Corporate and government interests are delaying procedures and deflecting responsibility for the climate crisis as part of a “network of obstructionism” deployed to mire down the COP 26 negotiations, said experts on a panel this week hosted by the World Wildlife Federation in Glasgow.
Expectations that COP 26 would deliver real solutions were low to begin with. Shortly before the conference, wealthy countries had displayed a “breathtaking” lack of ambition when they failed to raise climate financing funds first promised in 2009. Such policy shortcomings should come as a shock, considering the devastating consequences predicted. But experts say the poor performance follows from a well-crafted strategy to undermine climate action.
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“It is blatantly obvious here at COP that we are seeing what I frame as a leadership crisis, and a complete disempowerment of so many people who are not here,” Jennie Stephens, director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, told the panel.
The panelists said corporate influence is so pervasive at summit talks that the initial draft of the COP 26 declaration entirely left out language mentioning fossil fuels, as have the decision documents for every past COP. Although the most recent draft as the panel met did name-check the industry, the panelists stressed that Big Fossil’s influence won’t dissipate with a few words in a preliminary draft.
“The framing of the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] has allowed us to not talk about fossil fuels for 25 COPs, and now fossil fuels is ‘in the draft’—it’s not going to stay, but nice try,” predicted Doreen Stabinsky, professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic. [Memo to delegates: C’mon, prove Stabinsky wrong! We know many of you want to!—Ed.]
The repeated failure of climate negotiations results from a strategy for delaying climate action that is built around efforts to redirect responsibility, push for incremental solutions, emphasize the downsides of climate policy, and cultivate a sense of climate fatalism, the panel said. By skillfully using these tactics to manipulate policy, corporate interests are drowning out public calls for effective action.
“It’s all part of a strategic effort to continue this patriarchal leadership that concentrates wealth and power,” said Stephens.
The panelists said part of this strategy involves controlling the climate narrative by excluding the countries and communities bearing the brunt of the crisis. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh, revealed that in the 12 hours before the panel, he and the Climate Vulnerable Forum were bumped from their scheduled slot for a news conference and replaced by the United States and China.
He said that kind of exclusion dampens international awareness of climate perspectives that don’t fit into the dominant discourse. Too often, as well, universities in vulnerable countries are neglected in academic partnerships, which further excludes their voice in climate policy, Huq said.
COP negotiations are therefore heavily influenced by the Global North and centre on emissions targets, while failing to consider the immediate suffering of other countries. But climate change has already arrived in the Global South, he said, and people in people like Bangladesh are suffering the impacts.
“All this talk about emission reduction, it’s just blah, blah, blah. Because the impacts are happening right now as we speak,” Huq said.
The network of obstructionism also deflects climate responsibility by channeling blame towards the general public. Peter Newell, professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, said the whole idea of carbon footprints was initiated by colossal fossil British Petroleum (BP).
“[BP] asked [the public], ‘what are you doing about climate change?’ and no one asked back to them, ‘well, what are you doing about climate change?’” Newell said. He stressed the need to push back on singularly focusing on what individuals and households are doing, without also acting toward a broader change in systems and policy.
Ruth McKie, senior lecturer at De Montfort University in Leicester, U.K., said a rising focus on nature-based solutions shifts the burden onto natural systems to support solutions strictly “for humans.” Emphasizing these methods of reducing greenhouse gases, without also cutting back emissions, is part of a larger drive for “fossil fuel solutionism” being promoted by OPEC countries that leans on carbon capture technologies to solve the climate crisis, she warned.
In fact, net-zero targets are also a strategy to redirect responsibility and often obscure wealthy countries’ continued production of emissions. When that happens, they add to the inequity of climate impacts by putting the onus for climate solutions on forests in other countries. Often, people living in these countries are not asked for feedback, Newell said.
Obstructionism has undermined climate action at past COP conferences, and continues to influence policy outcomes today, the panelists said.
“I encourage us all to be thinking about the depth of cultural, political, and economic influence of this decades-long strategic investment by the polluter elite, fossil fuel industry, and other corporate entities,” said Stephens. Those interests “are not only investing in denying climate science and confusing us about the severity, but also very strategically investing in a mistrust of government—which disempowers us and our democracies, and also disempowers and minimizes workers’ rights.”
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