COP26 in Glasgow is pretty much over. I’ve been following along as best I can but I keep getting so many emails and news from people and groups on the ground reporting and trying to make sense of it all that I am way behind. But, in a couple days I will start seeing everyone summing up what did, or rather, didn’t happen. Oh yes, there have been lots of promises made, so many that I have a perpetual refrain of Fleetwood Mac’s Little Lies running through my head.

The mainstream media is woefully inadequate about nearly everything to do with COP26, reporting in soundbites devoid of context. So before I jump into a couple lies, let’s talk about what COP26 actually is.

A Brief History of COP

COP, Convention of Parties, is the result of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. There, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty that acknowledges anthropogenic climate change, was signed and ratified by 196 countries. One of its core objectives was to stabilize global greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent climate.

You can see how well this has worked out.

COP was created at Rio as an association of all the member states and tasked with having annual meetings to review the implementation of the convention and to elaborate and build on decisions made at previous COPs. The first COP was held in 1995 in Berlin, Germany. The COP meets every year, except in 2020 because of COVID. 

So yeah, the world has been meeting every year since 1995 to solve climate change and nothing has been solved. Emissions have only gone up and up. And up. You and I would never get away with such poor job performance.

At COP3 in 1997, we got the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States doomed to failure by never ratifying it. After years of wasted time, the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen had big goals and lots of hope.

The goal for COP15 was to craft a legally binding agreement for the whole world to be implemented in 2012. The plan called for a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 based on 1990 levels. Three weeks prior to COP15, the United States and China met in Thailand and made a pact that any agreement reached in Copenhagen would not be binding. Thus, once again, ensuring no real climate action.

The Paris Agreement came out of COP21 in 2015. It is not binding, however, because if it had been, the United States wouldn’t have been able to get the Republican controlled Congress to ratify it. President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement looked bad, but meant nothing since the United States hasn’t done anything to cut emissions. President Biden re-joining the Agreement, also means nothing since right before this current COP, he begged OPEC to produce more oil to lower the cost of gasoline for Americans so we could keep driving and keep consuming to keep the economy going. 

For a more detailed short history, visit The Ecologist.

A Big Lie

The United States and a good many other rich countries in the global north are giving eloquent speeches about how much they are concerned about climate change and how important it is to help poorer countries because they are the ones who emit the least amount of carbon but are suffering the most. This is true, except for the concern part.

Twelve years ago at Copenhagen, rich countries pledged $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries adapt to and mitigate climate change. Because there was no COP last year (COVID), the plan was to raise the money this year. The fund has fallen well short of the goal

The rich countries are making up all sorts of excuses and then promising that it will happen by 2023 and exceed $100 billion in 2024. Rrrriiiight.

The truth is, rich countries have the money but they don’t give a crap about climate change. Well they do, just not on how climate change affects poor countries composed of brown and black people and a good many of them former colonies of those rich northern countries. 

A report came out at the end of October revealing that the largest greenhouse gas emitters spend, on average, 2.3 times as much money on border security than they do on financing climate adaptation and mitigation projects at  home and abroad. Canada, the biggest offender, spent 15 times more on border security than on climate. That was shocking to me. The United States is third on the list with 11 times more (Australia is 2nd with 13 times more).

While the U.S. spends billions on border security, it spends even more on its entire military, no doubt making sure, among other things, that displaced people don’t even reach the borders to begin with. In a budget bill making its way through Congress, Biden asked for $750 billion dollars for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear weapons for the Department of Energy (this is more than the Pentagon requested). Congress said sure! And you know what, we’ll give them another $25 billion dollars. You can read more about this insanity at Tom Dispatch.

You should also know that the U.S. military emits more carbon than 140 countries combined, and that list includes some industrialized countries.

Take a moment to imagine what $775 billion dollars could do for people in the United States and for climate assistance in poorer countries. Instead it’s going to private military contractors and lining the pockets of very wealthy companies and people who like to tell you that your carbon footprint needs to be a top priority here–take some personal responsibility!

