By Damien Thomson.
Anger is generally characterised as a negative emotion, but I’d beg to differ. Social movements need anger. Anger motivates. It unites. Last week in climate politics gives us a lot to be angry about.
At the United Nations headquarters in New York, the UN Climate Summit took place. It was convened by United Nation’s Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for a very specific reason – for countries to boost their climate ambition.
The summit was nothing less than a flop. Mr Guterres wanted countries to come forward to make bold statements, calling it “a summit of action plans not platitudes”. He wanted countries to outline their carbon-neutrality plans, stop harmful subsidies, and end coal. He wanted big, and he got miniscule.
This wasn’t one of the regularly scheduled climate summits; it was specifically a purpose-made opportunity for countries to show that they are responding to the climate strikes and committing to renewed, more ambitious climate action.
The highlight of the summit wasn’t any announcement on renewed climate ambition from any country; it was, once again, Greta Thunberg. This wasn’t just any of Greta’s speeches, where she has shown stark tone and sharp attacks. This was in the context of a failed climate conference, one where world leaders did not rise to the challenge, not in the slightest.
When she said “how dare you”, it wasn’t hypothetical or poetic, it was really addressed to the crowd of leaders who were sitting on their chairs, preparing for their mediocre climate announcements later in the day. Her raw display of anger wasn’t some dramatic culmination to spice up her speech (she’s been on the road for a year delivering harsh speeches), it was unveiled emotion. There was nothing performative about it.
To sit in front of these people, knowing that a special moment and space has been created to allow them prove themselves, to show they’ve listened to the people, and then to know that they weren’t going to rise to the challenge – no wonder she was steaming with anger. It even got Donald Trump’s attention, who spitefully called Greta a “very happy young girl”.
Could it be that Greta’s angry speech was indeed the most productive thing to come out of the UN Climate Summit?
Later in the week the IPCC published its third special report in a year (there have only been four previous to that since 2000). The latest report was a study on the Ocean and the Cryosphere, the frozen parts of the world.
Valérie Masson-Delmotte, one of the lead authors of the report, commented at the report’s launch in Monaco that “climate change is already irreversible… due to the heat uptake in the ocean, we can’t go back”. If this doesn’t make your jaw drop, then you need to read this sentence again.
For a long time, climate change was spoken about as some future apocalyptic event, to take place at least the day after tomorrow. Now we are finally talking about how we are being affected by climate change today on a regular basis. What’s really terrifying, however, is that the feedback loop is already activated. This is the threshold past which the climate spirals beyond our control and global warming accelerates, no matter what we try to do. It’s like we are filling a bath full of water and eventually we break the knob and have no way of putting it back on.
And while this news is horrifying, there’s also reason to be angry. European Commissioner’s welcomed the newest IPCC Special report in a joint press statement – ‘nice’ you may say, but considering that the “save the oceans” hallmark of the Commission over the past five years was just a proposal to ban plastic straws, it’s clear they haven’t gotten the message. Our ocean is dying, and we are continuing business as usual, while alarm bells ring on clogged ears.
Greta spoke at the UN about the “fairytale of eternal economic growth”, while the Commission starts work on its Green Deal for Europe – with high expectations of it being a ‘green Growth package with a funny label. Instead of a press statement “welcoming” the terrifying scientific analysis, we need a recognition that we are on the wrong track and we need radically new climate politics. Otherwise, they’re not really listening.
The second global climate strike took place, finishing a week of student-led climate strikes that mobilised more than 7.6 million people across the world – the largest climate demonstrations in history.
Four million people took to the streets on Friday September 20 ahead of the UN Climate Summit, and more than three million protested on September 27. How many more need to pick up their placards to get the message through?
The next real chance to boost global climate ambition and for world leaders to show real commitment to climate action is at COP25 in Santiago, Chile. That won’t be until December. Given that the special UN summit on boosting ambition barely raised an eyebrow, what expectations can we have for COP25, where parties will only be threshing out the technical details on implementation of the Paris Agreement? What more can civil society be expected to do to put raising climate ambition on the agenda?
So if you’re still in that phase of climate grief where you feel trapped in sadness or denial, it’s time to move on to the phase of anger. This is the productive phase that will lead us to the streets and keep the pressure on. 7.6 million, we learnt this week, is not enough to get world leaders to act. We need more people to be angry.
Keep being angry, keep building momentum.
Damien Thomson is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow him on Twitter @dmacthomais.