Recent Climate Protests: More Than Symbolism? – OpEd

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Van Gogh and other framed artists enjoying the clean air and controlled temperatures of museums were suddenly put into the spotlight by the non-violent protests of Just Stop Oil activists.  The activists were attempting to highlight the Nero like behaviour of countries and oil companies towards the reality of Climate Change.

What was interesting was the response from other NGO’s and activists working on the issue of Climate Change. Many panned these protests. These protesters and their protests were bracketed as becoming ‘part of the problem’. Some wondered how these protesters could go after such gems of human creativity. Others suggested the protests were not thought through. While others decried the act and suggested the issue of Climate Change be extended to include other issues.

Interestingly, these protests did not inspire introspection nor catalyse an evaluation within organisations and individuals of their work to prevent Climate Change. Maybe to view these protests as a response to the collective failure of organisations, and even theirs, to get governments and the fossil fuel industry to act purposefully on Climate Change. None saw the waste land of  years of talk that has led to the United Nations Environment Programme  (UNEP) declaring in their Emissions Gap Report 2022: The Closing Window – Climate crisis calls for rapid transformation of societies  that ‘the international community is falling far short of the Paris goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place.’ 

Human civilisation is replete with various forms of protest that were either panned or put down by the status quo. In 1730, a Rajput king massacred 363 Bishnoi’s peaceably trying to protect a grove of trees from being felled. These were the original tree-huggers. In her book Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World’, author Elinor Cleghorn says that the Suffragette Movement and the women involved in it were belittled, their protests derisively explained away as ‘hysterical enthusiasm’ by the mainstream. However, finally women claimed their right to vote. India’s non-violent freedom movement was met with untold violence from the British colonialists and was also thought to be insufficient by many Indian freedom fighters. However, it was this that brought Indians together and delivered freedom and, inspired other movements. The images of Greenpeace activists putting themselves between the harpoons and the whales was seen as over-the-top. However. such forms of non-violent protests were used by Greenpeace and others to highlight environmental crimes  leading to a moratorium on whaling, ban of ocean incineration and so on. Greta Thunberg began her Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate) alone.

The planet’s current state suggests two forms of status-quo. The first, where Climate Change is not perceived as an existential threat or not important enough to course correct. The second, those caught up in the belief in their work and unwilling to see its inefficacy. In the case of the latter are individuals sucked into the ‘sustainable consumption’ programme. Corporates whose ESG programmes ignore their core polluting ways are included here. 

According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Redesigning Business Value: A Roadmap for Sustainable ConsumptionThe global consumption trajectory remains largely unchanged’. ‘92% of S&P companies were reporting ESG metrics by the end of 20201’ and ‘The number of companies filing corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports that use the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) standards—the most comprehensive ones available—has increased a hundredfold in the past two decades’. However, in the same period carbon emissions have risen as has environment damage according to Kenneth.P.Pucker in his article Overselling Sustainability Reporting in the Harvard Business Review. It has been suggested that this is because of mis-representation in ESG and CSR reporting. But there is another issue – is the ESG of say Coke, Pepsi, Unilever or Amazon commensurate with the environmental damage caused by their products and activities?

Things have become so skewed that consumption is seen as a solution to the problems created by consumption. One perceives increase in consumer willingness to pay a premium for ‘sustainable products’ and the growth of the EV car market as positive signs. 

Similarly, the importance given by entrenched NGOs and activists to their work on Climate Change could be potentially distracting them from the outcomes. There is a chasm between desiring outcomes, believing in their efficacy and reality. It is not surprising then that this crevasse is being bridged with concepts like ‘sustainable consumerism’ and ‘ESG reporting’.

Governments proudly proclaim their policies on Climate Change, corporates are awarded for their ESG efforts and NGOs celebrate victories. Then why has the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported that ‘The increase in carbon dioxide levels from 2020 to 2021 was larger than the average annual growth rate over the last decade.’? Somebody is delusional, somebody is complacent, somebody believes their own lies. What else can explain floods, heatwaves, melting icecaps and the increasing frequency of supercharged storms caused by the 1C rise in temperature while profits of fossil fuel companies soar? 

Now that another COP has failed to address fossil fuel use one is reminded of Einstein definition of insanity ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’.

If works of long dead masters can be given a safe space, why can’t that privilege be extended to the living and those yet to come? Maybe choosing to be insane is the safe space humans have subconsciously chosen for themselves.

Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. He tweets at @samirwrites.

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