Red herrings everywhere.

Net Zero—The Biggest Lie

If you have been paying attention to COP26, or even the Paris Agreement or President Biden’s inadequate climate plan, you will have heard Net Zero mentioned. A lot. Net Zero by 2050 is the current rallying cry. It sounds great, doesn’t it? No carbon emissions by 2050? But that’s not what it means.

Net zero means there will still be plenty of carbon emissions, only the plan is that the amount produced will be balanced by the amount sucked out of the air. This plan is all predicated on an extremely expensive technology that is not scalable and itself produces carbon emissions.

The technology is called Direct Air Capture (DAC) and there are several papers about it and other net zero schemes nicely summarized in Why net zero carbon contraptions are absurd.

Here is how absurd DAC is. Let’s say we decide to not cut carbon emissions and to just suck all the excess produced out of the air, not even to suck out the extra that’s already causing global warming. To remove the current global 36 gigatons of annual carbon emissions, we would need 30,000 large-scale DAC plants. Each one would cost at least $500 million to build. To store 10 gigatons of carbon (remember current annual emissions are 36 gigatons), would required four million tons of potassium hydroxide, one and a half times more than currently exists in the world! But say we somehow find more potassium hydroxide, running all those DAC plants would require a sixth of all the world’s energy supply. 

Let’s say we somehow make the process more energy efficient. How is this carbon going to be stored? And where? We will need an enormous pipeline system and miles of underground caverns, and a monitoring system to find and fix leaks.

I’ve heard glowy reports about how captured carbon can be used to make plastics and turned into fertilizer and all sorts of other things. But this is not capturing carbon, this is just transforming it temporarily before it is re-released into the environment. And the transformation processing itself would likely release carbon into the atmosphere.

Climate scientists warn net zero is dangerous because it continues to foster a belief in technological salvation and reduces the urgency to lower emissions now. As David Spratt writes at Climate Code Red, net zero 2050 is a “deadly scam.”

But clearly President Biden and a whole lot of other world leaders have bought into the scam because it is politically easier than actually doing something real. 

What We are Left With

There was a deal made at COP26 that originally called for coal being phased out. However, at the last minute, the language was changed to “phased down.” Everyone seems to be blaming India, but there are over 500 fossil fuel lobbyists at COP26, and I suspect they had a big part to play outside the official negotiations.

So what we get are lies and empty promises, promises that are not binding, promises that can be ignored, and promises that do absolutely nothing to stop the world from rocketing past 1.5C and making large swaths of the planet uninhabitable for humans or anything else for that matter.

Believe me, I know how overwhelming and scary it all is; how powerless you feel. But if you at all care, it’s time to shake off the fear and complacency and step up. Put pressure on your local governments to make changes. Put pressure on companies. Speak up at your workplace, in your social groups, at school, talk with your family. Our leaders are failing us. Are we going to accept that? Or are we going to take up the challenge and make change happen? 

We have a choice. Doing nothing is a choice. Accepting the status quo is a choice. Waiting for government to do the right thing is a choice. Hoping for a technological miracle is a choice. Using your talents to make change is a choice.


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21 thoughts on “Tell Me Lies

  1. Thanks for this post, Stefanie! I have been really struggling lately to hold onto any sense of hope. I almost feel nostalgic for the days when politicians and business lobbyists used to deny climate change existed. It kind of feels worse now for them to be saying, “Yes, this is real, the world is going to become uninhabitable, millions will die, but we’re going to let it happen because we want to make more money.” I just don’t know how to get my head around that.

    But you’re right, of course—change has to come from the bottom up. That’s the only way any meaningful change has ever come. We’ve done it before, many times, to create all of the good things we have in this world and to eradicate a whole load of evils that once seemed an inevitable part of life (slavery, child labour, etc. etc.), so we can do it again now. We can create so much pressure that the Bidens and Johnsons of this world have no choice but to do something (or, my personal preference, we can bypass them altogether and take power into our own hands). It can be done, but my god, what is wrong with these people that we have to get millions of people into the streets just to convince them not to let the planet burn?

