NOTE: This article is part of an ongoing series on Gen-R found under the main menu category Gen-R and the Climate Crisis → Gen-R: Challenges and Opportunities. Find a general introduction to the Gen-R concept here.
It always seems impossible until it’s done — Nelson Mandela
There they were — the elderly white couple with gray hair. They stood out from the crowd of mostly young people of all races from every corner of the world.
But still, they joined the youngsters as they walked out in protest from the auditorium where they had been witnessing the proceedings at Glasgow’s November, 2021, COP26 global climate conference.
By staging their walkout in COP26’s final hours, the “Civil Society Representatives” of farmers and NGOs (AKA powerless observers) to the summit were protesting what they saw — with considerable justification — as the conference’s failure to protect the planet and its people. They were “calling out” the official delegates for failing to reach binding agreements to control global temperature rise and failing to adequately support developing countries, which are fated to bear the brunt of climate-change destruction in the coming decades. Upon leaving the building, they joined thousands of other protesters assembled in the nearby streets.
The protesters stated their own positions clearly — positions in direct opposition to the hem-and-haw compromises the official delegations had painstakingly (or, grudgingly?) reached and were now touting as significant achievements.
“COP26 is a performance” one Indigenous activist from Canada, quoted in the Guardian, told the representatives before the walkout. “It’s an illusion constructed to save the capitalist economy rooted in resource extraction and colonialism.”
And the antidote?
“What do we want?” someone in the group leaving the conference shouted.
“Climate Justice!” the crowd responded.
“When do we want it?”
These young people had come to Glasgow, mostly at their own expense, to try to twist some metaphorical arms at COP26. They wanted to confront the delegates with a straightforward message: “You are not doing enough to stop the climate crisis. You must do more, much more. Now. Before it’s too late.”
The message was mostly ignored, especially by the representatives of countries where fossil fuels dominate the economy or development and strongly influence national policy. The final emissions-reduction pledges were so watered down that, even if they are met, they won’t prevent dangerous global warming in the very near future — well within the lifetimes of the young protesters. The commitments to finance climate mitigation and resilience in developing countries, even if they are kept, will meet just around 10% of the needs. Tellingly, India and China pulled a last-minute stunt to undermine the delegation’s agreement on phasing out coal.
The anger in the street was palpable. “This summit is becoming a joke,” one protester who had attended several previous COP conferences said. “And there’s a real need for them to listen to people like these,” he continued, pointing to the stream of Civil Society Representatives exiting the conference.
Unconscionably, they’re not listening.
But here’s the thing. Social and political movements invariably grow from small kernels, beginning as the complaint or vision of a tiny minority of people. If their idea has merit, it gains traction, gains adherents — slowly at first, but then exponentially. And eventually it breaks through the business-as-usual barriers. Historical examples, such at the abolitionist movement and the suffragettes, abound.
A few years ago, there was no discernable “youth climate movement.” Then, in 2018, Greta Thunberg staged her first, solo climate strike, and within a year there were more than a million school strikers in 125 countries. Two years later, 100,000 protesters showed up in Glasgow.
What will it take for the climate movement to break through, to take control global climate policy? Remember that gray-haired couple walking out of COP26 with the Civil Society people?
When their generation is ready to join up with the youngsters, there’ll be a sea change in global climate policy at our ecological house.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.