The 26th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, usually referred to as COP26, concludes today (November 12). As the 118 private jets that gathered in Glasgow for the meeting fly back home, it’s a good time to reflect on what happened and where we stand in relation to the climate emergency.
Campaigner Greta Thunberg probably put it best and most succinctly when she said that the conference was “a failure”, and a two-week long celebration of business as usual and “‘blah, blah, blah’”. Very little of substance was said at the conference, even less was widely agreed upon, and basically none of it will actually affect policy or the world’s progress on combating climate change.
A useful illustrative example is Ireland. One of the biggest “achievements” of COP26 was the Global Methane Pledge. More than 100 countries, including this one, agreed to cut their emissions of the especially dangerous greenhouse gas by at least 30% by 2030 when compared with their 2020 emissions.
But Ireland will not be making good on that promise. Immediately after the agreement was signed, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar announced in the Dáil the government’s targets for decade-end methane emission reductions were just 10%. Taoiseach Micheál Martin insisted that it wasn’t that the government had lied to the international community or changed its mind in the space of 24 hours. Instead, he said that the 30% reduction is a collective “global target”, so it’s okay for Ireland to unilaterally decide to do a disproportionately small amount of the work towards that target.
To perhaps state the obvious, this is appalling. Martin can perhaps make a technicality-based argument that Ireland did not lie or renege on its promise, but this does mean that he very much lied when, in his speech to COP26, he said “we do not believe or accept…that someone else should shoulder the load”. What’s the point of signing up to climate agreements if we only believe them to govern the behaviour of others? The government engaged in utter bad faith with the international community, and is shameless to an extent that defies description.
This kind of behaviour would be unacceptable in any circumstance, but it’s especially bad given Ireland’s record on methane; we have the 21st highest per-capita emissions of the gas in the world and the highest in the EU. Between 2010 and 2018, the most recent year for which the World Bank has data, our emissions increased by 2.4 million tonnes, or 17%. Arguably, for the world to collectively cut methane emissions by 30%, Ireland should be aiming for significantly more, perhaps as high as 40%. We’re assuming other people will make the biggest improvements when we’re one of the worst offenders.
As abhorrent and ludicrous as this example is though, we shouldn’t get too bogged down in it, because it’s just a representative part of a vastly bigger problem. Ireland isn’t a uniquely selfish or dishonest state. The terms and targets of the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol have also been largely ignored or missed by their signatories, whether or not they said “this is someone else’s problem” in the explicit way Ireland just did.
To the nearest round number, zero governments are doing enough to combat the climate crisis, and certainly not those of the industrialised nations most responsible for causing it. Their tactics for avoiding responsibility continue to evolve. Initially, decades ago, they ignored or denied the problem. Then they progressed to downplaying its seriousness, urgency, or solvability; a method some conservative actors continue to rely on. Now, they acknowledge that it is very serious and urgent, and pledge to take decisive action to solve it, but then just don’t. They stall or obfuscate or simply hope no one will notice. Again, Greta Thunberg put it best, when she said this week that that she has “given up on politicians” because they have never taken the problem seriously.
This isn’t because we keep coincidentally electing the wrong people in every single country at every single election. The problem is systemic. The way our economy and society are structured is fundamentally incompatible with saving the planet. We’re witnessing, as philosopher Murray Bookchin put it almost two decades ago, “the clash between an economy based on endless growth and the desiccation of the natural environment”.
Our political system has been built from the ground up to maintain this unsustainable economic apparatus (e.g. Ireland’s constitutional protections on private property) and to act as a limit on radical change (something the founding fathers of countries like the US and Ireland explicitly said they aimed to prevent). That system can therefore never deliver the abolition of that economic apparatus and the radical change we desperately need to avoid global catastrophe. Politicians are never going to completely remake society; their job is, at best, to tinker around the edges of the status quo but to ensure things stay fundamentally the same. If left to their own devices they will, by inaction and inertia, get hundreds of millions of people killed.
The aim of articulating all this is not, however, to imply that we are doomed. Quite the opposite. It’s just that change won’t come from above. Because of the aforementioned systemic problems, we can’t make politicians take decisive action just by asking very nicely or even by making our votes dependent on the issue; one of the clearest messages of the 2020 Irish general election was the importance of climate action, but here we nonetheless are. Change will only come if the public makes it happen.
This could take a lot of forms. It could include direct action, physically preventing the most climate-damaging activities from taking place. Demonstrations from groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, while absolutely laudable, have generally aimed to attract media attention and “send a message” through the medium of disruption rather than being true direct action. True direct action should go to the source, whether it’s sitting in front of fossil fuel vehicles or physically occupying the facilities of climate-destroying organisations to prevent their operation. If governments will not act to stop the destruction of our ecosystem, citizens must do it ourselves.
Demonstration is still important, though. But to be truly effective, it’s necessary to mobilise large numbers of people and to do so on an ongoing basis. Small protests and once off protests are of very limited use; sustained pressure is what gets things done. We must make clear to existing politicians that they simply do not have a choice and must act on climate now. If they still will not, we must be prepared to wholly supplant existing political structures with new ones. This kind of mass demonstration is not something we will be ready to do next week, but something we should organise, agitate, and prepare for. But we know from history that when enough citizens take to the streets, it can change the world.
If this comes across as radical, that’s intentional. This is a life-or-death issue. We do not know for sure if climate change would be capable of wholly wiping out our species, but we do know that it has the potential to wreak destruction and suffering the likes of which mankind has never seen. Our leaders do not care, and we can’t wait any longer.
James Connolly, one of the fathers of Irish independence, famously said that, while incremental change may be acceptable in ordinary times, “we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times”. These are exceptional times.