    1. Thanks for you great comment Andrew! I can’t wrap my head around money over a livable planet either, because even rich people will have to live here, there isn’t going to be a Mars habitat. And yeah, what is wrong with people that we need millions in the streets and people dying to try to convince them things need to change. I don’t understand and I probably never will. Have you seen or heard about what climate activist Lauren MacDonald said to the Shell Oil exec at TED Countdown in October? Here’s a clip in case you missed it:

      1. I hadn’t seen that clip, Stefanie – thanks for sharing it. Good for her! It’s interesting that you mention Mars because I think it’s no coincidence that as the climate crisis worsens, all those billionaires are pouring their money into building spaceships. I think they just want to jet off into space and start the same insane process all over again on another planet, leaving the rest of us here to die. It’s delusional and psychopathological, but I think that’s who were dealing with here. But maybe it’s a waste of time trying to understand them. Maybe we should just focus on what we can do, as Lauren MacDonald did.

  2. Thank you for the clear summary. I would like to ask which kind of change are you referring to? As you’ve well described in the Net Zero illusion, the ecological discourse is being hijacked by technological utopias. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case also with EV, so-called “renewable” energy, synthetic food and more.

    It is not enough to demand change for the sake of change. We need much more clarity about the desired change, local, low in energy use, more labor-intensive and much less machine-based.

    1. Hi Sustainable! Thanks for your comment. I completely agree that change for the sake of change is pointless. Personally I believe nothing less than an end to the global neocapitalist patriarchal extractivist racist colonial consumer fossil-fueled system will do. But it is not going to happen all at once and it will happen differently in different places. Everyone needs to decide how to make change in their own community and what they want that community to look like. We are done with top down, it must come from the bottom up and everyone must be involved because solutions and the results will look different in New York and Madrid and the small village in the Andes. But no matter where a person is, I agree that everything will be less machine based and more labor intensive; we will no longer have our “oil slaves” to do the work.

  3. You’ve done a great job summarizing some key issues and concerns here. And adding so many links too. I found listening to the round-up podcast from Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac very useful because she has been involved for many years in these events and her perspective gave me the context that I was craving. (You are speaking here from a U.S. perspective, but from a global perspective, there were some very encouraging elements, and I desperately needed to hear that.) The whole event has definitely increased my personal dedication and determination and, of course, an essential part of that is aiming to influence and change policies more broadly too.

    1. Thanks BIP! Yes, there are lots of small countries doing really good work, but inspiring as it is, it will all come to nothing if the United States, China, India, Russia, and the EU don’t make real progress to reduce their emissions. I know we will both keep working on our own ways to make a difference, and I know there are others like us out there, which gives me heart and courage to keep going 🙂

  4. Oh this is such an excellent post Stefanie that sums it all up so clearly – in such easy to understand language.

    We are just so frustrated by our Government’s cynical attitude to COP26, to phasing “down” (if even that) coal,to avoiding the methane emissions issue, to not supporting EVs, to focusing on CCS. As you ask, “How is this carbon going to be stored?” Honestly. Unfortunately, our opposition isn’t showing much more guts about it. I’m hoping that’s because they’ve been burnt in the past by some visionary campaigning, and that if they get in (which we hope they will, all things considered) they will do more than they are publicly saying. We’ll see.

    1. Thanks WG! Phasing down coal is a huge disappointment, but I know Australia is a big coal producer and that comes with all kinds of challenges. We have to stop being so concerned about big fossil fuel companies making money than about saving the lives of everyone and everything on the planet. Let’s hope government leaders start getting some sense, and soon!

