Why world leaders won't act

Climate activists from the Glasgow Actions Team, wear Squid Game costumes and world leader masks, play tug of war and climate hopscotch during a protest at the Clyde Arc Bridge during the Cop26 summit at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow.

The world leaders meeting at COP26 will fail not because of personal failings but because of the capitalist system that they need to confront.

Global solidarity is not an optional extra here. Nor is it a moral duty. Solidarity is the precondition of survival.

Why won’t the leaders of the world act to prevent the terrible suffering resulting from climate breakdown? To answer that question, we need to understand the powers we are up against.

On the face of it, something very odd is happening. The scientists have made it clear what will happen. And yet Greta Thunberg is right: all the leaders of the world have done nothing. Just blah blah blah. Not just most of the leaders. All of them. How do we understand this unanimity?

Read Part I: After COP

Read Part II: Jobs not COPs

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

We face three problems. The first is the power of the oil and gas companies, the coal companies, the power companies and the banks who have loan them money. The people who own and run these corporations understand that real climate solutions will mean the death of their corporations.


People often say that Shell of BP could just move into renewable energy. Indeed, both those companies put out lying ads saying they are doing just that.

But that’s not how technical change works in capitalism. When cars replaced trains in the US, the railway companies ceased to dominate, and Ford and General Motors replaced them. When personal computers replaced mainframes, Microsoft and Apple replaced IBM.

So the present day carbon corporations have been fighting dirty. Until recently, they concentrated on encouraging climate denial. As that gets harder, they have moved on to hidden, but still virulent, attempts to defend fossil fuels.

George Bush, Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, Trudeau and all of OPEC have been the political representatives of these corporations. That is a formidable combination of corporate and political power.

Global solidarity is not an optional extra here. Nor is it a moral duty. Solidarity is the precondition of survival.

But fossil capital is not the worst problem we face. They are a minority of capitalists and a minority of members of the global ruling classes. The majority of capitalists speak for other industries, and they are torn.


On the one hand, they usually have children and grandchildren. Some of them are monsters, but some are not. They read and listen to the same science as the rest of us. They know what is at stake. And they own the world. Why should they want to destroy it?

This contradiction is why so many world leaders keep saying that something must be done about climate change. Sure, some of them are hypocrites. But many are genuine. They want to do something. Their problem, though, is the something which must be done.

Any one who has thought about the matter deeply, from whatever political position, knows that stopping climate change will require massive government programs. Government spending, yes, but also governments directly hiring people on a massive scale.

Those Green New Deals would mean the end of neoliberalism and austerity. As soon as we start down that road, people will say, if we can do that for the air, why not for the hospitals? Why not for decent housing? For the schools. For my pension. The precedent will be of such a scale that it will open the floodgates.

For forty years now there has been an endless barrage of neoliberal ideas from the top of society.


‘Only the market can solve great social problems.’ ‘Everyone must do what the market says.’ ‘You can’t fight the corporations.’ ‘Collective resistance cannot change the world.’ And the clincher: ‘Most people are selfish, greedy and cowardly.’

These ideas are not just in the heads of people at the top, professors at elite universities and media editors. Those ideas are in the heads of billions, all over the world.

People like you and me have these ideas in our heads too, however strong our commitment to resistance. Those are the ideas that make us despair of the fate of the world in bed in the dark.  

For the corporate leaders and the politicians to blow away that belief in our hearts is to put every aspect of their control in danger. They know they cannot allow it.

So they shout that something must be done. And then they cannot bring themselves to do what they know must be done. And then Thunberg shames them, because they are ashamed. 


The contradiction is real. And it is in the space provided by that contradiction that we are able to organise for climate action. Because they know that something must be done, they fund the scientists who then struggle to tell the truth in public. Because they know something must be done, endless TV programs say something must be done.

But we also face a third problem, in some ways the most intractable one. Competition is the heart blood of capitalism, and all the world is now capitalist. Corporations compete, managers compete, banks compete, brokers compete, students compete, shopkeepers compete, nations and national economies compete.

The competition is economic, because in capitalism the company which makes the most profit re-invests, grows and prospers. The company that falls a little behind invests less, falls further behind, and spirals down. And this comes to seem normal, because it infects every aspect of the lives of the rich, and many aspects of the hearts and souls of the rest of us.

Capitalist competition creates problems for climate action. On one level, we need new steel plants using renewable electricity. That means a steel corporation has to build a very expensive new plant. And they have to pay far more for electricity than they did for coal. How can they compete with the steel company in Romania or Pennsylvania that does not pay that price.

There is an answer. It’s some combination of government loans, nationalisation, tariffs and electricity subsidies. Every bit of that answer involves government action. And the deeper problem lies at the level of competition between nations and national economies.


Each of the great powers watches their competitive position against the others. The leaders of each country, and their economic leaders, fear falling behind in global competition. And the leaders of the lesser powers, and of the countries with almost no global power, fear helpless ruin.

Yet we have to move beyond this competition. In the end, the problem can only be solved at the international level. But this is COP26 – twenty-six empty years. So many have tried for so long. The leaders of the world have not solved the problem and will not. The UN process has not and will not. The market has not and will not.

