Written by Jonathan Cook / Middle East Eye
COP27, the United Nations’ annual climate conference attended by world leaders, kicked off in Egypt at the weekend in the midst of a wave of civil disobedience actions in the UK.
The protests have been led by environmental groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, and come as oil giants have announced massive profits from surging energy prices caused by the Ukraine war, and new reports show catastrophic climate change is soon to reach a tipping point, becoming irreversible.
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, warned on the eve of the summit that the world would be “doomed” if rich, heavily carbon-dependent economies could not reach an agreement with poorer countries. New figures show temperature rises across Europe have risen twice as fast as the global average, leading to increasingly unstable weather.
In recent direct actions, car showrooms, luxury department stores and oil lobbyists’ headquarters have been splattered with orange paint. Waxworks of the royal family in Madame Tussauds have been caked. Famous works of art have been targeted with soup and mashed potatoes. Scientists have occupied a car plant. The lobby of the British parliament has been taken over by demonstrators. And activists have scaled suspension bridges and blocked roads.
There are signs too that the upswell of frustration and anger at the lack of urgency from western leaders and media in addressing the unfolding climate catastrophe is spreading. In the United States, protesters disrupted ABC’s daytime television show The View, accusing the network of platforming climate deniers and dedicating only six hours to the climate crisis in the whole of 2021.
Most of these actions have been ignored by the media or dismissed as the antisocial posturings of individuals divorced from the concerns of ordinary people.
That was certainly how the most publicised act of civil disobedience was received: two activists threw tomato soup at one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings
The protesters were variously accused of vandalising a work of art (they hadn’t, it was protected by glass); of choosing the wrong target (they noted that their protest was to highlight how society values representations of nature over nature itself); and of being white and privileged (their defenders pointed out that they were using their privilege precisely because others who also cared about the environment could not afford to do so).
But the criticism most widely hurled at these various forms of direct action is that they are counterproductive, that they antagonise ordinary people and make them stop listening.
🦺 Louise, 24: “I'm here because I don't have a future. You might hate me for doing this, but I wish you would direct all that anger and hatred at our Government. They are betraying young people like me — I wouldn't have to be here if they did their duty.”#FreeLouis #FreeJosh pic.twitter.com/iRfUqUuRRc
— Just Stop Oil (@JustStop_Oil) November 7, 2022
There is an obvious rejoinder. No one appeared to be listening before the activists took to the streets. Endless scientific warnings have made little impact on public discourse. The establishment media have paid only lip service to the dangers, even as the effects on the climate have become harder to overlook. And governments have made placatory noises while doing nothing meaningful to reverse the collision course humanity is on with the planet.
That was underscored by the British government’s recent decision to issue more than 100 new licences to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea. Officials are also drafting legislation to remove 570 European Union-derived protections on the environment.
Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, even announced his intention to bow out of COP27, arguing that “domestic challenges” with the economy were more pressing, before international pressure forced him to relent. Predictably, his speech at COP27 was short on specifics or commitments.
These are the UK’s responses despite the growing chorus of alarm from expert bodies. Last month the United Nations warned that, even assuming industrialised nations stick to pledges to cut emissions, the world is heading towards a 2.5C rise in temperatures and catastrophic climate breakdown.
The World Meteorological Organization, meanwhile, noted that the three greenhouse gases have reached record highs, with methane – the biggest offender – showing the largest year-on-year jump.
Nature strikes back
Civil disobedience is a symptom not of the climate crisis – nature won’t listen to the protesters – but of the inaction that continues to be the default position of governing political elites, as well as the billionaire-owned media that is supposed to serve as a watchdog on their power.
For that reason, criticism of the protests has missed the point. The activists aren’t trying to win elections – they are not engaged in a popularity contest.
Their goal is to disrupt narratives and mobilise resistance. That requires building consciousness among those parts of the populace more receptive to their message, swelling the ranks of activists prepared to take part in civil disobedience, and making life ever harder for things to continue as normal.
Such a programme was bound to provoke a backlash, most especially from political and media elites but also from parts of the public. It is that backlash – one that demands respect for effigies of the royal family or works of art above the survival of our species – that challenges current social norms.
The protesters have a huge task ahead. As the climate turns nastier, they need to harness public attention not only towards the causes but towards the true costs of reversing course – in the face of relentless misinformation and greenwashing from big business and government.
The establishment media is playing a crucial part in twisting social and political priorities. Every time it focuses on the inconvenience caused by the climate protests – or the potential risk of someone dying in an ambulance caught in a hold-up – it is downplaying what are already the tangible, lethal consequences of the climate emergency.
