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Cop 26, The Climate Crisis, and Western delusion: How the Global North is failing the Global South

Grace Graham-Taylor

On Friday November 6th 2021, the main walkway of Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow was crammed with a thronging mass of 100,000 local and international climate activists. In tandem with hundreds of other marches happening across the globe, the protestors demonstrated that the people of the world were watching the leaders gathered for COP26. The message was clear – those present needed to do more than just talk. In a speech given at a rally on Glasgow Green that day, Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate captured the mood of popular distrust. “Leaders rarely have the courage to lead,” she said. “It takes citizens, people like you and me, to rise up and demand action. And when we do that in great enough numbers, our leaders will move.”

Now that the fanfare of Cop26 has abated and its achievements can be appraised, it’s clear that the protestors’ fears have been confirmed. Far from the radical commitments needed to limit the imminent rise in global temperatures to 1.5C, the Glasgow talks resulted in yet another round of tepid agreements, culminating in a plan to reconvene again in 2022 (but in Egypt this time). John Kerry, the US’s Special Climate Envoy, described the Glasgow Climate pact as a ‘starting pistol’. Like many of his cohorts, he fails to acknowledge that the race is practically over. Unlike in previous decades, the devastating effects of climate change are not in some distant, perhaps mythical future – they’re already here.

What is needed to address the problems of climate change is not talk, but money. Specifically, the Global North must commit more funding to Global South nations for climate mitigation and adaption projects. Global South nations, some of whom are the lowest carbon emitters on the planet, are currently bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events linked to rising temperatures have disproportionately affected developing countries, causing famine and mass displacement. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, an estimated 22 million people were displaced by climate change in 2019 – an amount larger than the total number displaced by war (Malm, 2020). In Bangladesh alone, around six million people have already been forced to relocate inland, ahead of a predicted 17% reduction of the island’s coastlines; it is estimated that 30 million will eventually have to move. Temperature increases are also disrupting crop cycles, spelling ruin for agrarian nations. In Kenya last autumn, 2.4 million people were left struggling to find food, as a drought brought on by abnormally high temperatures caused widespread crop shortages. Meanwhile, communities in Southeast Asia and Latin America continue to suffer the ecological devastation wrought by deforestation – the result of foreign demand for products such as palm oil and soy (Malm, 2020). 

Without international funding for the transition to green infrastructure, new projects such as sea walls built for climate adaption, and, in extreme cases, the cost of migration and resettlement, the Global South with continue to pay the debts incurred by Global North nations. Climate experts in the South have long been calling for international funds to allow them to transition to greener economies – a necessary step not just for them, but for the world as a whole. Historically however, international climate finance has been heavily skewed towards emissions reduction – a policy which benefits the high-emitting North, but does nothing for nations who still rely heavily on fossil fuels for development and cannot make a green transition without support. At Cop26, Southern leaders had hoped to refocus international efforts towards direct financial assistance. Committees such as the Alliance of Small Island States publicly criticised early drafts of the conference’s agenda for weak and indecisive language around these issues. Once again, they have ultimately found themselves ignored.

Funding for climate mitigation must come from the Global North, for both moral and practical reasons. Since the 1850s when industrialisation began in earnest, Global North nations have utilised 10 times as much of the earth’s CO2 capacity as has the Global South (Kartha, 2011). The Global North is thus overwhelmingly responsible for climate change as it stands and must bear the costs of resolving its effects. The exploitation of the earth’s atmosphere and resources has also meant that the Global North now possesses both the means and the technological knowhow to enable the global transition to green energy. So in a practical sense, the Global North is implicated as well. However, making arguments for who justifiably should pay for the climate crisis seems beside the point. When the world is on fire, you don’t quibble about who pays the bill. 

Northern states have made promises in the past that they will provide funding for climate mitigation and adaption projects but have consistently failed to make good on their word. At the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, attendees pledged to raise $100 billion a year in ‘climate finance’ by 2020, to be put towards green energy projects and mitigation strategies in the Global South. This failed to materialise, with totals peaking at around $80 billion. The stakes have gotten higher since then. The estimated sum required to pay for “loss and damage” alone by 2030 now stands at $300 billion, according to a recent UN estimate. Yet at Cop 26, pledges by wealthy governments totalled only $960 million. The United States, which has a GDP of around 20 trillion, pledged only $11.4 million per year to be met by 2024 – a figure smaller than the amount allotted by the UK. The US’s failure to commit more to climate finance shows an appalling short-sightedness, and an abject rejection of leadership in this climate emergency.

We have seen, in very recent history, the way that rich states can suddenly pool together vast amounts of money when they feel that their own lives are at stake. The Covid crisis proved that wealthy governments were more than capable of allocating vast sums to public protection, as well as taking drastic action to mitigate a global problem. Andreas Malm points out in his recent book Corona, Climate, Emergency that the language surrounding the Covid crisis was replete with references to war. Governments behaved as they did when engaged in conflict, dropping everything in deference to what they recognised as a life-or-death situation. This is the kind of mentality that needs to be applied to the climate emergency. Act now, think later - because later might not be an option. As Mary Robinson, the former UN commissioner for human rights, pointed out during COP26, “While millions around the world are already in crisis, not enough leaders came to Glasgow with a crisis mindset. People will see this as a historically shameful dereliction of duty.” She is right. 

No-one understands the severity of climate change in the present as much as small islanders, whose entire nations are at risk of sinking under the sea. Nations such as Barbuda and the Maldives are facing an existential erasure. The government of the Maldives has even gone so far as to start buying land overseas with the view to eventually house its people there – a perverse luxury that few other islands can afford. Tuvalu, a collection of 9 islands in Pacific Ocean that are home to 11,000 people, is likely to be one of the first countries that will be submerged by rising sea-levels – scientists predict that it could become uninhabitable in the next 50 to 100 years. In a theatrically filmed speech given from a desk that was partially submerged by water, Tuvalu’s foreign minister addressed Cop 26 leaders, saying, “In Tuvalu, we are living the realities of climate change – sea level rises as you stand watching me today at Cop 26. We cannot wait for speeches when the sea is rising around us all the time.” 

The submersion of Tuvalu will not only cause the displacement of all the islanders, likely leaving many impoverished; it will also mean the loss of their heritage and culture. One islander, who had recently moved to New Zealand, was recorded as saying “…people will still look at my color and go ‘hey, where are you from? Which island?’ And I'll say, ‘Oh, I'm from Tuvalu.’ They'll say ‘and where is that?’ What shall I say, ‘oh, it has disappeared or submerged under the sea because of global warming?’ So, like that's our identity, our culture. Everything will disappear.” (Figeuroa, 2011)

Of course, funding Global South adaptions is only a small part of what the Global North, and the world at large, needs to do to ease the climate crisis. Cuts to carbon emissions still need to be prioritised, and nations across the world must do their utmost to reach carbon zero as soon as possible. This will require grand system changes to take place – international capitalism as we know it will no longer be able to operate. Yet if we do not first relieve the pressures on the Global South, all other efforts will be worth nothing. The Global North is looking into a mirror of its future, and, like a smoker who refuses to give up despite the evidence, falsely imagines that it will not meet the same fate if it doesn’t immediately take action. There is no time left to negotiate. 


Works Cited

Figeuroa, R. M. (2011). Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Losses. In R. B. John S. Dryzek, The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kartha, S. (2011). Discourses of the Global South. In R. B. John S. Dryzek, The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Malm, A. (2020). Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. London: Verso.


Grace Graham-Taylor is studying Philosophy and History at the University of Glasgow. She regularly reviews texts for ‘Book Browse’ and is a contributor to GUM magazine

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