Get Over the Global Climate Talks (But Why We Shouldn’t Give Up on Stabilising the Climate)
November 18, 2021
Truth: The climate movement is in an unhealthy relationship with the international climate talks, known as COP.
Every year we invest our time, our money, our carbon miles and our hearts in levelling as much pressure as we can to ensure a climate deal that matches the ambition that science dictates. Every year we show up, we shout, we cry, we plead. Every year, global governments promise to change. Every year everyone walks away exhausted. This year was no exception.
The problem is systemic. COP demands long-term commitments from governments—which means, functionally, politicians who are enthralled by short-term wins. HRH Queen Elizabeth named this as she asked politicians to “rise above the politics of the moment and achieve true statesmanship.” But as last week proved, asking politicians to risk their funding or profit from fossil fuels and support from corporate media tycoons is not a viable strategy for radical change.
Yes, transitioning to a clean economy is the single most important action for the future of every human on this planet. But the reality is that immediate challenges always get in the way when you’re dealing with governments. This year we relied on the UK government to midwife a global consensus among 190+ others. The UK, which has also been dealing with Brexit, one of the highest global rates of COVID, a gas and a petrol crisis and evacuating Britons from Afghanistan. Whose Prime Minister is ok with hiring a private jet rather than take a 4 hr train to London. It’s a cold hard fact that for national governments, national priorities will always come first.
So do we give up on the COP climate talks? No, despair is a luxury we cannot afford.
We need a united global emissions reduction plan to signal to companies everywhere that their old business model must be transformed to a clean green one. And we need the countries who have committed their words this month to be arm twisted into following up with cold hard cash. Whilst it seems 15 years too late – and this feels a lot longer if you are 15 years old – it remains a massive victory for our movement that this year’s COP agreed, finally, that fossil fuels are a problem, that coal is over (whether we phase it down or out) and that rich countries do need to pay for the transition, even if that particular cheque seems lost in the mail.
The trick is not to invest all our activist energy, or our hope, in the international climate talks.
Governments change because the system changes, not the other way around. If we look at our world from this gaze, we find hope is all around us.
Smart investors are leaving fossil fuels faster than rats from a sinking ship. Solar energy has never been cheaper. Norway’s car sales are almost 100% electric. Trillions of dollars of corporate investments are committed to a net zero plan—some of them even have a plan to address the carbon in their supply chain. Fossil fuel companies face unprecedented accountability in court battles, as evidenced by Greenpeace’s victory over Shell Oil in the Netherlands. The US might actually pass legislation to fund a clean transition and is intent on deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. In Brazil, one of the biggest agricultural exporters, Lula is beating Bolsonaro – the great Burner of the Amazon – in the race to become the next president at the 2022 elections. These transformations are a direct result of activism that has happened outside of the international climate talks. Sure, national governments might have acted in the end, but government action was always the last part of the long arc of history. It’s time we adjust our theory of change.
We, the movement, should think smaller in order to get big change. There is so much we can do at the local level to push rich governments to end subsidies to fossil fuels and create breathable, thriving cities. Every home must be insulated to minimise its energy use, and be enabled to unhook from fossil fuels—which requires massive government support, which requires massive popular pressure. We need to encourage city leaders to get their cities off fossil fuels and create nationwide investment opportunities for clean investment. We must push pension investments to follow New York City’s lead and divest from fossil fuels.
Governments aren’t leading the way for large-scale change; grassroots activists are.
In my own climate work I’ve found inspiration in a spectrum of activism, from a determined alliance of evangelical and indigenous campaigners in Brazil trying to save the Amazon, the older women of rural Poland taking a stand against coal, and The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and White Earth Band of Ojibwe, activists getting pelted with rubber bullets in Minnesota as they obstruct the building of the Line 3 oil sands pipeline. Let’s take the lead from these champions of climate action and pick fights we can win.
The ground is ripe to focus on climate action in spaces that are not beholden to national governments. Purpose is working to develop city level climate campaigns which will allow every citizen to engage with their city leadership in driving a fast and equitable transition. And we are building new alliances with new communities to ensure government officials know that if they let humanity down, they’ll feel the consequences at the ballot box.
Speaking as a climate activist of 15 long years, I can confidently say that while we are woefully short of time, the wind has never been more at our backs.
So rather than hit our heads on the brick wall of global talks, let’s look for where there is more room to drive the transition forward, and have faith that governments will move into the space that we create. The battle is far from lost, and the future is in our hands.
You can learn more about Purpose Climate Lab’s work here.
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