Large parts of the globe are already suffering. In Nigeria, many hundreds have been killed by recent flood waters, and more than a million forced from their homes. In the summer, a third of Pakistan was inundated by unexpectedly heavy rainfall. After visiting Pakistan, Guterres observed: “We have waged war on nature, and nature is striking back, and striking back in a devastating way.”
Nonetheless, the claim that there is widespread antipathy in Britain towards acts of civil disobedience on the climate is greatly overstated – and by the very same media outlets determined to play down the climate crisis.
An opinion poll published last month shows that two-thirds of Britons actually back non-violent protests to protect the environment – at a time when the mass media suggests climate activists have become pariahs.
Despite this, the rightwing Conservative government in London has been progressively eradicating the right of protest – precisely to prevent actions to highlight its continuing crimes against the planet.
A spate of recent legislation has been designed to criminalise any expression of dissent. The latest, the Public Order Bill being rushed through parliament, makes illegal any protest that causes “serious disruption” to more than one person. The earlier Police Bill defined serious disruption to include noisy demonstrations.
Actions like glueing oneself to railings, sitting in a road, obstructing fracking machinery or tunnelling can result in up to three years’ imprisonment. “Disruption prevent orders” can be issued to anyone who has attended a protest in the last five years, banning them from taking part in future demonstrations for two years. Activists’ freedom of movement can be limited by orders requiring them to wear an electronic tag or denying them entry to specified areas.
London’s Metropolitan police vowed this week to increase the number of “pre-emptive arrests” after protesters managed to close parts of the M25 motorway around the capital.
One might have hoped that at least Britain’s opposition party would be vowing to reverse such draconian measures once in office. But Labour leader Keir Starmer has suggested he would legislate even stiffer penalties for those taking direct action on the climate. Apparently pandering to what he assumes is public sentiment, Starmer has called such protests “arrogant” and “wrong”.
Detachment from reality
What all this represents is a shift over the past decade from one kind of political insanity – a denial, either implicitly or explicitly, of a climate crisis – to a different kind of insanity: official acknowledgment of a looming climate catastrophe but a refusal to do something meaningful to avert it.
This continuing detachment from reality is not accidental. It is engineered by the way political priorities have been ordered.
That is especially true in relation to what westerners think of simplistically as “defensive” or “humanitarian” wars. In truth, they are more usually battles between great powers competing over energy resources to generate the very economic growth destroying the planet.
Wars have horrifying consequences for populations caught in the crossfire, as well as the communities they live in and the wider environment.
But those same wars have highly beneficial outcomes for a tiny wealthy elite. They bolster the profits of big business – from arms manufacturers to media owners and energy firms. At the same time, governments can use wars to justify imposing sacrifices on the wider public, such as austerity measures.
But even more troubling, wars seem to be increasingly useful as a distraction. They create an emergency with a limited and apparently achievable goal – defeating the enemy – that requires the full and immediate attention of western leaders. It presents a reassuring world in which our governments are the Good Guys trying to make the world safer, while theirs are the Bad Guys intending to spread death and destruction.
In this way, wars helpfully deflect attention from the far bigger global crisis of the environment, one in which Western leaders cannot present themselves as the Good Guys – because they are, in fact, the worst, the greediest and the most destructive of the Bad Guys.
The endless War on Terror has served this purpose all too well over the past two decades, when the climate crisis should have been the world’s top priority. Instead, the region where most of the world’s oil is located was plunged into a series of interminable resource wars.
As long as there is a war to worry about – even nuclear Armageddon, as President Joe Biden recently warned – the threat of an environmental Armageddon can be deemed less pressing, less horrifying, less worthy of attention.
The current war in Ukraine increasingly fits this bill. As it develops, it looks less and less like a war to defend national sovereignty and more like Ukraine is being turned into another proxy battlefield between the US and Russia – this one for dominance over European energy markets and the geostrategic advantages that flow from such dominance.
Profits for arms makers and energy firms are booming. Europeans are facing recession and new rounds of austerity. Television audiences have gorged on the news, encouraged to cheer on one side as if they are watching the latest Marvel movie. Astoundingly, mutually assured nuclear annihilation is no longer off the table.
Instead the constant chatter in western capitals, on TV and in the press, is about how to find new ways to generate gas and oil for public consumption to overcome the energy crisis, not how to wean ourselves off these climate-destroying fuels. Biden, for example, has been on the warpath over the refusal of OPEC+ to step up production to help him in the mid-term elections.
And, just as happened with the pandemic, and before it with the Trump presidency and the financial crash, there is once again a more pressing matter to worry about – defeating the “madman” Russian president, Vladimir Putin – than the end of a habitable planet.
But in a world of self-inflicted collapse, Putin is no more insane than his western counterparts. In truth, the only sane people are those trying to wake up everyone else, whether by glueing their hands to the road, climbing bridges or hurling soup at paintings.