The road to the COP – from Zero COVID to Zero Carbon in Seven Arguments

Paul Atkin looks forward to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) to be held in Glasgow in 2021

1. The Coronavirus is crisis is one aspect of environmental blowback.

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” – Shakespeare, Henry IV Part Two.

Every pandemic this century – from SARS to Ebola to Swine Flu – has resulted from diseases jumping the species barrier as human pressure on the environment has increased. COVID-19 is therefore part of the same crisis as climate breakdown and we can expect more pandemics like it.

While we have been preoccupied with COVID this year, climate breakdown has accelerated alarmingly. Just because fewer people are looking does not mean it’s not happening.

  • The polar ice caps are melting faster than we thought.
  • As a result, methane – an extremely potent greenhouse gas in the short term but hitherto frozen in the tundra – is now being observably released: the beginning of a feedback loop that could be beyond our capacity to hold it back.
  • Forest Fires in Australia, Siberia, the Amazon and California have been even more intense and widespread than last year.
  • Exceptionally heavy rainfall has led to significant flooding in the Nile Valley, Japan, China, Indonesia, South Korea, Nepal, Pakistan, Mongolia and India.
  • The sixth mass species extinction gathers momentum, including the catastrophic drop in invertebrates.
  • The insurance company Swiss Re has just produced a report explaining that without drastic action one country in five faces the potential collapse of their eco-systems in the foreseeable future. Australia and South Africa are the most vulnerable. India – where a sixth of humanity lives- is not far behind.
  • An assessment by the US armed forces last year projected widespread water shortages by the end of this decade and, in the coming decades, mass migration on an unprecedented scale as parts of the world become uninhabitable, widespread disorder and political crisis, wider spread of tropical diseases, increased strain and collapse of power grids, infrastructure and systems of governance, with the army having to step in as civil society collapses and then possibly collapses itself.

These crises will not come along conveniently one at a time, but will pile up with increasing frequency and intensity. So, dealing with the pandemic just to “get back to normal” is like treating the symptoms of an acute infection only to put yourself on palliative care for an underlying chronic condition and waiting to die from it.

2. You can no more argue with the laws of physics than you can with a virus.

Responses to Coronavirus parallel the responses to climate breakdown. These include denial and magical thinking – ”it’s a hoax”; machismo and downplaying the scale of the threat – “it-s just like flu”; clutching at faith immunity or folk remedies; or touting world-beating scientific “Moonshot” systems that exist entirely in the realms of thought. The desire to carry on with “the economy” as normal means direct subsidies with no strings attached for companies deemed too big to fail.

The hubris involved in thinking that the threat of either the virus or climate breakdown can be stopped with a smartarse argument comes to grief at the point that reality can no longer be ignored.

Boris Johnson’s statement on Saturday that “We have to be humble in the face of Nature”, delivered with his usual throwaway carelessness, was a recognition that if the UK government carried on trying to keep the economy as open as it is, hospitals would be overwhelmed within a fortnight – which would collapse his government. The situation is as bad as it is because they left this response so late, and the inadequacy of the measures being taken reflects their reluctance to carry them out at all. The laxness of the new measures compared with March – with schools staying open – means that they won’t be enough.

With climate change, if we wait until the point that reality is overwhelming us, it will be too late to do anything other than salvage something from the wreckage.

The 2007 US Report The Age of Consequences put it like this: “Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long, nightmarish episodes of triage: deciding what and who can be saved from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not only just abroad but at home.”

So, the potential for collapse is real and urgent, and every day that is lost is making it more likely. The forces whose interests are expressed by the US and UK governments are proving themselves unfit to lead humanity.

3. Global de-growth is no solution.

“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” – Unnamed US Major in Vietnam.

The point of taking action to avert climate breakdown is to save human civilisation. Trying to do so by crashing it defeats the objective.

There has been some welcome and serious soul searching among people in wealthier countries about the treadmill quality of work and the hollowness of attempting to fill a soulless life with frivolous consumption, with much discussion about reordering social and personal priorities. In countries like the USA, Europe, Japan, Australia, this is positive and needs to be deepened.

