This is an edited version of an article first published in Daily Maverick.
THE 27TH MEETING OF THE UN’S Conference of the Parties – otherwise known as COP – is now only months away. So it is timely to ask: who benefits from these gatherings of world leaders who regather each year to renew their repeated pledges to tackle climate change? Blah, blah, blah was Greta Thunberg’s telling comment on last year’s COP26.
Now, more than at any period during the United Nations climate change involvement, we need a critical look. It has been 50 years since the first international conference on the environment, the Stockholm Conference in 1972. That provides a long lens for evaluating the global climate change scorecard.
The sky is burning
The two most notable changes during this extensive period are (1) the world leaders attending the COPs now, overwhelmingly, make explicit their acceptance of the science of climate change; and (2) this acceptance is mirrored by the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have actually experienced it. Only a short while ago, these were still the distant “extreme weather events” predicted to be the new normal, unless appropriate measures were taken urgently.
Climate change is now a reality to many South Africans. The deadly and devastating floods in and around Durban this year are not forewarnings of climate change. They are the lived nightmare of those who survived them. Additionally, the enduring drought in and around Nelson Mandela Bay is threatening a zero-water supply to millions of people. Climate change, moreover, is now a fearful reality for virtually everyone in Europe, and many parts of Asia and the US.
We South Africans have our own problems, and the rest of the world is far away, so we may forget. But the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported on 16 July 2022: “‘Avalanche of fires’: what the front pages around the world say”. On the same day, it reported: “UK Braces For Record Temperature As First Ever Red Heat Warning Comes Into Effect.”
The next day, the same newspaper was full of reports such as “Scotland imposes Speed Restrictions on Rail Routes”; “Rail journey times may double”. These came amid fears of rails buckling in the heat. And for the National Health Service, “‘Crumbling’ NHS buildings can’t adapt to heatwave”.
And, on the following day, 18th July, The Guardian carried an article, “The Terrifying Truth: Britain’s A Hothouse, But One Day 40C Will Seem Cool”. This was by Bill McGuire, a professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at London University’s UCL. McGuire explained: And this is just the beginning. When our children are our age, they will yearn for a summer as ‘cool’ as 2022, because long before the century’s end, 40°C-plus heat will be nothing to write home about in the climate-mangled world they inherit.
In “The Sky is Frying”, Jeffrey St Clair, US author and editor of Counterpunch, wrote about the Armageddon happening at the same time throughout the US.
Bill McGuire argues that we have good reason to be scared, and we have even better reason to “channel this emotion into action”. However, instead of the immediately required action, there’s only silence..
George Monbiot, the British author, Guardian columnist and political activist, asks, “Can we talk about it now?”. He is referring to: the subject most of the media and most of the political class has been avoiding for so long. You know, the only subject that ultimately counts – the survival of life on Earth. Everyone knows, however carefully they avoid the topic, that, beside it, all the topics filling the front pages and obsessing the pundits are dust. Never has a silence been so loud or so resonant.
This is not a passive silence. It is … a fierce commitment to distraction and irrelevance in the face of an existential crisis. It is a void assiduously filled with trivia and amusement, gossip and spectacle. Talk about anything, but not about this. But while the people who dominate the means of communication frantically avoid the subject, the planet speaks, in a roar becoming impossible to ignore.
Climate crisis ignored
But the governments of what they like to call democracies have ignored the roar. Even worse, they treat dealing with the climate crisis as little more than an optional extra, a nice to have, provided other pressing circumstances allow. Removing whatever economic and political threat they see Russia posing is far more important.
Thus, they are ready to equip and pay for the last Ukrainian willing to die fighting the Russians. Saying this is not in any way to justify the Russian invasion, although these “democracies” have their own longer histories of similar invasions. But it does underscore that the governments of North America, the EU and Britain, are, for short-term economic and political reasons, eager to spend the money on Ukraine. This is the same money they claim not to have to spend on the climate crisis and other essentials.
These governments are further prepared to expect their populations to pay for and suffer the consequences of their hypocritical opportunism. They have made clear COP commitments for the necessary transition away from fossil fuels. Yet they have sanctioned the increased usage of oil, gas and coal.
Indeed, the EU has given notice to its biggest energy users that, unless new non-Russian fossil fuel sources can be found quickly, they will impose a compulsory energy reduction. So the EU is prepared to take the very action required by the climate crisis which they said was unrealisable.
What these governments have made clear is that putting Russia in its place is far more important than the climate crisis. The sobering truth is that saying something reassuring when faced with the latest “extreme weather event” is good for advertising and media coverage for politicians. But action remains a disposable extra. So, what is to be done?
