2007 - 2021

Alok Sharma’s Tears

Post-COP some of you may be shocked, numb, confused. I admit to being all of the above. We’re not really talking about the consequences of COP failure. Here’s some. As Jason Hickel reports (‘What would it look like if we treated climate change as an actual emergency?’):

“As the dust settles on COP 26, the results do not look good. Despite a flurry of headline-grabbing pledges, national commitments bring us nowhere near to meeting the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees. According to Climate Action Tracker, 73% of existing “net-zero” pledges are weak and inadequate—“lip service to climate action.” What is more, a yawning gap remains between pledges, which are easy enough to make, and actual policies, which are all that really count. You can pledge all you like, but what we need is action. Right now existing government policies have us hurtling toward 2.7 degrees of heating in the coming decades.

What will happen to our world under these conditions? As temperatures approach 3 degrees, 30-50% of species are likely to be wiped out. More than 1.5 billion people will be displaced from their home regions. Yields of staple crops will face major decline, triggering sustained food supply disruptions globally. Much of the tropics will be rendered uninhabitable for humans. Such a world is not compatible with civilization as we know it. The status quo is a death march. Our governments are failing us—failing all of life on earth.”

The framing and understanding of COP as a perpetually historic climax/one last chance/great white hope may have added to a liberal sense of disappointment. Great hopes are ascendant and then crash on the other side of reality. This process is a cycle – and the hope is that by the time the next one comes around everyone has forgotten how the previous time was such a calamity. For many though this cycle had been disrupted by two things: witnessing the wildfires, floods and obvious direct consequences of the climate disaster which actually visited Europe this year; and second the IPCC’s Code Red report which preceded COP 26.

There is I think (at least) two distinct groups emerging within the climate movement, those who would be described as pessimists (but are more properly realists) who are largely outside the process, and those who are fully integrated within it. For the former group expectations were low.

As Yavor Tarinksi writes:

“There is little doubt that very few expected anything meaningful and productive to come out of the COP26. Even before the beginning of the summit, climate scientists such as Peter Kalmus, author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, warned that one of the summit’s main goals – “Net Zero by 2050” – is deeply flawed plan that provides cover for big oil and politicians to preserve the status quo. During the days of the COP26 activists deemed it a failure. Even the very world leaders who organized it were skeptical from the very beginning of the potential outcomes. And when from Global Witness looked through the list of participants, they found out that the fossil fuel industry, one of those most responsible for the climate crisis, has the largest delegation at the summit to ensure that its interests will be preserved. Furthermore, historically speaking, the previous 25 COPs have also led to no results. In short, from wherever you look at it, there was nothing to really expect but more of the same.”

Beyond Incremental Failure

It was striking though that even among those who are fully integrated within the system there was little of the ‘crescendo effect’, there was never really any feeling that “maybe the UK hosts led by Boris Johnson will pull it off.”

There was some brief hope about coal but that was quickly crushed, some good news about forestation and some greenwash about “finance”. Last week the International Energy Agency said the promises made in Glasgow could put the world on track to limit warming to 1.8C by the end of the century, IF every country lived up to its long-term net zero commitments. But this optimism was dismissed by a subsequent assessment by Climate Action Tracker, the climate analysis coalition, which showed how weak short-term goals were likely to push global heating to at least 2.4C.

So that poses some serious questions for the wider climate movement. Do those working inside the Blue Zone remain? Recognising and accepting COP failure is essential. As Greta Thunberg put it: “Unless COP26’s failure is recognized as failure, there is no way to learn from it. Allowing global leaders to feel that what happened in Glasgow was acceptable — and spinning it as some sort of success — would be a disastrous mistake.”

As Peter Kalmus puts it (‘The failure at Glasgow and what needs to happen next‘): “The soft pledges made at COP26 might have been acceptable decades ago, but not now. Incrementalism can no longer save us.”

This incrementalism is lethal, and is the new variant of denialism. When people in government talk of ‘micro steps’ and journalists write about ‘everybody doing their bit’ it is encouraging us to participate in a gigantic lie.

The lifestylism that has been propagated for decades is beyond redundant it is now offensive.

As Tzeporah Berman (International Program Director Stand.Earth) put it: “I am done with smiling in the face of incrementalism. I am done with massaging communications to be ‘positive’ to deny the horror we are facing. I am done with not calling out small measures framed as ‘climate leadership’ when the house is, literally on fire.”

