Don’t blame them; the sherpas, the civil servants and Ministers. They did their best, struggling to get commitments (rather than conditional brackets) out of COP26 negotiations. Surviving on caﬀeine and little sleep, they genuinely tried to get something meaningful past fossil fuel lobbyists and national vetoes. In the end, everyone had something to grumble about. That’s why Leaders called the Summit a success. But it wasn’t. COP26 kept the 1.5°C target alive, but only just. Everything hangs by a thread.
The 2.4°C warming we are currently on track for would bring catastrophic climate breakdown. Time-dated promises won’t help. It’s what we do in this decade that matters, and this is what calls for fundamental change. You can’t put ‘go fast’ stripes on a Reliant Robin and pretend it’s a Nissan Leaf. Today’s economic model is broken. We need a new one if we are to survive.
Tackling climate change requires systems change. And if climate has become the new ‘revolutionary’, society must rediscover the ‘visionary’. To do so we have to link tomorrow’s technologies with yesterday’s wisdom. It is the wisdom we must reclaim first.
Instead of getting stuck on how to get past vetoes from Saudi Arabia, China, Russia or the USA, we might look for a diﬀerent ‘coalition of the willing’. A more useful (and humbler) starting point could be in the democratic foundations of the Iroquois First Nations, originating almost 1,000 years ago.
It took 600 years before Hiawatha, Jingosaseh and Deganawidah, tired of inter-tribal conflicts, brought all the Iroquois tribes together in a great pau-wau. This was the gathering that established the Iroquois Confederation, basing itself around what was to become known as ‘the Great Law of Peace’. It is possibly the world’s most longstanding democracy and its foundations are close to what today’s climate protestors call out for.
The next seven generations
At the constitutional heart of the Iroquois Confederacy was the undertaking that all decisions must bring stability and security to the next seven generations. Today’s COP leaders struggle to make it past the next seven seconds. For the Iroquois, however, it made ‘sustainability’ the anchor point of every decision they reached.
Like COP meetings, all decisions at the pau-wau had to be agreed on unanimously, but the Iroquois had an important safety net. If a tribal leader kept blocking agreement, the pau-wau could ask the tribe to reconsider their position. And here was the twist. Although all the chiefs (apart from Jingosaseh) were men, only women had the vote.
If tribeswomen were unhappy with their chief (or the blocking stance they were taking) the women would choose a diﬀerent chief. You can see Boris, Putin and the oil Sheiks racing to embrace this sort of reform.
Then came the second safety net. The Great Law of Peace spelt it out: “All [leaders within] the Five Nations Confederacy must be honest in all things.” This is as close as you could wish to the first of the Extinction Rebellion demands: that leaders must ‘Tell the truth’. Britain’s parliament isn’t alone in being a million miles from such a commitment.
But the most transformative impact on today’s politics would be the philosophical underpinning the Iroquois gave to the Great Law of Peace.
Honour before greed
What held the Iroquois Confederacy together was the notion of honour; honour that came through service to others, not material gain. Societal standing within the Confederation was obtained by redistributing wealth rather than hoarding it. Plains Indians did so by giving horses to those without. Other tribes gave crops or tools or cloth. Their annual pau-wau (or potlatch) gatherings were occasions for lavish redistribution, not for haggling over conditional promises that leaders never intended to keep.
Today’s maldistribution of consumption between the rich and poor would have been complete anathema to the Iroquois Confederation.
You would not have seen poorer Iroquois tribes asking “whatever happened to the $100bn/p.a funding for climate adaptation?”. The resources would have been given long ago. Prosperous leaders/tribes would have been ashamed to do otherwise.
Nor would you have seen plains Indians oﬀering to ‘loan’ horses to other tribes, and asking for 2 horses to be repaid later. Yet this is what we currently ask of nations hit by climate disasters.
Over 60% of today’s private sector ‘disaster relief’ funding comes as loans, not grants. Disaster gets compounded by debt; something the pau-wau would have found incomprehensible.
Perhaps, privately, today’s o ﬀshore tax havens feel the same shame. Perhaps MPs, currently plundering their nation’s wealth, do too. But if it’s only the system that stops leaders being better than they are, then change the system.
The Great Law of Peace
Today’s COP gatherings need their own Great Law of Peace. Its outlines would be staggeringly clear –
1.5° to survive. All meaningful policies must work back from the imperative of climate physics. The next 7 generations can only live securely within a survivable climate. This requires annual carbon budgets that reduce, year on year… by at least 10%. And if leaders can’t pledge this, citizens must.
It wasn’t Britain’s political leaders who pushed for a boycott of GM foods. Greenpeace (and others) organised the supermarket boycotts of ‘Frankenfoods’ that forced a retreat by GM corporations. When Indian farmers ran their ‘cremate Monsanto’ campaign, the solidarity they asked from the West was a consumer boycott. I remember being told (forcefully) “If you refuse to buy, we won’t be forced to grow.” So it is now.
Citizen boycotts of high carbon goods (and of countries/companies locked into fossil fuel addictions) must drive the changes we urgently need. If politicians still run from carbon budgeting and (robust) carbon taxation then citizens’ movements must organise their own carbon boycotts..
Disrupt the money flows. Every Chancellor’s Budget must be re-worked as a carbon balance sheet. We must hold them to account to a diﬀerent existential audit. Each one failing to deliver at least a 10% carbon reduction must be actively challenged.
MPs of all political colours cannot be allowed to hide behind ‘nice things’ claims when their Budget races us towards climate breakdown. Pension Funds, banks and Insurance Companies must face the same carbon challenge. ‘Disinvest and Survive’ must become the mandate citizens’ movements insist on.
Ditch the dishonesties. Much (confusing) COP-talk has focussed around the re-write of so-called Article 6. This involves the reform of carbon trading markets. But the debate itself is a scam. Article 6 is the Reliant Robin in the room. No amount of reform will rescue it from being a casino contribution to carbon cheating. The answer is to recognise that redistributive budgets, not speculative markets, are the answer. The Iroquois would have understood this, and so must we. It is what must force us into the politics of ‘finiteness’… and survival.
When 50% of today’s carbon emissions come from the richest 10%, it isn’t the poor that the debate revolves around. Today’s horses, tools and wealth hoarding must be ‘potlatched’ from the rich. It will do them good. Honour and generosity, kindness and interdependency would liberate us all. But redistribution must also flow to the poorest with ‘honesty’ at its heart.
Climate mitigation work is the most urgent focus. Food and water security comes next, followed closely by the air, nature and passive ventilation systems heat-challenged regions will face. What must disappear is the notion that economic futures will be revived as soon as the tourist flights resume or exploitative global markets get back into gear. This is the economics to be replaced if we wish to survive.
There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of examples of communities, cities and countries doing precisely this; each in their own fragmented way. They are to be applauded and replicated at every turn. But the bigger task is in founding a new Ecological Confederacy fit for the century ahead. Only then will there be 7 generations to thank us.
We need to rediscover that giving (not stealing), sharing (not hoarding) and prioritising the well-being of future generations will deliver the only world our tribes can survive in. So, step forward today’s Jingosaseh, Deganawidah and Hiawatha. Another pau-wau needs your leadership.
Nov 15 2021