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Lessons from COP26

As COP26 wraps up, what progress has been made? There are achievements to be celebrated but also disappointments and critiques. COP demonstrated a new incarnation of climate denial arguments from the same sources.


By Sam Johnson


Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske from Unsplash.


As COP26 wraps up, what progress has been made? There are achievements to be celebrated but also disappointments and critiques. COP demonstrated a new incarnation of climate denial arguments from the same sources.


The agreements from last week’s article largely stand; global net zero pushed back to between 2060-2070; methane reduction agreements; the deforestation pledge reaffirmed despite a lack of progress so far; and 1.5 degrees warming still a hopeful goal even though scientists are sceptical current plans and courses will get us there. Unfortunately, outcomes many were hoping for, such as stopping new fossil fuel investment and infrastructure, were not agreed on. Also, largely due to pressure from China and India, language in many of the resolutions has been watered down e.g. the proposed “phasing out” of coal (the worst polluter of all energy sources: 2x worse than gas power plants and over 100x worse than nuclear or renewables) to merely a “phasing down”.


The UK specifically has been vocal and active in the talks and part of all the major agreements on deforestation, methane, and an earlier net-zero target of 2050. However, the UK has often run behind these pledges, and in some cases (as with COVID tests) fudged the numbers to make it appear more successful than it actually has been.

The UK specifically has been vocal and active in the talks and part of all the major agreements on deforestation, methane, and an earlier net-zero target of 2050. However, the UK has often run behind these pledges, and in some cases (as with COVID tests) fudged the numbers to make it appear more successful than it actually has been. We are running behind on policies, such as improving insulation and phasing out conventional cars. Climate change is also not core to much of the government’s messaging - it was absent from the budget that coincided with COP26. The UK is also still investing in fossil fuels and new projects such as a Shetland oil refinery, increasing flights, and continuing to dump raw sewage into rivers/seas.


There are certainly positives. Incremental steps were achieved and the mere presence of nations from across the world, acknowledging the issue of climate change, our culpability in causing it, and diplomatically collaborating to address these problems is an amazing achievement.

The new denial:

While there will always be conspiracy theories regarding climate change being a “hoax” the de jour form of resistance has changed remarkably, and this was evidenced in the discourse around COP. Science denial has been especially prevalent recently, so it is valuable to note these new themes. Also, science communication research findings show that “pre-bunking” is far more effective than reacting to false claims after they have gone viral.


Firstly, delay has become a new form of denial where the reality of the climate crisis is admitted, but solutions are always pushed back. For example, the pressure to delay net-zero and ease the wording of agreements. However, this then leads to the problem of climate despair and blaming the tragedy of commons for inevitable disaster, and if disaster is inevitable and other countries will not reduce emissions then why should we? This presses us to neglect our duty to prevent the worst effects of climate change by appealing to a traitorous game theory when the optimum outcome will always be to cooperate to minimise the damage done.


This links to the final instantiation of this science denial: we are making ourselves poor while causing harm to people. This argument has limited merit as many climate plans, such as the German Green New Deal, prioritise both climate action and social security to improve overall living standards.

Some of the most prolific spreaders of these ideas and climate misinformation in the UK have government connections and enjoy benefits on the basis of charity status or association. For example, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, originally chaired by Nigel Lawson, former Conservative MP, now member of the House of Lords alongside other members of the GWPF, has been in the media spreading the above messages along with previously debunked claims of temperature plateauing and natural causes for climate change. Nigel Lawson previously called for multiple public enquiries into climate change research units under the claim that much of climate science was fraudulent. Three enquiries exonerated the climate research institutes however the GWPF is commissioning its own private enquiry, as they believed the previous investigations were biased by not including climate deniers on the investigating committee. Such groups have also bombarded climate change researchers with thousands of Freedom of Information requests, which eat up their time, and emails released this way are often misquoted without context in conspiracy narratives. Despite this pressure for transparency, groups like the GWPF refuse to disclose their funding sources due to being a registered charity under UK charity law. However, several prominent Conservative donors include Michael Hintze and Neal Record, who is also the chairman of the Institute for Economic Affairs and has donated over £400,000 to the Conservative party, including over £18,000 to Matt Hancock specifically when he was the Energy and Climate Change Minister. A Guardian article published in the last month showed that the UK government has received over 1.3 million pounds in funding from climate change denialist organisations in the last two years.


Suffice to say, climate denialism and pressure against climate change is alive and well. It is strongly connected to powerful institutions which spend hundreds of thousands of pounds lobbying the government. All the while, these organisations are subsidised through charitable status as their official goal is to “advance public understanding of global warming and its consequences”. An open letter has been sent to the charity commission co-signed by 74 leading climate scientists calling on them to revoke the charity status of the GWPF. However, the charity commission took no action.