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It is clear – half way through the UN COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt – that the whole UN COP process is facing its biggest crisis since it was launched at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
In terms of climate change, floods in Pakistan recently submerged a third of the country. A terrible drought in Somalia has caused more than a million people to leave their homes and go on dangerous journeys in search of food, water, and aid. In the major cities of Pakistan and India, the air is so hot and rancid that it stings the eyes and burns the throat.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, has reshaped the global energy market, triggered an energy and food crisis, and generated the biggest inflation increase and cost of living crisis since the 1970s. We are now in a recession that is expected to be the longest in Britain since records began.
Putin’s war has also triggered an obscene scramble back to fossil energy when it is abundantly clear the only answer to either the economic or the environmental crisis is a rapid transition to renewable energy – which is getting cheaper all the time. The UK government has already issued 90 new gas and oil extraction licences from the North Sea and is seeking an agreement to import large quantities of fracked natural gas from the USA.
Faced with this, there is a serious danger that COP27 could suffer a major setback that could paralyse the COP process for many years, weaken the global justice movement, and open the door to disastrous tipping points that could take climate chaos out of control.
Guterres opening speech
The danger of this happening was made clear in UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s remarkable (and scathing) speech at the beginning of COP27:
“The clock is ticking. We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing. Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising, and our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.
The war in Ukraine and other conflicts have caused so much bloodshed and violence and have had dramatic impacts all over the world. But we cannot accept that our attention is not focused on climate change. We must, of course, work together to support peace efforts and end the tremendous suffering. But climate change is on a different timeline and a different scale. It is the defining issue of our age. It is the central challenge of our century. It is unacceptable, outrageous and self-defeating to put it on the back burner…
Human activity is the cause of the climate problem, so human action must be the solution. Action to re-establish ambition, and action to rebuild trust – especially between North and South. The science is clear: any hope of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees means achieving global net zero emissions by 2050. But that 1.5 degree goal is on life support – and the machines are rattling and we are getting dangerously close to the point of no return.”
The speech, however, appears to have fallen on deaf ears if the situation with two of the most crucial issues it is facing is anything to go by.
On enhanced nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – which is the raison d’être of this COP – the situation could hardly be worse. At the opening of the conference, only 29 out of the 192 countries that made pledges in Glasgow had submitted new ones to COP27. More will come in, but the prospect of a substantial increase in pledges over Glasgow is already staring defeat in the face. The UN has chastised member states for their lack of progress in this area, with no visible results to date. The situation with the highly contentious issue of “loss and damage” payments by the rich countries to the poor countries to help them transition to renewable energy – which some rightly refer to as “reparations” – is no better.
It is only on the agenda after being scandalously blocked for 30 years as a result of a last-minute campaign by developing countries, backed by NGOs, to get it there.
Nicholas Stern (of the 2010 Stern Report) has calculated that this will cost $2 trillion a year, and Guterres is rightly insisting that unless there is what he calls an “historic pact” between the rich and poor countries on this issue, the planet could already be doomed.
This issue has already divided the conference, with US President Joe Biden supporting it and Tory MPs in Britain lining up to say that not a penny of British money should be used for such a cause, which they totally oppose.
The role of the UN
We need to get the role of the UN right if we are to understand the COP process properly. The UN is a capitalist institution, of course, but it is not, as some seem to suggest, dedicated to the preservation of the fossil industry and the promotion of “greenwash” to cover up its crimes.
It is to the UN’s credit that it recognised the danger of climate change at an early stage in its development – well in advance of the socialist left (radical or otherwise) with a few important exceptions – and took action to confront it. The UN COP process was established at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the wake of James Hansen’s ground-breaking address to the US Congress in 1988, which launched climate change into the public consciousness.
The COP process has been a battleground from the outset as the UN has sought to win its member states, with their multiple vested interests, over to the COP project.
The implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to commit states to legally binding emissions reduction targets, was sabotaged when the United States and others walked out of the Copenhagen COP in 2009. Bill Clinton initially supported the proposition but was overruled by the US Congress, and the whole thing fell apart.
The COP process has been successful, however –along with its subdivisions such as the OPPC – in winning the war both against the climate deniers – who were massively backed by the fossil fuel producers – and in winning the scientific community very strongly over to the climate struggle, without which we would not be where we are today.
It has also been key – along with the intensification of the climate crisis its self – in transforming global awareness of climate change, without which the options we are discussing today would not exist.
Nor is it true that zero progress was made in either Paris or Glasgow.
The key battleground in Paris was the maximum temperature limit over preindustrial times, to be set in order to stop climate chaos from getting out of control.
