This week is COP26 – or, more accurately, the 26th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). The FCCC was signed in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 1992, and came into force in 1994. It was a remarkable step forward in its own right, as it was the first time that the majority of the nations of the world had agreed that “something” ought to be done about the high, and rising, levels of airborne pollution – particularly CO2 and other Greenhouse Gases (GHG).
Under the Kyoto protocol (COP4) States agreed to reduce GHG emissions to 18% below 1990 levels. In 1990, the OECD states produced 153 gigatonnes (GT) of CO2. Instead of the target drop of 18%, OECD emissions actually rose by around 7%, and had still not hit the target in 2019 (154 GT). Within these overall figures, there are some successes – the UK dropped from 794m tonnes in 1990 to 453m tonnes in 2019, but individual state accomplishments are rendered meaningless by global failures.
Winston Churchill is mis-quoted as saying “jaw, jaw is better than war, war” (it was actually Harold MacMillan) and while that may be true in the context of warfare, it is less helpful in trying to deal with the climate emergency. In September this year, Greta Thunberg accused world leaders of “thirty years of blah blah blah” while speaking at a Youth4 Climate summit in Milan. Two weeks later, in a BBC interview, HRH the Prince of Wales said about the same leaders “They just talk, and the problem is to get action on the ground.” HM the Queen was also filmed in Cardiff in October saying how irritated she was with world leaders who “talk but don’t do.”
How then do we, ordinary citizens, make a difference, influence the discussions that the politicians take to COP26, or get ‘action on the ground’?
Good COP, Bad COP?
To be fair, it is far too late to make any changes to COP26, and presumably it will result in more political rhetoric around meeting targets that have been missed for more than two decades. As a result, there will undoubtedly be protests, and these protests might generate some media attention. If the Home Secretary has her way, of course, protests that cause the slightest annoyance to anyone will no longer be legitimate, and anyone who takes part will be jailed for a decade or so.
Whatever the outcome of COP26, here will be those who declare it a great success (the participants), those who declare it a missed opportunity (the observers) and those who declare it a failure (the protest groups).
The time is ripe for influencing policy though – environmental and climate issues are more important now than they have been in decades, primarily through the awareness-raising of individuals and protest groups like Greta Thunberg, School Strike for Climate, XR, Insulate Britain and other groups dismissed by the Prime Minister as “‘uncooperative crusties’ who should stop blocking the streets of the capital with their ‘heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs’” (Rawlinson, 2019).
In 2019, the polling organisation YouGov asked what people considered to be the most pressing global or national problem. The number of 18-24 year olds responding ‘environmental concerns’ rose from 17% to 45% in under a year (YouGov, 2019), whilst only 17% of the same age group consider the government to be handling environmental issues well (YouGov, 2021). There is no age group where more than half of the respondents thought the government is doing a ‘good’ job.
Given that most people don’t think the government is doing a good job, what can we do about it?
The first (and perhaps least glamorous) option is to vote in an election. If you live in Scotland or Wales, you can vote at 16, but in England, Northern Ireland and for the General Election, you have to be 18. Like it or not, laws are generally made by the government of the day – the larger the majority in Parliament, the more the government gets to plough its own furrow.
About 2/3 of those registered to vote do so – 32.7 per cent did not vote in the 2019 election, and turnout has not topped 70 per cent since the 1997 election. To put this into hard numbers, that means that just over 15.5m voters did not exercise their democratic right to vote.
Of the 30m people who took part in the election, just under 14m voted for the Government – yep, that’s right, 43.6% of those who cast a vote voted for the Conservative Party, which nonetheless ended up with 56% of the seats in Parliament. Hmm. By voting, you are probably supporting a slightly flawed political system – but the irony is that by not voting, you ensure that the flawed political system never changes.
Voting will be enough for a lot of people, but there are other things that you can do as well. If you see the list of candidates at a general election, and genuinely feel that none of them is likely to speak for you, or people like you, then you can stand as a candidate. It will cost you a £500 deposit, and there are steps to go through (Parliament, 2021), but if you get 5% of the votes cast, you get your deposit back. You never know, if you get 43% you might end up as Prime Minister!
Or, if standing for office is not your thing, you can campaign for someone who is standing, or for an issue that you believe in. You can do this as part of an organisation, or form your own organisation, but it is important to have a clear message so that you can bring people with you. You can campaign in many different ways – for example:
Online (by signing petitions on social media) or in person;
On your own (in the same way as Greta Thunberg) or as part of an existing group (the Community Planning Alliance is a good place to find a group); or
By writing letters and leafletting, or more direct action type protesting (make sure you familiarise yourself with your rights (and responsibilities) first – https://nationallegalservice.co.uk/uk-protest-rights/)
You could also write to your MP and ask them to raise a particular issue in Parliament on your behalf (if you aren’t sure who your MP is, the Parliament website has a “Find MPs” section). They may or may not do this, and are under no obligation to do so.
The most important thing to do is to Do Something. I am in no way whatsoever advocating that you break the law, of course, but the fact remains that we are facing an unprecedented climate crisis. Most of the UK population do not consider that the current government is handling environmental issues well, and I can suggest examples to demonstrate this such as oil and gas (Toogood, 2021; Dunne, 2021), trains and trees (Taylor, 2021), or coal in Cumbria (Greene, 2021). However, most people are either unable or unwilling to do anything about it, and so nothing will change.
I will be talking about the stages of law making (and what you can legally do to influence these stages) in an event on Wednesday 3rd November as part of the University’s COP26 week. [Holly – can you add the specifics once the schedule is finalised?]
In the meantime, remember that to change anything, you first need to do something.
VOTE – CAMPAIGN – WRITE – JOIN – DO – CHANGE
BBC, 2021, Prince Charles and his Battle for Our Planet, BBC iPlayer, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p09y7bzx/prince-charles-and-his-battle-for-our-planet @7m20s
Carrington, C., 2021, ‘Blah, blah, blah’: Greta Thunberg lambasts leaders over climate crisis, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/28/blah-greta-thunberg-leaders-climate-crisis-co2-emissions
Dunne, D., 2021, Cop26: 70 climate scientists urge PM to end new oil and gas investment ahead of Glasgow summit, The Independent, 18/10/21 https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/cop26-oil-gas-climate-scientists-b1937749.html,
Greene, T., 2021, Cumbria coalmine would hit global decarbonisation efforts, inquiry hears, the Guardian, 01/10/21, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/01/cumbria-coalmine-global-decarbonisation-inquiry
OECD, 2021, Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Source, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=AIR_GHG
Parliament, 2021a, Standing for Parliament, https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-in-general-elections/standing/
Parliament, 2021b, Find MPs, https://members.parliament.uk/members/commons
Rawlinson, K., 2019, Extinction Rebellion: Johnson calls climate crisis activists ‘uncooperative crusties’ Guardian, 7 October 2019, at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/07/uncooperative-crusties-boris-johnson-attacks-extinction-rebellion-activists
Taylor, Di, 2021, Euston tunnel HS2 protesters walk free from court, The Guardian, 06/10/21, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/06/anti-hs2-protesters-who-occupied-euston-tunnel-walk-free-from-court
Toogood, D., 2021, 4,400-STRONG PETITION AGAINST OIL DRILLING HANDED TO COUNTY HALL, Island Echo, 15/10/21 https://www.islandecho.co.uk/4400-strong-petition-against-oil-drilling-handed-to-county-hall/ YouGov, 2021, How the government is handling the issue of the environment in the UK? https://yougov.co.uk/topics/science/trackers/how-the-government-is-handling-the-issue-of-the-environment-in-the-uk?crossBreak=1824