Each new year brings record high temperatures, expanded wildfires, intensified hurricanes, floods and droughts, melting permafrost, acidification of the oceans and rising sea levels. Nonetheless, the climate crisis we are in the midst of
is too often ignored in favor of business as usual. Our planet is headed toward catastrophe unless policies are put in place immediately that will slow the intensification of greenhouse gases. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have until 2030 to turn around our dependence on fossil fuels, or reach tipping points from which we will be unable to stop global warming.
WHAT IS COP?
In 1994, this escalating crisis led to the convocation of the international Conference of the Parties (COP) to find a cooperative solution through negotiations between the world’s major economies. While COP draws on the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, it has lacked the teeth for enforcement, and thus has had minimal effect on actual policies, even as it has improved public awareness of the issues. The Paris Climate Agreement adopted by the 2015 COP set the strongest goals yet: keeping the global temperature increase to under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (which means emitting less carbon, particularly greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, than we take out of the atmosphere).
The 2015 accords, however failed to include clear mechanisms for enforcement, and Donald Trump subsequently withdrew the United States from the agreement. President Joe Biden has rejoined it, but doubts persist whether the United States and other major economies will agree to and respect emergency measures. Will a U.S. president committed to slowing down climate change be able to deliver on his promises, and how thorough will it be?
When COP26 takes place Nov. 1–12 in Glasgow, Scotland, representatives of close to 200 nations, several hundred organizations, and the media will be again confronted by mass street mobilizations, both outside the official meetings and in other places around the globe. Activists from climate organizations and those of indigenous and people of color, workers and farmers will use the conference to meet, strategize and strengthen their movements.
After decades of fighting climate-change deniers, the broad scientific and even political consensus is that human activity, in particular the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — has created runaway climate change through increased greenhouse-gas emissions. While the people most affected are the ones least responsible — poor people, Global South nations, farmers along the equator — the results will affect all life on the planet. Food and water shortages, disastrous storms and droughts, health crises, wildfires and mass migrations will suck up much of our attention and resources and be lethal to many.
The hope of the COP is to get the nations with more developed economies to recognize that it is in their interests to stave off catastrophe right now, by eliminating fossil fuels as immediately as possible and creating economies based on resilience and sustainability. That is a tall but necessary order for capitalist economies that depend on generating profits through constant growth. The vast inequality of resources and power, with a small number of elites in most developed economies determining climate and economic policies, makes the tenuous muscle behind popular power and organizing more important than ever.
The most direct way to slow down climate change is to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, limit the growth of the most developed economies, and redistribute resources and power more equitably. We’ll need to shift toward regenerative agriculture, reforestation, renewable energy and non-combustion engines, and also give massive financial and technical support to enable Global South nations to make these transitions. Public ownership over the energy industry could help shift toward 100% renewable energy and drive policies away from those designed for maximum profits.
That would be a dramatic turnaround for a planet with almost universally hierarchical and unequal economic and political systems, but it’s a necessity. Renewable energy must completely replace fossil fuels, and economic growth must be based on social and ecological services instead of manufacturing more things. Some of the federal Build Back Better legislation, aka “the reconciliation bill,” attempts to reach some of these goals through “social infrastructure,” such as education, child care, healthcare, and regenerative agriculture, and the massive creation of renewable energy through solar, wind and geothermal power. And jobs, jobs, jobs.
Local solutions will play a major role in determining strategies to improve standards of living while decreasing greenhouse-gas emissions. Different regions of the world will experience varying levels of climate pressure and need distinct cultural and environmental solutions. A one-size- fits-all approach simply won’t work. Local solutions alone, however, cannot substitute for sound national and global policies. The crisis is too big.
The political power of corporations, particularly fossil- fuel corporations, over our political systems keeps us locked in this impending catastrophe. One quick look at Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, with his huge campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry and his own stock holdings in it, highlights the political barriers. And Manchin isn’t the worst of the fossil-fuel fronts!