The UN proposed a target of “well below” 2°C, while the High Ambition Coalition – countries about to disappear under the sea – demanded a limit of 1.5°C as the only figure that would give them any kind of future. “1.5 to stay alive,” as they termed it.
It ended in a fudge, with the official target at “well below 2 °C,” with 1.5 °C added on as an “aspiration.” But by the time of Glasgow, the 1.5°C limit was already official UN policy, and the main topic of discussion was how to reach it through the submission of improved NDCs.
Many delegates arrived in Glasgow determined to defend 1.5 °C against those that would be out to destroy it, and in the end they were successful.
Glasgow also saw the three major emitters of co2 – coal, oil, and gas—named and confronted for the first time as an existential threat to the future of the planet. In terms of coal, the worst of the three, there was a proposal that its use in power generation should be phased out, along with subsidies for it, by 2050. This was bitterly opposed (unsurprisingly) by the big coal and oil producers and users.
Should the COP process be boycotted?
After Paris and Glasgow, many on the radical left concluded that they had been an unmitigated disaster and that it was time to stop focusing on the COP process and chart “our own” independent course.
It’s certainly true that both conferences failed to halt climate change and that in Glasgow the NDCs, pledged, far from limiting the global temperature to a 1.5°C, would allow a rise but of 2.4°C – that would trigger feedback processes that would take the climate crisis out of control. There were gains, however, that could be built on in the future.
The Global Ecosocialist Network decided to boycott COP27 by a unanimous decision at its September meeting on a proposal from its coordinator, John Molyneux.
The Ecosocialist Network – a UK ecosocialist current comprising several ecosocialist groupings – issued a statement just before COP27 opened, entitled “COP27: Still Fiddling While the World Burns.” While it does not call directly for a boycott, it brands the summit as a failure before it has even started and implies that there is little point in taking it seriously.
Greta Thunberg has also declared a boycott for similar reasons, despite the magnificent role she has played in recent years in mobilising a new generation of young people to the environmental struggle. Unfortunately, the only people who will benefit from her decision will be the global elites, who have historically feared every intervention she has made into their forums. Her “blaa, blaa, blaa” speech in Glasgow seems to have been a precursor to her decision.
Extinction Rebellion has always boycotted COP conferences, and they say the following about COP27: “Extinction Rebellion will not attend COP27 in Egypt, nor protest against it.” To give airtime to a summit that has monumentally failed humanity and all of the living world for 26 years gives the COP process undeserved credence and carries on the charade.
This, in my view, is a dangerous development. A boycott of the COP process, if it were adopted by the wider movement, could derail the climate struggle at a time when maximum unity and resolve are crucial. If it were just adopted by the radical left, it would make itself less effective than it already is.
The strategic problem we face, however, is that only governments – and ultimately governments prepared to go onto a war footing – that can make the structural changes necessary to abolish carbon emissions and transition to renewable energy in the time we have left.
Under such conditions, the UN COP process is the only international structure capable of addressing climate change at the global level, which is essential to being effective. It is also the only forum through which we can place demands on the global elites and around which we can build the kind of mass movement that can force them to do so.
So what is the alternative?
The Ecosocialist Network Statement offers the most clearly expressed alternative, and one that, I suspect, most of the radical left would agree with, which is the overthrow of global capitalism and, if it means anything in terms of climate change, not as a long-term or longer-term objective but as a means of halting climate change within the ten years we have left.
It puts it this way: “Genuine climate solutions cannot be based on the very market system that created the problem.” “Only the organised working class and the rural oppressed of the global south—women and men—have the power to end capitalism because their labour produces all wealth and they have no great fortune to lose if the system changes, no vested interests in inequality, exploitation, and private profit.”
The chance of such a revolution happening, with today’s balance of global class forces, is vanishingly small, and to gamble the future of the planet on such a prospect would be reckless in the extreme.
If a global revolution really was just around the corner – embracing 190 countries and 8 billion people, including Europe, the USA, China, India, Russia, etc – it would already be very obvious. The reality (unfortunately) is that the battle taking place in the USA is to stop Trump winning the next US Presidential election which would take up to the end of this decade.
The logic we face is inescapable. We can’t build an ecosocialist society on a dead planet. The task we face, therefore, is to force the global elites (however reluctantly) to introduce the structural changes necessary to halt climate change within the timescale science is giving us – and we can’t do that by turning our backs on the COP process, which would restrict our influence and mobilising capacity.
Meanwhile, in Sharm el-Sheikh, if the second week of the summit is not much better than the first, there are very big problems ahead.
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