We’ve been here before: protesters on St Vincent Street, Glasgow, during COP26 © Jonathan Porter / Alamy Stock Photo

Verdict on COP26: Politics has failed

It’s time to target the money keeping fossil fuels in business
December 9, 2021

To wander the halls of the Glasgow climate summit in November was to wander back through the three-decade history of our species’ organised attempts to deal with the greatest crisis it has ever confronted. The basic look and feel of such conferences were apparent by the Kyoto talks in 1997: half trade show, half high-level international negotiations. Journalists monitored talks that invariably “went down to the wire,” and “into overtime,” and then either “collapsed” (Copenhagen, 2009) or “triumphed” (Paris, 2015). And always, outside, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere kept climbing. 

That is not exactly a cynical observation. Given the magnitude of the task at hand—moving coal, oil and gas out of the centre of the world economy and replacing them with something else—the process was never going to be easy. In fact, it is a task so large that for the first time in human affairs you actually need something like planetary co-operation: they don’t call it “global warming” for nothing.And so goodhearted diplomats and UN bureaucrats work on the task with unfeigned zeal  for entire careers, work that’s only visible at these annual gatherings. The forum they have provided, especially to the most vulnerable countries on earth, has been very useful. We have the critical target of 1.5C on the table entirely because the UN process, with its deference to every head of state, made small island nations temporarily powerful. 

On the other hand, countries are at such various stages of development, and have such divergent national interests, that trying to get them to play nicely together is bound to be hard, verging on impossible. That would be true even if everyone acted in reasonably good faith: though as we’ve come to understand, the fossil fuel industry has spent most of this three-decade period lying through its teeth, delaying action by pretending that the science was dubious or incomplete. If you take those factors into account, we should perhaps be surprised that we’ve got as far as we have. 

The problem, of course, is that carbon dioxide doesn’t take those factors into account. Physics is immature; it refuses to compromise, setting arbitrary limits and engaging in take-it-or-leave-it bargaining. And so far it’s taken most of the sea ice in the Arctic. 

Glasgow neither failed nor succeeded; it was supposed to be the five-year-check-in (delayed 12 months by the pandemic) at which countries would “raise their ambition” and go beyond the targets they’d pledged to meet in Paris. Some did, some didn’t; taken together it produced enough of an agreement to “keep the process going,” but it’s probably worth asking at this point how much more that process can actually produce, especially since (juvenile physics again) this is a timed test. Unlike our other political challenges, there is a clock ticking: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) says that if we don’t halve emissions by 2030, our chances of meeting those targets we set at Paris and reaffirmed in Glasgow will be by the board—and with them the chances of anything like a manageable century. 

It’s understandable that for the people embedded in this process, the right answer is: press harder on the existing buttons, travel faster down the track we’re on. The (entirely just) demand from the “climate vulnerable” countries in the last week of the Glasgow talks was for, essentially, a Glasgow every year: for every COP to be a formal check-in COP, at which each country announces anew how much they’ve increased their target by this time, all in an effort to keep us on track for 1.5C. Since that’s the mark that may well spell survival for millions of our brothers and sisters, it’s clearly what we should do. But I’m beginning to have my doubts about whether such a regular ratchet up is likely or even possible going forward.

My sense is that governments at this point may have shot their bolt, at least for now. I’ll use the example I know best—the United States—because it is a crucial country, having emitted far more carbon than anyone else, and because it illustrates the tensions that make rapid political progress difficult. 

Since much of the hydrocarbon industry is headquartered in America, and since no other large nation is so culturally addicted to fossil fuel, it’s always been difficult to get America on board. Indeed, its political dysfunction has shaped and warped the talks almost from the start: the rest of the world concluded post-Kyoto that there would never be a two-third majority in the US Senate willing to ratify a climate treaty, and so we struck out instead on this path of voluntary pledges. 

It was only in 2009, 20 years after physicist James Hansen told Congress that global warming was under way, that US politicians considered climate legislation (the so-called “cap and trade” law); the proposal was so demonised by Big Oil and its Republican hirelings that the bill never came to a vote. For the succeeding dozen years there was nothing more. Only this autumn—after massive agitation from the climate movement, after Bernie Sanders shook up Democratic politics by running hard on climate, after record wildfires and floods—did legislation reach the floor of Congress once more. 

Impotent and tired? Joe Biden at COP26 in Glasgow. He had hoped  to arrive at the talks having passed key climate legislation in Congress © Ian Forsyth/Getty Images Impotent and tired? Joe Biden at COP26 in Glasgow. He had hoped to arrive at the talks having passed key climate legislation in Congress © Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Impotent and tired? Joe Biden at COP26 in Glasgow. He had hoped to arrive at the talks having passed key climate legislation in Congress © Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan would have forced utilities to pivot to renewables and away from coal and gas at a steady pace; it was going to be the key that Biden would bring to Glasgow to unlock the talks. Enter, however, Senator Joe Manchin, recipient of more fossil fuel industry largesse than any other member of Congress. He stripped the bill of its most effective provisions, and then delayed its passage until after the Scottish talks concluded; Biden was left looking impotent and tired.

There is no chance—no chance—that Congress will come up with another piece of legislation next year. Given the state of US politics, Democratic control of Washington may not last past November, and it’s easy to construct scenarios in which it’s another decade before pressure builds up to a point where the Senate acts again. So calling the US back to “up its ambition” next year at another Glasgow-style check-in may not be a fruitful task. And while American inaction of course gives everyone else an out, it’s not clear that other countries are ready to do more either. 

