Copout26: Cheap Shots and Red Herrings

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Great Thunberg at COP26
Activist Greta Thunberg at COP26 in Glasgow. Photo: AP

If the recent COP26 Climate Change marathon in Scotland was the last best hope for humankind, where can I reserve a seat on Elon Musk’s flight to Mars? With delegates jetting into Glasgow from around 200 countries, the event started to look like an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus with a cast of thousands. To a chorus of “Blah, blah, blah!” from Greta Thunberg’s street warriors, the first dispatches out of the media paddock were mostly cheap shots at the idiocies the gathering spawned. Like the giant foot stomping on dissent in a Python sketch, the massive carbon footprint generated by COP26 squashed all previous records for a climate crisis conference. Its emissions of 102,500 tonnes of CO2 equivalent was more than double that of the last UN climate summit. About 60 per cent of that represented the international travel of the 39,000 official delegates to the talks. Many of those attending were bag carriers, aides, professional lobbyists and other hangers-on. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson flew by private jet to Cop26 from London, but after an outpouring of media scorn, he opted for the train on a subsequent visit.

As for cheap shots, a bloated delegation from impoverished Zimbabwe got theirs from a local supermarket, widely photographed loading up carts with hundreds of dollars worth of Scotland’s finest whiskies. They were later filmed celebrating President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s arrival at a raucous party on an Edinburgh beach, accompanied by much derision and anger on social media at home on the theme of, “Why are our leaders there, for whisky and T-shirts?” Many experts considered the event crucial for the future of our planet, but its geeky title remained mostly unrecognised by the public. Vox pop interviews on the streets in Scottish cities revealed that few knew what COP26 meant, and many seemed confused as to whether it was a climate or an environmental conference or what it was supposed to achieve. It’s a fair guess that this low level of public engagement was universal, explaining why many editors of popular media chose to run click-bait stories laden with those cheap shots and red herrings.

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and it convened for the 26th time during the first two weeks of November.

The full name is the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, the parties being the 197 nations who are members of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This year’s conference president was Alok Sharma, a UK Cabinet minister. Their brief was to discuss and agree on actions to limit the expanding climate crisis and its devastating affects on the planet, its ecology, and humanity. The delegates reviewed the 2015 Paris Agreement when countries, for the first time, signed up to a goal of keeping global warming from exceeding 1.5C. This particular session became more significant than previous COP conferences after UN scientists issued a report they labelled “code red for humanity.” The report warned that global temperatures have risen faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period in the past 2,000 years.

Around 120 heads of state went to Scotland for the meetings, President Joe Biden being the highest-profile name. More significant were those who didn’t attend – China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, displaying their macho support for manly fossil fuels and contempt for sissy green, clean, tree-huggy alternatives. Thus they branded the conference more copout than COP, and along with “Flop26”, it was a meme that coloured the final communique where the great gathering to save Earth failed even to agree on phasing out coal use, and don’t even ask about oil or gas. The Cambridge English Dictionary neatly defines copout as “avoiding doing something that you should do or that you have promised to do because you are frightened, or you think it is too difficult.” So Copout26 it is then.

Host leader Queen Elizabeth did not attend either, but she is 95 and was unwell. That left her goofy son and king in forever-waiting, Prince Charles, to weather the inevitable flak that would await a royal prince who preaches environmentalism from palaces and talks to his plants while the planet burns. “The scale and scope of the threat we face call for a global, systems-level solution, based on radically transforming our current fossil fuel-based economy to one that is genuinely renewable,” Charles told the conference. “So, ladies and gentlemen, my plea today is for countries to come together to create the environment that enables every sector of industry to take the action required.” The Twittersphere ignited, fueled by some royal facts and figures claiming that the prince had travelled over 16,000 miles on private jets and helicopters in the previous couple of weeks, spewing out 162 tons of CO2 and costing British taxpayers £280,000. One sarcastic citizen offered to compensate, “Don’t worry, mate. I’ve put on my coat and turned down the heating.” A woman tweeted, “How many houses does he own, how many cars has he got, how many private jet journeys does he take? A bit of organic gardening doesn’t quite offset that, I’m afraid.”

Aside from the leaders, the number of delegates per country attending COP26 raised some intriguing questions. The four biggest national delegations were Brazil, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana. But the group with the most significant number of delegates – 503 compared to Brazil’s 479 – was not a country at all. It was a ghost in the machine or a fifth column, as climate activists have called it. Global Witness, an international NGO that monitors conflict, corruption and abuse in natural resource-related industries, reported that lobbyists for fossil fuels had a more significant presence at the conference than any country. Yes, that oil and gas industry, the primary engine of the crisis that COP26 was supposed to confront. These influence-peddlers far outnumbered delegates from countries most at risk from the climate crisis like Bangladesh and Mozambique. Over 100 fossil fuel companies, including Shell and BP, attended as part of country delegations or groups like the International Chamber of Commerce. For example, around 40 members of Russia’s 300-strong delegation were from its hydrocarbon industries. According to the Global Witness analysis, Canada, Brazil, and 25 other countries included fossil fuel lobbyists in their teams.

A 1990s climate change denial ad campaign run by the oil industry-funded Informed Citizens for the Environment.
A 1991 denial ad campaign run by Informed Citizens for the Environment, funded by oil and coal companies.