Breaking the Cycle

If the need to break with incrementalism is clear it does provide some challenges. Many many people are deeply invested in processes and behaviours which they believe in – having been told for decades that the answer lies in recycling, organic food and sippy cups. The pessimist/realist messaging to these people cannot be disenfranchising or disempowering.

Secondly the challenge to those environmentalists heavily invested in the current failed processes and procedures is: how you get out and act elsewhere? As the Enough! Collective asks: “How do we divest our faith in institutions and instruments of power that have yet to demonstrate the political imagination to respond effectively?”

Thirdly there is the danger of absolute splits in society, as this years Insulate Britain protests have shown. Today was the first day that non-violent protesters have been imprisoned for contempt of court after breaching a ‘persons unknown’ injunction. Eight defendants have been sent to prison for three or four months.

This is pre-crime.

The dangerous territory we are in is a societal split between those increasingly desperate about the climate crisis and those in active denial or increasingly pursuing avoidant behaviour which helps alleviate the stress of the predicament. In a society where protest is being criminalised we are looking at a predicament where we have ‘environmentalists’ or ‘protestors’ and the rest of society. A key challenge in the future must be to resist that, to resist organising within ‘activist circles’ and to organise in communities and beyond the bubbles of activism with all its traits of language jargon and sub-cultures.

COP has taught us much, and if it wasn’t the ‘watershed’ moment that some believed it could be in terms of carbon reduction, it may be a different kind of watershed, one in which we ‘see through’ so much of the distortion and lies that surround the climate debate. Perhaps out of this crisis can emerge new forms and new strategies for movement building, direct actions and participation.

This is already happening.

As Adam Ramsay points out “Why COP gave me hope” interviewing Alice Swift from the Ende Gelände movement (‘here and no further’):

“For COP26, she said, “the coalition, from the off, was mobilising in a clearly anti-capitalist and intersectional way. And it wasn’t just what they were saying in the run-up, but then what actually happened in practice, during the last two weeks in Glasgow.

At the huge demonstration on Saturday 6 November – when an estimated 100,000 people marched through the streets of Glasgow demanding action on climate change – “there were loads of trade union people, there were people saying ‘housing justice is climate justice’, ‘migrant justice is climate justice’, ‘racial justice is climate justice’, and making that really clear and overt,” Swift said. “There were Indigenous people, there were people from the Global South, and their voices were platformed – hopefully not in a way that fetishised them too much, but with true solidarity.”

Finally the absurdity is everywhere, be it the Yasava moment or the fact that Alok Sharma got a standing ovation for shedding tears as he watered down measures against coal and said “I understand the deep disappointment but it is also vital that we protect this package.”

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Comments (22)

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  1. David McCann says:

    Thanks Mike.
    Thought provoking and scary. Lets hope the ‘powers that be’ learn some lessons, before it’s too late!

  2. SleepingDog says:

    This is what the maldeveloped world looks like, the systemic rule by the bad, with the rest of the living planet excluded from weighing in on a meeting to decide its fate, with corporations as the notoriously undemocratic nonhuman exceptions.

  3. GordonD says:

    Disillusionment is often presented as a very negative thing, a collapse in to cynicism and a retreat from engaging with the world as it is. But in fact it really just means the refusal to continue accepting an illusion about what is going on. There is an apocryphal story about the author of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, being asked whether it is possible for adults to believe in and therefore enjoy fairy stories? His reply was said to be yes, of course, it just requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Occasionally events happen that force us to question our support for real life processes or institutions that rely on our belief in fairy stories. Not as in some revelation like the unmasking of the Wizard of Oz, but rather the final acceptance of something we knew all along but had suppressed. This could result in despair and passivity, but that’s not inevitable. If our actions are going to have any chance of being effective, we have to stop the suspension of disbelief and see things as they are. If people are becoming disillusioned about the ability or willingness of governments and corporations to save us from climate change, then good. That illusion has brought us to where we are today. As Mike says, the important thing is what we do next.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      ‘Disillusionment… really just means the refusal to continue accepting an illusion about what is going on.’

      I’m with ya there, Gordon.

    2. Mons Meg says:

      ‘If our actions are going to have any chance of being effective, we have to stop the suspension of disbelief and see things as they are.’

