As Abraham Lincoln edged the US towards the abolition of slavery, he didn’t doubt who should claim credit. “Whoever can change public opinion,” he wrote, “can change the government.” William Wilberforce’s earlier success in Britain also came after activists had fermented the anti-slavery call for decades. As with other reform movements – universal suffrage, working conditions, racial equality, free healthcare and gay rights – political action trailed public demand, and largely fell short of it.
Before the Owen Paterson scandal erupted at the beginning of November, we were again being treated to the spectacle of politicians playing catch-up at COP26. Listening to Boris Johnson haranguing others to do more on climate change was incongruous for many. Until recently, Johnson regularly mocked the reality of man-made global heating; his conversion to the green cause is as every bit as Damascene as his change of heart on Brexit. The rhetoric at the conference from other leaders was also impressively on message. If only CO2 could be displaced by hot air, the climate crisis would be over already.
Even so, there was a greater sense of urgency at this COP, and more progress made. Funded pledges, such as those to end deforestation and slash methane emissions, reflected well on the UK as hosts. But the impression that politicians are setting the climate agenda is an illusion. Just as Wilberforce would never have persisted without the likes of Thomas Clarkson and Elizabeth Heyrick, nor women have achieved the vote without Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow suffragettes, world leaders wouldn’t be so engaged now if committed scientists, environmental activists and climate justice campaigners hadn’t been tirelessly agitating for over half a century.
And here’s the ugly truth: all that time we’ve known about the need to protect oceans, halt deforestation, preserve wildlife and decarbonise our economies. We’ve known what action is needed and public opinion has long been in favour of it. But the 25 previous COPs have achieved no discernible decline in emissions. In fact, almost half of all man-made emissions ever have been released since COP1 in 1995. This warped paradigm exists because the world’s major economies and their governments remain in the grip of powerful vested interests. Despite pledges to the contrary by individual governments and the G7 and the G20, upwards of US$500 billion each year goes into directly subsidising coal, oil and gas consumption, at least three times the comparable investment in renewables. Others put the true costs much higher. Taking into account environmental damage, the IMF estimates the real annual cost to be a staggering US$5.6 trillion: a figure to think about for those who say tackling climate chaos is too expensive.
Of course, to put a price on the destruction of the planet’s life-supporting systems, on the extinction of thousands of species and on the displacement of millions of the world’s least carbon-consuming peoples, is to apply the same faulty logic that got us into this mess. That COP26 did not result in a fully funded programme to keep warming below 1.5 °C, nor provide compensation for the most affected, makes it another case of political prevarication in the face of an overwhelming desire for action.
The UK staked a claim to leadership by enshrining “net zero” in law. But as the suffragettes’ motto had it, it’s “deeds not words” that matter. For Johnson to call for an end to coal, then say that the proposed mine in Cumbria “is a decision for the planning authorities”, is evidence of hypocrisy or impotence, or both. Ditto, the intended Cambo oil and gas development west of Shetland. If, as the prime minister declared, it is already “one minute to midnight”, then the quest for net zero needs to start now, not years into the future.
Consumers and communities have been at the forefront of climate action, here as elsewhere, often forcing changes in corporate behaviour even when governments have failed to intervene. At a time when we have an administration that has not so much lost its way as never had one sustained public pressure will be the only way to hold the government to its own stated policies. Exercising our right to speak out and to protest, and not allowing those rights to be diminished, has never been more important.
In spite of US/Chinese announcement at COP26, they and Russia continue to drag their heels. This and the fact that much green technology is yet to be fully developed or scaled up, has been used by some to make the case for inaction. Many of these are, as Simon Heffer writes, in the prime minister’s own party. This is heel-dragging by those who wish to maintain the status quo. While it is critical, as during lockdown, that ordinary people are not left to shoulder the burden of decarbonisation, delay is not an option. In the 1940s, the US dithered over joining the war. Despite a lack of resources and lagging technology, Britain held out while the Americans mustered their resolve. That same determination is required now, whatever the odds of success.