The outcome of international climate summits has barely changed during the last few decades. The task of forging a global consensus on transformative mitigation strategies to the climate emergency somehow always eludes the participating parties, and the result is to keep kicking the can down the road as if to say, “Let future generations take care of the problem.”
Unfortunately, despite being touted as “our last best hope”, the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow ended up being just another big flop, thus confirming that people should not expect international climate summits or governments to solve the climate crisis. Indeed, the only hope for solving humanity’s greatest existential crisis lies with our ability to mobilise behind the global climate movement.
The outcome of COP26 – a great “compromise” between moderates and reactionaries – does very little to slow down our pace towards the precipice. The final document, called the Glasgow Climate Pact, showed no progress with regards to existing national plans to cut emissions by 2030, which are not enough to limit global warming to 1.5C (2.7F). In fact, as things stand, the planet is headed to a disastrous 2.4C (4.3F) of heating. Only very naive souls can gain comfort from the fact that the pact obliges countries to return to next year’s COP with revised targets.
Fossil fuels, which supplied 84 percent of global energy in 2020, will continue to dominate global energy consumption. The power of the fossil fuel producers and the influence of the fossil fuel lobby is apparently too strong to counter in diplomatic negotiations over the future of the planet. Moreover, rich countries have failed to honour their pledge to provide $100b each year by 2020 to help poor nations deal with the threats of global warming, and the climate debt grows exponentially. In other words, large-scale decarbonisation remains a distant dream despite the pressing need to embark on this process immediately to keep temperatures from rising well above 2C (3.6F), and COP26 contributed not in the least in the effort to move the world economy towards a clean energy transition. Amazingly enough, even coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and the single largest source of global temperature increases, received a mere slap on the hand as India, with the backing of China, succeeded in changing the wording of an earlier draft from “phase out” coal to “phase down”.
If COP26 participants were really serious about solving the climate crisis they should have made, at a minimum, the following pledges: 1. Eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies, which according to a recent IMF study amount to $5.9 trillion in 2020; 2. Ban banks from funding new fossil fuel projects, as they have pumped trillions of dollars into oil, gas, and coal since the signing of the Paris climate agreement of 2021; 3. Make ecocide an international crime similar to genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes; 4. Demand the cancellation of debt for lower-income countries, which now spend several times more on servicing debt than dealing with the challenges of global warming; 5. Create large-scale funding sources to assist with the transition to a green economy.
Instead, we got mostly a lot of “blah, blah, blah” and more inertia. But why the persistent failure among governments in putting the world on a sustainable climate pathway? First, leaders sit on climate negotiating tables with the intent to advance an agenda that serves above all their own national interests rather than the health of our planet. Their mindset is still guided by the principles of “political realism” and political short-termism. This is why their words are not matching up with their actions.
Thus, Joe Biden can make a moral pronouncement to world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow that the US will lead the fight against the climate crisis “by example”, but, less than two weeks later, his administration auctions oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Second, the nation-state remains the primary actor in world affairs, so there are no international enforcement mechanisms with regard to pledges about cutting emissions. International cooperation, let alone solidarity, is extremely difficult to attain under the existing political order, and as leading international affairs scholar Richard Falk has argued, “Only a transnational ethos of human solidarity based on the genuine search for win/win solutions at home and transnationally can respond effectively to the magnitude and diversity of growing climate change challenges.”
Third, “the logic of capitalism” guides the world economy. With profit-maximisation as the ultimate motive, capitalism is toxic for the environment, especially in its neoliberal version, with a strong emphasis on deregulation and privatisation. Under such a socioeconomic system, it is highly unlikely that the political establishment will dare to embark on a climate action course that might prove detrimental to powerful economic interests. But, alas, it is not all so difficult or hopeless as the international climate summits make it seem. Climate activism is now a global movement. Youth worldwide has taken to the streets to protest inaction on the climate threat.
We have made some progress in the fight against global warming. Cities worldwide are at the forefront of climate action, thanks to grassroots activism. More than 60 percent of European cities have already committed themselves to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, with 12 of them before 2040. Some 30 large cities in Latin America and the Caribbean have developed climate programmes. In Asia and the Pacific, more than 100 climate projects have been initiated to combat global warming. In California, the state with the largest economy in the United States, a project of building a clean-energy infrastructure and reducing emissions by 50 percent as of 2030 and achieving a zero-emissions economy by 2045 has been endorsed by nearly 20 major unions across the state. In the Ohio River Valley, Reimagine Appalachia, a broad coalition of individuals and organisations is laying the groundwork for a post-fossil fuel economy.
Activism is indeed the key ingredient behind the support for green transition programmes, and even some major legal victories have been won in the fight against global warming. European courts sided with activists in their effort to put an end to logging in an ancient protected forest in Poland, driving bans have been enforced in some of Germany’s inner cities, and a Dutch court ordered oil giant Royal Dutch Shell to cut its greenhouse emission by 45 percent by 2045.
Climate litigation has also spread to In the Global South. Domestic courts have delivered favourable rulings in landmark climate cases in Colombia, Pakistan, and South Africa. Radical and legal activism is a trend that will most likely expand as time goes on and international climate summits and governments fail to take the drastic measures needed for the planet to avoid a climate catastrophe. Revolutionary activism is indeed our last best hope to keep humanity from returning to barbarism on account of the potential collapse of civilised social order due to a climate apocalypse. We need to step up mass organising, especially among working-class communities, so acts of civil disobedience can gain widespread legitimacy and support. The general strike, a tool of working-class struggle since the mid-19th century, can become a very effective strategy in challenging the political establishment to take drastic steps to combat global warming.
In practice, revolutionary activism means turning every city and every town in every major country around the world into a stronghold of the global climate movement. This is the only way that the “general will” can be enforced on the powers-that-be.