In coastal areas in Bangladesh, children are starting to worry about climate change. Is the sea, on which bounties they have been raised, just waiting to claim their lives? “They’re always scared that there will be a cyclone and there will be a storm, and everything will be taken away from them. They’re still playing (as children do), but they always have anxiety at the back of their minds,” says prominent lawyer-activist Syeda Rizwana Hasan.
They are not alone. In a recent ten-country survey by Bath University, nearly 60% of young people said they are experiencing anxiety about climate change. 75% of them said the future is frightening.
The survey included Portugal, Finland, the UK, France, the USA, Australia, India, Brazil, Nigeria, and the Philippines.
In a BBC interview, survey report co-author Caroline Hickman says this “eco-anxiety is not just for environmental destruction alone, but inextricably linked to government inaction on climate change. The young feel abandoned and betrayed by governments.”
This ought to weigh heavily on the minds of world leaders meeting at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) happening in Glasgow, Scotland, in the next two weeks. Organized under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), COP26 brings together over 200 governments to hammer out an agreement that will decide the future of the planet — and of humanity.
Over the years, the UN climate summit has been assailed for failing to secure the necessary commitments to pull back the world from the brink of catastrophe.
The breakthrough Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, for example, was deemed unable “to provide actions that fulfil the 2 degrees Celsius pathway, let alone 1.5 degrees. The emissions gap between what countries in aggregate should do and what they pledged to do in their INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions) up to 2030 is very large. This has led many commentators to condemn the Paris COP21 as a failure,” according to an analysis by Meena Raman, of Friends of the Earth Malaysia.
The COP is open to observer groups, which includes the UN System and its Specialized Agencies, intergovernmental organizations, faith interventions, and non-governmental organizations (under which umbrella environmental groups and business and industry fall). It is this very mechanism through which governments are lobbied by corporations.
COP26 will be finalizing international emissions trading under Article 6 of the ‘Paris Rulebook’, which lays down the rules for enforcing the Paris Agreement. Carbon majors such as Shell are pushing for carbon markets in the rulebook “because this would buy them at least another decade of profit. However, it would mean game over for the climate,” according to a Friends of the Earth briefing note.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), which advises the UNFCCC, has also been accused of “erring on the side of least drama,” says a report. Pressured by governments and companies, the IPCC was charged with prescribing a conservative prognosis of the climate crisis that understated the urgency of climate action.
But the first installment of the sixth assessment report (AR6) by Working Group 1 of the IPCC, titled the Physical Science Basis, published recently is no longer mincing words: “Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach. For 1.5°C, there will be increasing heatwaves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.”
Thus, it has become much harder for corporations and rich countries to dodge responsibility for creating the climate crisis in the first place. According to a report by Oxfam, 5% of the richest people on this planet produced 37% of carbon emissions from 1990 to 2015, from the founding of the UNFCCC to the signing of the Paris Agreement.
But if there is one thing rich nations and big businesses are good at, it is the art of evasion.
They have resorted to peddling catchphrases and technological fixes in place of committing to cutting carbon emissions drastically. At this year’s COP, one such buzzword is ‘net zero’. Friends of the Earth believes net zero is nothing but a ruse; only by ending carbon dependence can a ‘real zero’ be achieved.
“Net zero is the idea that emissions can be balanced out with removals. This gives polluters a way to avoid having to talk about zero emissions, and instead talk about net emissions. Another benefit for polluters is that they can make conversations about ‘net’ sound green – greenwashed positive stories about how ‘nature based solutions’ are going to save the day,” says Doreen Stabinsky, professor of Global Environmental Politics at the Atlantic College.
Still another false solution being pushed at COP26 is the concept of nature based solutions (NBS), which big polluters have coopted from grassroots ecological and peasant movements. “Beneath the veneer NBS is firmly based in carbon and nature neocolonialism, discredited market mechanisms and corporate greenwashing. NBS instrumentalises nature as a so-called solution without defining who created the problem. It instrumentalises the lives and historical practices of Indigenous Peoples, peasants, artisanal fishers, and many other communities as offsets for corporate destruction while enabling a wave of new dispossessions,” according to the Friends of the Earth report, Nature Based Solutions: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.
COP26 in Glasgow will surely traffic in these and other terms, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. But civil society groups and the communities bearing the brunt of the climate crisis will not be fooled.
Even as vaccine apartheid has kept many campaigners and communities from attending COP26, Southern voices will not be silenced, not in the plenary rooms, nor in the streets outside the summit. For them, climate justice remains the only durable and moral framework to tackling climate change.
If the climate crisis was born of an environmentally damaging and unjust economic system, then the solution could only be system change. For Friends of the Earth, the world must make a clean break with fossil fuels while attending to the root causes of climate change as well as of COVID-19 and other ecological crises.
Some scientists have started to argue that because human activity has produced ‘stratigraphic signals’ that significantly transform the earth, we have entered an epoch called the Anthropocene (as distinct from the current Holocene period). These changes, according to a Royal Society article, include the lithostratigraphic signal, which has “both direct components, such as urban constructions and man-made deposits, and indirect ones, such as sediment flux changes;” and the biostratigraphic signal, which “includes geologically novel aspects (the scale of globally transferred species).” Climate change, originated by Western industrialization, has been characterized as anthropogenic (human-induced).
The climate crisis is just one in a network of interlinked crises that the world must navigate through, with more urgency. For even before climate change captured the world’s imagination, other forms of ecological destruction had been afoot.
Mining corporations decimated ecosystems and communities, logging concessionaires ate away at forest lands, and agribusiness venture agreements transformed land for food into monocrop plantations. In fact, Indigenous peoples, who are protecting the last of the earth’s ecological frontiers, continue to fend off these projects which many consider, tragically, as hallmarks and harbingers of development.
Mining companies have even seized the climate crisis narrative by overstating the role of metallic minerals in the shift to renewable energy. And solar farms and mega dams will encroach on Indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands, ravaging the remaining sliver of forests and network of watersheds that are sustaining life on earth. If we are not vigilant, renewable energy will end up merely maintaining the same oppressive and destructive forces at work today.
A social imaginary anchored in equitable, ecological, and rights-based approaches must wrest away from corporations and governments the sole power to create the map out of these multiple crises. Climate change has set a deadline, and time is running out.
A university student told Friends of the Earth Philippines that he agreed with Greta Thunberg’s indictment that world leaders’ inaction on climate change has robbed young people of their childhood.
If world leaders fail to act in Glasgow, they will have also robbed the youth of their future.
This blog was written by Maya Quirino on behalf of the School of Sustainability, a project that builds the capacity of young campaigners from member groups of Friends of the Earth in Asia and the Pacific. Friends of the Earth Philippines helps coordinate the School.