By the end of 2021 the city of Glasgow will become shorthand for a landmark moment in human history; one way or another. As things stand, it’s all too likely that it will become a verb. ‘To Glasgow’; to defer, to fudge; to pass the buck, to shirk responsibility. Or Glasgow may simply come to be cursed like Munich; a cheap promise to change your ways by signing a meaningless scrap of paper.
There’s a third version, which many view as extremist, impossible, a fairy tale. It goes something like this. Somehow the mettle will be taken out of the US and China’s jostling, somehow the US Congress will wake up from its dysfunctional stupor, somehow the world’s wealthiest nation’s will actually understand that climate justice is meaningless without global economic justice. Somehow, there will be a new resolve to rapidly displace the neo-colonial, extractivist fossil fuel and finance sectors from the commanding heights of the global economy.
What if Glasgow — the city which bears a triptych of debilitating curses on its coat of arms – became the word for this new birth of freedom, of possibility, of resolve? It’s as fitting a place as any, but not for the reasons all too breezily assumed by the people who run it.
COP26 will take place on top of what was once the Queen’s Dock: where raw materials would be unloaded from across the British Empire and where finished products would be exported back. As part of plans for developing the SECC, the docks were filled-in in 1977 using rubble from the former St Enoch’s railway station, which was in turn replaced by a shopping centre.
The Clyde, once a kind of Silicon Valley of its day, profited from an imperial system that kept subject peoples poor and without industry of their own. It took the good fortune of navigable waterways, a ready supply of cheap labour, and easy access to coal and thus achieved hitherto unimaginable growth in the span of a mere generation.
We shouldn’t remember this in order to instil guilt – or some kind of carbon original sin. Instead, we need to understand the origins of a system that brought us to this impasse, in which the exponential expansion of productive forces has come to threaten basic systems that sustain life. While we may need to be reminded of this in the rich global north, those in the poor global south still live with the burden of that legacy, daily.
A just settlement means accepting that our ancestors lived in societies where the enormous potency of carbon capital was first tested: we need to shoulder that responsibility and reckon with its contradictions. Out of the blood, sweat and the stink of the work of Empire – there emerged a new politics grounded in claims to a fairer share of the wealth that was generated – and to a better standard of living for the generations to come.
When the IPCC report was released at the start of the week – a document which must be the ‘death knell’ for fossil fuel industries, according to the UN Secretary General – its bleak contents were said to be evidence of the ‘crimes of humanity,’ as though we all somehow voted, in the womb, to emerge into a carbon economy.
What the report really calls for is the emergence of a new politics once again: a politics capable of re-organising the focus of our societies away from production and towards the preservation of life.
As it happens, the guilty are not difficult to name: they are the billionaire men-children who live out boyish fantasies with jaunts into space, they are the companies that intensified the intricate web of global fossil fuel extraction with full knowledge of the risks we now face.
All Politics is Now Climate Politics
If there is a human imperative to exploit, to colonise, to destroy life in favour of profit, it is one that is conditioned by the cultures we have created and can thus change. There is no evidence to suggest that deforesting the Amazon is an any more innately human trait than, say, the practice of human sacrifice. The only similarity, perhaps, is the urge to gamble – to show a capacity for inhumane violence, in the hope that it will please the gods by straining against the earthbound instinct to nurture and cooperate.
Here we are then, the high-priests are in the temple nursing the flames, preparing another batch of infants for yet another attempt at getting market-driven consumption to save us. The fact that all this cruelty goes against your better judgement, they incant, just shows a lack of faith. We are all, perversely, creatures predisposed to work with each other; to go with the flow.
We already know what loyalty to the carbon cult means. The prospect for humanity that is actively being constructed today the world over is a global apartheid system – in which cheap labour is shunted around from impoverished and increasingly unliveable homelands.
The policy of the right in the Anglosphere with regards to climate change is plain enough to see – it was staked out by Nigel Farage on his boat in the channel a few weeks ago: shut the gates, stockpile some fuel, and hope for the best.
