The UN climate talks have become a co-opted charade, lacking political will, governed by self- interested groupthink and leading to fake news, false truths, that stifle real urgent solutions. It is now necessary to expose this failure in order to address the climate crisis and spur new forms of citizen action.
Charade: “An absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance”
Groupthink: “Groupthink occurs when a group of people make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.”
The outcomes of the recent UNFCCC climate talks in Katowice Poland have, once again, been heralded by the UN as a successful step to avert the climate crisis. But analysed through the lens of necessary scientific urgency (as opposed to political ambition), it is starkly clear that the talks are failing and that there is a massive schism between the fiction of the UN talks and the reality required to avert climate catastrophe.
This is a stark case of Groupthink gone badly wrong.
Irving Janis, the late Yale University psychologist who first coined the term, described Groupthink as requiring individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, with subsequent loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. As such the current climate talks in their optimism and false news typify groupthink that threatens the very survival of our one planet.
After 11 years working in the UN climate talks I have come to a radical but honest conclusion, the UN climate process is, frankly, totally broken. After much deliberation I have realized that my participation and engagement in the climate talks is in itself an act of co-option and makes me complicit in the green washing of the talks as a solution to the climate crisis.
Don’t get me wrong; many of the people in and around the talks are well-intended and we must also maintain multilateral talks to tackle the existential threat of trans-boundary climate pollution. But with time for planetary survival running out, we require a new form of honesty, one that allows the world to know that the talks are in crisis and not a part of the solution but now a part of the problem. By legitimising a charade of groupthink on a massive scale they are fuelling hope for a process that is deeply broken and that gives governments and citizens false hope, instead of empowering citizens and governments to take urgent and immediate action.
Tackling the climate crisis is a race against time and one that we are losing. Carbon emissions for 2018 are rising at their highest recorded levels. All across the globe climate impacts are surpassing predictions as climate damage unfolds at unprecedented speeds, breaking records and observations across the globe.
This is deadly serious
The recent IPCC report gave less than 12 years to save the planet: Rapid ecosystems degradation and massive species loss caused by our capitalist economies is overexploiting our natural environment and synergistically fuelling global climate disruption.
This year has seen ever more records being broken with more wildfires, heat extremes, severe storms, ocean acidification, melting arctic ice and melting glaciers; with more to come as the Earth, (and our own economic systems), speeds up, fuelling the intensity of climate chaos. Yet the Paris agreement signed in 2015 does not begin to come into operation until 2020 with no legally binding agreements on countries to deliver on their promises.
Whilst the science says we need rapid urgent action, the climate talks have, since 1990, been a process of delayed negotiations and talking shop. We have lost precious years in talking around the issues – years that the Planet and its climate system sadly cannot afford to lose.
So the situation is deadly serious.
As humans, we place our hopes in the leadership of nation states, righteous NGOs and well-meaning business and industry, all working together in a UN multilateral process to save us from impending global disaster – but folks, this not a good plan. For our governments, NGOS and our business and industry cannot save us in the current model because they have become so co-opted by the process itself - intent on preserving their own egos and institutional objectives - that they can no longer speak truth to power. This is Groupthink gone seriously wrong!
Some examples of the perversity of the UN climate charade includes NGOs and a civil society that are only able to organise any kind of action or event with the full authorisation of the UNFCCC for fear of arrest or deportation from the talks. For example, the Polish Government, which hosted the recent talks, had a secret blacklist of climate activists and was busy arresting and detaining civil society staff upon entering the country with no legitimacy whatsoever.
Too scared to speak truth to power
NGOs are scared to speak truth to power, watering down press releases and campaigns to meet fundraising targets and ensure their political relevance is not compromised, with their most radical actions left to send tweets or stand silently holding banners. Business and industry have now reinvented themselves as the neo liberal saviors of a climate problem they have so readily caused, using their influence and wealth to steer coalitions and construct smokescreens to avert their responsibilities.
The talks in Poland kicked off with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the fossil-fuelled US government refusing to welcome the latest IPCC report on reducing warming to below 1.5 degrees, stalling progress over a simple word and silencing an outstandingly worrying scientific alarm bell.
Remember that the US, which has a huge historical culpability for causing climate damage has for so many years now, delayed and undermined global progress on tackling climate change, including pulling out of the Paris accord altogether. Yet it is still allowed to play an active and disruptive role in talks.
