After COP

US President Joe Biden arrives for the Cop26 summit at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow.

And the day after the Glasgow COP. What do we do then?

But the day after the COP we face a question. If we cannot make the leaders of the world act, what do we do?

The COP26 United Nations climate conference in Glasgow is the third key moment in the history of the talks. At the Copenhagen COP in 2009 the movement was defeated, and we knew it. At Paris in 2015 the movement was fooled.

Both COPs left the movement exhausted and demoralised. This time it is obvious going in that Glasgow will be a shitshow. So this time we need to think going in, how we can come out fighting.

Read Part II: Jobs not COPs

Read Part III: Why world leaders won't act tomorrow. 

Download Jonathan Neale's book Fight the Fire for free.

And the basic argument is this: the climate movement is at an impasse. The leaders of the world will not act. That means we must build mass movements from below to replace those leaders. But those mass movements will wither if they only protest. We have to fight for action that will halt climate change.


Promises are no longer enough. The most important task right now is to stop almost all burning of coal, oil and gas. We could start that process immediately and go all the way. To do that we have build enough renewables to provide energy for all electricity, all heating, all industry and almost all transport. Then we can ban coal, oil and gas.

But the day after the COP we face a question. If we cannot make the leaders of the world act, what do we do?

But to get there we must move beyond the market, because only governments can spend that much money and pass the necessary laws. And doing that can create hundreds of millions of new, permanent jobs around the world. And we cannot do that without an explosion of democracy – the power of the people.

This is not a personal manifesto. I am trying to bring together feelings and ideas I can see bursting out all over the climate movement. And to explain how they give us reason to fight for love against death.

Along the way I will paint a picture of what runaway climate change will do to human society that you may find surprising. I take up the common arguments in the climate movement about why a fully renewable world cannot work. I touch on other confusions and controversies that cannot be ignored.

These are complex matters, and this is only an article. Perforce, it is full of assertions, generalisations and simplifications. The detailed technical arguments and supporting data can be found in my book Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. You can download it for free as a PDF or an e-book on The Ecologist website now.


Now to the details of the argument. First, let’s look at how the climate movement reached the impasse in which we find ourselves today. COPs happen every year. But the Glasgow COP is a key moment when new agreements are supposed to be reached and new promises made.

We have emerged confused and weakened from two previous key COPs before, at Copenhagen in 2009 and the Paris in 2015. The lessons of those key moments in the COP process are relevant to understanding our situation today.

At Copenhagen in 2009, the NGOs and many campaigners went in expecting to come out with a win. The Kyoto Protocol was coming to an end, and they thought it would be replaced by something better.

Barack Obama was the new president of the United States. He replaced George Bush, who had started the Iraq War and taken the US out of the Kyoto Protocol. Obama seemed to be on our side, and most campaigners trusted him.


In Britain, where I live, we had the largest climate march ever just before the COP. Most of the organisers of the march felt we were going to Copenhagen to support the climate efforts of our Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown.

That was not what happened. Obama came to the Copenhagen COP on the last day. That morning he met with President Xi of China. That afternoon the two of them rammed through a new global agreement. Three pages long, that agreement said that from now on every country would be allowed to choose their own level of emissions.

Each country could emit more in future, or less. Unlike Kyoto, no country was obliged to meet any limits. There would be no enforcement mechanism and no sanctions.

Many NGOs, unions and campaigns came away from Copenhagen making statements about how this was a step forward. But they knew what they were saying was untrue. We all knew. The evidence was that the climate movement stalled almost completely for three years. We had been beaten.

Finally the First Nations native communities in Canada, and then in the United States, rose up against pipelines and fracking. This bold model or resistance from below gave new heart to the climate movement in many countries.


Then came the Paris COP in 2015. This time the movement was fooled, not defeated.

Paris was a key moment because all the governments in the world were supposed to come up with new, better promises to reduce emissions. Or maybe, as with China, not to increase them as fast as before.

The promises came in. But add them up and they meant that total global greenhouse gas emissions would increase for at least fifteen more years. Then it would take a further fifteen years until global emissions sank back down to the already much too high levels of 2015.

The numbers were appalling, but there was a con job to distract us. The promise was a joint commitment by all parties to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade. That was a far more stringent level than the former goal of two degrees. Good. This seemed like progress and the 1.5 limit consoled many people.

But the con job could not be squared with the increasing emissions in the national promises. So the greenwash machine came up with a new promise. We were told that all the countries would make new promises at the COP in 2020 – now postponed to 2021 because of Covid. And those new promised emissions would be far lower.

Fridays for the Future

Many were skeptical but felt helpless until Greta Thunberg inspired a movement of millions of school students. This movement was a decisive step forward, for several reasons.

First, although it was strongest in Europe and Australia, the movement aspired to be global, and there were smaller strikes throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Second, the tactic of choice was the strike. That was the traditional weapon of working class struggle. The heart of the movement was expressed in the two words on her original placard – Climate Strike. And strikes are an act of defiance.

Third, until the school stikes most climate action had been by minorities appearing on the streets, brought together by a cause. The school students were trying to move majorities, to move their organic communities, because they were trying to bring whole schools out on strike.

Fourth, this was the entrance of a new generation onto the stage of history. And they bring a new politics. In most countries the people under thirty are now far more radical in most countries than the people over thirty. But the people of eighteen and under are far more radical than the people over eighteen.

The weight of numbers mean it will be a long time before these young people, and those that follow, will be a majority. But they are already the leaders of the movement, as they are in street revolts for democracy and against racism and sexism all over the world.

Finally, Thunberg told the truth, and so did all her followers. That swept away much of the spin, the lies, the contortions and the misplaced loyalties that had held back the climate movement since Copenhagen.

In spite of this clarity, the greenwash continues to distract. There is still confusion about what can and must be done. But what the school strikers have done is to expose the key problem of our epoch – that we must act, and that all our leaders stand in our way.

Towards the Glasgow COP

Now, in 2021, the new national promises are coming in. Taken together, they mean there is no way at all we can keep the increase in temperature to under 1.5 degrees. And promises that are not kept, and which you knew you would never keep, are not failures. They are lies.

This is now widely known. When Greta Thunberg says that all the leaders of the world have failed us, she is right. When she says that everything the politicians say is blah-blah-blah, she is right. And everyone knows she is right.

One half of all the increase in CO2 in the air has happened since 1985. One quarter of all the increase has happened since 2004. This enormous change has happened during the years when climate change was not a secret, when the UN and leaders all over the world were promising to do something.

They give us promises that emissions will be net zero by 2050, 2040 or 2030. And the sum of their policies make sure that emissions will be higher in 2022 than in 2021, and higher still in 2023.

So millions have learned to pay no more attention to these promises. Everyone involved, whether with official climate policy or in climate struggle, knows that Thunberg is right.

So the world leaders are forced to sit in the audience and listen to Thunberg castigate them. Look at us, they say, aren’t we good? You can see we are on her side, because we are allowing her to shame us.

They clap her. But still they don’t act.


In the days leading up to this COP things got worse.

Like Obama before him, Joe Biden had been the hope of the mainstream climate movement. Biden was clearly not Trump, the climate denier, the liar, the woman hater, the Muslim hater, the white supremacist. Biden brought the US back into the COP process. He talked the talk. But now he comes to Glasgow with nothing to show.

Numbers tell the scale of that failure. In 2019 Congress, and Trump, passed bills allocating $2.9 trillion for Covid recovery. The US Federal Reserve Bank invented another $4 trillion in loans and stimulus.

By contrast, between 1941 and 1945 the US government spent a total of $4 trillion in today’s money on military spending for the whole of World War Two.

Or to make another comparison, the stimulus from the Congress and the Federal Reserve were equal to a quarter of total US GDP in 2019.


This was what was possible in response to Covid, a brutal disaster, but far, far less destructive than climate change will be.

Once elected Biden proposed spending $4 trillion on a host of programs, a proportion of that for climate change. But there was a trick in the numbers. That was $4 trillion over 10 years. Now he has scaled that down to $1.85 trillion over 10 years. That is only $185 billion a year.

Of that there is only $55 billion a year is for climate. That may sound like a lot. It is only three dollars a week per American. Under Trump in 2020 the American government spent more than 50 times that much on Covid measures.

Moreover, Biden’s is a ten-year plan. This is a commitment to do far, far too little for the whole of the next crucial decade. And Biden is coming to Glasgow without even that bill passed. He has not walked the walk, and how he will not be able to sit the sit.


What I say here will seem harsh to many Americans who voted for Biden. It will seem utterly undeserved. They say that Biden has tried. The people to blame are all the Republican senators, and the two renegade Democrats, Manchin and Sinema, who between them mean Biden cannot win a majority in the Senate.

That is true, and fair. But there is another truth. Bernie Sanders, on the campaign trail in the Democratic primaries for president in 2016, was repeatedly asked a question. The interviewer would say: Your policies are radical. You know perfectly well that there is no way you can get them through Congress. What do you say?

Again and again, Sanders replied: There is no way I can get my policies through Congress. I have spent decades in Congress. I know those people. But there is a power that can get those policies through Congress.

For instance, I have promised to make student loans free and abolish student debt. If Congress will not pass that, I will call on the young people of America, in their millions, to descend on Congress and force them to pass what the American people had voted for.


The point Sanders made is crucial all round the world. For we must hope to elect governments that will take the necessary action to stop burning fossil fuels.

And we will be fools to trust the people we elect to carry out their promises when they face all the pressures of office and ‘reality’. So we will have to descend on Washington and all the other capitals, in our millions, to strike and occupy, and make them do what the people elected them to do.

By contrast, faced with the defiance of Manchin and Sinema, Biden mobilised no one. Instead, he met privately, in his own home in Delaware, with Manchin and Sinema, to persuade them, to negotiate with them, to see what they would settle for. He did not campaign across the country, as Trump would have. He did not even address Congress.

Recall what the students say. All our leaders have betrayed us. The custom in the climate movement has been to pour scorn on all the previous leaders, and then give our current leaders a pass, always looking to the great new hope. The time for conning ourselves in this way has now passed.


It was not just Biden and the United States who folded in the days leading up to Glasgow. Many in the movement have pinned some of their hopes on China.

Some environmentalists imagine it will take a dictatorship to push through and enforce action on climate. They believe ordinary people are greedy. For others an old cold-war delusion has persisted that China was somehow socialist.

Those who have looked to China have had to overlook reality. President Xi had indeed improved his promises. But he was still promising that Chinese emissions would increase until 2030.

There did seem to be one bright spot. Consumption of coal in China had more than tripled between 1998 and 2013. But then it remained pretty steady until 2020. And China announced that it would no longer fund new coal mines and power stations as part of the Belt and Road Alliance.


Then China hit the same Covid energy crunch as did much of the world, with declining supplies and escalating prices.

The Chinese government response, just before the COP, was to instruct their corporations to procure as much fossil energy as possible, from any possible domestic or foreign source. And they instructed corporations to ramp up coal production and imports.

And in the run up to Glasgow, we learned that President Xi would not be attending the COP this time. Nor would President Putin of Russia, the godfather of the global alliance of fossil fuels with far-right racism and misogyny.

These gestures are powerful on a symbolic plane. On a practical one, they damn the talks to irrelevance.

Meanwhile, shame forbids me to speak of Boris Johnson and the United Kingdom, the hosts of COP 26. So that’s where we are. The leaders of the world have been exposed, and they are walking away.


This means there is now a great disjunction between the movement outside and the delegates inside the walls of the COP.

In previous COPs, the NGOs, the campaigns and the unions outside have mostly taken sides on the same issues as the delegates are debating inside. The movement outside has been the radical wing of the process.

Now outside and inside are talking about quite different things. Look for instance at the admirable demands of the COP26 Coalition, the alliance of NGOs, campaigns and unions.

Inside the delegates will be debating the terms of the surrender and covering shit in desperate layers of whitewash. But it is not quite that simple.


For there are 30,000 official delegates, many from governments, but many also from NGOs, campaigns and unions. And the great majority of them, even the great majority of the government delegates, know the Thunberg is right.

They will have, they must have, various ways of justifying what is happening to themselves. But they know. And whenever they dare, they too leak, whisper or scream the truth.

There is a deep disjunction. We are at an impasse. The climate movement has made the world aware of the hell that looms. The student strikers have made the world aware that the leaders of the world have failed.

We, the movement, have marched. We have shamed the leaders. We have forced them to declare emergencies and make false promises. We have launched thousands of campaigns and demanded hundreds of things.


But the day after the COP we face a question. If we cannot make the leaders of the world act, what do we do?  

We have to fight for one thing above all others: to stop burning fossil fuels. Not to reduce fossil fuels. Not some fantasy of net zero while we keep burning oil, gas and coal.

Many, many other measures are necessary. But to stop fossil fuels is far more important than all others. And we have to build mass movements from below all over the world to make that happen.

It is not enough to protest. One way or another, we have to take power.

This Author

Jonathan Neale is a climate activist, novelist and nonfiction writer, on twitter @JonathanNealeA1. Fight the Fire is also available in paperback from Resistance Books. Jonathan also blogs on climate, politics and gender with Nancy Lindisfarne at Anne Bonny Pirate.

Read Part II: Jobs not COPs

Read Part III: Why world leaders won't act tomorrow. 

Download Jonathan Neale's book Fight the Fire for free.

More from this author


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