The climate zeitgeist is well and truly here. But as UN climate talks wrapped up last week – notionally the place we can deal with the environmental crisis – it's still dirty, polluting business as usual.
In between the big annual COP hoo-haas, governments meet every year in Bonn, Germany, to keep negotiating and making baby steps backwards. And there's a reason for the lack of progress: the fact the fossil fuel industry is involved in the talks. This is the same industry, of course, that caused the climate crisis in the first place – the likes of Shell, BP, Total, ExxonMobil, Chevron – and in doing so got filthy rich (those companies' combined profits in 2018 hit $83 billion).
It's also the same industry that has been holding back the UN process since day dot. Ever since the landmark UN climate agreement in Paris in 2015, the same five oil and gas giants have spent a cool billion dollars on lobbying and communications against the goals of the Paris Agreement – despite claiming to support it.
New research from the Climate Investigation Center, released during last week's talks, shows that "Lobby groups representing some of the world's biggest polluters have sent thousands of delegates to negotiations aimed at limiting global warming since UN climate talks began." They’re literally stalking the halls of power and lobbying (or threatening) governments against doing what’s needed.
What sort of threats? A common one is unemployment, as doing anything other than business as usual will cost jobs – and no government wins an election promising unemployment. But don’t worry, they say, here's a plan I scribbled on the back of a very fancy envelope, normally consisting of some new-fangled experimental technology or accounting trick that is just as likely to save the climate as chucking a penny in Rome's Trevi Fountain and praying really, really hard.
Thankfully, their lobbyists are not as effective as they used to be. For the last three years, governments representing nearly 70 percent of the world's population have been calling for the UN to deal with the interference of the fossil fuel industry in the talks. There's a clear conflict of interest as their business model is built on wrecking the climate: they shouldn’t be anywhere near the talks. But for three long years, the US – along with the EU and other historical polluters – have stuck up for the fossil fuel industry and tried to keep them in the negotiations.
This year, Trump's negotiators went into hyperdrive. They blocked every attempt to address the enormous elephant in the room that had "fossil fuel industry stooge" daubed across its side. Every attempt by African or Latin American countries to raise the topic was shut down. They even managed to scrub all mention of the debate from the official summary of the talks.
While seemingly the entire world is talking about the climate crisis thanks to Extinction Rebellion and the Fridays for Future movements, inside the UN, realpolitik continues like before: fossil fuel profits set the agenda.
More than 300 organisations from around the world wrote to world leaders calling on them to protect the talks from fossil fuel interference. Youth groups staged actions around the world calling for the same thing days before the negotiations began. A newly-elected Member of the European Parliament (MEP) was brought to Bonn to put extra pressure on the EU (which is still a broken record, claiming the fossil fuel industry is our partner). Women’s groups, indigenous peoples, activists from India, South Africa and elsewhere all called for the fossil fuel industry to be kicked out and conflicts of interest to be addressed – to no avail.
After a tough first week, things were more hopeful outside of the negotiations: Fridays for Future called a Europe-wide demo on the 22nd of June, just down the road in Aachen. Fifty-thousand young people came together, determined to make a break from business as usual. But what gave it the extra edge was that, a few kilometres away, 4,000 people had already marched into one of Europe's biggest open cast coal mines under the banner "Ende Gelände" (end of story), and shut it down.
The following day, many of the youth made their way to the coal mine. Some went in to join the occupation, taking part in an act of civil disobedience that was illegal but most certainly legitimate. Thousands of others took part in a legal demonstration on the edge of the pit, supporting local villagers in resisting the plans of RWE, the German mine owner that wanted to make its great gaping hole even bigger.
Throughout the second week of negotiations, world leaders and negotiators could be heard praising the youth and calling for them to be listened to, but with their very next breath ignoring their demands to kick the fossil fuel industry out.
The US held strong and blocked progress, even as the EU and other big polluting countries like Norway and Australia backed down. When the same debate raged for years in the World Health Organisation (they tried and succeeded to kick out the tobacco lobby), in the end the US didn’t sign the treaty. The US has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, but not out of the UN climate talks in general, and every extra second it stays, the whole thing gets weaker.
Maybe it's time to shift our focus: as well as calling for the fossil fuel industry to be kicked out of UN climate talks, what about kicking out its biggest cheerleader, the US government?
The fight over conflicts of interest will remain a live topic from now until next year: the UN's special climate summit this September in New York will feature the fossil fuel industry; December's UN talks in Chile will be sponsored by dirty energy companies; next spring, negotiations on this will restart in Bonn. Here's hoping that, by this time next year, we'll be even stronger, and all the power being built in the streets will make its way into the negotiating halls.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.