The Climate Emergency Wore Cashmere

Much of the real work of COP26 appeared to diminish substantially after the leaders’ meetings concluded, and some journalists have been referring to ‘Glasgow’ in the past tense. Not just Scott Morrison, but now Australian Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, have returned home.

Moreover, the event has taken on somewhat bizarre overtones. Friday was ‘Youth and Public Empowerment Day’ and on cue Greta Thunberg put on a display of public scatology. This was outside the venue because she was not invited to address the conference (How Dare They!), but approximately 10,000 or so quit school to hear her (with Price Charles’s blessing). Unsurprisingly, Thunberg labelled Glasgow as the ‘most excluding COP ever’.

The ‘school strike’ (or Fridays for Future) is a somewhat appropriate embrace of ignorance, of avoiding any possibility of acquiring any information that might challenge their belief that we are facing an existential ‘climate crisis’, such as Bjorn Lomborg’s annoying habit of pointing out that the risk to human life from extreme weather events today is a mere 1% of that a century ago. Blah! Blah! Blah!

The climate change movement is fast resembling a cult, and the events surrounding Glasgow some weird ‘Woodstock for Millennials’, with the veterans of Extinction Rebellion, who are old enough to remember that event, joining in. (The music is decidedly worse, consisting of atonal drumbeats).

Actually, the avoidance of inconvenient information is quite typical of cults. Leon Festinger developed his theory of cognitive dissonance to describe such conduct, having developed it in a book entitled, appropriately, When Prophecy Fails: a Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. Confronted with inconvenient truths, adherents find new rationalisations and double down on their adherence to ‘The Truth’.

It was perhaps appropriate, then, that Al Gore showed up and opened an event titled ‘Destination 2030, making 1.5°C a reality’ convened by the High-Level Climate Champions with a presentation titled ‘The danger we’re in and the case for hope’. It should be recalled that in 2007 in Dimmock v Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the judge ruled that Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth contained nine scientific errors and had to be accompanied by an explanation of those errors before being shown to school children.

And so the attempt to secure agreement to the 1.5°C target continued. Indeed, Greenpeace sought to convey the impression it had already been agreed to, rather than just identified as an ambition, with Juan Pablo Osornio, head of delegation, stating that the final agreement must retain the commitment to limit temperatures to 1.5°C.

Greenpeace would do well to note that Beijing’s climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua insisted that the 2°C maximum temperature rise agreed by world leaders in 2015 under the Paris Agreement had to remain up for discussion. He stated that ‘If we only focus on 1.5°C we are destroying consensus and many countries would demand a reopening of the negotiations.’ (In Paris, parties agreed to limit temperatures to ‘well below’ 2°C and merely ‘pursue efforts’ to restrict them to 1.5°C from pre-industrial times).

The failure of states parties to deliver on commitments made internationally has been described by Norwegian scholar Arild Underdal as the ‘vertical disintegration of policy’. The disintegration has begun early, with observers noting that in addition to China, India, Russia, the US and Australia the ‘Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement’ stated that those who joined it intended to do so by 2030 ‘or as soon as possible thereafter’, thereby maximising the amount of wriggle room (and thus the number of signatories). In Germany’s case, the end would only come in 2038 – several elections away.

In addition, the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by 100 world leaders in a global commitment to halt the destruction of the world’s forests ran into problems when Indonesian environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, attacked the agreement made by her government just two days earlier, calling it ‘inappropriate and unfair’.

The ‘Climate Emergency’ has underpinned all of this, but the recalcitrant parties have not been moved by the claims that the end of the world is nigh and seem to be holding firm to their positions. This is perhaps because the declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ came not from science, but from local government in December 2016 from the City of Darebin in Melbourne, to be precise. It spread primarily among local governments globally (assisted by Greens Party councillors), but was also picked up by that merry band of millenarians, the Club of Rome, who presented their ’Climate Emergency Plan’ in December 2018.

Only on 5 November 2019 did scientists get in on the act, when the biology journal BioScience published an article endorsed by 11,000 scientists from 153 nations, declaring that planet Earth was facing a climate emergency. Then, pushed by Extinction Rebellion and Greta’s Friday for the Future, it was picked up by some national governments and then UN Secretary-General António Guterres in December 2020.

Extinction Rebellion made a commendable attempt to give it a scientific veneer at Glasgow, with a group called Scientist Rebellion donning lab coats on Saturday, chaining themselves together at the neck, and blocking Glasgow’s King George V bridge for three hours. (I have yet to see a climate scientist in a lab coat!)

But surrealism has been widespread. Tom Goldtooth, climate activist and executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, presented Prince Charles with a gift of plaited sweetgrass, thought to attract good spirits, positive energies and cleanse people’s auras. (Perhaps they could harness the energy). Charles has also met with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Stella McCartney, both keen environmental campaigners. Judging by the comments on newspaper reports, the celebrities with their private jets and luxury yachts are probably losing, rather than gaining support.

Princess Eugenie has also been in attendance, visiting a makeshift polar base camp and receiving information on the effects of climate change in the Arctic regions. On the first day of the summit, the website My New Royals reported, Eugenie ‘met with various participants to discuss blue carbon research related to the oceans’ and – perhaps more importantly – ‘wore a wool, silk, and cashmere midi dress by Gabriela Hearst’. On the second day, more talks and a navy cashmere top and wool-blend midi skirt by Gabriela Hearst. Climate Emergency chic!

The Princess also visited a makeshift polar base camp, and there, she received information on the effects of climate change in the Arctic regions.

Vegans have not been happy, slamming COP26 menu as being ‘like serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference’ because it included too much meat and dairy foods from Scottish farms.

Boris Johnson has returned to London – controversially taking a private jet – where he faced a corruption scandal involving a Member of Parliament his government initially attempted to defend. While he campaigned vigorously in Glasgow and was seen everywhere chatting up delegates, Royals and celebrities, it is yet to be seen whether he has salvaged much from the COP. Embarrassingly, one conversation was with an Israeli diplomat who had failed to gain entry the previous day because she uses a wheelchair and there were no ramps.

He has also been having to deal with an energy crisis exacerbated by Russia limiting gas supplies to Western Europe and a dispute with France over fishing rights in the English Channel. He might also face a Brexit-like referendum on Net Zero if the sponsors of a petition can gather the requisite number of signatures – which would be ironic, given Boris rode to power on the one conducted for Brexit.

All the while, private negotiations have been taking place, largely in what are called informals’, and the meetings of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) have wound up, but there are few reasons to expect concrete outcomes.

The surreal nature of proceedings was perhaps best exemplified by the combined efforts of of SBSTA and SBI in developing the Joint annual report of the Technology Executive Committee (TEC) and the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN). The was achieved by the co-chairs conducting what were dubbed ‘informal informals’.

Aynsley Kellow is Professor Emeritus of Government, University of Tasmania, and a Special Correspondent for the Institute of Public Affairs on COP26 and Net Zero. This is his contribution to the IPA’s daily COP26 Bulletin, to which you can subscribe here. 

Photo: Princess Eugenie took part in the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, here.