The COP Delusion: Decades of empty words and no action

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‘Business as usual’ overrides action to protect humanity’s future

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In an opinion article published in Climate & Capitalism on January 26, Alan Thornett accused critics of the United Nations’ COP28 meetings in Dubai of “leftist posturing.” The left must, he wrote, “recognize the positive role that the UN has played in global warming over the last 35 years.”

“Only governmental action — and action taken by governments prepared to go on a war footing — can make the changes necessary to stop climate change in the limited time we have left, and only the UN COP process has a chance of achieving it.”

The following article was not written as a reply to Thornett, but it could well have been. It was posted as a thread on X (formerly Twitter) on February 7, by Stephen Barlow (@SteB777), who describes himself as a “naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist and nature photographer.” I was not familiar with his views before this, but his critique of the COP-focused approach to stopping climate change is powerful, and to me convincing.

Climate & Capitalism welcomes further debate and discussion on this subject.

—Ian Angus


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 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.

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  • yes, we must move beyond research and even goo writing — though writing and culture are important tools not only for accumulated knowledge, but for shaping cultural perspectives. But how de we transform this into a mass movement that overcomes ecocidal capitalism?

    Matriotism: An Evolutionary Catalyst for a Living Future

  • Yes indeed. Well written.  But of course prior to 1972, clear warnings were publicised even earlier by Rachael Carson in the 1940’s (Under the Sea Wind) and 1960’s in (Silent Spring).  So by now it should be abundantly clear that  climate change, ecological destruction, wholesale pollution to land sea and air, cannot be ended by societies controlled and led by elites (COP and non COP)  whose life style choice is continually obtain wealth and power, by repeatedly accumulating and investing capital for global  production and consumption. 

    I was surprised that it was not obvious by now to Alan Thornet, in his previous article, that production under the capitalist mode requires three continuous phases of energy and material consumption. First the consumption of raw materials and energy needed to produce things; Second the energy and materials needed to transport and consume the things produced (often in greater volumes than the first); Third, the energy and materials needed to consume (or store) the waste and the eventually worn out or redundant products. All this energy and material must be profitably extracted (ie as cheaply as possible)  – by investment  enterprises – from the only available source – the natural organic and inorganic material of the planet!

    Apart from hope or magic, how can all this frenetic, widespread,  profit-driven production and consumption be possibly done now and in the future, without consequent continuation of adverse effects on all forms of life on earth, from climate, atmosphere, water quality, plant cover, algae, soil microorganisms, insects, birds, animals and humans?    

    I would merely add that more scientists should also therefore follow the socio-economic logic and  recognise that the entire hierarchical mass society economic system needs changing, from production based on private profit, to production based on ecologically balanced need – so that this concept too does not appear to be merely the advocacy of those of us who are currently dismissed as (or written off as) eco-loons.


    Roy (www.critical-mass.net)

    • That’s a really helpful insight, Roy, those three phases of energy and material consumption. Factor in the ever-expanding mass of these products and waste – and required raw materials – and nobody in their right mind would believe such a system could ever be sustainable.