Jem Bendell: Capitalism Versus Climate Justice – thoughts on my first and last experience of climate COP

Greta Thunberg did not attend COP27. Jem Bendell will not attend COP28. His experiences in Sharm El Sheikh

Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership, University of Cumbria, UK

Cross-posted from Jem’s website

In the run up to COP27 climate conference, The Economist magazine declared it has become impossible to limit global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Many analysts of the relevant science have said as much for a few years. We were dismissed as too negative and so our ideas on what to do were therefore marginalized. Sadly, warming beyond 1.5C means that climate change will become far more damaging to societies. Even worse, due to a range of amplifying feedbacks that are impossible to have certainty about, no one can credibly claim anymore that human actions to cut and drawdown carbon, while still important, will certainly work to stop or reverse the changes. When people take that situation to heart, it can challenge the societies and systems that brought us to this point. For many, it is a fundamentally radicalizing realization. Although The Economist cited my views in one of their articles, rather predictably it didn’t provide space for the kind of criticism of capitalism and the global order that can ensue.

Another major challenge to the establishment from the latest climate science is the analysis of just how bad our environmental conditions will become in the years ahead. Instead, we see people looking for ways to stay positive in the face of an unfolding disaster. A widely read essay in the New York Times did just that. It promoted the narrative that although the current situation is worse than was predicted, the same people are now predicting it probably won’t get as bad as they previously thought. On closer inspection, I discovered that the scientific basis for such a claim is marginal to non-existent. Because there is some inevitable further warming from existing CO2 equivalent concentrations and human emissions have been tracking the worst-case scenarios mapped out by the experts. This year is set to see the highest global emissions ever. So how do some mainstream journalists arrive at their semi-positive narratives? Clearly some smart people seem to prefer computers to reality. Some also enjoy their status as scientists but ditch a normal extrapolation of trends to use more convenient numbers about future technology and climate policies (despite those policies not being applied). I also hear some say they are worried about the rest of us becoming shocked at the situation and outraged about not learning the truth until now. The result is collective lying – and not only in the 6 official languages of the UN, as climate activist and UN youth advisor, Sophia Kianni, told the delegates in the plenary.

I had been warned of how the climate conferences were a charade, but nevertheless went to Sharm El Sheikh as a posthumous thank you to Stuart Scott. In 2018 he helped fund Greta Thunberg to attend COP24, where he organised some of her press conferences. This year the new team at the channel he created, Facing Future TV, asked if I would help arrange and co-host some panels. Stuart had been the first person to persuade me to appear on video to talk about my paper called Deep Adaptation. When he was dying of cancer, he also fought to put the Deep Adaptation videos back online after they were unlisted by some colleagues who wanted to control the narrative for their own ends. I knew that Stuart regarded attending COP as an important moment for truth telling and I respected how he had helped to bring wider attention to Greta and others. So I accepted the offer from the new team, to profile some people and views that are marginalised in the climate arena because they challenge the systems of power that are the root cause of climate chaos. My aim would be for more people to hear that a deregulated and over-financialised global capitalism will make matters even worse as we enter an era disrupted by global heating and ecological breakdown. Because I was not attending with any illusions that more than vague words and soon-to-be-unfulfilled promises would be forthcoming from the official processes, I would not end up feeling dashed by the end of the fortnight.

Total Climate Honesty is Needed

In my first speech at the conference, I went straight to the culture of self-serving lies that Sophia Kianni had spoken about. I called for attention to what can be termed the Netzero Paradox. This is where progress towards ending fossil fuel use with also reduce the Aerosol Masking effect that arises from burning the dirty fuels. That effect is estimated globally to be keeping temperatures down by about half a degree Celsius. It is a rapid effect, and so ending the masking can raise temperatures in a matter of weeks. Dr Ye Tao presented data from the pandemic lockdowns to reveal that large urban areas in hotter countries experienced significant spikes in temperatures due to a localised reduction on the masking effect.  Therefore, he highlights how success in ending fossil fuels will have a nasty sting the tail for poor people living in such cities – one that could be deadly. He presented his work on a potential solution, MEER, that would offer low cost and low carbon cooling technologies. It is a form of solar radiation management that is very localised and not posing concerns for wider weather disruption.

The Netzero Paradox presents a near-term effect. So why is this not prioritised? The professional classes who participate in these conferences and the associated professions are not the kind of folks who will die from the temperature spikes in hot poor cities that will result from the policies they are discussing. If they were, do you think they would ignore it as an off-message inconvenience? Hopefully the talk by Dr Ye Tao will bring more attention to this issue and then his and similar initiatives to try to help ameliorate the problem will finally get some funding.