  5. Thank you Stefanie for taking the time. For caring so much.
    It will have to be bottom up, when top down doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.
    I am sad and angry. Disappointed and at times terrified.
    and yet I still believe we can bring back the world together.

    Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this,
    and suddenly the air is filled with snow.
    That is the way the whole world happened—
    there was nothing, and then…

    But maybe some time you will look out and even
    the mountains are gone, the world become nothing
    again. What can a person do to help
    bring back the world?

    We have to watch it and then look at each other.
    Together we hold it close and carefully
    save it, like a bubble that can disappear
    if we don’t watch out.

    Please think about this as you go on. Breathe on the world.
    Hold out your hands to it. When mornings and evenings
    roll along, watch how they open and close, how they
    invite you to the long party that your life is.

    ~ William Stafford

  6. I don’t think net zero is a good concept at all, but I think we should not give up on science and technology to help find innovative ways to reduce carbon emissions and to change the way people are living. But yes, I had very low expectations about COP26 and it didn’t disappoint: “blah blah blah”… I listened to the podcast How to save a planet, and it’s very good.

    1. Thanks for the podcast tip on How to Save a Planet! I will check it out! There is a place for science and technology for sure, but technology is trying to set itself up as our sole savior and that is not the case.

  7. I think Net Zero might even be worse than relying on carbon capture technologies that don’t currently exist and, as far as we know now, can’t exist.

    Because each country gets a balance sheet and can trade on emissions or sequestering. If the US buys a million acres of rainforest (somewhere else, of course, being rainforest), that counts as some number of sequestering units that will balance emissions — while US emissions have not actually been reduced nor has capturing been increased globally. It’s still the same million acres of rainforest. However, if the US owns that rainforest now, the country that occupies it no longer owns it. And so that rainforest country (very likely someplace not wealthy) now has a HIGHER emissions balance; their emissions have increased. Probably by a large percent of their own emissions, because being not wealthy generally means having low emissions. So it will look like a drastic increase for them when there has been no actual change anywhere. (Sort of the summary of the whole COP process now I think about it.)

    You can bet that, among other forms of bullying, there will be quite a lot of land “purchasing”. Most likely not even involving payment but “interest reductions” on the endless debts poor countries have “accrued”.

    Net Zero is a scam of the highest order. I do not feel comfortable typing words that actually apply…

    But we can still make a difference. Without our dear leaders. I’ve found that it gets easier to drop out of the bullshit economy the more I integrate myself into my local community. Might have to have a reckoning with tea here pretty soon, but there has been more progress than I would have believed possible before I took up this localization project. If I can do it, I think anyone can.

    1. You make a very good point Elizabeth about carbon trading as part of net zero. It’s all a sham. And no doubt when those poorer countries selling their land show higher emissions as a result, the rich countries will blame them for it and demand they do something. The economic collapse when it comes is going to be a doozy.

      I agree, we have to make a difference without our leaders. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is.

  8. I think we could all have predicted how things were going to conclude, it’s depressing. I agree completely with Laila. I’m also wondering what the Covid stats are going to be like in a week or so in the Glasgow area, I think I’ll steer clear for a while!

    1. You are right Katrina, the outcome was predictable and depressing. Heh, yeah, and COVID. There were protocols for those attending, but there was no way to make it 100% safe.

  9. I fear we’re going to just have to go through devastation before human beings make a real change in the way we live. There are too many people with money who don’t want to change a thing. And they’re in power.

    I wish the COP had been full of 18 year olds – they’re the ones who are going to have to live with the consequences of inaction, not the 70+ year olds in power.

    I’m not giving up. I promise I’m not. I can’t – I have a son who is 10. This mess is what he’s going to inherit! Climate change is one of my top issues with my legislators. But it sure doesn’t look good.

    1. I fear the same Laila but I hope and pray to be wrong! Yes, if COP had been full of 18-year-olds and women, things would get done! We will keep working for our planet, for ourselves, and for your son and all the other children. *hugs*

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