That means we have to win climate action country by country. And then we have to come back together and solve the problem at the international level together.

Global solidarity is not an optional extra here. Nor is it a moral duty. Solidarity is the precondition of survival. The people of Nigeria and the United States, of China and India, of Brazil and South Africa, will have to organise and act for the people of the world.

No lesser commitment will break through the force of competition. Only solidarity, lived and absorbed into our beings, can meet greed head on.


This cannot simply be the people of the rich countries helping the poor of the Global South. It will be that. But it will have to be, even more, the people of the South acting and fighting for all the people of the world.

What we must do brings us up against something big. Call it government, or the state, or politicians. We can only stop climate change through government action.

Social movements are good at resistance. They can make demands. They can strike, occupy, and sometimes stop a great evil.

But to stop climate change governments will have to take not just one-off actions. If we demand governments do what they do not want to do, they will wriggle, postpone, sabotage, and kill policies in committee. For better or worse, we will need not just to change governments, but to become governments.

Of course, we can stand at a distance from the government that carries through the policies the movement has fought for.

But we now have a lot of evidence of what happens when social movements let a politician and a party carry through their policy. In practice, the movement tie themselves to that politician or that party, without any way of controlling it or her.


So don’t let anybody kid you. We, the movement, will have to become the government. And more than likely kick out the first government, and replace them, and maybe replace the replacements.

This is a horrifying prospect for most social movement activists for good reasons. There is the memory of how power corrupts, how the dream of Communism became the reality of inequality, dictatorship and sleaze.

We have seen what the movements against colonialism became in office in India, South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and so many other places. We have seen what happened to the Democrats in the US, and to the Labour Party in Britan, the Social Democrats in Germany and Socialist Parties in many places.

The more recent experience of Syriza in Greece, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, or Podemos in Spain only repeats the story. All three came from the movements, and all adapted to power.

We have been taught the same lesson over and over. If you take over the management of a piece of the global economic system, you become the management of a piece of the global economic system.


No wonder there is a strong streak of anarchism in the climate movement. But there is another hard contradiction here. Like it or not, we have to take over power, in form or another.

And there is another reason the movement hesitates at politics and parties. Greta Thunberg is a deep political thinker. When she was asked about the Green New Deal in 2019, she said that supporting it would split the movement.

Thunberg said that quietly because she did not want to pick a fight. But she did say it, because it was true.

Committing ourselves to a Green New Deal alone, just to a government programme of climate jobs, will all by itself split the movement. Committing to different political parties to support climate action will split it even further.

This is a high price to pay. But somehow we have to try to unite a movement of different political projects, all pointing in something like the same direction.


Then there are the NGOs. Most of them have some kind of charitable remit that forbids politics. Most try to influence existing governments. Most take at least some of their funding from governments, the EU or the UN. It is part of their DNA not to be political. Some NGOs may be able to remake themselves, to go beyond their history. But for many this will be too hard.

Let me be clear what I am not saying here. I am not saying that what we need is one new revolutionary party. Much less a revolutionary party based on the leadership of one of the existing revolutionary parties.

Nor am I insisting that the change will have to be revolution, or that there will have to be an insurrection. However, I am pretty sure that if we do manage to save the planet, afterwards everyone will refer to it as the Climate Revolution.

I am not offering a prescription here for how to take power. Some will want to change the leadership and policies of different existing parties. Some will want new parties. Some will want to change the whole political system. We will see what works.


My main point here is that, one way or another, mass climate movements will have to take power. But we will also have to remain organised outside the government, because we will need a mass movement to force the new people in power to do what they promised to do.

Nor am I saying we should concentrate all our energy on politics and the state. Far from it. A movement that pursues only one strategy will wither. People bring many different strengths and passions to the movement.

Anyone who tells you there is only set of tactics will work is trying to sell you something. We will need elections, strikes, occupations, blockades, civil disobedience, petitions, prayer vigils, marches, workshops, meetings, websites, food reform, silent witness and rap concerts in stadiums.

I am not saying subordinate everything else to trying to win Green New Deals in government. I am saying that we have to do each and all of these things and keep our eyes on the prize at the same time.


For two centuries the great movements for equality and human liberation have been powerful in Europe and North America. But they have been strongest in the former colonial world, in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Moreover, those movements North and South have been strongest among working people, small farmers, the colonised, the enslaved and the oppressed. We cannot stop climate change unless our mass movements are supported and led by those same people, South and North.

As I finish rewriting this article, I also flip back and forth between the videos from the start of the COP in Glasgow and the million person march in all the towns of Sudan against the military coup.

The Glasgow videos are exciting, and full of young energy. But the scenes from Sudan show a people in motion. In one video the talking heads are a working class man in his 20s and a working class women in her 20s. Behind them, the men of the neighbourhood pass mud bricks in a line, steadily building a barricade across the road.

It is not a barricade like the ones in Les Miserables, the kind you fight behind. It is a barricade that stops traffic, and they are building them everywhere in Khartoum and Omdurman. They are a tool in the general strike that has closed down the twin cities of the capital, and much of the rest of the country.


