One Big COP Out: A Postcolonial Critique of COP26

Robyn Moffat explores the contradictory nature of COP26 and stresses the need for a postcolonial approach to climate activism.

“To make a real change, we need a seat at the table” were the impassioned words of activist Catalina Santelices Brunel, representing Latinas for Climate, at COP26 this year. In theory, the United Nation’s Coalition of the Parties’ Climate Change Conference should offer a moment of liminal space, in this case, a geopolitical space that exists amidst positionalities and national borders (Bhabha 1994). Yet, the reality was rather a site of the unhomely uncanny, an “unheimlich” space (Bhabha 1994, 14), for nations outside of the imperially-nostalgic ‘West’ (hooks 1992).

While front-line postcolonial states, predominantly in the ‘Global South’, now bear the impacts of climate change (Gosine and Teelucksingh 2008), COP26 reproduced a neo-colonial ordering of nations to distract from the ‘West’s’ disproportionate responsibility for the climate crisis. To explore this postcolonial critique, this essay will first examine who was invited versus who was excluded from COP26 to illustrate how it produced what Homi Bhabha (1994) describes as the unhomely uncanny for nations outside of the ‘West’. Then, the essay will consider how the materiality of COP26 marketed green-capitalism for the “white palate” to intentionally obscure the fact it was funded by some of the globe’s largest polluters (hooks 1992, 39). Finally, the essay will problematise the event’s location of Glasgow to further demonstrate how it failed to create a liminal space and instead performed an “imperialist nostalgia” that bell hooks (1992, 24) warns of.

Image courtesy of Johara Meyer

Within its ‘Presidency Programme’, COP26 involved representatives from all 197 countries (UNCCC 2021) – while at first, it appears that every nation effectively had a “seat at the table”, the reality was less so. Due to Covid-19 vaccination hoarding in much of the ‘West’, countries that were unable to access vaccinations for an equally fast immunisation rollout, largely postcolonial nations, ultimately had their “seat at the table” minimized in their inability to physically reach Glasgow or in their reduced representative team (COP26 Coalition 2021). Here, logics of the border functioned as they intended (Bhabha 1994): to exclude nations outside of the hegemonic ‘West’ and to reinforce a sense of European superiority and power (Oyewumi 1997, 1). Moreover, while nation-state representatives – the political elite – could access the ‘Presidency Programme’, grassroots climate activists from across the globe were excluded. Activists had access through just two means: (1) amongst the COP’s carefully curated ‘Green Zone’ or (2) outside on the streets of Glasgow. Although a point of ‘access’, the COP’s ‘Green Zone’ functioned to greenwash the event’s sponsors that included large-scale polluters such as NatWest, Unilever, and Google. More crucially, the ‘Green Zone’ promoted the damaging notion of individualised responsibility that encourages a deeply problematic environmentalist discourse serving a neoliberal, white supremacist, and hetero-patriarchal system of logics that are presently driving the climate crisis (Bhabha 1994). The curated ‘Green Zone’, then, can be viewed as a material space that intentionally operated to diminish system transformation ambition and shift perceptions of accountability from governments and industry to individuals. Further, through a process of deliberate greenwashing, defined as marketized sustainability without accountability (Mulligan 2015), the ‘Green Zone’ simultaneously courted what hooks (1992) describes as an imperially-nostalgic audience while excluding the ‘other’ in its uncanny arrangement (Bhabha 1994).

By further problematising the COP26 ‘Green Zone’, it will become evident how areas curated for the public were strategically deployed to greenwash the event itself but also to mislead an audience excluded from the ‘Presidency Programme’. Here, exists what could be described as a double neo-coloniality (Bhabha 1994). First, those at COP26 who represented nations and industry were shielded from any real responsibility for the climate crisis in their physical separation from the public, climate justice activists on the streets of Glasgow, and voices from climate disaster front-lines. To add, while it’s generally agreed that young people have driven much of recent political pressure on climate action and brought a necessarily urgent yet hopeful perspective “to the table” (Nature 2021), climate negotiations at COP26 were undertaken in an intentionally secretive manner that excluded these groups outside of “palatable” public figureheads such as Greta Thunberg – a figure adopted to represent the people’s voice in much of political debate on climate change (hooks 1992, 39). Secondly, the ‘Green Zone’ exemplifies the greenwashing of capitalism which deployed a particularly pervasive neo-colonial strategy when you consider who was interacting with it – actors outside of the political elite such as climate justice activists, students, and importantly, ‘Western’ journalists responsible for the dissemination of information to the wider public body. Beyond its neoliberal individualistic message, the materiality of the ‘Green Zone’ – its polished and aesthetic appearance – obscured COP26 sponsors’ accountability and minimised the voices of environmental justice activists outside of the event such as COP26 Coalition.