In the same session I launched and ‘swore’ the Scholars’ Oath to the Future. Already endorsed by 165 scholars in over 30 countries, this is an apology to the younger generations for our past caution, and a commitment to be bolder in our efforts in future. We also express our intent to engage younger generations more explicitly in our work in future. That doesn’t just mean engaging those who have been signed up by UN agencies or speaker agencies, but engaging young people in our everyday lives. Because this situation is not about speeches at conferences – it is about the increased costs and disruptions that are being experienced locally and that younger people must live with. In my own situation, this means I will be reaching out to local students about an agroforestry project that I am setting up – to enable some more local resilience to the coming disruptions.

Capitalism versus Climate Justice

The next panel I co-hosted was on the topic of climate justice, where we heard from two women activists from the Global South. Speaking as a woman of indigenous heritage, Mexican Xiye Bastida offered a critique of how modern societies relate to nature. It is similar to the kind of critique I had known about since I was a teenager, but felt uncomfortable with embracing – despite its obvious truth. I don’t want to push away that wisdom anymore. Next, Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau from Kenya explained the need for climate justice to emerge as a result of the greater knowledge and mobilisation of poorer people in the Global South. The message for those of us from the Global North was clear – we could find more ways to directly help activists in the South.

I wrapped up this panel with a speech on the corporate-capture of climate agenda – both in the past, which means it has achieved very little, and now, where we are beginning to see a global ‘disaster capitalism’ where businesses are seeking subsidies from the state for their various schemes. This is the big issue that has been avoided for decades. So when Al Gore took to the stage to express anger at inaction, I was curious. When he claimed a lack of impact on the climate crisis meant “we have a credibility problem,” I thought “no, you don’t just have a credibility problem, you have a capitalism and consumer culture problem,” and said so in my speech. Having been engaged in environmental issues since the early 1990s, I had some historical context for that comment. I knew that when Vice President of the US, Al Gore caved to his domestic polluter and financier interests so that the US delegation to the UNFCCC stopped the world from moving towards an agreement on national carbon taxes. Instead, they got the world to agree to pursue complex and experimental carbon cap and trade systems. That provided new opportunities for polluters and financiers to make money and delivered minimal changes in emissions. Pointing this out is definitely not to complain about a specific man’s character, but to show the problem is the system of capitalism which goes unacknowledged by people – even when they recognise failure. Perhaps unaware of this climate history and the role of capitalism in ruining the global climate response, the audience offered hearty applause for Mr Gore.

I found it quite strange that despite it being so obvious that the cause of failure of humanity to bend the emissions curve over the last 30 years is because of the dominant expansionist logic of global capitalism that it is so widely ignored. It was the focus of my answers when interviewed by Inside Climate News, where I explained the COPs had achieved an unhelpful form of success for incumbent power by keeping climate issues away from trade and finance rules.

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At times there were some glimmers of reality and sanity in the conference hall. The Colombian President Gustavo Petro gave a speech where he made it very clear we can’t tackle climate separately from the exploitative and extractive global systems that serve the rich. It was a sentiment stated in less eloquent terms by Venezuela’s President Maduro. Many were surprised to see President Emmanuel Macron suddenly appear friendly with him. Could he be interested in his views on capitalism and the climate? Or perhaps he was just wanting new sources of fossil fuels as the European energy crisis arrive at that awkward moment we call winter. Despite Petro’s speech, which had the additional benefit of upsetting the journalists at Breitbart, it’s clear that nothing in the UNFCCC processes will ever tackle the economic drivers of humanity’s self-destruction.

Not Adapting is a Worse Failure

Because decades of failure mean the consequences are now arriving hard and fast, in the third panel I co-hosted, we focused on climate adaptation (video coming soon). My co-host Raya Salter noted how many projects seem to be more about corporate profit than helping communities cope with the impacts of climate change. IPCC lead author Dr Lisa Schipper joined us to explain how many projects can back fire by not having a sensible assessment of how extreme the problems are already becoming. She gave the example of new sea walls to protect lands but then prevent water draining into the sea after a flood. Dr Nymabura Mbau shared on this panel as well, this time on how a corporatist ideology has been shaping the notion of ‘climate smart’ agriculture in ways that undermine rural community resilience. Hearing that, I realised I want to keep hearing from people who work at the grassroots in the Global South. I also realised how, from their urban western prejudice, some ecomodernists might call us ‘primitivist’ for thinking that the future should involve helping people to keep working their land. I recommend reading Stella’s writings on these topics as they offer such a stark contrast to what we hear from Western commentators on climate.    

