We can't afford COP—it's time for politics to pay up
Not with a bang, but with a circus
Last week I interviewed Laurie Laybourn about crisis policies — what we need from COP27, and how fiscal ideologies are hobbling our response to the climate crisis.
During the episode, we discussed the fallacy of leaders gathering at international conferences, which demand collaboration and cooperation, without acknowledging the geopolitical tensions which dominate our news, international policy, and our own domestic responses to the environmental, economic and energy crises.
The world’s two superpowers, China and the United States, are grappling for control over the world’s minerals and energy supplies, respectively. There seems to be a momentum towards conflict, only exacerbated by the shocks and impact of the climate crisis, which is a direct result of international failure to collaborate.
How could two nations in an ideological, economic, political, geopolitical, technological struggle could ever possibly cooperate in order to take the actions to stop a global crisis? Or perhaps that very fallacy reveals the intent of their policy-making: to pretend a crisis will respect national borders and protect their own.
Laurie labels this strategy “eco-nativism” and, arguably, most policies suggested at COP are eco-nativist; certainly the negotiations in the plenary and counter-proposals are eco-nativist. Take the example of Loss and Damage, a climate finance facility which would enable the nations who are historically responsible for the emissions and pollution which have caused the climate crisis to give public money to developing nations who are feeling the impacts of the crisis first. Proponents argue that, because wealthy nations bear responsibility for the crisis, they should pay up when the crisis causes loss or damage in the Global South. But the Global North have historically obstructed these negotiations at COP.
Loss and Damage is on the negotiating agenda for the first time at COP27 but civil society groups warn that the United States is likely to counter-propose debt-based financing and private loans to nations already entrapped in debt bondage. Pakistan saw 33 million people affected by floods earlier in the year, with costs estimated at $10 billion. These nations typically do not have spare cash for development, let alone to respond to preventable emergencies. Yet, despite being first mentioned in 1991, only three developed nations have committed to Loss and Damage payments—each of them led by a woman.
Loss and Damage is part of a wider climate finance strategy which demands wealthy nations invest in the nations they have typically and historically exploited in order to help the whole world transition towards a renewable, fairer future. That world needs to be global. Yet Global North countries choose to throw money at markets and electrifying vehicles over sending necessary aid packages which would also tackle the corruption and inequalities which facilitate the crises we are seeing all over the world, be they ecological, economical or energy.
Do these leaders really believe they can fortify their borders while the rest of the world burns?
What Fiscal Hole?
During the episode, Laurie explains that the climate crisis cannot be solved without reimagining the fiscal rules which impede governments’ willingness to invest in solutions. Additionally, we cannot free up the requisite public money in developing nations without removing the shackles of the debt crisis. We simply must invest in education, healthcare, food security, environmental protection and cleaner energy all around the world. All of these investments will directly drop emissions, but are impossible to achieve without many countries defaulting on existing debts to neo-imperial powers.
The more we invest in a sustainable world, the more likely we are to see a sustainable world.
The current model of industrialised extractive capitalism is driving the conditions which create the climate crisis. We cannot solve for the crisis without solving its root cause. It is a symptom of inequality, mismanagement and ruthless exploitation. It is not something happening to us, we are producing the crisis. Only by investing in alternatives will a different future be realised. Refusal to invest will only worsen these conditions and render a preventable crisis worse, thus increasingly hobbling our capacity to respond.
Taking responsibility and paying up—and I mean really paying up, not utilising the bullshit offsetting schemes which the UN this week dismissed as greenwashing at COP27—automatically reduces harm even in a capitalist system because it de-incentivises the continuation of the status quo. Alongside being an admission of wrong, it would acknowledge our current economic and energy models are incompatible with a sustainable future.
The powers that be are desperate to fight against such rhetoric. Just this week, Boris Johnson ran around at COP27 saying the United Kingdom can’t afford climate reparations. The following day, The Telegraph ran an absurd column equating climate change to the weather and saying developing nations owe the West for the development thrust upon them.
This begs the question: What can we afford? These political leaders seem to think we can afford ripping minerals and materials out of the earth for technology we treat as disposable, for private jets which jettison the elite around to reject humane proposals at conferences. They seem to think we can afford bonuses for bankers and yet not free school meals for children in poverty. Apparently, we can afford huge government contracts for medical equipment during a pandemic, and yet chronically underfund our healthcare system.
National Failure on a Global Scale
The climate crisis affects everyone, from indigenous communities protesting deforestation in Sarawak to celebrities being fined for their water consumption in California. Eco-nativism, by its very ideology, cannot solve for the climate crisis. Strangled by their own limitations, governments hand over to international markets to do what they think they cannot—solve global problems. Hence, privatisation and marketisation are the international only solutions touted, because only the people living inside one’s own borders are citizens; the rest of the world are consumers, there only to provide for one’s own.
Simultaneously, the world is becoming increasingly unstable as the scramble for minerals and energy becomes glaringly obvious. The very politics which render the crisis are seen as the only in-house solution. This feedback loop threatens planet earth with the sixth mass extinction. Has it locked us in already?
Laurie mentions that moments of crisis are moments of change. But this crisis is amorphous, the only enemy is ourselves in the West. We would have to change; it is far easier to project one’s own enmity, own horror, own rot, across the world onto something else.
Perhaps this is another reason why we’re also seeing geopolitical tensions between culturally diverse or culturally different nations—if we cannot face that within ourselves which is driving the crisis then we will point fingers and increase the divisions which demarcate borders. At a time when international collaboration is our only choice, we are in danger of locking ourselves into a course of action which cannot be undone.
It’s ridiculous for politicians to attend COP and expound collaboration when their politics is domineering, war-mongering, exploitative or secretive. It undermines the entire circus; it reveals the clowns.
COP cannot succeed because it is a performance which denies the reality of the world we live in. For the world to navigate the crisis, politics must face it—and itself.