Pascoe Sabido, from Corporate Europe Observatory, which helped with the research, said in a statement: “We sold COP26 as the place to raise ambition, but it’s crawling with fossil fuel lobbyists whose only ambition is to stay in business. The likes of Shell and BP are inside these talks despite openly admitting to upping their fossil gas production. If we’re serious about raising ambition, then we should shut out fossil fuel lobbyists from the talks and out of our national capitals.”  The fact that fossil lobbyists swarmed inside the deliberations while activists were confined mainly to the streets outside could only undermine the conference.

The watering down of the final COP26 report with weasel wording (changing the phasing out of coal usage to a “phasedown”) left few in doubt that the fossil lobbyists had bought more time for more profits. Yes, there was some progress in moving reluctant world leaders closer to the fundamental actions necessary to save planet Earth from going down the cosmic path to becoming another Venus (raging inferno) or Mars (airless wilderness). Far too little and far too late perhaps, but humanity has no alternatives other than throwing up its collective hands and saying, “We’re done here — brief life on Earth was good while it lasted.”

It would therefore be unfair, however tempting, to write off the entire effort of COP26 as a fake and a farce. Those who follow the climate crisis are used to fluff and empty promises from politicians who serve the fossil fuel industry at the expense of their constituents and, ultimately, their homelands and the planet itself. Abandon hope all ye who enter debates with them. Yet there were many excellent speeches from delegates like the Ugandan youth activist Vanessa Nakate and Amazonian indigenous activist Txai Suruí. They explained how climate change is already damaging their communities. “It’s not 2030 or 2050. It’s now!” said Suruí. The only climate activist to remain an international household name is still the 18-year-old Swedish girl with Asperger’s syndrome. While researching analyses of COP26, several similar headlines struck me — The World Needs More Greta Thunbergs. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote this, although his headline said, Want to Save the Earth? We Need a Lot More Elon Musks:

“We will [decarbonise the global economy] only when Father Profit and risk-taking entrepreneurs produce transformative technologies that enable ordinary people to have extraordinary impacts on our climate without sacrificing much — by just being good consumers of these new technologies. In short: we need a few more Greta Thunbergs and a lot more Elon Musks. More risk-taking innovators will convert basic science into tools yet to be imagined to protect the planet for a generation yet to be born.”

Thunberg’s power to inspire her young (and old) admirers draws increasing disdain and dismissal of her actions and views from the usual suspects in the struggle between the greedy and the great. It’s that well-thumbed and now tattered playbook used by the metal industries, big tobacco and other corporate thugs to undermine science and discredit anyone who dared to call them out for causing serious damage while knowing they were doing it. It’s usually easy to follow the money flow, from corporate coffers to some shady “think tanks” or “independent” research institutes to public relations flacks and complicit pseudo-scientists and politically slanted media folk. And voila, Greta Thunberg slips from being a bright young visionary speaking plain common sense just when it’s needed to being a … (fill in the insulting blanks, the right-wing media sneers, the irrelevant misogyny and stereotyping.) And there are the coy “news” stories:

Greta Thunberg Slammed Over Her COP26 Criticism; Politicians Affirm Progress Being Made
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has drawn a backlash against her views, especially in Scandinavia. Politicians and opinion-makers have accused the 18-year-old of driving other environmentalists in an extremist and anti-democratic direction.

Really? Slammed. Backlash. Extremist. Anti-democratic. Politicians, however, “affirm progress.” All in one sentence. Well, thank the Nordic gods for affirmative politicians and serious reporting.

November 30 is the second anniversary of Greta Thunberg’s arrival on a world stage when she initiated a global School Strike for Climate. The 16-year-old then sailed from the UK to New York and delivered a stunning speech to the United Nations Climate Action Summit:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. Yet, I am one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now, is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.”

It’s long past the time to stop the sneering and pay attention. Thunberg is a dedicated and passionate young woman. She has given the climate change movement a boost it sorely needed. Before she came along, the world was speeding towards crisis while climate-change deniers, fueled with fossil money, roamed free. The climate-change lobby was failing to make any significant impact; there were no inspiring leaders, only more talkers and explainers. Climate change had been trying to gain public traction since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988. Its first report in 1990 bluntly said, listen up world, human-induced global warming is real. Conferences came and went. Kyoto and Paris came and stalled. Donald Trump sabotaged and sank.

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman, and Thunberg is no longer a cute kid, a novelty or an internet meme. She is a necessity because it is her generation and their children’s generation that are facing disaster. As she has said, it’s no longer climate change; it’s climate crisis. Her agenda-driven critics are accusing her of pushing her youthful followers towards “extremism.” She should take that as a compliment because we need increasingly extreme action for the mass of humanity to combat extreme climate change. If COP26 was an example of extreme seriousness about the actions needed to stop the coming escalation of disasters, we are indeed doomed. One of the significant failures of the conference was in its messaging. If some progress has been made to move from blah to action, then COP26 has failed to propagate that. Whatever message of hope was slinking through the conference corridors was lost in a rolling snowstorm of trivia, obscurity, irrelevancy, posturing — and copout.

Almost on cue, as the conference delegates rode their carbon emissions back home, more ominous weather chaos struck Canada. A “once in 500 years” Pacific Northeast storm in British Columbia with record rainfall and flooding brought a trail of destruction — collapsed bridges, submerged roads, and thousands of dead cattle. Around 17,000 residents were displaced from their homes, and officials sent evacuation orders or alerts to 10,000 properties. The price tag for one weekend will exceed a billion dollars. Who knows how many disasters we will see between now and COP27 in Cairo next year. One cartoonist showed a denier asking a question at COP26 — “What if all this really is a hoax and we build a better world for nothing.” Funny, but nobody’s laughing.