Only six days into COP26, activists gathered in the streets of Glasgow declared the climate conference a failure. Anyone following the process of international climate diplomacy ongoing since 1992 could have declared the conference a failure before it even began.
These annual conferences bring together the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The COPs are, on the one hand, the site of grand declarations by politicians seeking to appear to be “on the right side of history,” and on the other, the site of endless discussions about terminology and comma placement in the final declaration.
Crucially, nothing in this international process can compel the assembled states to take effective action to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Participation in the agreements depends on nothing more than the goodwill of the governments in place.
This fact was demonstrated by Stephen Harper signing Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, followed by Donald Trump doing the same by withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017. What’s more, the Paris Agreement, touted as a resounding success, simply commits signatory states to submit voluntary reduction targets and update them periodically, nothing more.
The COP26 final document, the Glasgow Pact, is in the same line of declarations that commit to nothing. At most, as analysts have noted, Article 36 calls on parties to reduce the carbon intensity of coal-fired power generation, presumably through carbon capture and storage, and to eliminate subsidies for so-called “inefficient” oil and gas projects. The preamble also notes “the importance for some [people] of the concept of ‘climate justice’ when taking action to address climate change,” indicating that some negotiators at least made an effort to insert the words “climate justice” into the text.
So why, if every year nothing changes, does the world pay so much attention to the COPs?
To answer this question, we need to understand the terms of the current debate. Since the beginning of international negotiations in 1992, discussions have been framed as two opposing camps: one that denies the climate crisis and the other that considers the work of climate scientists and therefore works to avoid catastrophe. This framing was very relevant at the time, when many companies from different sectors and political leaders were on the side of denial, and the public had to be convinced of the reality of the problem.
Today, however, direct denial of global warming is no longer a serious position. It is a fringe position, much overrepresented in the media. Aside from the extremists in the American Republican Party and their allies, just about everyone else is talking now about transition, as we saw at COP 26. But not all transitions are created equal, and that is where the debate is.
First let’s move past the position of the Canadian oil companies and the Alberta government, all hammering away at the idea that yes, we need a transition, but we will still need oil for a long time to come, and therefore in the meantime it would be better to invest in “clean” and “ethical” oil.
Beyond this thinly veiled denial, there are two positions. One camp believes that the current economic model can be made sustainable, or at least that we won’t see a major transformation anytime soon, and therefore proposes a range of technological strategies to reduce emissions. They argue that electrification of the vehicle fleet, combined with solar, wind and nuclear power generation, will enable the transition to a low-carbon economy essentially similar to today’s but for its energy supply. A price on carbon and targeted government subsidies would drive this transition.
The other camp believes there can be no solution to global warming or the environmental crisis in an economic system based on infinite growth. This side is therefore committed to building alternative modes of living that emphasize sharing, care, Indigenous sovereignty and democratic decision-making to ensure a reasonable standard of living for all.
The framing of the climate crisis as a confrontation between denial on the one hand and acceptance of scientific conclusions on the other opens the door wide for corporations of all kinds, including the oil companies, to take the lead. Thus, they admit the existence of the climate crisis and propose as a solution a transition that is not a transition, but that simply serves to displace the problem: they advocate electric cars, hydrogen or “renewable” natural gas trucks and nuclear power plants that reduce emissions, feed the good conscience and maintain profits here, while transferring the impacts elsewhere.
If we move past the denial vs science framing, we can see that the COPs are gatherings that aim to manage the climate crisis so as to maintain profit rates and the hold of big business on the world: elites discussing the modalities of the transition-that-doesn’t-change-anything. Those seeking to keep this system going may thus find it worthwhile to follow the positioning of the great powers and their discussions about the position of commas and the epithets attached to one word or another.
JP Sapinski is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Moncton. His current projects focus on the obstructionism of the fossil fuel industry in the face of the climate crisis, climate geoengineering, and territorial movements for a local ecological transition. He is a co-investigator with the Corporate Mapping Project.