A Neoliberal COP-out

by Fabio Tollon

From a heat dome in North America, people drowning in their basements in New York, and a climate famine in Madagascar, you would think we would have started to take the climate crisis seriously. This is to say nothing of the volumes of scientific evidence that support the theory that we are teetering on the edge of catastrophe and are in the middle of an extinction event. With this backdrop, you would be forgiven for thinking that an event with the purpose of addressing this crisis would propose significant changes to our current production and consumption patterns. As luck would have it, we seem to inhabit the worst of all possible worlds, where such a common-sense expectation is not met.

The 26th Conference of the Parties (or, COP26) promised much but delivered little. Before the event, there was a genuine sense that this might be a turning point in the fight against climate catastrophe: maybe world leaders could come to together and, for once, put the long-term welfare of our planet and those who inhabit it over short-term profit. Unfortunately, what emerged from COP26 was not very much of anything. Although the so-called Glasgow Climate Pact, agreed to at COP26, “moves the needle” it is nowhere near enough to stop global warming from exceeding the critical threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (our current pathway is for an increase of  2.4°C).

What remains clear (and what was reinforced at COP) is that there remains a gigantic disconnect between what is needed to get a handle on the climate crisis and what is being proposed. Talks of $100bn in aid from the developed to the developing world fall far short of what is actually required. John Kerry, the chief American negotiator, echoed this point by claiming that it is not billions that we need, but trillions (between $2.6tn and $4.6tn, per year).

After decades of U.N. climate meetings, endless calls to action from activists, and compelling scientific evidence that we need to do something drastic, the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to increase (at a growing rate, no less, with more than half of all CO2 emissions since 1751 emitted in the last 30 years). The  biggest culprits, naturally, are companies in the fossil fuel industry, who also happened to be the biggest delegation at COP26.

So what, in concrete terms, was the suggested route out of the crisis proposed at COP26? Perfectly in line with the pervasive neoliberal logic rotting the brains of most policy makers, the private sector was touted as a band aid for the burning building that is our planet. We still seem to (somehow) be stuck at the point of acknowledging (scientifically) that we are in the grips of a crisis but lacking the (political) coordination required to enact the radical action that the situation demands. The purported private sector “solution” would be one in which massive investment firms, such as BlackRock, direct trillions of dollars into low-income economies to accelerate their transitions away from fossil fuels. This will only happen, however, if the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund come in to “derisk” these “investments”. How the same neoliberal solution can be proffered at every crisis since the 1990s is beyond comprehension.

In any case, besides the “bailout” assumption that seems to be operative for private business, it also seems as if there is a version of market or technological “solutionism” at play. Market solutionism assumes that given enough time and resources, the abstract concept known as “the market” will solve our problems (and hence we are justified in setting our money printer machines to overdrive). Technological solutionism starts with the presumption that there should be technological solutions to our problems, and that other kinds of solutions are by definition inferior. These two assumptions come together in a deadly way with respect to the climate crisis, as market solutionism gives hope to neoliberal interventions, whilst technological solutionism maintains hope that a new technology will come along and save the day.

However, to think in this way is to entirely misunderstand the nature and scale of the crisis we are facing. In the first case, the problem is global and not local. While solutionism might be useful for fixing local issues, global issues require massive political and social buy-in. In order to implement a market or technological solution, the specific product needs to be introduced into new markets, adapt to local conditions, and not violate any local customs or norms. This takes time, is costly, and successful implementation on a global scale is not guaranteed. To tackle the climate crisis requires us to first achieve the political and economic support of those who have the power to make a difference.

Unfortunately, nothing seems capable of convincing those with such power to in fact do anything. As we edge, nay, plummet, over the cliff of catastrophe we need to acknowledge that we are beyond the point of reversing the damage that has been done. Current global warming levels are at about 1.2°C, and this increase cannot be reversed on human timescales, it can only be halted. The carbon that currently sits in the atmosphere will still be there in the year 3000. No matter how good our technology, it cannot undo what we have done. It can only give us more time to prepare for catastrophe.

With COP26 behind us and very little achieved, we are faced with the standard neoliberal bet: carry on as usual and hope that something unpredictable saves the day. Unfortunately, in this case, it might be the last bet we make.