The international community has been gearing up for the COP26 in Glasgow for months. It has been all that we have been able to talk about and rightly so. With the climate emergency continuing to present a mortal challenge to humanity, the international gathering taking place in Scotland will likely be one of the last opportunities for the world to take a final, decisive, and meaningful stand against the relentless forward march of global warming and climate change.
In short, COP26 is about as important a summit as it is possible to conceive of.
Why is the COP controversial?
Though the basis of the COP is unquestionably a morally positive one, the fact that this is the 26th time that it has taken place and the fact that it is now more vital than ever is, arguably, indicative of a significant lack of action in the 26 years since the first COP in 1995.
It can be hard to believe that 26 gatherings of the international great and good have achieved so little in the face of the single biggest risk ever presented to the human race. And yet, as the situation has continued to deteriorate, so too has civil society become more and more disillusioned with the work of world leaders and governments.
This is where the controversy of COP26 lies and, when contextualised in the shadow of decades of failure, the reasons for the widespread protests taking place in Glasgow, and indeed around the world, become painfully clear.
The time for words is over, the time for action is now
The COP26 Coalition, the organisers of the largest protest, is said to have been attended by over 100,000 people in Glasgow, with an estimated 300 further events taking place around the globe.
Asad Rehman, a spokesperson for the Coalition, speaking to Sky News, said “Many thousands of people took to the streets today on every continent demanding that governments move from climate inaction to climate justice… We won’t tolerate warm words and long-term targets anymore, we want action now.”
It is clear that these protests are in no way anti-environmentalism or are trying to suggest that conferences on the climate crisis are not, at least in theory, positive. The complaint which is echoing louder and louder around the world with each passing day is that while conferences like the COP may pay lip service to the crisis, they are woefully and categorically ineffective at actually producing tangible actions and results from leaders and governments.
Unfortunately, even the most eloquent and well-delivered speeches cannot actually make a difference to the dire situation in which we find ourselves unless they are followed by legislation and action on a global scale. The words uttered at events like the COP are supposed to enthuse nations and their leaders into action, but the fact is that even the most rousing and emotional appearances by the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados seem only to be heard by protesters and eco-warriors outside of the halls of power, while their words fall largely on deaf ears in the conference itself.
The innocent parties are shouldering the greatest risk
A key aspect of the recent protest has been climate justice, not only in terms of justice for the planet and all of its peoples, but more specifically justice within the international system regarding CO2 emissions and its associated risks.
The fact is that, in general, the nations that are the most responsible for the climate crisis, namely those in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia, have to deal with comparatively minor immediate risks from the damage already done to the environment. The nations who have contributed the least to the crisis, such as in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean, by contrast, are already having to deal with massive and life-threatening impacts brought about by global warming and changes in climate.
This, in whichever way you look at it, is a gross and shameful injustice. It is also, however, one of the key reasons why progress has likely been so slow in committing to solutions at events like COP26. The countries with the highest emissions are often also the ones with the most international power, and given that their lands are not yet being flooded and their crops are not currently being burned to a cinder, it is not necessarily in their immediate interest to make sacrifices for the greater good. For many of them, there is still time before their people start dying in their thousands and their shorelines become overwhelmed by rising sea levels.
In short, the slow and ineffective approach that the international community has taken towards climate change is a sickening example of the inequalities that are baked into even our most exalted institutions, such as the United Nations.
The protests surrounding COP26 have been as concerned by this kind of climate justice as they have with the general concern for the planet as a whole, because until these selfish and isolationist approaches by certain nations are stamped out, genuinely effective, globally unified action to halt and revert the crisis cannot and will not begin in earnest.
The COP is simply not enough
The bottom line to all of this is simple. People are protesting because while the COP in Glasgow has been built up as a beacon of hope for all of humanity, the truths of the past tell us that any actions that are taken as a result of the two-week conference will almost certainly not be enough. Until such gatherings are held where all nations are equally invested and willing to make sacrifices, they are likely to remain festivals of words, but not deeds.
Civil society must continue to pile pressure on governments, leaders, and international organisations to take definitive action across all corners of the world, and not just allow the horrors of the climate crisis to slowly destroy the lives and livelihoods of millions in the vulnerable parts of the globe.
The main culprits of this crisis are using at-risk communities and nations as a time buffer, affording themselves the opportunity to profit from environmentally harmful practices for just a few more years. If they continue to be allowed to do this, even while they say the right things at COP podiums and on the news, then millions of people will die in the near future as their lands flood and their food supplies perish.
That is, and will continue to be, one of the greatest and most destructive injustices in history, and we are right to protest against it.