COP26: smokes and mirrors
Uprooted is an ad-free, 100% reader-funded newsletter. It is mostly open to all, but I rely on reciprocating paid subscriptions here to keep this in(ter)dependent platform going. Thanks for your support!
Summits of ambitions and commitments
Around 20,000 government representatives, scientists, policy experts, celebrities, influencers, and activists are convening this week in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26, the UN Climate Summit commencing Monday.
Yet I cannot help but feel a sense of frustration in regards to the vast discrepancy between the amount of hype that the event has been receiving and will continue to—relative to the actual impact such conferences, led by the world’s political elites, have actually had in the past decades.
“Aspiration and ambition are cheap, and these are the goods that have been bought and sold at COP21.”
Let's start with The Paris Agreement from COP21 in 2015, which was viewed by many within the environmental movement as a great success—a “turning point”.
But in reality, to not simply regurgitate the reporting from mainstream media and to look honestly at what it really accomplished, one could say it was more of a “Summit of Ambition.”
“The Paris Agreement taught us that ‘ratcheting’ was the de rigueur method of manifesting [its] ambition…
[But] we discover that in the end, the much-heralded ‘ratcheting’ process includes reporting and review, reporting and review in slightly different words, and ‘strengthening of commitments.’ I think that we can, with complete confidence, believe that as a result of this agreement, a lot of reports will be written.
While many looked to the Obama administration, then, as a progressive climate leader, it actually was one of the main reasons there were no mechanisms of enforcement included.
“The tactic that the Obama administration planned to use to ‘outsmart’ the Republicans was simply to give up on anything that the Republicans would object to very strongly. In short, if the Paris Agreement contained nothing that was of real consequence or was binding, there would be nothing for the Republican Congress to veto…
As the article recounts, ‘under U.S. insistence’, the Paris Agreement ‘was explicitly crafted’ to exclude: 1) any binding agreement to emissions reductions; 2) any binding agreement to financing of emissions reductions; 3) any binding agreement to fines or penalties of any kind for failure to reduce emissions.
Only one thing was agreed to legally: written reports every five years…
COP21 perpetuates the tendency—rampant among environmentalists and the politicians who want to appease them—to substitute spectacle for substantive action.
They continue to put far too much effort into the politics of the gesture and far too little into massive direct action on behalf of a rapid end to carbon emissions.” –John P. Clark via Between Earth and Empire.
As reported in 2019, only two countries were on track to meet their voluntarily set climate pledges. As if that weren't disheartening enough, recent reports show that only one country, The Gambia, is aligned with Paris Agreement targets.
So the Paris Agreement, again, touted, unquestioned by most, as some great achievement, really was viewed as pivotal only because many countries came together and agreed that the climate crisis was important and that commitments needed to be made.
In the end, subpar goals were set; most of them were unmet.
Greening extraction—justified by scientific framings of climate change
As President Biden and other U.S. government officials prepared to show up at COP26, they made concerted efforts to solidify some sort of a plan to save face and to showcase their leadership.
“More than $500 billion of an emerging Democratic spending plan is targeted to fight climate change, making it one of the biggest portions of a bill likely to top $1.5 trillion…
While details are still being worked out, the framework is expected to include expanded tax credits for renewable power, advanced energy manufacturing and electric vehicles, as well as incentives to support investments in electric transmission, energy storage, and sustainable aviation fuel.” (Source.)
It's important to note that the latest iterations of the bill have already been diluted compared to the original proposals for climate action. And Sunrise Movement's youth activists took note, initiating a hunger strike in front of the White House just a week ago in protest of the compromises made.
Nevertheless, representatives of the U.S. at least get to attend with some things to say about what they intend to do. And for many, these “little wins” are enough to reason the significance of these Conferences of the Parties.
But it's worth asking: Can a crisis of over-extraction and the erosion of place-based relationships be solved by spending more money to expand extraction—just in alternate forms?
As it stands, the “bold” climate action being celebrated looks like historic levels of investments for “renewable” energy, “advanced” energy manufacturing, electric vehicles, more electrification-related progress, and so forth. And this is not a surprise, as scientists, propped up as the most important voices in the discourses on climate change, largely have been framing it as an issue of excess carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.
But this sort of emphasis allows for “net-zero” solutions that reduce Earth’s fever and historic traumas into a simple balancing equation of emissions and sequestration. As a result, the byproducts of lowering emissions at all costs—such as blowing up entire landscapes for open-pit mining, clogging up more of Earth's veins that nourish vast ecosystems with dams for hydropower, displacing local and Indigenous communities for “nature-based” carbon drawdown—end up downplayed, justified, or dismissed.
A narrow focus on the chemistry of carbon emissions leads to narrow-minded solutions that might solve one part of the equation—while just creating more problems.
Stronger commitments to… faux solutions
What I'm trying to get at is this: The repeated COPs have largely been about strengthening (failed) commitments. And even as more “ambitious” solution pathways are proposed and implemented, they are surface level and off base.
Instead of just tossing more money at the crisis to expand extraction, where are the plans to end the spending on things that have been hugely destructive—like militarism and wars, societal “development” that further disconnects people and their lifeways from place-based ecological systems, or financial advantages given to Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Finance, etc.?
And where are the discussions on halting global imperialism and predatory trade deals that lead to the absurd shipping back-and-forth of the same foods and products—at the expense of community sovereignty everywhere and at the benefit of corporate giants and the political elites?