COP26: Our editors’ words

Red Pepper co-editors Hilary Wainwright, Jake Woodier and Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya reflect on their experiences of COP26 - and how we move forward in the fight for climate justice

December 17, 2021 · 8 min read
The People’s March for Climate, Justice and Jobs, London. Photo: Friends of the Earth International

A citizen-led transition to a low carbon economy

Hilary Wainwright

The intense anger on the streets of central Glasgow and in discussions in vast churches and community halls in Govan and other Glasgow communities was fuelled by the presence of those from the front lines of climate changes, whose island societies will drown, or whose land and forests will burn. They gave eloquent voice to issues not raised in COP26 itself: the pervasive, and pernicious, reality of greenwash, polluters’ liabilities for the destruction they have caused, the importance of indigenous knowledge and the technological know-how of the workers on whom the present high carbon system depends and who could therefore play a key role in the transition to low carbon production. What was clear too was that younger generations will not tolerate the present policies that hurtle the Global South and the poor and black communities in the North to extinction. 

Young or old, there is a real sense in which we all came away from Glasgow as Greta Thunberg: all determined to take actions which break from our everyday complicity in high carbon emissions, and to build a widespread interest in low carbon society. Only this way will the millions who care about climate change build the material power to break through the vested interests of what has accurately been described as ‘Fossil Capital’ – the industrial, political high carbon complex that is driving disastrous levels of emissions.

In that sense, another, necessary kind of direct action, complementing the blockades, are the initiatives of those who work in industries that are high polluters and who, as the workers on which those industries depend, are refusing to continue to work as destroyers of the planet. These workers instead are using their industrial power to insist on a transition to low carbon and socially useful forms of production. 

The Just Transition hub of the People’s Summit held a panel in which trade unionists and campaigners engaged in this kind of long term ‘structural’ direct action gave a report back on progress so far, in companies including Rolls Royce, Tarta Steel and GKN motors. The panel was organised by an impressive alliance of the Scottish Trade Union Congress and Scottish Friends of the Earth, supported by the awesome new environment officers at the TUC. (More generally, an encouraging feature of the People’s Summit and the climate protests was the extensive and high profile involvement of the labour movement.) 

This panel on trade unions as key creative actors in the transition was an indication that this involvement has the potential to go beyond paper policies. Future issues of Red Pepper will document these trade union initiatives, whilst also facing up to their problems and exploring the challenges of spreading this process of citizen-led conversion from a high carbon economy to areas like fast fashion, fast food and careless toxic waste disposal. Send us your experiences.

Climate activism, anti-imperialism and building solidarities 

Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

I was one of thousands of people to attend the mass protests in Glasgow during the first week of the COP26 conference. Whilst I attended with a group of climate activists from Extinction Rebellion and related groups, there was a tangible solidarity between various different movements, particularly during the bigger marches.

There has undoubtedly been a positive shift within the dominant UK climate activist movement – arguably triggered by the 2020 revival of Black Lives Matter – towards recognising the fundamental role of institutional racism in the climate crisis. Nowadays, the fact that people in the Global South will be, and are already being, hit first by climate disaster is no longer primarily pointed out by activists of colour, but is oft-repeated by the climate movement’s (unfortunately) white middle-class core demographic. I noticed this during many of the speeches and performances at the rallies before and after marches. Activists and campaigners are also making more connections between climate and related issues such as nuclear weapons, including the Israeli arms trade and the ongoing imperialism it represents.

However, there remains a tendency among some to revert to the individualist rhetoric of ‘we have destroyed the planet’, unquestioningly placing all of humanity in opposition to nature – ignoring both the legacies of imperialism, and the fundamental role of capitalist governments and their corporate allies. A telling moment was when, whilst we were assembling in preparation to march one day, someone in the crowd started chanting ‘no justice, no peace, no racist police’. The enthusiasm almost audibly dampened at the sound of these not-distinctly-climate-related words; the number of people that joined in with the response of ‘no racist police’ was miniscule compared to when the chant switched back to safer territory: ‘what do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!’

Granted, the heavy police presence may have made protesters reluctant to target police in their chants. (Indeed, that same march was later kettled by police for an entire afternoon into the evening. It was amusing to see them march vigorously on past us when we’d stopped in the street one time, thinking they were still surrounding us.)

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but view this incident of the two slogans in the context of an enduring widespread reluctance within the movement to engage with issues not directly related to climate. There is a tendency to see such issues as tangential to the fight for urgent action, rather than recognising them as symptomatic of the same system of imperialist capitalism. This is changing gradually, but it must be on a wider scale. If the climate movement is to become a true mass movement, it needs marginalised people from other struggles on side. We must work together to fight a global capitalist system built upon environmental racism. As many have pointed out: initiatives like COP are part and parcel of that system. They won’t do that for us.

People will bring about change, not corporate conferences

Jake Woodier

Another year, another Conference of the Parties (COP) and yet more disappointment. Despite the warm words and fluffy slogans, the world is not suddenly on track to limit warming of the Earth to 1.5C. Rich nations aren’t doing their fair share to decarbonise or support others to do so, nor are they providing the cash they promised in 2009 to those they’ve been exploiting for centuries. In a circus-esque performance, the COP was a shitshow, despite claims otherwise from the liberal commentariat happy enough to let others suffer a wretched climate fate so long as they don’t have to see it. Meanwhile, the UK government did their best to press release and greenwash the shit out of the event, and newspaper columns were filled with climate inches for their annual quota. Normalcy has since resumed, with climate change once again relegated to the footnotes. Until next time. 

And it was into the above maelstrom that I was headed, with my work for a national charity focused on bringing together the huge diversity of organisations working on climate change together to increase their impact. While in Glasgow I unveiled a giant ice sculpture at the dry docks across from the venue, to symbolise the voices across the UK, and the world, that are mobilising to protect the people and places they love from the effects of climate change. Alongside this, I was supporting colleagues inside the conference, and linked up with my comrades at Green New Deal Rising for their energetic bloc on the march for climate justice.

However, before thousands of us arrived in Glasgow for COP26, there was an overriding understanding among many seasoned campaigners that the UN climate talks weren’t going to deliver. We also know it’s the only international mechanism around that could deliver, and the complexities of the global geopolitical landscape dictate a near impossibility for an alternative to be created within the timeframe remaining to address climate breakdown.

So where does that leave us? Well it has to be with an unwavering belief that building a diverse, justice-focused, and unstoppable force for change is the route forward. Will governments act on their own? Of course not. Have historical movements pressured those in positions of power to make change? Yes. And that is where we must direct our efforts, which is why activists and campaigners have directed much of their focus on the crucial work that took place outside of the conference centre. Not to discredit the incredibly valuable accountability and pressure work inside the COP; but the movement building, fostering of ideas, inspiration, joy, tears, sweat and laughter that will glue our networks together going forward took place on the streets of Glasgow, in every part of the UK, and across the world.  While the COP won’t yet achieve what we need it to, we must organise like never before to light enough fires to eventually spark a raging inferno for change.


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