Greenwashing at COP26: Hope comes from the grassroots, not big climate conferences

‘Youth are losing hope in the system. We’ve perpetually seen a lack of climate action and a lack of political will’
Photo: Li-An Lim
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As the past month in Canada showed, the climate crisis doesn’t just mean rising heat. It also means devastating floods that can wipe out highways and homes, as B.C. and Newfoundland saw.

“Until a few weeks ago, the extreme weather term ‘atmospheric river’ was not in common usage,” noted Nahlah Ayed, a CBC News reporter and host of an event on climate justice held by SFU Public Square on November 26. The flooding caused by the atmospheric river — a long and narrow stream of water vapour in the sky — has led to a tragic loss of life and interruption of supply chains for food and other goods.

As the consequences of the climate crisis worsen, three women engaged in climate justice joined Ayed to share their stories, examine the results of the latest UN climate conference, and give advice on moving forward.

Greenwashing at COP26

At the base of the climate crisis are systems built on colonialism and capitalism, they agreed.

“Fighting for climate justice means that we acknowledge these root causes of the crisis and work to dismantle them actively,” said eighteen-year-old climate and racial justice organizer Naisha Khan.

COP26 was a greenwashing conference, said Khan. There was a severe lack of political will to tackle the climate crisis, too much power given to corporations, and the voices of Indigenous and racialized people were marginalized.

The climate conference, which wrapped up in Scotland on November 12, resulted in the Glasgow Climate Pact. The agreement was weakened when a pledge to “phase out” coal was changed to “phase down” at the behest of coal-reliant countries India and China.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Lubicon Cree and co-founder of Indigenous Climate Action, said Indigenous Peoples are economic hostages in their homelands, always on the blunt end of resource extraction. After seeing too many cut lines from industry when driving home, she decided to bring the first solar energy project to her community in 2015. Called Piitapan, a Cree word that points to a new dawn, the 80-panel solar project in Little Buffalo, Alberta, powers the community health centre.

Anjali Appadurai, Sierra Club BC Climate Justice lead, captured the issue in a memorable quote.

“We have a deeply unfair global economic system that is like a hungry, violent god who requires sacrifice to sustain itself,” she said.

False solutions

International climate conferences do not address the systems that fuel the climate crisis.

While attending UN climate conferences, including COP26, Appadurai has been frustrated by the many false solutions put forward.

“If we look at the logic that holds colonialism and capitalism and extractive industries together, a false solution is something that seeks to solve the problem through the same logic and through the same framework that created it,” she said.

One of the biggest false solutions is the idea of “net zero,” according to Appadurai. “Net zero” refers to the idea that the amount of greenhouse gases produced by a particular party — a company or country, for instance — equals the amount removed from the atmosphere through offsets such as tree planting. It does not necessarily mean that a company or country will lower the levels of greenhouse gases they produce.

“To me, net zero is a concept that leaves large loopholes that are born of the same logic that created the climate crisis and is just an act of smoke and mirrors. Net zero allows us to prioritize corporate power and paves the pathway for extractive industries to continue to do as they please far past any of the deadlines that will take us to a climate safe future.”

Another problematic proposal is “nature-based solutions,” which the International Union for Conservation of Nature defines as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.”

Appadurai said that nature-based solutions sound positive and constructive, “but you just have to look at who embraces a concept to see what logic that concept is born out of.”

The idea of “nature-based solutions” has been embraced by the corporate sector, including both greenwashing and fossil fuel companies, and governments that have placed profit over people and the planet.

Leadership from the grassroots

Canada’s government has also failed to show true climate leadership, leaving it up to ordinary people to take action.

In Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C., people are fighting the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which was not approved by the traditional Wet’suwet’en governance system. Dozens of people were arrested last month after the RCMP moved in for the third time since 2019.

“We have the RCMP right now that are essentially being deployed as a private security force for a company,” pointed out Appadurai. Deploying RCMP resources to arrest land defenders and not mandating an immediate winddown of the fossil fuel industry are clear choices legitimized by the state, she said, but looking at the arc of history, climate science, and the moral obligation of the moment, they are not legitimate.

It’s an example of what she described as “land dispossession [of Indigenous Peoples] laying the way for extractive industries, which are then protected by governments, which then have created the crisis that we find ourselves in. So that’s the story at the heart of climate injustice.”

Compounding this issue, observed Laboucan-Massimo, is the seeming inability of progressives to call things out when they gain political power. When they become part of government, they no longer say the things that they need to say. Essentially, they censor themselves.

Without leadership on climate, people are becoming disengaged, not because they do not care but because they do not believe in the systems that uphold colonialism and capitalism.

“Unfortunately, youth are losing hope in the system,” said Khan. “We’ve perpetually seen a lack of climate action and a lack of political will to meet our needs, and I think there’s an overall apathy towards it.”

“I do think that we can work towards building better trust with political systems by introducing newer, younger and more representative voices in politics,” she said.

Ultimately, though, the climate crisis will not be addressed just by governments and climate conferences.

“I believe change happens at the grassroots and it happens from the ground up,” said Khan. “And there’s so much essential work that Indigenous land defenders are doing and other groups are doing that does not fall under COP.”

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