The fossil fuel and coal industry lobbyists are actively engaged and advocating their interests in the talks; this is akin to pyromaniacs fuelling the fire and talking to the fire brigade whilst the Planet burns. For evidence of this, look no further than the fact that the Katowice COP was held in Poland for the third time in 10 years; in a country addicted to coal and ready to push its coal agenda to such an extent handing out coal gifts to the UN participants, and with the Polish president Andrzej Duda opening the conference stated that investing in coal was not at odds with protecting the climate and directly promoting the use of coal at a climate conference.
Developing countries are regularly bullied and sidelined by large polluting countries, their voices drowned out by spin-doctors and so-called friendly advisors. But the saddest thing of all is that the current voluntary pledges to reduce emissions by governments under their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) put the World on a pathway to at least 3 degrees and even higher warming – and that’s if these countries even implement them.
The UN climate talks are a travesty of Groupthink on a massive scale that will not stop climate chaos, and the first step in finding an adequate solution that responds to our planetary emergency is to be honest in sharing the bad news and to begin the process of speaking truth to power and reinventing the ways that we tackle existential threats to our planet’s existence.
We need a new and radical honesty
The climate talks are now doing more damage than good by lying to people that solutions are in hand, or on their way rather than spurring government and citizen action on climate change. The scale and urgency of the climate challenge, and our lemming-like human nature, expedites group thinking leading to limited outcomes and a UN climate talks that is disastrously failing.
The big NGOs will not call the talks out for what they have become for fear of harming the process, their own agencies or careers and which is how they, too, become co-opted by this collective failure. A new climate revolution requires a radical new honesty around how we collectively tackle climate chaos and this must embrace difficult truths and be lead by citizen action.
We can start to change the way we hold talks by no longer tolerating any fossil fuel lobbyists in the talks; kick them out and open up more space for transparency and civil society action.
Historical responsibility and climate justice must again become a pillar of the negotiations, putting the onus on those countries that have (and continue to have) the biggest culpability for causing the problem and make them pay their share of the bill.
Stop the secrecy and open up talks to external scrutiny; strengthen the governance and get rid of twisted backroom deals behind closed doors.Clearly target - and hold accountable - those countries that fail to act responsibly with all manner of repercussions including trade sanctions, starting with the US and OPEC countries. `
Only ever hold the talks in countries that are progressive leaders in climate action; make all commitments legally binding, regularly reviewed and maintain penalties for not meeting hard and fast targets.
NGOs must stop legitimising the negotiations and be honest in their criticisms. Climate change civil society must learn from other rights-based movements across the Globe such as the LGBT and women’s rights community; the divestment movement, the yellow-vest protests in France, the extinction rebellion movement in the UK, student protests in Australia and Indigenous peoples protests in North America, Africa and Latin America.
NGOs must stop trying to save the Planet one tweet at a time, with endless reports and banal press releases focused on the internal mechanisms of the process. Instead, they need to divert their resources to support citizen action to know the facts and take action to tackle the political crisis both domestically and internationally delivering protests and also grassroots solutions at scale.
Until such time that the UNFCCC has an open and honest dialogue, NGOs should boycott and disrupt the talks.
Citizens need to know that the Planet is not safe in the politician’s hands. As individuals we can all take action and divest out of dirty money – bank accounts, pensions, mortgages.
Get political. Have the difficult conversations, and start rebelling.
As the award-winning author, Arundahati Roy, once said: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
So, let’s still the quiet, shutdown the charades and up the ante so we can raise the breath - it’s time for a citizen revolution. We need to re-empower ourselves, get political, protest, divest, work and talk with others in our community to plan and take action, recognising that we are in a deadly serious race against climate chaos and it’s one that we cannot afford to lose!
Kit has spent over a decade working in and around the UNFCCC climate negotiations. He was a leading advocate for an international focus on loss and damage, producing a groundbreaking report on the legal duty for climate compensation way back in 2008. The report was so successful it almost got him fired by WWF US.
He closely followed the negotiations, being detained by Danish police at the failed climate talks in 2009, and was an active NGO climate activist and board member of the Climate Action Network. He has written numerous analytical pieces on the subject, including these articles for the Huffington Post.