Governments Failed at COP26. But the Demand for Climate Justice is Stronger than Ever.

A quarter century of polluter-powered pavilions are not the whole story.

As the final gavel of COP26 loomed large on Saturday, it seemed as though each glimmer of hope for a bolder text winked out one by one. No funding for loss and damage. No rejection of carbon markets. Nothing binding, just “urges” and “requests.”

Climate activists march in Sheffield, UK during the COP26 conference in Glasgow. Photo by Tim Dennell.

The first week was full of flashy pledges, from the private finance fiesta of Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) to the endless trumpeting of “net zero” pledges, which rely on dubious technology like carbon capture and don’t lead to any real or urgent emissions cuts. Government delegates dined and whined, hedging endlessly about how difficult it is to do anything but uphold the status quo.

The closing statement by Demand Climate Justice, an international network of civil society organizations, put it this way:

“For days we were force-fed long pronouncements, speeches, and declarations from so-called world leaders in government and business, who descended in their private jets and broke the rules the rest of us were expected to comply with to tell us to applaud them. But being honest we must say these statements are delusions — a distraction from the truth, and a dangerous one at that. For the richest countries, the relationship between affirmation and action doesn’t exist. The ugly reality is that developed countries are all in favor of climate action — as long as they don’t have to do much of the work themselves.”

Meanwhile: people on the front lines of the climate crisis have had, outlined, and offered solutions to this crisis. Indigenous people continue to protect the vast majority of the earth’s biodiversity. There’s even a place in the Paris Agreement that could be used to detail a concrete way forward for implementing real solutions. The climate justice movement even produced an alternate decision text for COP26.

All of this took place, of course, at what many have called “the least accessible” COP ever.

But the climate justice movement did not come to COP26 expecting, suddenly, that the beast of racist fossil fuel-powered capitalism would suddenly roll over and die. Corporate Accountability’s Latin America climate lead, Nathalie Rengifo Alvarez, explained it like this: The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which convenes the annual COPs, threw open its doors to corporate interference long ago. As Alvarez explains in this Gizmodo article: In the 1990s, “big business was invited to fill a funding void that should be filled by states/parties to the negotiations; now, it’s standard for corporations to bankroll the climate talks.”

Until this year, no policy document coming out of the COPs has even mentioned the role of fossil fuels, an unquestionable culprit of the climate crisis. The oil and gas industry — plus other polluters like coal, mining, agriculture, tech, and more — have long sponsored the talks. In 2018, a Shell executive boasted about writing a part of the Paris Agreement. Which part? Funny you should ask — the part about carbon markets, a centerpiece of this year’s negotiations and so-called “success.”

So: the credibility of what we can call the “institution” of COP is shaky at best. As Aderonke Ige, associate director of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), said: “Without the people’s voices and real solutions, COP is just an elite marketplace for environmental criminals.” Fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered any country delegation at this year’s conference — and before the talks, laid a strong foundation to influence key COP26 policies and outcomes.

Which brings us back to the question about what to say about COP26 when governments failed to deliver on “keeping 1.5 alive,” and didn’t even follow through on the COP presidency’s own stated intention to address “coal, cash, cars, trees.” Last week, someone asked, half-jokingly, who was “winning” COP26. The fossil fuel industry is — and the same Global North governments (namely, the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and Australia) that have blocked, weakened, and delayed climate policy since before COP1.

But COP26 and its 25 predecessors cannot be the lone metric for progress on climate. A quarter century of polluter-powered pavilions are not the whole story — the climate justice movement has grown bigger and bolder than ever before.

In the months before COP26, amidst global vaccine apartheid and inequitable barriers to participation, the climate justice movement organized to demand a postponement of the conference. This did not lead to outcomes that addressed these systemic injustices, but did yield greater (although still insufficient) support for COP attendees from the Global South. Seven hundred groups signed onto a global call for real solutions, slamming the dangerous distraction of “net zero” pledges and calling for real solutions. Loss and damage, once an obscure concept for those not in the weeds on climate policy, has entered the public lexicon. Island nations have begun to pursue means for making big polluters pay up for climate damages.

As COP’s end approached, climate justice activists circulated a powerful video demanding progress and reminding governments that if they failed to deliver real action, liability for climate harm awaits. Their message, while delivered during COP26, is one of a long game — the people will not simply accept the continued failure of decision makers. As the stakes grow increasingly high, so too will the climate justice movement continue to escalate its organizing. Alvarez summed it up this way:

“Our future is disappearing in front of our eyes. We know who’s responsible, but who will make them pay? Corporations and polluting governments got us into this crisis, but they won’t get us out. Only the people will save us. Polluters should be afraid — the UNFCCC may have failed us, but we still have the courts and the streets, and we are millions.”

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