Even in more progressive nations such as Norway, much wealth has historically been based on extractive resources, including fossil fuels. Recent elections in Norway put a leftist government in power that may change this dynamic.
The people most affected are the ones least responsible — poor people, Global South nations, farmers along the equator.
Neoliberals assure us that “the market” will solve this problem: Just rely on private corporations to respond to the growing demand for renewable energy and lower carbon emissions. So far, that approach has failed spectacularly. Energy, agricultural and manufacturing markets have consistently prioritized short-term profits over long-term solutions. “Carbon offsets” or “carbon trades” — in which carbon-intensive industries buy low-carbon or even carbon-mitigating investments — still allow these industries to spew greenhouse gases. They are a three-card monte stunt that just moves carbon around, never truly decreasing its volume and harm.
We also cannot “manufacture” our way out. Most manufacturing is resource-intensive and requires a broad supply chain, much of which is carbon-producing. We can only allow economic development with equity and environmental standards. The fact that COP26 has a long list of corporate “sponsors,” most of them energy corporations or heavily dependent on fossil fuels, speaks volumes about what may be possible come November in Glasgow.
CLIMATE ACTION VS. CLIMATE JUSTICE
The enforcement of climate policies alone won’t create the change needed. Because low-wealth individuals and nations bear the brunt of climate catastrophe, prioritizing, centering and empowering frontline communities, communities of color, indigenous peoples, and Global South nations and regions are critical to both local and global solutions that bring true climate justice. The indigenous dictum of determining today’s actions based on how they will affect people seven generations down the line offers the wisdom needed to move forward. Equity and survival are twin goals in this global drama. It’s up to us — the first generation to truly know the extent of climate change — to make this happen. Public solutions are much more promising.
Organizations such as Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, Greenpeace, and Extinction Rebellion are sounding the call for mass mobilizations on Nov. 6 to push nations participating in COP26. That effort has been slow in building, because most climate-justice efforts are local or national in focus and have not prioritized the COP, given their organizing capacities.
For example, much of the movement in New York State is focused on climate bills in the state legislature. However, NY Renews, the largest statewide coalition, is organizing a demonstration on Nov. 13 to emphasize the importance of local action in carrying out COP26 achievements. The New York City climate-justice movement is reaching out to the new city political leadership to push for mitigation of the greenhouse gases emitted through buildings, 70% of the city’s emissions, by the installation of renewable energy in all public and many private buildings.
A “Remember Sandy: Defund Climate Chaos” demonstration is planned for Oct. 29, targeting the financial institutions in the city that keep feeding the fossil-fuel industry. The city and state demands both emphasize a commitment to public ownership, large-scale investment in offshore wind turbines, and a moratorium on all new fossil-fuel infrastructure, as well as protecting frontline communities through vocational training and expanding good “climate-friendly” jobs.
Progressive climate forces hope that COP26 will minimize greenhouse-gas emissions; shift toward 100% renewable energy by 2050, preferably publicly owned; almost completely eliminate fossil fuels; emphasize decentralized solutions that empower local communities, especially those most affected by climate change; and ameliorate specific harms to vulnerable communities. These goals will need real teeth to transform our economy and politics, but nothing less will save the planet. We either act now or suffer dire consequences tomorrow.
Organizations such as the Sunrise Movement and Democratic Socialists of America, as well as the broad local, state, national and global coalitions, are part of the tapestry of organizational inspiration and power that will help lead the way, through both grassroots organizing and engaging in the political process. Youth are claiming the mantle of leadership after almost two years of globalized fear from the COVID-19 pandemic. The thought of runaway climate change makes those experiences seem minor.
In his new book, Warmth, climate activist Dan Sherrill claims that we need to fully accept the reality of climate change, and mourns the loss of the ability to plan ahead with any certainty. We must face the reality and put our collective shoulders into the paramount struggle of our species. We are fortunate to be able to see it before us, to identify solutions, to work to protect all we love, and to prioritize justice as a goal. As Joe Hill told us, “Don’t mourn, organize.” COP26 gives us a political moment to do just that.
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