyoto Accords are now dead, resurrected supposedly by the 2015 Paris Accords, another attempt to “hold warming to 1.5° C by 2100,” which certain parts of the world have already blown past. The term “COP” refers to the “Conference of Parties” who originally negotiated Kyoto, plus/minus a few others who have signed on or dropped off over the years (or both, such as the United States, which less than a year ago was ruled by an arch climate denier). Every few years there’s another COP meeting. Every few years there are more “high hopes” that this round of negotiations will be different. Every time, whatever comes out of these negotiations is like a wet fart in a hurricane. #COP26 will be no different.

Why are negotiations on global warming so different than those on CFCs? Because CFCs were largely a luxury item, unneeded in most industrial processes by the 1980s, and which commercial interests could largely do without. Banning Aqua-Net hairspray might be an inconvenience to a few people, but it’s not going to take down the world economy. Meaningful global warming efforts mean shutting down every oil refinery, every natural gas pipeline, every coal-fired power plant in the world. Every single one—no exceptions. Solving global warming means permanent extinction for some of the world’s largest and formerly richest companies: ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Saudi Aramco, and all the others—every single one, no exceptions. (And no, these companies do not get a “seat at the table” to try to negotiate their own survival). Considering how many of the G20 world leaders are bought and paid for by fossil fuel interests, asking them not only to move against these powerful interests, but to destroy them and drive them into extinction, is like asking Democrats to stand up for democracy, except even more unlikely even than that. They won’t do it. Not now, not ever.

Remember when George Bush—the first George Bush—pretended to care about climate change at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit”? That’s him, first row, fourth from left. This was 29 years ago. What’s changed?

By now I feel like a broken record on this blog, repeating the same refrain over and over again, which I will continue to do until somebody gets it. Global warming cannot be solved by institutional means—by the traditional political process, by our world economy as currently structured, or by our social institutions as they exist now. If politicians or companies or marketplaces were capable of changing their behavior to make the climate crisis even a little less dire than it is, wouldn’t they have at least started by now? And no, pledging “net zero by 2050” doesn’t count as “starting.” You see, “net zero by 2050” can, and will, easily become “net zero by 2060,” or “50% reductions by 2075,” or, eventually and inevitably, “5% reductions by 2095.” Mark my words. In five years—hell, probably in six months—no world leader will be talking about “net zero by 2050” anymore. It’ll go down the memory hole. The ludicrous fiction of “1.5° warming by 2100” won’t be far behind. You won’t hear much about that in the future either, until it’s long in the rearview mirror.

So what do these politicians think they’re doing at #COP26? What’s their message to a public impatient for climate action? “Please, give us another chance. This time, we’ll really do something!” You think Boris Johnson—Boris freaking Johnson—is going to change his stripes because a TV camera is watching? On what, other than blind, unfounded and unrealistic hope, would any rational person base such a conclusion? If Boris Johnson had the world’s or Britain’s best interests at heart, he would have resigned as UK Prime Minister years ago. He will never care about climate change. Never. Even if you put him in the dock at The Hague, charged with crimes against humanity for neglecting global warming and deliberately destroying his own country with the madness of Brexit, he still wouldn’t get it. He’d quack about “political reality” or find some other excuse. Put him in prison for these crimes and he’ll spend his time writing a self-serving memoir about how he did the best he could. He’ll never get it. He’s not capable of getting it, ever, under any circumstances. He will, in the words of old Calvinist fire-and-brimstone preachers, go forth unrepentant into Hell.

The G20’s or #COP26’s carefully-worded communiques won’t matter. Their pledges to reduce emissions by X, by year 20XX, won’t matter. Whether China and India sign won’t matter. Whether they’re “committed” to this or that won’t matter. Whether there are “hard targets” won’t matter. Whether there’s $500 billion in a fund for poor countries won’t matter. None of this has ever mattered before.

#COP26 will not shut down a single oil refinery. It will not put a single oil company executive in prison. It will not cancel a single pipeline, shut down a single fracking site, shutter a single coal plant, or take a single car off the street. It means nothing. It is an insult, an act of contempt. It is failure on a spectacular, world-shaking, scorched-earth level. When it’s over Greta Thunberg will give another snarling angry speech about what a failure it was, and she’ll be, as usual, absolutely right.

The closer we get to full-on climate catastrophe, the more dire, ugly and terrifying the remaining solutions get, and the more human suffering will result when these solutions are finally, and belatedly, applied, whether by people acting in good faith or bad. But this is what our leaders have already chosen. Past-tense, chosen: they can’t stop it. They made the choice. They’d rather flip coins into fountains than do their jobs. The only saving grace is that at least some of them know what utter failures they’ve been. Maybe one or two of them feel a little bit guilty about it. So, there’s that, I guess.

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