The Davosification of Cop: Why capitalism hasn’t got climate covered

By Rupert Read and Jem Bendell.

This article orginally appeared on Brave New Europe.

One of us (Rupert) is in the thick of Cop26 in Glasgow, the other (Jem) is watching the social media closely from the other side of the world. But to both of us this Cop has a look that is not pretty: Cop26 reminds us alarmingly of the World Economic Forum at Davos, which both of us have experienced in person…

To Rupert, what is plain to see on the ground is the painful contrast between the two worlds that he’s flitting between in Glasgow, worlds that seem more divided than ever: the world of the official ‘blue zone’, that is the world of ‘leaders’ and negotiations and big corporates and shiny futures, with its constant air of rarefaction and self-importance … and the world outside: of XR non-violent direct action across central Glasgow, of a younger generation angrier than ever, of grief circles and community hubs. The former projects an almost constant sense of confidence that capitalism has got this covered, that we (they) are going to save the day and maintain profit margins throughout to boot; the latter veers between gallows humour and determination, between a reasonable despair and defiant bursts of ‘optimism’.

To Jem, the same divide is stark: between the orgy of self-congratulation convulsing Linked-In and the panoply of bravery, solidarity and…eccentricity visible across Twitter; between the saviour elite telling itself (and anyone who will listen – but mostly itself…) that everything is going to be fine and the bitter sense among an escalating portion of the public that a last chance saloon is dying in real time as we watch and chant and prepare. 

The Linked-In Cop-eratti, who Rupert sees every day striding with a great exuding sense of apparent purpose from meeting to meeting inside the blue zone at Cop26, and the not-unconnected world of private jets, celebs, and the super-rich who form a half-hidden fringe to this Cop, remind Jem and Rupert both, strongly, of the vibe at Davos. 

Now of course, this is not to say that Davos is all bad (see our https://theecologist.org/2020/mar/12/activist-engagement-davos-set ). It’s not to deny that some pockets of progress seem to be being made at Cop26, e.g perhaps on methane. It’s not to tar all elites or all business with the same brush; it’s true that, in the absence of any real political leadership (with striking exceptions such as the efforts of some of the Cop26 ‘high-level champions’, and of the statesmanlike Prime Minister of Barbados), some in the business world have made bigger strides over the last year and the last week; it’s true that the likes of B-Corps businesses offer some small glimmers of semi-hope amidst the dire vista of a neoliberalism still weirdly triumphant, even as symptoms of the nature-collapse that it has caused push closer to destroying itself – and nearly everything else. Our point though is that the narrative at this Cop, which has never really become the explicit narrative of any Cop before, but has always been the narrative of Davos – that there is no alternative, that endless ‘growth’ and eco-sense are compatible, that capitalism has this covered so we little people can all go back to sleep again – is a sign of sickness. 

A civilisation that is locked into praising and relying on the very forces that have pushed the planet into the sixth mass extinction is a civilisation that is sick, and that will get iller until it radically changes course, either by breakdown or by design.

Consider the way in which more or less unregulated business is increasingly posing explicitly as saviour at this Cop. At an event of the consulting firm Accenture, Al Gore is praised to the skies for saying it’s Ok if “narrow COP” (i.e. the actual negotiations!) doesn’t meet the moment, as the “broader COP” of voluntary business announcements is what will make the difference. Here we see why business elites have started to choose to announce their new initiatives at COP, rather than at any other time of the year. It’s maintaining the facade that capitalism-more-or-less-as-usual has got this climate thing covered. 

Note of course that by “broad Cop” Gore does NOT mean the truly-broad Cop referred to above: the Cop of Glasgow focussing almost as a whole city on climate concern, the Cop of special film-showings and marches and civil disobedience and more. No; he means business. This is how elites are going to try to maintain the fiction that Cop26 hasn’t failed us, this week: they will elide the failure of political leaders to make transformative progress with the alleged success of what Gore calls “broad Cop”. Elements of progress among business re our shared future will be spun as an excuse for government inaction. Businesses will pose as our saviours; and for some governments, under neoliberalism, that works out just fine. They don’t even mind being thought ineffective, if the net result is more power to the businesses that feed and fund them.

After decades of voluntary corporate sustainability efforts, it’s clear the problem is not the company executive that hasn’t signed up to the latest voluntary commitment. The problem is the economic system which commands companies to keep expanding and ‘externalising’ costs just to stay in business. This problem cannot be sorted by voluntary alliances alone; because built into it is a deep free-rider problem. So long as businesses are not held to a higher playing field by regulation etc., there will always be openings for bad climate actors to exploit.

The sickness that we’ve been describing can be understood more deeply in psychical terms:

How can our ‘leaders’ and the supporting strata of elites beneath them who have official Cop26 in their hands aspire to face up to climate reality, when they are not willing or able to slow down to actually sense into this moment, not willing to undergo a dark night of the soul, not willing to sit more than a micro-moment in despair or depression?

The global elite has quit the hard denial response to the climate tragedy, only to get stuck in the softer phase of bargaining.

But guess what. You can’t bargain with the atmosphere. You can’t bargain with nature. And bargaining over the very existence of our children and of this beautiful living planet is sick.

A moment in history is now imminent, in our view. It is the moment when a huge new portion of the public comes to realise that there are very few adults in the room inside the corridors of power at Cop26 or its ilk. To realise that no-one is coming to the rescue; that the elite is seemingly determined to go on colonising the life-world until it gnaws away its own foundations. The moment when a new awakening occurs, into the pain-suffused truth of a climate breakdown that is near-certainly going to be much harsher than any ‘leader’ is yet willing to admit.

We think this moment will land on or around Nov.12 2021. True, a key point of the orgy of self-congratulation among the elite is to prevent this moment; to seek to spin Cop26 as putting humanity back on track for a safe future. But we think this stratagem of theirs mostly isn’t going to work. Because this was the Cop that was supposed to ratchet us to a secure 1.5 degree post-Paris future; and that is obviously not on the cards. And because this was the historic Cop in the middle of the ‘emerging from Covid’ moment, the Cop that could have seized the opportunity of the post-lockdowns reset to chart and build a transformed future; and to think that that has happened is frankly to be sinking back from bargaining into outright denial again.

The imminent awakening, a difficult emergence from the pupae of the plagued year, midwifed by 2021’s unprecedented climate disasters, which tragically are only the beginning, will (we think) take three main forms. 

Firstly, a lot of people who have been putting it off are about to experience the pain of climate anxiety and eco-grief. They need support.

Secondly, the unsettling realisation that the elite are so far up their own story of imagined world-salvation that, absurdly, they feel Cop26 to be a success will contribute to a growing climate-anger. A wide mobilisation is coming that could make the youth strikes for climate look small.

And thirdly, part of that mobilisation will take the form of a pivot to adaptation. As it sinks in that there are no cavalry, and that the Davosified elite at Cop have no intention of a significant course-correction, there will be a movement towards Transformative and Deep Adaptations. For, once you take in the scary reality that some kind of climate nemesis is not going to be prevented, it’s up to us all to cope with the consequences.

Be scared. Be angry. Be loving. Be ready. Become resilient.

Mark this coming awful and yet, if together we face it authentically, hopeful moment in history. Mark it with us, on Friday Nov.12, and thereafter.

Publication: