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On COP26 Glasgow & the Futility of Climate Conferences



Knut Wimberger

Short summary:

This essay reviews the documentary Before the Flood which was shot on the occasion of COP21 and asks if anything will be different at COP26 or any other future climate conference.

It was in 2014-16 when Leonardo di Caprio travelled the world to assess the status quo of climate change with his own eyes and serve as the face of a Martin Scorsese produced and Fisher Stevens directed documentary: Before the Flood. DiCaprio had been appointed UN climate ambassador by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon in 2014 and reported on the impact of climate change on behalf of the UN and National Geographic. The film’s narrative finds its climax in Di Caprio speaking to the general assembly of the Paris COP21 climate conference on December 4, 2015, where he presents his impression and asks for urgent action.

Its five years since the film aired and since it confirmed my opinion that we cannot expect any substantial outcomes from diplomatic conferences. Yesterday, we watched the film once more in a small group as part of a course on ecological psychology.  To my surprise, I was the only one who had seen it before. A five-year-old film is considered outdated in our fast-moving information age. However, the Glasgow COP26 climate conference gives it new relevance. Will there be anything different this time?

DiCaprio is disappointed at the end of the film because after all the devastation he had seen, the Paris Climate Pact remained like many UN laws an empty paper with high aspirations but no legal basis for execution. Thousands of diplomates gather to discuss the results of tens of thousands of researchers and political activists but fail to deliver the legal framework which could drive a transformation of our societies towards a cooler planet and warmer communities.

Before the Flood is worth to be watched again and again, like a good book is worth to be read several times. That’s the nature of work which has been devised to lead mankind towards enlightenment. One of the most compelling conversations that DiCaprio leads in the film is with Indian environmental activist Sunita Narain. She reveals the destruction of climate change by guiding the film crew to flooded onion fields which received within only five hours (!) half a year’s precipitation. Narain asks if the US can be an example to the world and accuses the citizens of rich nations to be criminals for bringing these destructive natural forces upon the world’s poor.

Is the US citizen a criminal because he drives fossil fuel guzzling automobiles? Is the average citizen in a developed nation a criminal because she purchases palm oil containing foods – like conservationist Ian Singelton claims in the documentary? Is the EU citizen a criminal because he consumes dairy products from a heavily subsidized agricultural industry? Who is to blame? The individual or organizations? The consumer, the producer or the merchant?

It is said that more than 90 thousand (!) diplomats, politicians, journalists and activists gather these days in Glasgow. The costs are estimated to go into the several hundred million pounds and are being shouldered by the British taxpayer and attending organizations, which are likewise mostly funded by national taxpayers. We tend to forget that the salaries and expenses of most COP26 attendees are covered either directly or indirectly by national tax budgets which in turn are as a rule of thumb financed largely through value added and personal income tax.

Like Paris in 2015, Glasgow 2021 will not bring about the changes in legislation - let alone behavior - that we need, to transform national economies into an organizational structure which reflects the reality of this planet being one ecosystem, and which requires a new and post-national governance. The structure of the UN, which rests on the concept of nation states as political entities being represented by heads of state or their diplomatic representatives who convene on behalf to national populations, is obsolete. In particular, if it does not bring about the solutions which are needed to make transformation possible, it is to be abandoned.

DiCaprio introduces in a conversation with economist Greg Mankiw the carbon tax as a silver bullet to mitigate climate change and is seriously disillusioned that it is not even mentioned in the Paris Climate Pact. What is the carbon tax? As a tax on carbon negative behavior it is designed to demotivate consumption which has a negative impact on the planetary ecosystem. It is basically a wealth tax which transfers money from the rich who own expensive cars, yachts, private jets, big houses to governments. Whether the governments will do the right thing with all that tax revenue we however don’t know.

The interesting part of a carbon tax is its combination with a substantial reduction of the personal income tax. In most modern tax system, 1/3 of tax revenue is generated by value added tax (VAT), 1/3 by personal income tax, and another third by all other taxes combined. With top personal income tax rates scratching 50% in many western welfare states, the incentives to be employed and earn more than minimum wages has gone against zero. It is not surprising that unemployment or seasonal employment has become a mainstream choice, when one earns little more for a full-time job.

It is safe to assume that the carbon tax did not enter the Paris Climate Pact because of US opposition. The US economy is fueled by the lowest VAT among all OECD nations – a tax system which encourages consumption is at odds with a carbon tax. The personal income tax in the US is however among the highest of all OECD countries and reflects a social imbalance favoring the rich to consume while the working class is taxed highly for its contribution to a functioning society. The set-up of the American tax system is just another reason why it made me sick when DiCaprio addresses Obama as “the leader of the free world.” There is nothing to learn from that system – no matter who is its helmsman - but how to not deal with important affairs about planet and people.

There is another dent in the carbon tax silver bullet: it falls short of aiming at the real solution: a conditional universal basic income which reduces the requirement to finance large government agencies which have nothing better to do as to redistribute tax revenue streams. A conditional universal basic income would probably also help to reduce government spending on education and healthcare: the two areas where governments invest most money with an absolutely wrong attitude.

National education, as mentioned on many occasions, is competitive and neglects the two most important subjects of the Anthropocene: ecology and empathy. National health care on the other hand has turned into a major business, in which governments fuel drug consumption instead of well-being. Our health system is a disease system, film director Shelly Lee Davis tells us. It is dominated by physicians, hospitals and pharmacologists. The more work they get, the more profit there is. That sort of system is likely to look after itself. It generates more work and is not interested in reducing.

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in The Great Disruption about the decline of social capital in Western democracies, above all in the United States. Psychologist Daniel Goleman echoes his thoughts in Social Intelligence and explains with compelling empirical and statistical evidence that human well-being requires healthy communities. We are kept however in the believe that technology can be a panacea to everything: disease, age, biodiversity loss, climate change. DiCaprio assigns technology this semi-god like role in an interview with Elon Musk who basically explains that everything can be fixed with the right app. Technology can’t fix anything if we fail to charge it with the right values. And as long as technologies are the products of exploitative capitalist systems, they will continue to operate in line with greed, ignorance and apathy.