      But how do we turn people into sceptics? If we’re going to have any chance of stopping the suspension of disbelief/mobilise the suspension of belief/trust, then our actions have to be effective. What would that effective action look like? What’s your prescription for shattering the chains of illusion?

      ‘If people are becoming disillusioned about the ability or willingness of governments and corporations to save us from climate change, then good.’

      If people are also becoming disillusioned about our ability, through the rituals of protest to save ourselves and our current relations of production from the crises/changes we’re presently living through, then even better.

      Such despair with capitalism and its political forms and rituals will only hasten its collapse. And who knows what dancing star might rise from the chaos of that collapse?

    3. GordonD says:

      I feel that, for the vast majority, the notion of protest is dominated by self-imposed restrictions of ‘acceptable’ opposition. That change not only includes marches, petitions, letters to MPs, but is limited to these. Resulting in predictable and ritualised campaigns of PR and public outrage. There is also the ‘unacceptable’: subversion and sabotage.

      1. Mons Meg says:

        Aye, and the beauty of it is that capitalism (and its ideological expression in the rituals of our politics and protest) sabotages and subverts itself. That’s what we mean by ‘deconstruction’. All we need to do is help the process along situationally with a wee bit of immanent critique or ‘disillusionment’.

  4. Mark Bevis says:

    As the bread and circuses went on, new scientific data makes COP26 look like a storm over using the wrong type of spoon used in a Cheltenham tea room.

    Latest data reported in the journal Nature, shows Europe is already at 2.2*C above the “pre-industrial baseline”, so all the talk about not reaching 1.5*C warming is frankly bollocks. The current cited world average of 1.25*C or 1.3*C that is banded about, is an average, and it is from the 1880 or even 1980 baseline – to get from a true 1750 baseline you need to add 0.3*C.

    That’s the good news. Satellite data shows methane going insane. For some reason it is accumulating at 500hPa (hexaPascals, which is about 5000m altitude) in concentrations we measure in parts per million rather than parts per billion. And this is even over oceans – the Indian ocean was showing 2ppm CH4 last week, with the Atlantic off Ireland at 1.9ppm CH4. Overland we are getting readings of 10-32ppm CH4. Maybe it’s the 28 active volcanoes, but something appears to have tipped.

    {1ppm CH4 is equivalent to 86ppm CO2 over a 20 year period, after which it decays to CO2 and water vapour, both green houses gases – as CH4 thus decays the total CH4 readings should go down but as the readings are increasing in a non-linear fashion, it means existing sources of CH4 are being replaced, and more are coming online.}

    A twitter account in the name of Christopher Carter is reporting the methane levels, eg:

    New studies show even water 300m down is now releasing methane that is reaching the surface, which is mind boggling because normally the water column absorbs the CH4 before it reaches the surface in deep water.

    “Scientists identified half a dozen “mega seeps” and found concentration of atmospheric methane above these fields reaching 16-32ppm (parts per million). This is up to 15 times the planetary average of 1.85ppm. ”

    WASF, or at least, this civilisation is over. Don’t waste your energies trying to save it.

    1. John Learmonth says:

      So when will civilisation end in your opinion?

      1. Mark Bevis says:

        It is already ending. Collapse is a process, not an event.
        One paper produced in 2020 shows a 90% chance of civilisation collapse within 2-3 decades merely just by measuring rates of deforestation and population growth.

        The world population will reach 8.4 billion in 2025, and I personally think it will peak then and decline thereafter pretty rapidly. We are about already at peak food, and peak oil was in 2018. (It’s not that we’ve run out of oil, we’ve barely used half of it, it’s just the rest is more and more expensive to get at).

        Pretty much everyone’s life style will be reduced within the decade, by 2030 the vast majority of the populations of G20 nations will have declined status and wealth. By 2040 much of the infrastructure of state will have broken and be running intermittently. By 2050 it will all be over, and those that are left will possibly envy the dead, with the survivors having to relearn old ways of living to remake a new civilisation.

        If we make that far at all, my gut feeling is that we have a minimum 60% chance of total human extinction by 2070 currently, nuclear war aside.
        The climate is reverting to the unstable phase it was before the Holocene, 8000 years ago, where humans thrived in small numbers (hundreds of thousands to millions) but didn’t & couldn’t do organised agriculture – and the civilisation is going to revert to something similar to pre-1750. That is, we thrived quite thoroughly without fossil fuels, so can do again. The difficulty this time is we have degraded the planet so much, and destroyed and polluted so much of the biosphere, that there won’t be much left to support much life at all.

