Such is Greta Thunberg’s stark assessment of the nature of speech at global environmental meetings including COP-26, the twenty-sixth time that global leaders have gathered since 1995 (delayed one year due to COVID), an occasion to assess national compliance with the Paris Accord amongst other matters, to negotiate terms, rules, expectations and compliance schedules to respond to the evolving global climate crisis.
Early media reports of the Glasgow summit reinforce her assessment. On the one hand we hear a carefully crafted spin-positive speech from Boris Johnson (UK) and a heartfelt confession from Canada’s Justin Trudeau (he is increasingly skilled in mea culpa’s these days). The latter’s Climate Change and Natural Resources ministers are trying to take a proactive tone especially around capping emissions which have the Canadian oil and gas sector biting their nails but not their tongues. No mention yet of a serious attempt at just transition, an essential ingredient; also no mention of the thorny but necessary decision to reduce fossil fuel subsidies and re-direct funds to support renewables. How long O Lord, the prophet cries!
Add to this that China and Russia won’t attend along with Brazil and Turkey. Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia might as well stay home and watch on TV or Twitter. The United States always enjoys a central role though the memory of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promise of USD 100Bn in 2009 at the Copenhagen COP with lots of strings attached is still seen as a way of ducking responsibility for deep systemic change in industrialized nations; the gesture has been alluded to by at least one commentator as the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot who delivered Jesus to his accusers.
On the positive side, many folks who have watched COPs (both good and bad COPs!) applaud the increasingly influential voice of what we once called civil society fast becoming a frustrated and understandably less civil society. Gathering under the banners of Fridays for a Future, Climate Strikes, Extinction Rebellion and any number of allied organizations and movements, youth are furious and frightened at inaction and literal ignorance–leaders who refuse to pay attention and act in a new and inclusive way–inclusive of the poor, the land, with indigenous voices and communities, all with a newfound respect for the global commons, oriented towards the future and to those who will inhabit it, no longer to repeat the errors of history.
There are those who have been around COPs for a long time, those who are part of professional activist movements, academic research centres, national advocacy groups, provincial and municipal administrations, progressive corporate strategists and other decision makers. The day before COP commenced the CBC Radio ONE program What On Earth featured an interview between host, Laura Lynch and Bangladeshi academic Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change at the Independent University of Bangladesh. A veteran of COP talks, he has attended all COP meetings since 1995. Justifiably concerned for his own country and all countries punished by the effects of climate change he puts the matter simply. He has lost faith in the leaders, the negotiators and their teams, the politicians. While money is important, while the specific amount is to a large extent irrelevant “it isn’t the money anymore, it’s about the credibility of the people that promise it” he says.
Well that’s one of those statements which has me pause for cause. It’s all about credibility or the lack thereof of those representing all of us. The credibility we identify with persons such as Greta Thunberg, Desmond Tutu, Angela Merkel, Malala Yusufzai, Stephen Lewis, Rowan Williams, David Attenborough, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jonathan Sacks, Dag Hammarskjöld . . . the list goes on, though less so at the COP, these seem to be in short supply. Possibly I am mistaken. I hope to be proved wrong these next few days.
There are literally thousands of youth-focused and populated advocacy groups descending on Glasgow as I write. Some are faith-based, some secular, some intensely political, some arriving with strong local connections coupled with global concerns. They are attracting attention though as with most advocacy, the question is who listens or sees as a result of their protest. Do negotiators look through windows at the conference centre in the blue zone (are there windows at all?)? Who pays attention to the BBC, CNN or Al-Jazeera? Social media connects those who choose their sometimes-siloed associations. I marched with approximately 10,000 people in Montreal in 2005–it was one of the better COPs–but really; what changed?
One such group, the Christian Climate Observers Programme (CCOP) included the following in today’s update:
Today there was a large crowd and people spent an extended time waiting to enter the venue. During that time, we could hear people outside the security barrier and saw people watching from the hotels on both sides of the crowd. One young girl took the opportunity to spend a long time at her hotel window trying to communicate with the crowd below, many of whom waved back.
Much of the focus during formal speakers later was on listening to young people and on how future generations will look back on this event if it does not represent a turning point. This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than by a young person who couldn’t talk with the crowd using a handwritten sign to convey as clearly as she could her desire for people to care.
As Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley put it “How many more voices and pictures of people do we need to see on these screens . . . or are we so blind and so hardened to humanity?”
That’s it, isn’t it! When hearts are hardened, love disappears; love, for creation, for the ancestors, for future generations, for each other. Psalm ninety-eight describes the plight of an ancient generation:
Today if ye will hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness. (Psalm 98)
As the ground in many places hardens due to drought, heat and loss of agricultural fecundity, may the hearts of those in Glasgow soften, so that a new world can emerge and find a welcome.