However, in most of the world, overconsumption is not the problem. The poorest half of the world’s population is responsible for just 7% of carbon emissions, while the impact of the economic dislocation resulting from the virus and the measures needed to contain it has hit them hardest. The World Bank estimates that 88-117 million people will be reduced to the extreme poverty level of less than $1.90 a day by the end of the year, with a further 350 -450 million down to less than $5.50 a day.

So the impact of the virus – as a dry run for a de-growth policy – has hit the poorest hardest, in exactly the same way as climate breakdown does.

This poses the question of how a recovery from coronavirus is organised, what its objectives are and the seriousness with which governments use it as an opportunity for a massive investment in transition – or fail to do so.

COVID lockdowns have led to a reduction in CO2 emissions – with estimates varying from 5-8.8% by the end of the year – by shutting down a huge range of economic and social activity. But to be on track for keeping temperature rises down to 1.5C we’d need that reduction to be sustained at 7.5% every year from here on. This could not be done without either maintaining a similar or even more drastic level of economic slowdown – Schools. Out For Ever – or by seriously repurposing everything we do so that we can continue to reduce global poverty and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The former course could not be done with social consent – and would spark a serious resistance to it.

The Gilets Jaunes slogan “You’re concerned about the end of the world. We’re concerned about the end of the month” challenges us to take account of both. That requires social and political mobilisation to put it on the agenda.

4. States matter.

The pledges made in the Paris Agreement are essential but not enough. The aim of Paris is to keep temperature rises below 1.5C to 2C at the most. Pledges made so far – if fulfilled – would hold things down to just 3 – 4C and – if not fulfilled – even hotter. This is why the Agreement is a dynamic process requiring countries to periodically ratchet up their pledges as far as their capacity permits.

The problem is that not all countries are willing to do that. Trump took the US out of the Agreement on the basis that it was “unfair” to it.

This is why Xi Jinping’s speech at the UN pledging to hit peak emissions before 2030 and zero carbon by 2060 is so significant. In real terms China is already the world’s biggest economy and shoulders a lot of offshored carbon emissions by manufacturing goods for wealthier countries.

It is the only G20 economy already recovering from coronavirus, while all the others are still mired in failing to deal with it.

It is the dominant trading partner of a growing slice of the world. Its state-directed investment in renewable energy and electric vehicles is world-leading and gives the opportunity for market-dominated societies to buy into energy transition on the basis of what’s cheapest.

So, if it decides to become an “ecological society,” that is a really big deal and will pull other countries in the right direction. It creates a trajectory and a momentum that we need to pile in behind and increase.

The point isn’t to “stop the fossil fuelled wheels of Chinese industry”– wheels which have taken 800 million people out of extreme poverty in two generations – but to power them with renewable energy.

It’s decisive that this is a unilateral commitment, not dependent on what other countries do. China has hitherto held back to some extent, considering that a lead should come from countries that are far wealthier and have a far higher legacy of greenhouse gas emissions. But the bike race start, with each country looking nervously at the others; not wanting to get too far ahead in doing the right thing in case it costs them, is over. They are breaking from the pack. The coming Five Year Plan will spell this out.

In so doing China can provide a viable model for other developing countries to improve living standards while reducing carbon intensity that the USA simply can’t.

US politicians like to say things like “The US way of life is not up for negotiation – period.” At the last COP in Katowice in Poland, Wells Griffith, Trump’s international energy and climate adviser put it like this: “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability“. As if environmental sustainability was simply an option that we can take or leave, or that economic prosperity and energy security could in any way be possible without it – even for the United States.

The US way of life as presently led – the routine air travel, the sprawling suburbs, profligate and inefficient use of fossil fuels, grotesque levels of military spending- would require five planets’ worth of resources to sustain it if generalised across the globe. That means that it can only be carried on at the expense of the rest of the world and cannot be a viable model of the future for anyone else.

And the longer it tries to carry on as it is, the more disastrous it will be for the people of the US itself. It can’t sustain itself as an environmental gated community. There’s not a lot of point building a wall to keep out climate refugees if the forests are burning behind it. You can’t stop a hurricane with a fence – or a nuclear bomb. The campaign for a Green New Deal is pushing the US to rethink, transform and revolutionise its society as deeply as the Black Lives Matter movement does.

