Analysis | A call for climate justice from the Dear, Green Place
A Glaswegian’s view of COP26
I don’t like to admit it, but I watched the standout moment of the COP26 climate conference last month while waiting to catch a gas-guzzling international flight. I was returning to Washington, DC, after visiting my family in the summit’s host city, Glasgow, and attending a day of the conference as part of Georgetown University’s delegation.
As India’s environment and climate minister, Bhupender Yadav, took to the floor to outline his country’s opposition to the draft deal’s language on “phasing out coal,” my fellow passengers in the packed airport let out sighs of exasperation.
Yadav’s speech has dominated headlines since COP26 ended. Representatives of Western countries, including envoys from Switzerland and the European Union, excoriated India’s stance from the conference stage. In foreign policy circles, debate revolves around whether India’s stance reflects an attempt to preserve progress toward its poverty eradication goals or the interests of corrupt public officials.
I spent most of my time in Glasgow among family and friends and, unsurprisingly, the minutiae of India’s coal economy did not dominate our conversations. Yet the tensions between climate and economic justice were also illuminated in my hometown community. In Glasgow, I heard a call for leaders to take the necessary steps to save our future planet: revolutionize our global economic system to give power over climate to the communities best placed to enact change.
Stark local realities
Glasgow is a good place to explore what’s at stake in climate adaptation. The name Glasgow means “the Dear, Green Place,” and the city has experienced something of a green revolution in recent decades. The venue for COP26, the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), epitomizes this transformation.
The SEC stands on a stretch of the River Clyde that was once famous for industrial output, particularly shipbuilding. After postwar decline in the demand for ships and Thatcherite privatization decimated Clydeside industry, the Scottish Government and local authorities launched a major regeneration project to promote the area’s “economic, social, and environmental regeneration.” Where once stood factories and yards spewing pollutants into the atmosphere, are prestigious national institutions such as the BBC Scotland media center, the Glasgow Science Centre, and the SEC itself.
The area serves as an example of the potential consequences of rapid, deindustrializing transitions. As Clydeside industry disappeared, so too did the economic prospects of the working-class communities which relied on it for employment. Neighborhoods including Govan and nearby towns like Greenock, which once thrived on their proximity to the Clyde, are now among the poorest in the United Kingdom.
Glasgow’s green evolution is also reflected in my own family’s history. My great-grandfather was a coal miner, yet I spent the afternoon of the first day of COP26 posting Instagram stories for the School of Foreign Service showcasing green initiatives in my family’s neighborhood.
My great-grandfather died in a pit collapse at age 41. The loss of his income pushed his family into poverty and I remember my grandmother describing the long, difficult hours her single mother worked to care for her two children. Today, many families who depend on employment in fossil fuel industries face a similarly stark reality. In India alone, four million people rely, directly or indirectly, on the coal industry for their livelihoods. Even as dangerous levels of coal smog shut down Delhi earlier this month, rapidly phasing out coal without adequate safeguards to stop millions from slipping into poverty should be unthinkable.
Coal may be the worst of the polluting fossil fuels, but it is telling that while 40 countries pledged to shift away from coal at COP26, there was no such promise on oil and gas, favored fuels in Europe and North America. This double standard is symptomatic of the rot at the heart of international climate relations: wealthy nations, corporations, and individuals are unwilling to make real sacrifices for the planet.
Target the top polluters
The real culprits behind our climate crisis remain billion-dollar corporations and the ultra rich. A 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. The world’s richest 1 percent of people produce 15 percent of carbon emissions, twice that of the combined impact of the poorest 50 percent, while a recent study of the lifestyles of 20 billionaires showed that they contributed an average of about 8,190 tons of CO2 to our atmosphere in 2018. In comparison, the average American emits around 15 tons.
The heavyweight leaders in international climate negotiations have been singularly unwilling to check the excesses of those at the top of our economic system. One way to achieve a rapid transition to a green economy would be to tax extreme wealth out of existence, which The Guardian writer George Monbiot called for last month. More progressive domestic and international tax policies would check the exorbitant, polluting lifestyles of the ultra rich while channeling resources towards poor communities that have experienced the brunt of climate change, or that will be most negatively impacted by the necessary phase-out of fossil fuels.
The international community must also develop a robust set of sanctions for polluting corporations. In a context where Exxon knew about climate change for decades but spent millions of dollars on propaganda denying its existence, we cannot trust oil companies and other corporations to green themselves.
Another approach would be to redistribute land to communities that have long been advocating for progressive solutions. From the sustainable living practices on the small, community-owned Scottish island of Eigg to the Karuk Tribe of Northern California’s climate adaptation plan to ease wildfires, Indigenous communities have long-held expertise to help heal ailing ecosystems. Returning land to Indigenous communities puts the earth back into the hands of its best stewards, while enacting material justice for those whose lands were stolen from them.
Combining climate strategies with economic justice is not fanciful. From the Green New Deal in the United States to a proposed Gran Pacto Ecosocial y Económico in Argentina, politicians and activists around the world have developed solutions to do just that.
All it takes is the will of the international community to enact them.
History shows us that little will change as long as wealthy political classes continue to hold the power in climate policy. Local populations — often the leaders in climate action — very rarely have a seat at the table.
Glaswegians were literally locked out of one of the most consequential events to ever happen in their city. Miles of streets were closed to the public during the conference and police confined climate activists to small areas that protestors described as “potentially dangerous.” Meanwhile, local TV channels aired footage of lavish dinners for delegates in between public service announcements imploring people to take personal responsibility for their impact on the climate.
The latter particularly rankled working class Glaswegians. Many of my family members and friends expressed confusion that leaders placed responsibility for climate change at their doors. My sister’s fiancé grew up in Wishaw, a town decimated by the coal industry’s collapse. He reflected on the irony that carbon-heavy luxuries such as owning a car and eating meat with every evening meal had long been promoted to his community as the aspirational luxuries of a successful middle-class life, only to be condemned as environmentally “wrong” when they were suddenly within reach of ordinary families.
Insensitive approaches from policymakers with ties to fossil fuel companies will win little public support for even the most milquetoast policies. Climate diplomacy and negotiation is necessary among the governments and leaders of nations, but diplomacy and negotiation between governments and the people they govern is just as critical. Bringing ordinary people into discussions about how we collectively manage our resources is the only way to ensure climate justice.
We can’t wait for the political class to enact change only when it becomes expedient for them. It is time to hand governance over climate to the activists and local communities who can serve as leaders in a democratic, grassroots, and publicly invested approach to climate change. It’s time to give power over climate policy, and our economic system, to the people.
Mairead MacRae is the assistant director of content strategy at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is a proud history and English graduate of the University of Glasgow and received her Master’s degree in African studies from Yale University. She is writing in her personal capacity.