That panel was the first time that I mentioned ‘Deep Adaptation’ as an ethos and framework at a UN event. If you didn’t know, that ethos and framework is about seeking to reduce harm and save more of the natural world while despite anticipating the breakdown of most modern societies in the near term. It was also the topic of a smaller dialogue with a handful of people in a circle organised by the IASS Potsdam. That experience once again revealed that people are ready to talk about these difficult scenarios if they aren’t just going through the motions on environmental issues as expected by their employer. After the session I thought it is a pity that the backlash against people who anticipate bad-to-worst case scenarios has kept the ethos, practices and community of Deep Adaptation hidden from so many people. My painful acceptance that misrepresentational mud does indeed stick and can be used to marginalise people and agendas, is why recently made the time to write to some publications that carry articles with misrepresentations of my work. Both the New Internationalist and Open Democracy have published corrections and clarifications as a result (the former indicating it had been misled by the latter). However, years have been lost due to the divisive and misleading anti- ‘doomer’ efforts by some scholars and journalists.  

The Climate Agenda Must be Reclaimed from Elites

In my final speech I addressed another uncomfortable reality that the ‘climate users’ don’t want to admit – the rising backlash to climate action because it is being seen as synonymous with elites enriching themselves and controlling the rest of us. I illustrated this with data from the last two years of hashtags on twitter, which shows that the hashtag #ClimateScam exploded in July 2022 and tweets with that hashtag are now occurring 2.5 times more often than the hashtag #climatejustice. I explained that one of the reasons is the poor communications from the climate establishment, which reflects their overly technocratic, elitist and, sadly more recently, authoritarian attitudes. Perhaps some of the corporate participants will become concern about this backlash if it begins to threaten their chance for state subsidy. Because they really are a driving force behind the climate agenda.

I had a sense of this last year, when I noticed on my LinkedIn feed that many of my contacts who still work in my former sector of corporate sustainability were at the COP in Glasgow and launching various initiatives and reports. It reminded me a bit of the experience at Davos, and so I co-wrote about some concerns over the ‘Davosification’ of COP. This year I realised that it is more similar to Davos than I had thought. Because at Davos, the theme of the year and the various panels and speeches, are all just ‘bunting’ around the main activity that people come for – the side meetings. Top execs attend because they know they can meet each other and government officials in one place and advance their business agendas. In Sharm El Sheikh, I overhead nuclear industry reps from the UK talking about productive meetings with East Asian nations on their energy plans. I overheard banking reps discussing their positive meetings with other bankers on new investment funds. The turgid negotiations about whether one word or another should be in the final declaration are largely inconsequential – and they aren’t the reason why tens of thousands of people up. Instead, it really is a career fest and trade fair at the end of the world. Which many of the delegates feel good about it. Because within a paradigm of assuming we can reform capitalism to fix the climate someday, their efforts seem quite sensible. It turns out they had productive meetings and a sunny weekend. Which happened to be an unprecedentedly warm weekend in Egyptian recorded history. But why grumble when your employer is picking up the bill?

I am not dissing the role of networking per se, just questioning to what end one is doing it for. In my case, a big upside of being on that final panel was hearing the speaker who went after me. John Liu has been called the ‘Indiana Jones’ of landscape regeneration. Although his hat is way cooler, as is his work in establishing ecosystem regeneration camps around the world. He wasn’t so enthusiastic about slamming COP, as that wasn’t at all news to him. Instead, he wanted us to share ideas about what we know can work, at least to a degree and in some places. Subsequently, I realize that all of us showing up to complain, and to protest in the areas we were allowed to, on the issues we were allowed to, was just adding to the charade. Extinction Rebellion almost called it right when they said that COP isn’t an event that matters to the climate, and so they would neither attend it, nor protest it. What they got wrong is that the COPs actually do matter. Because they have become a publicly funded venue to help global capitalists push their response to the climate crisis. Which means a push towards sub-optimal outcomes.

Alternatives Borne of Solidarity

When the professionals who engage in these processes with great energy allow themselves the time to consider the kind of critiques that I have summarized for you here, they nearly always dismiss this as mere cynicism with no constructive proposals. Which is self-serving bullshit. Informed critique of documented failure and of the reasons for that failure is not cynicism, but a very specific condemnation of the systems of domination and the professionals who prop up those systems. It is based on a knowledge that humanity is better than the kind of complacency, cowardice and self-importance that pervades the international climate policy arena. There are myriad other ways that humanity could be tackling the climate crisis over the last decades. For instance, one proposal I developed and lobbied Greenpeace’s top officials on back in 2010 was for a campaign to get an international treaty on carbon taxation. It would be levied at the point of energy generation for commercial distribution and the levels varied according to levels of development, and be ratified at the World Trade Organization. Countries that did not abide by this agreement would have tariffs imposed their goods and services that arrived in other countries that did have a carbon tax. Such an agreement would have had ‘teeth’ and provided clear long term price signals to the market. Over time, largescale agricultural production could have been added. This and many other policy ideas I jotted down as a series of essays on a ‘Real Green Revolution’, to coincide with the Glasgow COP last year.