Trump’s withdrawal from Paris, and attempt to animate an international bloc of climate change denial, incorporating Brazil’s President Bolsonaro and others, will put the world in more serious peril if the US electorate injects itself with bleach and re-elects him for four more years.

If elected, Biden would take the US back into Paris, though it would remain to be seen how far the US would revert to its previous role of making haste slowly on the necessary measures. However, it is clear that Trump’s Cold War offensive shares common ground with Biden – which will make the global co-operation we need more difficult.

The global co-operation we need is not a matter of each country trying to corner the green market to gain competitive advantage in a kind of environmentally sound economic social Darwinism of the sort floated by Elizabeth Warren in her version of the Green New Deal – which was all about the US reclaiming its rightful place as global leader.

Nor – over here – is it a matter of trade unions pledging its allegiance to “UK plc” so long as there’s enough of a local supply chain – on the basis that UK green jobs are more important than green jobs in Spain or Denmark or China. We need some trade union international organisation and mutual solidarity across borders not self-subordination under national flags. This is not easy, but the framework needs to be the maximum benefit for the minimum investment, a plan for green jobs everywhere – as there is no shortage of things that need doing – and an emphasis on wholesale free or cheap transfer of the required technology to the developing world.

This is a key issue for the labour and the environmental movement. Lisa Nandy has argued that solving global problems will require engagement with China. However, the framework for that engagement looks increasingly like a doubly subordinate Labour complicity with the Conservatives in lining the UK up as an auxiliary in US attempts to retain its weakening grip on global dominance by ramping up propaganda, trade and military confrontations with the Chinese in a way that will undermine the co-operation needed. If we intend to prioritise climate breakdown – which we must – we need to oppose the new Cold War.

5. “Extractivism” is a disorientating framework.

There is a view common among western NGOs that the problem with the world economy is “extractivism” – the process whereby raw materials are taken out of the ground and exploited. It draws on the basic truth that we have to keep 80% of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to avert disaster. This is linked to a de-growth perspective. It usually makes no distinction between states that are trying to control exploitation of their raw materials for the benefit of their population and those that simply sell them to multi-national capital.

In the last year Bolivia has provided a textbook illustration of why this approach is so disorienting.

The election of Luis Arce of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) as President of Bolivia last month has been widely celebrated. This is, however, one year on from a coup against his MAS predecessor Evo Morales, in which the US, its social media myrmidons and tame mainstream media (the Guardian notably among them) were able to stampede sections of the environment and labour movements into ambiguous or hostile positions supportive of a coup by the far right supported by the military.

Since taking office in 2006, Morales had presided over a rapid increase in popular living standards, health and education, based on nationalising Bolivia’s mineral reserves and using the proceeds to reinvest in the population, and written protection for “Mother Earth” into the Bolivian constitution. Life expectancy rose from 65 in 2006 to 71 last year.

During the coup – bamboozled by a barrage of articles denouncing Morales as a “murderer of nature” –– some environment groups in Europe picketed Bolivian Embassies, providing the coup with green cover. Morales was deposed and had to leave the country, police and soldiers opened fire on protestors, fascist thugs beat up MAS supporters and leaders, installing an unelected President who described indigenous rights as “satanic” and started dismantling Bolivia’s universal health care system, starting by sending Cuban Doctors home – which was to compound the impact of coronavirus. Over 8,000 died in a country with a total population not much bigger than that of Greater London.

Bolivia has the world’s largest reserves of Lithium. Morales’ aim was to develop this with investment from China and Germany, partly to supply the huge Chinese demand for electric batteries (out of 425,000 electric buses in the world 421,000 of them are in China), but also to manufacture both batteries and electric vehicles in Bolivia. This is rather different from simply selling the raw material to Tesla (whose shares rose after last year’s coup). Hopefully this can now get back on track.

“Extractivism” does not distinguish between the two, but that distinction is decisive.

Despite the electoral victory for Morales’ party last month, the far right have been demonstrating outside army bases calling on them to intervene and an army general has threatened to do so if the army is not “respected”. The US is biding its time. Don’t get fooled again- about Bolivia or anywhere else!

6. The current UK government is not capable of a serious lead on COVID or climate breakdown.

“I shall do such things! What they are, I know not…” Shakespeare, King Lear.

“The condition of the Empire is fatal, but not serious” joke from the last decades of the Austro- Hungarian Empire could have been written about Boris Johnson.

