From Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) was held to address the issue of climate change. Those present included leaders such as President Joe Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Included also in attendance was Jeff Bezos. Although the stated purpose of the event was to combat climate change, many people have been less than confident in those who attended. This skepticism took the form of protests across the world, which accused COP26 of greenwashing, or behaving in a performative manner without putting forth real solutions.
This skepticism is understandable, considering the presence of Bezos, CEO of Amazon and the second richest man in the world. Bezos, having recently returned from space, claimed that having seen Earth from above has given him a new perspective on its fragility and our need to conserve it.
This is a nice sentiment. It would be more credible if not for the fact that Amazon increased its carbon footprint by 19 percent over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and that the majority of people threatened by climate change are able to understand its significance without a multibillion-dollar space flight. This reality was made apparent to millions of Americans as they suffered droughts, which resulted in wildfires in California just last year.
It is ironic to hear someone like Bezos suddenly claim to be a climate activist, especially when considering that the rise of capitalism and the drive for profit is responsible. Carbon emissions began as much of the Western world began to industrialize.
It is also worth noting that climate change was observed for the first time in the 1930s, and began to be discussed on the U.N. agenda in the 1970s. There has been increased awareness since, but for Bezos to present himself as having recently been enlightened after a $5.5 billion space flight — which cost more than the $2 billion he promised to contribute to battling climate change at the event — is damning.
But the problematic nature of his being allowed to speak goes beyond incidents of hypocrisy. These contradictions are dwarfed by the ultimate contradiction of his attendance: he should have been a subject of discussion, rather than a guest. A serious examination of climate change should put at its focus the regulation of corporations like Amazon. Global warming is correlated with America’s emergence as a capitalistic industrial powerhouse, and environmental conservation and the capitalist drive for resources are diametrically opposed.
Positively, the nations present at the COP26 were able to come to an agreement. However, there were ways in which the results were insufficient. An agreement was reached to reduce gas emissions by over one gigaton by 2030, which is certainly an improvement, but this is still not enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Objections to the demand that coal use be eliminated were raised primarily by China and India, two countries that have only recently industrialized, along with the United States. Even this issue can be traced to the industrial capitalism that has given Bezos power. Industrialization is the only means for China and India, both of which suffered under imperialist intervention historically, to remain competitive and essentially hold onto their autonomy. It is worth noting as well that many of the products sold on Amazon are manufactured in China. This further ties carbon emissions to the profit drive.
This issue is exacerbated by the fact that very little was done in helping developing countries adapt to more environmentally sustainable practices. In 2009, the developed world promised “$100 billion a year by 2020” to underdeveloped countries to help them adapt, according to bbc.com. However, this goal has not been achieved. Those present at the event discussed setting $100 billion as a goal for 2023, but experts are skeptical that that will be enough. It is understandable that among those who protested around the world included Indigenous activists from Brazil and Ecuador — areas which, like the rest of the Global South, will be affected drastically by climate change despite their low rates of emissions. Alina Averchenkova of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment has stated that “we need to move trillions in both public and private money.” Thus far, we have fallen short of both what is needed and what we can afford.
COP26 discussed issues that didn’t seem to get resolved. It saw money promised that fails to address issues sufficiently. Those in attendance were those who have been in power as we have come closer and closer to an ecological collapse, and who have, for the most part, allowed us to continue on this track.
It is little wonder that Greta Thunberg derided the event as “people in power pretending to take our future seriously.”
Desmond Keuper is a sophomore majoring in philosophy.