Now 25 years after a global carbon tax of some sort could have been initiated at Kyoto, if not for Al Gore and the US delegation, we have run out of time to avoid catastrophic change to nature and society. As the co-editor of our book on Deep Adaptation, Dr Rupert Read said clearly at the end of the last COP, these moments of intergovernmental failure are stark reminders that we need to get ready, locally, for the difficult times to come.

My engagement with COP this year has helped me to realize something else as well. In complement to various forms of adaptation at local levels, western activists like myself can turn our attention to more active and ongoing solidarity with people who represent networks of affected persons in the Global South. That is not just to help them get to international or western events, as we did this time, but to help them gain more power and influence in their own countries and regions so they might reduce the dominant influence of large corporations and western governments. That’s why I was impressed with the work of Professor Vanessa Andreotti. At 3am I got a message from her that she couldn’t meet as she was busy helping representatives from indigenous communities prepare for their contributions. Here is a well-known Professor at a top university in Canada who prioritizes acting in service. She wasn’t just passing the mic to anyone from the Global South (she is from Brazil) but working closely with people who are both experiencing the worst impacts of capitalist imperialism and who have the greatest wisdom to share. The report she helped launch at COP was from the Indigenous Environmental Network that explained how climate finance is actually a new form of colonialism. It shows that “Financial instruments are an inadequate tool to address climate change. By tying climate change responsibilities to financial institution-based development logic, the expansion of capitalism is ensured. Financial instruments entrench the chase for endless economic growth, which is one of the root causes of climate change.”

The efforts of Vanessa and the representatives of indigenous peoples don’t use any saccharine stories about fixing the climate one upbeat speech or shopping trip at a time, but have faith in the importance of doing what is right in the face of overwhelming odds and centuries of tragic losses. I am pleased to see that more people on the political Left in the West are seeing that as a valid framework for the future of ecological politics, such as scholar Dr Kai Heron. In a recent viral tweet he wrote: “Ecological politics today isn’t about ‘saving the planet’ or ‘solving the climate crisis’ as we used to be told. It isn’t even about staying within 1.5C of planetary heating. That’s over. It’s gone. Ecological politics is about limiting how many people die, how many are displaced, how many experience insufferable heat, floods, wildfires, and droughts. And it’s about how many species and habitats will be lost forever.”

After me, there will be many other people who choose to go to a COP to complain about COPs. So I will now desist and hand over to them, whoever they may be, but with a few final words of advice… COP will continue as it always has until the whole multilateral charade collapses along with the breakdown of industrial consumer societies. By attending, you can plant some useful seeds and make some useful connections before that time – but that’s all. But is it worth all the effort, especially if not flying? This year, Greta thought not.  

To summarize, here are my suggestions for you, on the basis of my experience of COP27:

– get ready locally and nationally for failure, both practically, emotionally and politically (some ideas can be found by engaging in the DA Forum)

– don’t be fooled by the elite-serving hacks, and instead learn about the worrying climate science, including the netzero paradox, and call for action on it (or get involved to help projects like MEER)

– find ways to support grassroots activists and community leaders from the Global South to gain more political power as well as to adapt (for instance, support Dr Nyambura Mbau’s new initiative in Kenya)

– name the corporate capture of the national and international policy processes on climate (and encourage activist groups to aim their non-violent civil disobedience at that corporate influence)

– learn about and promote more radical ideas on climate that don’t silo it into a sham like UNGCCC and its COPs (for instance the Real Green Revolution ideas)

– reject the establishment’s new efforts at avoiding our realization of the massive disaster wrought by modern societies to stoke attitudes and politics that threaten the establishment  

– engage young people more in any of your efforts

– subscribe for free to the Deep Adaptation Quarterly to receive one email update every few months (yep, that’s the easy one).

Jem Bendell

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2 Comments

  1. AGW aka climate change induced by fossil fuel consumption is a financial racket which makes the continuous onslaught on the natural environment so much worse. Not only are the huge funds involved misspent, but environmental degradation is ignored and despite some admirable initiatives grows apace overall. Anyone who makes a living pushing the AGW bandwagon knows their first concern is to make a good living. Despite the rhetoric advanced to justify the implementation of hugely economically wasteful policies, climate political operatives on all fronts, whether it be academic, scientific, technical, political or otherwise, almost invariably discount or completely dismiss the tremendous waste in terms of natural resources, including fossil fuels, inherent in or as a consequence of policies and measures which count not the cost in natural resources. The environmentalist movement which at some early stage was genuinely concerned about the environment was hijacked and taken over by financially motivated opportunists operating under the guidance of international high finance who strictly based their actions on the principles underpinning klepto-capitalism.

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