But we must also refute the centrist stance on the new Cambo oil and gas field outlined by Nicola Sturgeon on Good Morning Britain. ‘Politics’ declared the First Minister, ‘shouldn’t be a part of this …’
All politics is now climate politics – the decisions we make about what carbon is burned and how it is used will shape the direction of all other policy for the rest of the century, at least. We also need to look beyond this notion of responding to the climate crisis as one single overwhelming challenge and look instead at a set of immediate political demands; some practical, some symbolic.
The problem is indeed without precedent; a struggle so vast at a moment when collective agency seems so weak. We don’t know what to do – the media’s promotion of personal guilt in response to the IPCC report is just another symptom of this, a reversion to type because it cannot name capitalism as the root problem, lost as it is within its logics.
Because of this, the climate movement often finds itself in a morale sapping bind: as the urgency of change required jars with the pervasive norms of ‘capitalist realism’. Thus, all serious measures to end fossil fuel dependence at some point break the taboo of modern politics: because such measures are all, necessarily, anti-capitalist.
It is likely that the hosting of COP will be used to ‘greenwash’ Scotland’s faltering, corporate-led, effort at decarbonisation. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Apartheid, Mandela and Glasgow
There may not be any precedent for Scotland’s equivocating leaders to draw upon here. But there is perhaps one crowning moment in Glasgow’s political past that offers an example of how Scotland, as host, can live up to its claims to a distinct national strain of fairness and justice – by being the first to name an evil system and refuse to accept it.
We should take heed of the words spoken by Nelson Mandela in Glasgow’s City Chambers on 9 October 1993:
‘Whilst we were physically denied our freedom in the country of our birth, a city six thousand miles away and as renowned as Glasgow refused to accept the legitimacy of the Apartheid system, and declared us to be free.’
The struggle against Apartheid is an imperfect analogy for the climate crisis on all sorts of levels. But there are lessons to be learned too.
When Glasgow became the first municipality in the world to confer the Freedom of the City on Nelson Mandela in 1981, the anti-apartheid struggle was dissolute and had yet to unite behind the clarity and moral power that the ANC’s incarcerated leader could wield.
There were strong internationalist moves at the UN to free Mandela and bring down Apartheid, but the regime’s backers in the US and the UK seemed implacable. Then, as now, reactionary commentators dismissed demands to dismantle the system by branding their opponents extremists; living in a fantasy world. Others simply talked about how market-driven growth would instil common-sense and an imperative to change if it was just left alone. Much of the latter was based on a fear that the liberation struggle would lead to nationalisation of British-held mining assets.
This reminds us that an all-powerful system, even one with the most powerful allies, can crumble: and that certain universal appeals to justice do indeed carry weight. All these tools which we’re told are ineffectual: the ‘soft’ power of mass protest and solidarity, divestment and economic sanctions, the internationalism of labour movements, the place of art, culture and sport; can indeed be marshalled at a global level. If, of course, the crimes are palpable enough and if we are; like South Africa in the eighties, staring into the abyss.
Oil and Freedom
We don’t yet talk of it as such, but the climate crisis is really about freedom too. Perhaps the stakes feel higher – but the actual struggle to be able to live free is always existential, always about life and death.
Living up to Glasgow’s renown in that previous struggle, now demands that we stop equivocating. It demands that, if no one else will, we must be the first in the world to end the criminal system of extraction and profit that is killing the planet. The alternative really is a new globalised climate Apartheid that will blot out any claims to be on the side of those buffeted by the roch winds of this century.
Today the Scottish Government, just like City of Glasgow in 1981, has the opportunity to stand up to the forces ranged against life. We can do this through refusing to accept the realities of climate injustice by rapidly renouncing the fruits of empire and demanding a categorical end to new fossil fuel exploration and extraction.
In 2021, as in 1981, the eyes of the world will soon be on Glasgow, including those of billions of Africans still kept impoverished and unfree. In this moment of climate struggle we have the opportunity to declare which side we are on and to reckon with the demons of our past. Or, we can simply slide from the world’s gaze; equivocal, forgotten; a home for many things perhaps, but not freedom.