Greenwashing the crisis

While the planet stands on the edge of runaway climate change, another totally inadequate Cop conference is about to begin. But, writes Eddie Ford, protest politics is also totally inadequate

With the window closing fast to avert climate catastrophe, this year’s Cop27 is about to begin in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh. The whole bash starts off on November 6.

As you might expect in Egypt, protestors will be corralled away in a purpose-built area near a desolate highway, far away from the actual conference centre or any other signs of life. Strict surveillance has been extended to the virtual world via an app created for the Egyptian state to act as a ‘guide’ to the conference facilities. When you download the official app, you must give your full name, email address, mobile number, nationality and passport number - not information you are eager to give out in a country that has an estimated 60,000 political prisoners and has silenced independent environmentalists and climate activists.

We were originally told that the newly crowned Rishi Sunak would not be attending Cop27 due to “pressing domestic commitments”. However, he came under a constant barrage of criticism about “a failure of leadership” - especially as the UK still holds the presidency of the UN negotiations until Egypt officially takes over the reins. Hence Downing Street did a quick Liz Truss-like U-turn and announced that the prime minister would be making the trip after all, because there is “no long-term prosperity without action on climate change” and there is “no energy security without investing in renewables”. This decision might possibly open the door for Charles Windsor to attend as well, but, if he does turn up, he will hardly set the world on fire with revolutionary rhetoric. The king is essentially a feudal-loving reactionary in the Young England tradition of the Victorian era, where everybody knows their place and noblesse oblige. And, of course, the vast majority of those attending will have the same sort of politics as Windsor and Sunak: an enduring commitment to growth for the sake of growth.

Of course, Rishi Sunak’s green credentials are totally bogus. In last year’s budget as chancellor he failed to mention climate change once. As prime minister, Sunak has already stripped Alok Sharma, Cop president, and Graham Stuart, climate change minister, of cabinet status - telling MPs on the European Research Group that the government would keep the crazy ban on onshore wind farms. That would make the UK an outlier at Cop27, where even countries like Poland - who are still heavily dependent on coal - are loosening rules on wind farms. Sharma declared himself “delighted” by the reversal of Sunak’s position, having previously said he was “disappointed” that Sunak was not planning to attend. However, Sharma might not be so happy to discover that the UK government has failed to make its £260 million of promised climate finance payments to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) dedicated to helping developing countries adapt and mitigate climate effects.

New normal

As for the latest climate reports timed to coincide with Cop27, they do not make for happy reading. Thus the world has been inevitably heading towards a 1.5ºC temperature increase since about 1850 - the period of rapid industrialisation. Scientists said that a 45% reduction of CO2 was needed from 2010 levels to keep within the 1.5ºC target, enshrined in the 2015 Paris agreement. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there has been a 10.6% increase - a disastrous situation. Therefore, at the very least, all the signatory countries need to revisit and strengthen their climate plans, but so far only 24 new or updated climate plans have been submitted since Cop26 in 2021.

If that 10.6% had been a decrease, you might say that there was still some room for optimism, but it is not surprising that things are moving in the wrong direction. The solutions they try to sell us are best summed up by electric cars. It is true that an electric car in terms of its life usage will release less CO2 than a conventional car - but that all depends on how the electricity is generated. For example, if it is generated using coal-fired power stations, then the advantage is minimal. If you have an energy mix, it is a bit less minimal, and if you have electricity generated by renewables then there is a considerable difference. On the other hand, they still have to make the batteries, chassis, tyres, glass, plastics, etc.

Fundamentally, what has not been questioned is the entire car economy. But they cannot do that, because it would mean having to reorganise work, cities, our whole way of living - going for a total transformation of society. What we have from Sunak and others is business as usual, along with a lot of retreat. Therefore a sober and honest assessment has to be that the world will hit 1.5ºC sooner rather than later, with the chance that the 2ºC ‘limit’ will be exceeded. They are now talking of 2.5ºC degrees or more above preindustrial levels by 2100. Climate scientists tell us that what you have in terms of the climate system are trigger points: a shift from one paradigm to another.

This is not an easy thing to predict, of course. We have been warned by the Humboldt Institute in Germany that the Gulf Stream could suddenly switch off, which would cool Britain down wonderfully. But that would be part of a bigger picture that triggers huge storms, inundations, desertification, and so on. What we do know for sure is that a lot of global warming is already locked into the system. Ice caps will continue to melt even if they could produce - like a rabbit from a hat - zero-net carbon emissions today, let alone in 2050 or some time later. There would still be anthropogenic climate change.