Image courtesy of Johara Meyer

To further exemplify how COP26 was organised in a way that stunted a just climate action approach, instead mainstreaming technocentric fixes that reproduce a neo-colonial ordering of nations, the location of Glasgow only strengthened an already hegemonic and “imperially-nostalgic” eurocentric discourse (hooks 1992, 24). While an event like the COP should offer what Bhabha (1994) describes as a liminal space – a space providing the conditions for all actors to have a “seat at the table” – the location of Glasgow produced an “unheimlich” space that failed to facilitate this (Bhabha 1994, 14). When you consider how Glasgow is embedded in multiple geometries of power (Massey, 1994): first, its role as one of the United Kingdom’s primary ports during the transatlantic slave trade of cotton; second, being that it was an in-person event despite the ongoing global pandemic; and finally, the disregard for the climate impact of air travel, evidence of the event’s neo-coloniality becomes more overt. To further substantiate this claim, we must look to leaders such as Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, who made a speech knee-deep in seawater directly from the low-lying postcolonial Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu to highlight the reality of rising sea levels (The Guardian 2021). Moreover, while all 197 countries had at least one representative invited to COP26, discussion surrounding the unequal sharing of the Covid-19 vaccine was left unaddressed despite its known interconnectedness with climate change, climate action, and social justice. The failure to offer a fair “seat at the table” for all stakeholders at COP26 is just one example of how the event strengthened ‘Western’ superiority and environmentalism devoid of social justice (Oyewumi 1997). Rather then, the event is a perfect example of how the ‘West’ can currently actualise its “imperialist nostalgia” through somewhat ‘palatable’ means (hooks 1994, 24).

To conclude, a postcolonial critique of COP26 offers us insight into how the ‘West’ continues to order the globe’s nations in a hierarchical structure that echoes European Imperialism. Through the use of strategies such as exclusion, greenwashing, and a focus on individualised climate action rather than collectivised climate justice, COP26 successfully failed to provide everyone with a “seat at the table” and consider the question of who is most responsible for the climate crisis. Paradoxically, while responsibility lies with ‘Western’ nations, COP26 managed to distract from this and instead once again reassert ‘Western’ superiority (Oyewumi 1997). On a final note, the conference’s failure to commit to a phasing out of coal is just another example of a business-as-usual approach the ‘West’ continues to repackage for the “white palate” (hooks 1992, 39).  

References:

Bhabha, Homi. 1994. “Locations of Culture.” In The Location of Culture, Oxford: Routledge, pp. 1 – 28.

COP26 Coalition. 2021. “People’s Summit For Climate Justice.” COP26 Coalition, November 20, 2021. https://cop26coalition.org/peoples-summit/

Gosine, Andil and Teelucksingh, Cheryl. “Environmental Justice: A Brief History.” In Environmental Justice and Racism in Canada: An Introduction, Toronto, 2008: Edmond Montgomery Publications, pp. 1 – 62.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston, 1992: South End Press, pp. 20 – 39.

hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston, 1992: South End Press, pp. 115 – 131.

Massey, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender. Minneapolis, 1994: University of Minnesota Press.

Mulligan, M. An Introduction to Sustainability: Environmental, Social and Personal Perspectives. London, 2015: Routledge.

Nature. 2021. “Young People Will Be The Key To Climate Justice.” Nature, October 10, 2021. https://www-nature-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/articles/d41586-021-02843-6

Oyewumi, Oyeronke. The Invention of Women Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minnesota, 1997: University of Minnesota Press.

The Guardian. 2021. “Tuvalu Minister To address Cop26 Knee Deep In Water To Highlight Climate Crisis And Sea Level Rise.” The Guardian, November 8, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/08/tuvalu-minister-to-address-cop26-knee-deep-in-seawater-to-highlight-climate-crisis

UNCCC. “COP26.” UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021, November 30, 2021. https://ukcop26.org/

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