The need for boldness
George Monbiot addresses the need for boldness well: We’re facing the greatest existential crisis that humanity has ever faced … In response, we want you not to use so many plastic bags, and to replace your cotton buds which have got plastic shafts with ones with paper shafts, and stop using plastic straws.
I’ve begun to see that mainstream environmental movements have made a terrible mistake … Their strategy … goes something like this. There is too little time and the ask is too big to try to change the system. … So the only realistic approach is incrementalism … After years of persistence, the small asks will add up to the comprehensive change we seek and deliver the world we want.
But … the radical right insurgency has swept all before it, crushing the administrative state, destroying public protections, capturing the courts, the electoral system and the infrastructure of government, shutting down the right to protest and the right to live. While we persuaded ourselves that there is no time for system change, they proved us wrong by changing everything.
System change is now accepted by the mainstream of the broad Left in South Africa and other places in the world. This wasn’t the case, for instance, in 2011 when the Cape Town-based Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) took the initiative in calling for what became the One Million Climate Jobs Campaign.
Capitalism is often named as the system in need of change. But there are many different and often conflicting understandings of capitalism. The main challenge remains how to turn the slogan into action. To my knowledge, no one anywhere has yet offered a viable strategy for how to inspire and mobilise the active involvement of the 25% of the population, said to be needed for any societal change. Various reasons are given for the 50-year failure of the UN to deliver on what it knows must be done. Human stupidity, ignorance, complacency, greed, political tribalism and even Freud’s death wish have been invoked as obstacles.
The fossil fuel industry is often simplistically identified as the major/only obstacle to climate change progress. But the fossil fuel industry has never been, and is still not, recognised by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC recognises only governments via their political leaders.
So there is little analysis of the tight and complex, symbiotic relationship between the dominant economic and political interests in all societies, even if differences sometimes occur between them. This reality adds still more complexity to any strategy intended to counter climate change.
The working class
Since the Communist Manifesto of 1848, the Marxian left has seen organised labour and the working class more broadly as the major drivers of societal change. In the US, Matthew Huber is prominent among those who have extended this thinking. He places a radical transformation of the US electricity trade unions at the centre of his proposed strategy. However, by his own acknowledgement, these unions are weak. They represent well below 25% of even the electricity workers.
Likewise, electricity workers in South Africa occupy a strategic position within the economy. And in a similar way they are weak and divided. This division is not only between unions but also within unions, as we are witnessing with Numsa. Organised labour is, indeed, very weak in the US and South Africa (and elsewhere). With time running out for stopping climate change, radicalising even parts of the labour movement is a long-term strategy.
I will continue with Monbiot to look at what he has to say about system change. He begins with the very assured premise that: … only a demand for system change, directly confronting the power driving us to planetary destruction, has the potential to match the scale of the problem and to inspire … So let’s break our own silence. Let’s stop lying to ourselves and others by pretending that small measures deliver major change. Let’s abandon the timidity and tokenism. Let’s stop bringing buckets of water when only f ire engines will do. Let’s build our campaign for systemic change towards the critical 25% threshold of public acceptance.
He then offers us doughnut economics, an ecological civilisation and participatory democracy as the rallying cries. He doesn’t explain these concepts, but nonetheless concludes “so, some of us are very clear about the system change we want to see, but very few of us are actually prepared to call for that system change. And that has been our great failing.” What, then, do I offer?
Opt out and build an alternative
Let’s start with an irrefutable fact: measured against what is required to keep the global temperature increase to a maximum of 1.5°C, the COPs have been a enforceable solutions? That they are an integral part of the problem? Instead of the passive stay away we saw from COP26, there is an alternative: an active and very public and organised stay away from COP27. Expecting COP27 to be any different from all the preceding ones is to continue to give credence to the COPs.
Hundreds of millions of people have now directly experienced climate change. That could support what would be needed: the building of the largest possible worldwide agreement to actively opt out. A consequence of this agreement would be to draw the greatest attention to why the COPs are unable to deliver on what they have pledged to do.
Active opting out of COP could also mean holding an alternative COP27 to coincide with the official one. Virtual attendance would allow for a much wider participation. Doing this would offer the possibility of coverage by the media attending the official COP. Such an alternative COP would provide a forum to discuss how to capture the imagination of people in numbers sufficient to make a difference.
In the words of German climate activist Luisa Neubauer: If activism is saying, ‘It cannot be business as usual, it cannot be government as usual,’ then surely we must be saying to ourselves, ‘It cannot be activism as usual’.
Jeff Rudin is a member of the Amandla! Collective.