The COP Delusion: Decades of empty words and no action

Opening ceremony of the World Leaders Summit at COP28
DECEMBER 1: World Heads of States walk down Al Wasl avenue after their group photo during the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 1, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by COP28 / Neville Hopwood)

This article was originally published in Climate & Capitalism. We are republishing it to help spark debate on the strategy for the climate movement and how the COP process fits into it. We invite our readers and members to contribute to this and other debates.


by Stephen Barlow

To even think about the climate and ecological crisis, let alone address it, we need to completely rethink our whole approach, and wipe the slate clean.

This is because for the last 50 or so years we assumed our governments would respond rationally.

We have had the 1972 UN Environment conference, and its action plan. We had the Brundtland Commission Report, Our Common Future (1987) and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, largely based on this.

On each occasion our leadership appeared to largely agree with the summary, and agreed to take action. But then none of that promised action, ever took place. Yes, we see a lot of hollow words at the COP talks, but it’s all been meaningless.

It’s been meaningless, because our governments never did anything to actually change direction, and the identified adverse trends, just got worse and worse. They only said they’d act, to make it look like they were acting.

I can sum up the problem very simply. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the UNFCCC was signed, which set up the COP talks. The aim was to phase out the burning of fossil fuels. But we’ve burned more fossil fuels since 1992, than prior to 1992.

Self-evidently, this was not the expected outcome. I can tell you with 100% certainty, that the situation now, was never envisaged in 1992. I know this, because I warned this would likely happen, and no one took any notice of me. All said I was wrong.

The basic underlying problem, was that [we assumed] governments and politicians respond rationally to evidence of a serious danger and address it. I mean, we’ve all seen the disaster movies, about how governments prepare and come together to address crisis.

Except, the difficulty, is that there is no historical precedent for governments actually acting like this, to protect humanity. It’s a cultural myth, a fallacy, about what governments actually are, and how they react.

Governments aren’t there to protect the public, as they falsely claim. Governments are just there to facilitate the business as usual (BaU) model developed after the industrial revolution. To protect the interests of the powerful benefiting from this. Nothing more.

The only time governments appear to act in the interests of their people, is if there’s a potential invasion of their country, or a major immediate crisis like a pandemic, financial crash. Yet the main motivation is to protect BaU, not to protect the people.

A country’s people are essential for maintaining BaU, and governments only seem to be trying to protect the people, because that’s necessary to maintain BaU, not because people matter.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the ongoing UK COVID Inquiry, where you see the whole focus was on protecting the economy, and the then PM was quite willing to sacrifice the lives of older people, to that aim.

The allies, only eventually cooperated in WW2, because Nazi Germany, and Japan, were an existential threat to their economies and countries, not to protect the public. But they needed the public on board, so it looked like they were protecting the public.

The climate and ecological crisis is more than enough proof of what they say, and governments have never even nearly cooperated to address the crisis. They just do the bare minimum, to give the impression of it, because their people are concerned about it.

Therefore, the first assumption which needs to be scratched, is the mistaken assumption that if you give governments enough scientific evidence, that they’ll act appropriately. Self-evidently they don’t.

Scientists have largely wasted their time for the last 30 years, giving sincere advice and evidence to governments, not the slightest bit interested in phasing out fossil fuels, or stopping biodiversity loss.

I must make it very clear, that I’m not saying the scientific work of the scientists was wasted, just the giving it to governments, and mistakenly thinking they’d act appropriately.

A massive amount of energy has been wasted on trying to convince politicians, who didn’t want to be convinced. The present economic model, is wholly predicated on the burning of fossil fuels, and the unsustainable use of natural resources.

They’re not going to be persuaded to stop what they’re doing, by inconvenient evidence. Of course they’re going to say they’re going to act, because opinion polls show the majority are worried about climate change.

The first rules of effective problem solving is acknowledging the problem exists, then understanding the problems, and potential obstacles to solving, so you don’t waste energy on ineffective solutions.

Essentially governments are there, to facilitate an economic model predicated on fossil fuel extraction and burning, and the unlimited extraction of natural resources. They’re not interested in stopping it, and instead, protecting the public. That’s not what governments are.

I’m not saying just give up. I’m saying realizing it’s a fools errand trying to persuade governments to do the right thing. We’ve got 30-50 years of empirical evidence to tell us this is a thorough waste of time.

Therefore, we need to do 2 things.

Firstly, persuade the public, that governments are not acting in their interests.

Secondly, instead of just trying to persuade governments to do the right thing, we have to force them to do the right thing.

The approach above can only work, once people accept what the problem/situation is. The difficulty is that most are stuck in the mindset of still trying to persuade politicians and governments to act, when they have no intention of acting.

People will not try to force their governments into action, whilst they still mistakenly believe their government is acting in their interest, and we just need to be a bit more persuasive, and argue the case better.

If people simply accepted, or a large consensus did, that governments and politicians are not acting in their interests. This alone would be a massive impetus for governments and politicians, to change how they act. They know, they rely on the people.

But as long as people believe that governments, politicians, Elon Musk and Bill Gates etc, are acting in their best interests, these rulers, won’t be motivated to change direction. They think people are gullible because they believe their lies.

The rulers would be mighty worried, if they thought people saw through them. In fact, this attempt to usher in authoritarian fascism, seems to be them being driven by this fear. As long as people are falling for the authoritarian schtick, they’d try playing this game.

It’s difficult to persuade everyone to see things like that. However, it is about time scientists and other influential people, started telling the public, spelling it out to them, that our leadership is putting us in grave danger.

@KevinClimate [Kevin Anderson] has often spoken about how so called climate professionals, don’t want to rock the boat, presumably advance their careers. Certainly, @ClimateHuman [Peter Kalmus] is well aware of this problem.

Although this is about persuading the public of the serious danger we are in, it’s no good just activists telling the public this, because scientists need to speak out, journalists also, and all those with influential platforms.

It’s all about the dynamics of influence. It’s very easy for governments, politicians and the oligarch media, to “other” activists, and say don’t take any notice of them, they’re just eco-loons. But if scientists, and other people the public trust, spoke out en masse. …

You see, at the moment, the public is misled. They think the situation can’t be that serious, or all those scientists and other influential people in the know, would be shouting it from the rooftops. But they’re not.

This appears to confirm the false message that only the “eco-loon” activists see it as a big danger, because the scientists who know, aren’t sounding the alarm. Giving the impression, the danger is exaggerated. This appears to confirm the false message that only the “eco-loon” activists see it as a big danger, because the scientists who know, aren’t sounding the alarm. Giving the impression, the danger is exaggerated.

There’s much else that needs to be re-evaluated, in our regrouping. But I’ve already gone on too long in this thread. So I will save it for another day.

This article was originally a thread on X (formerly Twitter) posted by Stephen Barlow (@SteB777).

DisclaimerOpinions expressed in articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Global Ecosocialist Network

Our Principles >>>

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.