The UK will be chairing the COP in Glasgow next November. Caught in its Brexit Zugzwang, in which every move they make weakens its position, it will follow very closely whatever the US decides to do and cut its cloth according to whoever the President is.

The UK government has proved incapable of developing a Zero COVID strategy, and it has no adequate plans to match its supposed target of zero carbon by 2050. Despite adopting the slogan Build Back Better, its biggest proposed recovery investment is a spectacularly perverse £29 billion on extending the road network; and they propose to leave matters to the markets. There “comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it” (Boris Johnson at the 2020 Conservative party Conference). But the private sector is on state life support.

Labour, trade unions and the environment movement have to be absolutely clear that the state has to lead and invest – and the aim of that investment is not to hand juicy contracts to Serco or personal friends of the cabinet – but directly and urgently into energy systems, reforesting and rewilding, retro-fitting, repurposing and configuring towns and cities and the transport between and within them, overhauling the education system to inform, reskill and mobilise people to participate actively in this process at all levels.

There can be no “constructive opposition” or search for “national consensus” based on self-subordination to the flawed presumptions of a political party that is out of its depth and past its sell by date – as the Conservatives are.

The UK is chairing the Glasgow COP. But this government stands for business as usual leavened with a few token gestures and a thin coat of self-congratulatory greenwash. Our job in the next year is to make sure that that our voice is heard louder than theirs.

7. All roads lead to the COP.

From 2018 to 2019 – as climate breakdown became increasingly evident, in “natural disasters” and increasingly freakish weather – the school student strikes and XR rebellions electrified politics and helped push the climate breakdown onto the popular agenda. The last Parliament passed a resolution introduced by Jeremy Corbyn declaring a climate emergency, and local authorities all over the country have now done the same. These are now being embodied in Climate Action Plans at local level. However, even then, most Conservative MPs abstained on that resolution – showing that at national level they just don’t get it – and the impact of COVID on local authority budgets is squeezing any resources available to carry them out.

Mass civil disobedience underlined the emergency character of climate breakdown. Normality is not possible when things are not normal. Thousands of people were prepared to be arrested. Centres of cities were occupied and street theatre replaced cars. In a national political context of a split in the ruling class over Brexit, a Conservative government in crisis and the possibility of the most radical (and green) Labour government ever sparking panic in high places and a tsunami of malevolent lies to stave it off, there was a vaguely insurrectionary feel last year in which almost anything seemed possible.

But the theory that civil disobedience in itself it would be enough to “bring down the regime” – because if we had enough of it the disruption would be too expensive – looks a bit different in the context of COVID. The disruption and costs of this environmental backwash – just from this one pandemic – have been so enormous that they have dwarfed any disruptive effect of the demos we had. We should indeed be humble in the face of Nature.

Nevertheless, there is now a very large coalition of forces across society that recognises that we can’t leave it to the people who are failing us on COVID to manage climate breakdown or be our face to the world.

The instinct of the current Labour leadership is that policies are things you put in manifestos and try to implement in government on behalf of people but not necessarily with their involvement. That approach will let the Conservatives off the hook of their failures. And we don’t have time to wait for the next Labour government before we push for action from this one and employ a Gramscian strategy of using every lever of power and influence available to us to make the changes we can and to build an irresistible force to push the current government to move further than it wants to in the right direction.

We will need mass mobilisations in every form we can get – and every element of the labour movement, trade unions, local parties, local authorities, campaigning groups  needs to be part of it both at the COP and in the run up to it.

COPs are dominated by corporate interests. Fossil fuel companies are there lobbying hard and twisting arms. Trade unionists in the ITUC delegation pushing for a Just Transition do what they can, but delegations have tended to be small and underpowered. We need General Secretaries to be there – and not just from this country. We need mayors of towns and cities that have declared climate emergencies to be there – hopefully the whole C40. And we need a very loud and public groundswell of popular support for the most rapid moves to a Just Transition, so the corporate and government delegations are in no doubt that millions of us are watching them and we have them under siege.

Paul Atkin blogs at https://urbanramblings19687496.city/

Image: Extinction Rebellion. Banner “Rebel for life”. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8716204@N06/45009830075/ Author: Julia Hawkins, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.