Days before the UN’s COP26 (Conference of Parties) concluded in Glasgow (UK), U.S. and China unveiled an emissions announcement to, in the words of Reuters, “save UN climate talks.’’ Key features of the statement include cutting methane emissions, phasing out coal consumption and protecting forests. The deal’s goal was to keep alive the COP21 (i.e., Paris 2015) accord that capped global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
For many, the U.S.-China deal, like much of the other proclamation made by government leaders at the conference, exemplified what Swedish climate activities Greta Thunberg dubbed the great “blah, blah, blah.” As she said at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan (Italy) in September:
Build back better. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah … This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.
Looking critically at COP26, Thunberg argued, “It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve the crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place.” She added, “The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.”
And the global-warming clock keeps ticking.
COP26 – often referred to the “Conference of Polluters” and “Conference of Profiteers” – consisted of two parallel, but occasionally overlapping, conferences: an “inside” event, a formal gathering in a conference hall trying to “greenwash” and increasingly desperate environmental crisis; and an “outside” gathering of insurgents warning that it’s time to make fundamental changes.
COP1 was held in Berlin in 1995 in Berlin in recognition that issues related to the climate could not be addressed by an individual county and that it required an international response. Now, a quarter-century later, carbon dioxide emissions are 14 billion tons higher and the giant oil companies – e.g., Shell, BP, Chevron and Exxon — have made profits totaling nearly $2 trillion. A 2017 study from Carbon Majors Report revealed that only 100 companies were responsible for 71 percent of worldwide industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
The COP26 inside conference drew some 25,000 delegates representing 197 nations. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. Pres. Joe Biden gave keynote addresses, but Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping did not attend.
At the conference center were grand exhibition spaces hosted by fossil fuel polluting countries and sponsored by large corporations. Over 100 fossil fuel companies were represented with 30 trade associations and membership organizations. At least 503 (some estimates said 600-plus) fossil fuel lobbyists attended. In addition, 27 official country delegations were registered fossil fuel lobbyists, including from Shell, Gazprom and BP.
Among the “pledges” made by the assembled greenwashers was the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), a pledge by some 450 financial institutions in 45 countries that, by 2050, all of the assets under management will be aligned with “net zero” emissions policy. Another pledge, Pres. Biden announced a plan with 90 countries to cut methane by 30 percent by the end of the decade. Unfortunately, two of the leading emitters, China and Russia, did not sign on.
Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, represented the most forthright positions of corporate politicians. He embraced what he called “can-do capitalism” as the means to address the deepening environmental crisis. “We believe climate change will ultimately be solved by ‘can do’ capitalism; not ‘don’t do’ governments seeking to control people’s lives and tell them what to do,” Morrison said. He championed “technology not taxes,” warning that further regulation of capitalism and increased taxes would raise the cost of living and hurt businesses.
The outsider conference represented the global movement of opposition to the politicians and corporations promoting – and profiting from – the environmental crisis. At one protest, more than 100,000 rallied. According to The Scotsman, “environmental groups, charities, trade unionists and indigenous people joined the protest ….” Many of the activists reminded people that at COP15 (2009) the developed countries promised to provide $30 billion for the period 2010-2012 and long-term finance of $100 billion a year by 2020 to less wealthy nations by 2020. The monies were never provided.
These critical civil society and youth activists argued that capitalism is the root cause of the problem, together with its handmaiden colonialism. The only solution therefore is to overhaul capitalism and dismantle unequal global power relations.
The COPS26 gathering achieved the height of “blah, blah, blah” when India, joined by China, watered down a key commitment to end coal mining by shifting an original commitment for “phasing out” to “phasing down.” And the final COP26 document never used the words “fossil fuel.”
Over the last four to five centuries, capitalism has remade the world by turning every relation into a commodity exchange. Capitalism emerges out the Black Death, the bubonic plague pandemic that swept Afro-Eurasia from 1346 to 1353. It is recognized as the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing between 75–200 million deaths of people in Eurasia and North Africa. The BBC notes, “the broad trend of the post-Black Death 14th and 15th centuries was a concentration of resources – capital, skills, and infrastructure – into the hands of a small number of large companies.” This process continues to today.
Capitalism turns everything – everything! – into a commodity. In the same process that it turns human work into labor power, of enabling people to sell themselves as they would sell any other object, capitalism turns nature into yet another commodity. Jason Moore, in “Rise of Cheap Nature,” notes, “the condition of the rise of capitalism, in other words, was the creation of Cheap Nature.” He adds, “But Cheap is not free.” In this process, humans increasingly became non-animal, ever-less natural beings.
Over the last few centuries, capitalist plunder has been of sugar and cotton and textiles as well a coal, iron and oil. It has been the plunder of workers, slaves and the indentured. It is evident in the transformation of the global landscape — deforesting of the rain forests, industrial farming and super-suburban sprawl; in the endless mining for gold, coal and jadeite; in the innumerable oil spills, oil-tanker collisions and mine explosions. And it is evident in the increase in global warming, number of storms, rising sea level, draughts, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification water pollution and the depletion of the ozone layer.
One can only wonder how many more COPs we will have to suffer through until the corporations executives, government bureaucrats and their lobbyists and lackies give up short-term profit for long-term viability … if not for themselves but their children and grandchildren.
The rich, high fossil-fuel emitting countries — led by the U.S. – need to not simply cut, end, emissions but offer reparations to those low-emitting countries that they have harmed. And corporations – including their officers/boards – and politicians need to be held to account for their knowing misdeeds.
However, without addressing the capitalism’s core value of the commodity – one reproduced for centuries and in every current transaction – the global environmental crisis will not be addressed let alone solved.