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Reflections on COP26

By Lena Dominelli, University of Stirling, Head of Delegation for the International Association of Schools of Social Work at COP26

Another COP (United Nations climate change conference) has come and gone, and stock-taking is in order. I started with optimism, excitement and hope. The current outcome leaves me tinged with sadness and disappointment, a response evident in previous COPs.

What does COP26 have in common with the others I have attended, and what is innovative, or different?

All COPs have ended with fine rhetoric: great promises of working together to tackle climate change and reduce emissions. But with snail-like implementation, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and low-lying countries like Bangladesh face the destructive onslaught of existing climate change, and the danger of a global social and ecological meltdown shadows the horizon.

National self-interest trumped global solidarity and gave free-reign to the world’s largest polluters: China, the USA, India and Russia. Particularly disgraceful was the replacement of ‘phasing out’ coal use with ‘phasing down’. Instead, they should have demanded the West share renewable technologies speedily and fund this with the long promised but undelivered $100 billion yearly.

Additionally, not every Western individual consumes the same amount of fossil fuels, e.g., poor disadvantaged people, and homeless people, have very low individual usage, as do many individuals in the Global South. Rich people throughout the world are closer to other rich people in their consumption than to poor people in their own countries and have a vested interest in the status quo.

Countries also need to fund searches for innovative solutions by ‘doing science differently’ through trans-national research. This approach requires grassroots pressure to make it happen, and social workers can contribute to the realisation of such co-production strategies.

Some new promises included the reduction in methane gas, which if enacted could reduce emissions substantially and quickly. This gave hope to SIDS like Antigua and Barbuda, and Tuvalu whose impassioned pleas for ‘Action Now!’, are still ringing in my ears. Another positive move was that the funding for damage and loss was placed on the Agenda for the first time. Several small countries including Scotland have already contributed to this fund, thus setting an example for the larger ones.

Eliminating consumerist lifestyles and fossil fuel energy hungry businesses that treat the earth and its resources as a sewer wherein to dump toxic materials also has to be eliminated. Individual consumers can play a huge role in holding large multinationals accountable for built-in obsolescence, the destruction of tropical and temperature forests, and encouraging over-consumption. People have a duty to care for planet earth in meeting daily needs and not treat it as a means to an end. Nor can they be allowed to pay people Scrooge-like wages for long, hard work as it underpins structural inequalities including poverty and neglects human rights and social justice.

For me, young people, traditionally not at COPs in significant numbers, articulated their dreams and demands most eloquently whether inside or outside COP26 meetings.  I, as a social worker, was delighted to facilitate access to some young people from a local school and encourage them to express their hopes and actions in several events. They also spent three whole days exploring COP26 exhibitions to get more ideas about what to do in Alva, Scotland. YOUNGO, representing young people suggested that if adults cannot lead, they should follow the young people who do!

Social workers must become allies of the dispossessed, displaced and disadvantaged peoples of the world including indigenous peoples who hold alternative, inclusive visions of the world in which people are custodians of planet earth and its beautiful bounty which is ours for sharing equitably.

Lena Dominelli, University of Stirling, Head of Delegation for the International Association of Schools of Social Work at COP26