First the good news. Except is there really any good news in the wake of COP26? Virtually everyone accepts that events in Glasgow took us a very meagre step forward (if anything), but that is petrifying because the damage being done to the world is taking big steps while we wait. It’s like walking slowly towards the fire exit in a building where flames are spreading faster and faster.
What is the dynamic which is driving us away from taking the actions we know we need to? The answers should worry us all deeply. Economics is changing rapidly. The public is changing rapidly. Democracy is stuck; it is the democracy we have which is causing the problems.
But was the outcome of COP26 really that bad? Any realistic analysis must surely conclude that yes, this is pretty grim. There clearly a lot of backlash to the environmental movement and this is leading people who claim to be worried about climate change to scour the landscape for evidence to support their theory that the protesters are overreacting and things are fine(ish). Things aren’t fine, but by the time the backlashers recant (and they will) it’ll be too late.
Because the hard maths says that even if everyone does everything they say they will, it will not confine global temperature rises to 2.4 degrees never mind the 1.5 degrees the scientists tell us we must achieve. ‘OK, but it’s better than nothing’ in that context is really just flapping your arms after falling off a tower block.
The narrative that has dominated the aftermath of COP26 makes the problem clear. Its voice is that of John Kerry (the US lead negotiator) and the voice is saying ‘democracy can’t do this so it is the corporations which must save us’.
What this actually means is ‘we are too scared to face down the corporate interests so we need to capitulate further because we have no other card to play’. The lack of agency of western democracies isn’t a truth at all, it’s a choice made true by the actions of leaders.
This could all seem odd if you look at it. After all, these are the corporations which have led the charge to campaign against climate action and many have actively supported and promoted climate change denial. But we’re quite far through the looking glass now.
Underpinning everything is an unprecedented era in the global economic order. There isn’t space to examine this properly here but very roughly we have been through to massive crisis (the financial crisis and the pandemic). Both required governments and central banks to rip up the old rule book and make it up as the go along.
And what they did was prop up institutions that were functionally dead. The enormous cash injection into the economy which kept them alive left them (and everything else) massively overvalued. It has created an economic superstructure which cannot properly support its own weight.
It leaves the world reliant on constantly reinflating economic sectors which keep deflating for a reason. At some point our reality will catch up with us – but this enormous economic instability is making everyone jumpy. They won’t tell you it in so many words but world leaders are petrified that one more shock could topple the whole thing.
The thought of a global crash on that scale is enough to frighten anyone (it would be much bigger in impact than Covid and the financial crisis combined). Ironically, this vulnerability is actually strengthening the hands of those responsible for it. ‘Things are a mess – don’t make them worse with climate action’ is the mantra.
But not with people. The population of the world may find its opinions moving unevenly, perhaps even incoherently. But it is undoubtedly moving. People are now experiencing the impacts of climate change in undeniable ways and younger generations are rightly very concerned about their futures. In terms of public consent, what is possible now goes much, much further than what was possible a few years ago.
So economics is being reformed over and over on the fly, populations are increasingly worried and willing big action and the climate scientists at least nominally have persuaded the politicians that they need to act. Where is the problem?
Coming from a Common Weal perspective, it is horrible to have to say that the more the world has changed, the more democracy has stayed the same. It is welded to the 20th century vision of powerful nation states free to act as they will and constrained only by four-yearly check-ins with the people they notionally govern for.
The rest of the time they can crack on with serving who they really govern for – the melee of money interests which stalks and seduces politicians as the glide through the corridors of power.
Discovering that Westminster sort of runs on the fuel of low-level corruption is no surprise. That things aren’t really any better in Scotland is something we would do well to come to terms with. Given two options – back the powerful or back the population, the population keeps losing, on either side of the border.
Thus while the First Minister considers possibly eventually becoming a friend of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (not joining you understand), she has been giving the oil and gas industry £62 million in bungs and has granted their every wish with a hydrogen strategy predicated on greenwashing natural gas.
This is only one example. Scotland is shaping its climate action not round the science but round the vested interests. Our democracy leaves far, far too much scope for big money to influence it. It is not nearly serious enough about the need to protect itself from the corrupting threat of vested interests.
There is almost nothing citizens can do about this. In the UK you can’t vote for any party with any chance of power which is going to do anything like what is needed in anything like the timescales required. If you could vote for such a party the ferocity with which it would be attacked can be seen easily in the treatment Jeremy Corbyn received.
Democracy as we have it is not fit for the tasks as we face them. Think about this for a second; imagine COP26 had really been a giant Global Citizens Assembly where ordinary people were selected at random to spend two weeks intensely embedded in debate about what had to be done. Imagine politicians were compelled to act on that body’s recommendations.
That such an outcome is not something we can say out loud and then take seriously for more than a few seconds tells you what you need to know. In a world on fire, the views of ordinary people informed and engaged would seem like a parallel universe to what is officially deemed acceptable.
If it goes as badly as it looks like it’s going to go climate-wise, it is our democracy which will have let us down. That is a deeply saddening thought.