Other videos and photos show women urging on their communities as they march toward the guns.

These people have been fighting for a long time. They fought for independence from the British. A general strike and an insurrection in the streets overthrew an early military dictatorship in 1985. In 2019 an uprising across the country forced another dictatorship to share power with civilians. That is the agreement the army has gone back on now.

The Sudanese have lived for a long time in one of the crucibles of climate change. In the West of the country, in Kordofan and Darfur, ever since 1969 climate change has led to drought, hunger, famine, violence and war.

Khartoum and Omdurman are full of refugees from drought and war. Nyala, in Darfur, is one of the strongholds of the march today, mentioned in the same breath as the twin cities.

Many have commented that the COP is Glasgow is the whitest and most affluent ever. True enough. That’s partly due to Covid, and partly to increasing cynicism and rage about the COP.


But the future we need is a fusion of the message of Fridays For Future and the courage and depth of the Sudanese revolution.

The movement in Sudan is part of uprisings happen in many countries. It began with the Arab Spring in 2011. Then, since 2019, there have been similar mass movements and uprisings.

In dictatorships people have fought for free elections, in Algeria, Myanmar, Thailand, Byelorussia and Hong Kong. In countries with formal democracy they have fought for deeper democracy, real people power, in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.  

The great Black Lives Matter protests in the United States are part of the same feeling. So are Fridays For Future. They are movements of the young, against all established power, for bread and freedom and equality.

Working people

These movements are growing in the world. They are powered by millions of people looking for a new way to solve an old problem. Humanity lives now in the ruins of three great historical movements – socialism, communism and colonial independence.

Dreams of equality powered those great movements, and they power the great uprisings. People are casting around, though, asking themselves what went wrong before, what is wrong now. And one of the answers you can see millions finding everywhere is not enough democracy.

Any democracy is better than none, and people are prepared to die for that, and to defy the cruelty of the police and army. But an even wider feeling is the same one that faces the climate movement. All over the world, whether we can vote or not, somehow we cannot control the levers of power. Corporations and politicians control our lives.

There is a longing, but also a deep need, for an explosion of democracy, for a world turned upside down, where the values and votes of working people in cities and villages actually determine what happens in our lives and on our planet.


In climate meetings in Europe and North America I keep hearing people say ‘We’.

‘We consume too much,’ they say.

‘We must understand our privilege.’

‘How do we make them understand?’

‘We can make do with far less.’

‘We have to reduce our emissions.’

‘We have to change America.’

I am always polite. But more and more I want to scream. This is the we of the privileged, of the educated, the affluent, the rich, and often the white.


But in every meeting, on every call, there are people from among the billions who are not privileged, not comfortable, not unhurt. The people say ‘we’ mostly want to be inclusive. But everything they say about ‘us’ shows who they exclude, almost without thinking.

That pronoun will not serve for the crisis we now enter. I use we to mean, at different times, the oppressed, the hurt, the damaged, the working people and the small farmers, those who yearn for hope, and all the global movements of resistance. My we is the frightened and terrified who know they must be brave for those they love. My deepest we is our species, all humanity.

Those are the wes needed now. Looming before us is the threat of climate change. Sometimes now that threat blows and howls around us. Sometimes the threat burns into flames all around us. More often, the smoke of the threat darkens the sky. Sometimes it takes food from our children in Syria, Sudan, Mali, Pakistan or Afghanistan.

That threat confronts all humanity. The reason is simple physics. It takes eighteen months for the greenhouse gases put into the air in one place to mix completely with the gases from everywhere else.

The amount of CO2 in the world has been measured every day since 1954 at an observatory on the top of a mountain in Hawaii. There has never been a need for a second observatory. The numbers would be almost the same on top of any mountain in the world.


We confront what is to come as a species. But also we have to solve  it as a species. If we do not solve it all over the world, we cannot solve it anywhere. But if we do not begin somewhere, we cannot solve it anywhere.

If we fight in isolation, only self by self, group by group, country by country, we will be lost. Struggle cannot live without solidarity. The only vision that can give us the enormous strength we will need is to know that we are fighting for our fellow humans, with our fellow humans, across the world.

Maybe this is an aspiration now. But our struggle will not win until we make that aspiration a reality. And if we win, that will make the hope reality.

We fight also for all the other carbon-based life forms, who have not made this crisis, but whose only hope rests on the shoulders of humanity.


I know what people mean when they that we should listen to indigenous voices. But indigenous people are also part of us. The Muslim women and men dying now of a climate famine in the high valleys of Afghanistan are us.

The refugees on the move, in the dark, in the trucks, climbing the passes, holding each other in the tossing boats on great seas, they are us.

The poor farmers and herders who have killed each other for grass and water in Darfur. The Chinese workers in Foxconn’s great computer factories, tormenting their bodies because they need a job. The old men in West Virginia who lost the mining the jobs that were so hard and they were so proud of, they are us.

We are everywhere, and we are the hope of the world. Because climate change will not halt until we come together.

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 I: After COP

Read Part II: Jobs not COPs

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

More from this author


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