So we must expect more in the way of Pakistani-style floods and extreme heating. Record-breaking temperatures have been recorded in the Middle East, of course. At 40ºC, if you are outside for any length of time, the body stops functioning properly. The reason for that is because the body’s normal core temperature is 37º-38ºC. If it heats up to 39º-40ºC, the brain tells the muscles to slow down and fatigue sets in. Get to 40º-41ºC and heat exhaustion is likely - and above that level the body starts to shut down. It cannot even sweat at this point, because blood flow to the skin stops. Yes, if you are rich, you can go into an air-conditioned mall or car, but poor people just die.

Even in Europe, which, of course, has a relatively moderate climate, there have been 50,000 premature deaths due to excessive temperatures. The UK had record high temperature this summer at 40.3ºC - a massive jump of 1.6ºC on the previous hottest day. Then there have been huge storms in the US and Cuba due to Hurricane Ida, mud slides in the Philippines, wild fires on multiple continents, and so on - all becoming the new normal.

Yet there is more to it than that: rather it is a prelude to far more extreme weather conditions. Recently published documents by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research indicate that by the time a global temperature rise of 1.5ºC is reached, there would be a significant risk to four major weather systems. The ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctic will start to disintegrate, the end result being sea level rises of several metres. Additionally, the permafrost systems of Canada and Russia will start to thaw and release their vast stores of methane - a greenhouse gas many times more potent and dangerous than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, as an unwanted bonus, at temperature of about 1.5ºC all of the planet’s tropical coral reef systems would start to collapse.


The news headlines are still peppered with stories about brave people gluing themselves to walls or roads, chucking tomato soup over Van Gogh works, spraying orange paint over Porsche showrooms, and so on. Obviously, there will be big demonstrations this month because of Cop27 - protest politics continues.

The problem with the left, however, is that most think protest politics is the answer. In effect then, they are quite content to tail Extinction Rebellion and the like. The problem comes when the system, its actors and personifications, do not go for system change. Frustration sets in. Activists conclude that more and more extreme minority actions are the answer. Instead of just pouring a can of soup over the glass cover, why not destroy the painting - that will show them! Or instead of caking the King Charles III waxwork at Madame Tussauds, why not ‘go beyond non-violence’ and put a bullet into the actual person?

That is clearly where a minority of XR are heading. Their ideas are at least partly inspired by the work of Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University. In her 2011 book, Why civil resistance works, she argues that you only need 3.5% of the population to bring about radical change. She came to this conclusion after collecting data from 323 violent and non-violent campaigns.1 XR’s founder, Roger Hallam, has enthusiastically embraced Chenoweth’s findings - writing how “the fact of the matter is finally settled”. That is, “the only way to prevent our extinction is through mass-participation civil disobedience” and “extensive campaigns of large-scale, non-violent direct action”2.

In other words, there is this cast-iron belief in the power of protest politics. But the project is doomed to failure, since what you need in order to oversee system change is state power, not just lots of people on the streets on this or that day or a very militant 3.5%. And what sort of ‘systems change’ will result under the current order? Obviously not proletarian socialism, but at best ‘climate-change socialism’ - something along the lines of controls over industry and the imposition of restrictions on people’s lives through various forms of rationing and state repression. Of course, central planning was carried out by all the major parties in World War I, but it was expressed in its most crystalline form by the German high command with its ironically named Kriegssozialismus (war socialism).

Not that we want to denounce XR, Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil, etc - which would be an entirely negative exercise. But we are critical in the same way that Lenin and Russia’s Marxists were critical of the Narodniks, even though they admired their self-sacrifice. Remember they killed tsarist ministers, even Alexander II himself. But the fact of the matter is that assassination simply does not work. You do not overthrow tsarism even if you get a tsar. Tsars and tsarist ministers are replaced through the workings of heredity on the one hand and political promotion on the other hand. Meanwhile hundreds of fine revolutionaries are executed, imprisoned or forced into exile. Of course, we are not in that sort of situation in the UK yet. But the underlying logic is not dissimilar.

We must go beyond protest - we need the politics of power. For that we need a mass, working class, internationalist, Marxist party. As the climate crisis proves beyond doubt, there is no British or local solution to what is evidently a global threat.


  1. bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world.↩︎

  2. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/01/extinction-rebellion-non-violent-civil-disobedience.↩︎