COP 27: The road to climate catastrophe

By RICHARD CAPRON

While the Conference of the Parties may sound like a rowdy college campus weekend, in reality it is a very serious meeting of representatives from all around the world, held annually since 1992. It is better known by its acronym COP, and this year was the 27th meeting, convened under the auspices of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and the host country (Egypt).

Previous COP meetings of special note have taken place in Kyoto (1992), Paris (2015), and Glasgow (2021). These conferences have produced resolutions intended to reduce carbon emissions, which are largely responsible for the rapidly accelerating rise in global warming. Climate scientists have targeted the necessity of limiting the rise in global temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees C higher than pre-industrial levels, in order to avert future climate disaster. In spite of ongoing protocols established by previous COP gatherings, little has been accomplished in reaching targeted goals.

Hope ran high in the lead up to COP 27, based on the growing recognition of the adverse effects of climate change disproportionately felt by nations whose history includes significant chapters of colonial domination and exploitation. Catastrophic flooding in Pakistan this past summer highlights the severity of this crisis. According to reporting by CNN, satellite images showed that more than one-third of Pakistan was under water, due to record monsoon rains. This resulted in massive displacement of the population and millions of acres of crops wiped out, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of livestock. Additional collateral effects include a dramatic rise in infectious diseases due to compromised sanitation and lack of potable water, destruction of infrastructure necessary for supplying basic human services, and access to urgent medical care.

In short, the picture is incredibly bleak for this nation formerly under British rule. Moreover, CNN further cites European Union data indicating that Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of the world’s planet-warming gases. Yet, according to the Global Climate Risk Index, it is the eighth most vulnerable nation to the climate crisis. This is but one example of the disparity between a region suffering the worst effects of climate change—a problem for which it is only minimally responsible—and the industrialized nations of China, Europe, and the United States, which are primarily responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. A similar scenario could be framed for many countries in Africa, South Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. Drought, sea level rise, intense weather events, and glacial melt portend a disastrous future for the lands in our global community that can least absorb their impact.

Such was the background against which the Conference of the Parties gathered In Sharm El Sheik, a resort town on the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. All told, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 people who assembled in this remote venue overlooking the Red Sea. Holding COP 27 under the auspices of an authoritarian regime provided a measure of “security,” but ensured that only certain parties would have access to the discussions and deliberations of the conference. At past COP events, there were frequent demonstrations from climate activists trying to influence the delegates. Not so this time. Police and military personnel established tight control with passport checks, roadblocks, and ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

According to reports by Alix Dietzel, senior lecturer in climate justice at the University of Bristol, the UNFCCC strictly regulates who can attend negotiations. Parties (country negotiation teams), the media and observers (NGOs, IGOs, and UN special agencies) must all be pre-approved. Many of the official negotiating teams included in their number representatives of the oil and gas lobby. As many as 636 attendees were lobbyists of the fossil-fuel industry, making sure that their interests would influence any outcome. ARAMCO, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, and other fossil-fuel entities were prepared to defend themselves against any attempts to curtail their profits.

The Paris Agreement (COP 21) had committed countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050—a goal that was entirely inadequate to meet the growing climate emergency. Countries were to submit plans to achieve this goal every five years, although the agreement left out specifying the means by which this was to be done, allowing great wiggle room for the protection of corporate interests. Moreover, the national goals were purely voluntary, and there was no method of enforcement. (Achieving those objectives was set back even further the following year, when President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement.)

Despite its severe limitations, it was an agreement that promised small progress in the effort to curtail or mitigate the causes of climate change. It should come as no surprise that the fossil-fuel lobby would make a concerted effort at COP-27 to stop any drift toward eliminating extractive sources of energy.

For two weeks, the conferees heard speeches by heads of state and representatives of the nearly 200 countries in attendance. President Joe Biden spoke to the conference about what the United States was planning to do to address the crisis, emphasizing funding adaptation measures for meeting the needs of the most severely affected by climate events. He also spoke about developing alternative energy sources and enlarging the demographics of climate leadership to include women, Indigenous peoples, and youth. However, the funding he proposed falls embarrassingly short of the needs.

Committing $100 million to the Adaptation Fund is a mere gesture toward remediating the harm done by the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The flooding in Pakistan alone will cost tens of billions, maybe more, in recovery. The President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE) is committing $150 million for climate loss and damage across Africa, with $20 million for work in Small Island Developing States. Such proposals are woefully inadequate when measured against the magnitude of the calamities wrought on the poorest nations.

After the many speeches appealing to the Conference from the least developed and least industrialized countries, the tension between strategies of adaptation and mitigation became evident. Adaptation is focused on addressing “loss and damage” generated by the effects of decades of the prior accumulation of greenhouse gases. Mitigation, on the other hand, considers and takes action toward eliminating the root causes of climate change.

As the Conference was nearing its conclusion, delegates were facing a deadline with no clear recommendations giving evidence of their concerns and plans for the future. In a late-night session, they cobbled together a package that addressed the loss and damage side of the issue with the establishment of a fund from which relief could be given to those countries far less responsible and most severely damaged by the worst climate events. The details of this fund would be worked out, supposedly, over the next year.

That agreement can be reached on how to “fund the fund” is highly unlikely, however, given the economics that calculate risk on investment, and require interest that cannot be paid by the poorest nations. Without getting into the complex requirements in paying for loss and damage, the short version of the problem is that the current global economic system (capitalism) runs contrary to what is needed. The relentless push for profits that benefit the few does not square with the wellbeing of the many—or the Earth.

The framework that is proposed depends on the voluntary largesse of wealthy nations to come to the rescue of the poorest. Reflecting on the improbability of such generosity from the U.S., Bill McKibben (long-time climate activist) says, “Congress won’t spend tax dollars on the descendants of enslaved Africans; they’re even more unlikely to do it for the survivors of the climate crisis in Africa or Asia.”

So, what are we to conclude about the outcome of COP 27? It would seem that any effort to deal with climate mitigation was dead on arrival, given the overwhelming presence of fossil fuel lobbyists and the outsized delegations from oil and gas producing nations. The goal of a transformative reduction in carbon emissions, to which the Paris Agreement and the Glasgow conference gave toothless shows of support, was barely addressed in Egypt. And it appears that the adaptation measures that were proposed had the character of a consolation prize to quiet the less industrialized nations of the world. Thus, far from achieving progress by any meaningful measure, COP 27 simply kicked the can down the road, while planet Earth continues on the road to catastrophe.

It would be easy to allow ourselves to get swallowed in the gloom and doom of this impending outcome. Socialists, however, embrace an active alternative. We fight back against the powers arrayed against the working class, the poor, and the Earth itself. The movement is growing in opposition to Big Oil and Coal, and the banks and governmental authorities that serve them while fostering climate change and environmental degradation. It includes and is often led by Indigenous people and many others from the frontline communities who are in the direct path of pipelines, forest clearance, and industrial pollution. This movement must organize worldwide to encompass the great mass of humanity, and seize the power to alter the future.

Photo: Thousands of protesters join the Walk for Your Future climate march ahead of COP27 in Brussels, Belgium, on Oct. 23, 2022. (Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock)

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