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Dispatches From Glasgow: the Great COP26 Cop-Out

Everywhere you look, we’re running out of time. Or at least, that was the common refrain at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, which took place a stone’s throw away (read: three hours by train) in Glasgow from Halloween to 13 November. Glaswegian businesses seemed to be thrilled at the influx of tourism and international dignitaries — the Glasgow and Edinburgh stations rolled out grand eco-ads about how environmentally clean train travel is, while nearly every shop in Glasgow adopted a temporary vegan menu. (This is alongside their regular fare, though, which means their vegan mac-and-cheese is always awful and you could still order your fish and chips, a regular lose-lose.)

The weeks-long event, world leaders promised time and again, would be a landmark moment in the fight against climate change. At the protests and events surrounding the conference, where activists gathered en masse to demand change and chat science and politics, the same anxious thrum hung unresolved in the air. Would these politicians — who left the conference in private jets, to subtweet the prime minister — finally introduce the legislation needed to stop climate change?

I mean, of course they wouldn’t. What were we expecting?

Look at the signs. Literally, there was a big sign on a wall in the Climate Action hub in the Scottish Events Campus emblazoned with the words “We can do this, if we act now.” Boris Johnson claimed that Glasgow “sounded the death knell for coal power.” US President Joe Biden remarked that this is “the decade that will determine” our climate outcome, saying, “The science is clear: We only have a brief window left before us... to meet the task that’s rapidly narrowing.” India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and China’s president, Xi Jinping, who represent two of the largest emitters of carbon alongside the US, set long, long-term goals for achieving carbon neutrality, for 2070 and 2060, respectively. These clowns still think we have time!

Thank god that people were protesting so vociferously, but that sentiment was reflected in the protesters, too. Look at the posters teenagers brandished on 5 November in George Square while listening to Greta Thunberg. Or the cardboard signs 100,000 climate warriors were holding on 6 November as they marched from Kelvingrove Park. Thunberg’s iconic “no more blah blah blah” line had been immortalized in banners and T-shirts, and I spotted many unflattering cartoons of a certain prime minister while I marched on Saturday. But more than any other slogan or image, many signs advertised a looming deadline — “time is running out,” “our window is closing,” “save the future,” etc.

The prevailing optimism of the COP26 demonstrators was cloying. Because we’re not only out of time, we’re so far in the red in terms of time that we’ll be lucky to avoid raising average global temperatures by 2ºC this century, if not more. Warming is locked in. Our time isn’t running out; it’s passed. And every sentiment to the contrary just offers another deadline to hedge, another milestone to ignore. It gives leaders more time for excuses, for endless “net zero by 20-whenever” initiatives.

Nobody else is going to do this work for us. Our world leaders don’t care. Johnson won’t be in office in 2050 to meet his net-zero goals, nor will any of the other leaders. COP26 is nothing short of a massive failure to meet climate needs, an ugly, garish pageant to celebrate the lengths world leaders are willing to go to, to poison their planet for the next generation.

Pledges to “reverse deforestation,” for example, a horrifically naïve concept that won’t fix the ecosystems destroyed by industry, have been made before. A pact in 2014 to halve deforestation by 2020 blew through its targets within a few years. Likewise, we’ve seen “finance mobilization” promised before — whereby money is funneled to developing countries to help wean them off of fossil fuels, and to the most at-risk countries to help them adapt to climate change. That aid money doesn’t always make it to its destination, and some of the most at-risk countries are still struggling to exist beyond meeting their most basic needs, like food and water.

Anyone who knows the science knows that there’s no way out of 1.5ºC, which has long been advertised as the recommended cap on global temperature increases, with 2ºC as the absolute ceiling. But at this rate, with no immediate, large-scale, revolutionary changes in the way we produce energy, treat our environment, and control pollution, we’ll blow past 2ºC as well. And if activists, like the world leaders we’re supposed to be anchoring in reality, keep talking about climate change as though it’s a threat we still have a chance of stopping, rather than a threat we failed to deal with years ago that’s now spiraling out of control, we’re part of the problem.

The meager winnings of COP26 prove that we’re still hooked on fossil fuels, that we still allow extractive industries to run our governments, and that leaders are willing to let the poor and the historically disenfranchised suffer now so that they can make vague promises for later. At this point, it’s only massive, organized social movements that will change our climate path. Our time’s run out, and we need to make sure the people controlling policy decisions recognize that.

Image: Flickr / Number 10

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