It’s possible that Xi Jinping, with his supreme power endorsed and ratified by the next Chinese Communist Party congress in 2022, might decide to lead the world on climate; it’s also possible that his over-leveraged economy is going to spend the next few years dealing with the fallout from real estate bankruptcies. Donald Trump may or may not return to DC, but the mini-Trumps scattered around the planet show no real inclination to take this problem seriously: Bolsonaro and Erdoan were Glasgow no-shows. These leaders—and add Putin and Modi—are largely beyond the reach of climate campaigners; it’s hard to see where the pressure will come from that makes them shift. There’s a real prospect that the UN process will turn into desperate African nations yelling at shamefaced European ones, without huge consequence. 

So it’s worth looking for a second track, in case the one we’re on really does run off on a siding. 

And I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious what that second track looks like. If we’ve pulled the lever marked Politics almost to the ground, and with diminishing returns, the lever marked Money still seems to have lots of play in it. 

Let me explain first the deep attractiveness of money as a target for activists. For a variety of reasons, most of them highly unfair, money is concentrated in places like New York, California, London, Tokyo, Frankfurt—that is, in parts of the world where activists can actually still operate. (Even within nations, money tends to accumulate in big, liberal cities.) And we’ve proved over the years that we know how to go after this particular target. 

“Banks are run by amoral boards who have not ever done the right thing voluntarily; they’ve been perfectly happy to profit from the end of the world”

The fossil fuel divestment movement, which some of us launched in 2012, has been an unalloyed success—endowments and portfolios have sold off more than $40 trillion worth of their fossil fuel shares, and the results have been powerful. During Glasgow, for instance, Bloomberg reported that because of investors refusing to put money into environmentally unsavoury ventures, the cost of capital for, say, a new oil field is now about 20 per cent, compared with three or four per cent for renewable energy; that is, we’ve managed to start making money cheap for good things and dear for bad ones. This is precisely why Shell called divestment a material risk to its business, and why the oil industry has fought it so passionately, begging investors to “engage” with them instead.

But the fossil fuel companies targeted by divestment are not the only places we can turn. Indeed, in the last couple of years there’s been a growing emphasis on banks, asset managers and insurers, because they are the money pipeline that keeps the fossil fuel industry supplied. Since Paris, banks have loaned this industry more than three trillion dollars—one bank, JPMorgan Chase, managed to send it a third of a trillion all by itself between 2016 and 2020. They didn’t need Donald Trump to sabotage the Paris accords; they were happy to do it themselves. 

But these huge players are not invulnerable. In some ways, they may make easier adversaries than the fossil fuel companies. Exxon, after all, knows how to do exactly one thing (dig stuff up and set it on fire), so it will fight to the last bridge to keep its business model intact. Chase, on the other hand, makes some money from fossil fuels, but not that much—a few per cent of its dealbook. They have less at stake—especially if we’re able to build a real resistance. If you’re CitiBank or Barclays, there’s probably a point at which you don’t want an image of Greta cutting one of your credit cards in half going viral. How many high-net-worth clients have to complain before you decide you’ve had enough? We don’t know where those levels are, but we can try to find out. 

And the number of targets is small, mostly because of the obscene concentration of financial power in a very few hands. We’re talking a couple of dozen banks, a couple of dozen insurance companies. BlackRock is so dominant an asset manager that we’re just talking about… BlackRock. Let’s stipulate—these are run by amoral CEOs and boards who have not ever done the right thing voluntarily; they’ve been perfectly happy to profit from the end of the world. Left to their own devices, they would merrily go on doing so. But even during the pandemic we were able to do some effective pushing. My last trip out before lockdown was to jail in DC, for sitting in at a Chase bank branch near the Capitol to help launch some of this campaigning. Plenty of others did likewise and within a few weeks the bank had decided its long-time board chair, former Exxon CEO and ace climate denier Lee Raymond, might have better things to do with his valuable time.  

And then there’s this: if you’re a banker as opposed to an oil baron, an energy transition is not just a bad news story. As the crossbench peer and former chief economist of the World Bank Nicholas Stern pointed out recently, the energy transition will represent “the biggest capital re-allocation since the Industrial Revolution.” Capital re-allocation is a term that sends financiers into heat, since they know that there’s a percentage waiting for them. Stern did his best to increase the drooling: “You do it by investing in the right things—and many of these investments have very good returns.”

The challenge for civil society will be not just to simultaneously entice and press these institutions, but to figure out how to hold them accountable. Already the banks are proving experts at greenwashing, full of “net zero by 2050” pledges that magically allow them to go on lending to whoever they’re lending now. But there are plenty of data geeks quite capable of building a framework to keep score, letting us know who’s serious and who isn’t. The UN negotiating process may be capable of growing to encompass these institutions (it should, since many of them are more powerful than all but a handful of nations), and civil society is increasingly building the forces that can at least keep track of who’s doing what.  

The point is not that governments have no role to play going forward. Ultimately they will still have to oversee the execution of the energy transition, building the grids and the legal frameworks that allow the process to move speedily ahead. But at the moment it feels like they’re the cashier at the front of the shop, only empowered to solve certain problems. If you’ve got a real dispute, you may need to raise it with the manager in the back—the guy counting the money.