        All the signs of the collapse of complex systems in Overshoot are around us:
        Grotesque income inequality
        Erratic, random breakdown and stuttering restart of supply chains
        Increasing cost of energy
        Increase in oligarchy and patriarchy
        Climate catastrophe
        Biosphere degredation

      2. Mons Meg says:

        Civilisation (according to social contract theory, which is an ideology of capitalism) is just the process of bringing people out of a natural state and into a political state or society. So, when Mark says that ‘this civilisation is over’ and that we shouldn’t waste our energies trying to save it, he’s just saying that our current political state (which is another expression or ideology of capitalism) has irretrievably run its course. He’s not saying that civilisation as such is ending.

        I agree with him that capitalism and its world-order (‘we’) are so fouled (to put the idiom in its polite form) that it can’t be saved however much we protest. We can only hang in there and hope that the world-order that evolves historically from its dissolution remains a habitable one.

        There’s just no predicting or engineering what that order will be; to believe otherwise is part of what Robert Solomon calls ‘the transcendental pretense’ of Enlightenment thinking, which is another doomed ideology of capitalism.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          You and I, and every idea that we have of the world and of ourselves and that accordingly informs our actions, is part of the totality of capitalism. And the good news is that it’s f*cked.

        2. Mark Bevis says:

          yes, although we should keep in mind:
          It’s not just capitalism. It is any #-ism.
          In an alternative history of the 20th century, we could have ended up with:
          communism – which requires a growth of collectives, gulags and tanks
          democratic socialism – a polite form of growth based capitalism
          socialism – a polite form of growth based communism, although it could tend towards anarchism which is a better thing (eg Cuba)
          fascism – which requires a growth of oligarchy, slave camps and obedience
          theocracy – which requires a growth in believers

          Any kind of civilisation that requires growth of any sort is ultimately futile as it becomes unsustainable. We shouldn’t be singling out capitalism as a culprit – it is merely the culprit in this case, and the #-ism that happened to be most efficient at resource depletion. All the other #-isms would have taken a bit longer to get where we are now.

          The world is not ending, the planet will be fine until engulfed by the sun in 4.5 billion years. Even if all 450 nuclear reactors melt down due to being washed away in rising seas and/or lack of fossil fuel supply to cool them, and sterilise most of the planet for millions of years, new life will evolve. It always does.
          If we don’t take it for granted that we will be part of the future planet, we are one step nearer to acceptance of outcomes, and paradoxically, be slightly more likely to survive the oncoming bottleneck. A humbling of humans before nature is a good thing.

          Paul Kingsnorth of the Dark Mountain Project has something to say about how another civilisation might appear, I highly recommend it as a starting point

          1. Hmm. Not sure that all ‘isms’ are just the same and I’m not sure Paul Kingsnorth version of Deep Ecology is a good way to go at all. Its deeply problematic

          2. Mons Meg says:

            I’m not seeking out any culprit, Mark. ‘Capitalism’ is just the name we give to a specific mode of production; it has no agency and is therefore inculpable; it’s just a force of nature.

            History is ‘impredictable’ and ‘undecidable’; therefore anyone who, like Kingsnorth, has something to say about what new relations of production might evolve from and through the ongoing deconstruction of capitalism is a fraud and a charlatan.

            Que sera, sera.

  5. Dougie Harrison says:

    Mike, your work is of course of varying quality, as is that of most normal humans. But this is just so neccessary, so thank you for it. This auld green socialist is with you 100% pal.

  6. Craig Bryce says:

    Imagine what could be achieved if none of the activist/ civil society groups attend the next COP? If we instead focus all that energy into responding to the next pile of greenwash they churn out, with a massive global civil disobedience campaign?

    1. Mons Meg says:

      And what exactly would that achieve?

  7. Wul says:

    And we continue to live in a country where almost a fifth of our land is set aside for tree-eating deer and wee burdy shooting. So that a tiny fraction, of one percent, of our population can enjoy their hobby and cosplay. Mental.

    A country that was once known as “Land of Trees”. We should re-name it “Cervidonia”.

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