For those eager to watch the regular gatherings among leaders of the most powerful democratic nations, this week’s gathering in Glasgow, Scotland carried with it a certain sense of desperation. You could feel it as the luminaries flitted about in their attempt to show the kind of global solidarity it will take if climate change is to be effectively countered. Yet, despite the hopeful language expressed by celebrities, activists and political leaders, they couldn’t pull it off.
Seriously, how could they, when a number of the politicians were facing difficulty keeping their domestic audiences together back home? Nothing is certain anymore, not even the tenuous hold on power. Serious clout doesn’t rest in parliaments, palaces, executive mansions or legislatures anymore. It has defrayed across the globe as the age of activism, technological dominance, endless causes, populism and a loss of trust in institutions often successfully keep politicians from possessing the power they inevitably covet.
This decline of prestige and persuasion has left global democratic leaders with less influence just when global challenges are at their greatest than they have been in a generation. The aforementioned divisive populism, coupled with the rise of antisemitism and racial violence, employment problems, inflation and significant debts, are as vital a challenge as governments can face, and that without the presence of a global pandemic seemingly in the process of changing so many critical aspects of modern society.
In Glasgow yesterday, the prime leaders had to listen to the sentiments of smaller nations who have historically felt left behind by globalization, an undisciplined free market, and the humiliation of being left to scramble for COVID vaccines. At the same time, the powerful countries sucked up whatever supplies they could acquire.
Yesterday was a troubling example of how the prominent economic leaders had to endure a stream of history lessons on how they had failed in their wish to be global influencers. “This is far from the truth,” claimed Bolivia’s President Arce when the power leaders claimed to be climate change leaders. He then took it further, saying that the rich countries had forsaken their historical responsibilities and should now make up for lost time.
The Barbados president asked bluntly, “Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?” He then added, “Are you going to allow the path of greed and selfishness to sow the seeds of our common destruction.” Trudeau, Biden, Johnson, Marcon and others were left squirming n the seats.
Then United Nations Secretary-General put it all into a powerful perspective that affected everyone present: “We are digging our own graves. Our planet is changing before our eyes — from the ocean depths to mountaintops, from melting glaciers to relentless extreme weather events.”
The imagery of prisoners on a death march forced to prepare their own resting places was unmistakable. But these were supposedly the most influential people on the planet, huddled together to flex their combined might. They had known since Rachel Carson penned Silent Spring in 1962 that this moment was coming. Some, like Trudeau, Johnson or Macron, weren’t even born when it was published. All of us have known we were moving toward this moment of destiny, and the majority of us – leaders and citizens alike – lived as though it could be eluded.
That this interconnected world, with all its intelligence, wealth and massive human potential, has not yet come to an agreement to stave off disaster is partly due to modern leaders gambling with time to grasp power. The trappings of power have now entrapped them as a result. Or as Francis Fukuyama wrote several years ago:
“We take great pride in a constitution that limits executive power through a series of checks and balances. But those checks and balances have now metastasized. When this political system is combined with ideological parties, the result is paralysis. If we are to get out of our present paralysis, we need strong leadership.”
Could Glasgow be that moment? That will depend on the willingness of the leaders gathered there to pull together whatever power they have left to have a final chance to save the world they are supposed to be leading. It would be foolish to think they aren’t sincere concerning climate change, but it will be the power of collaboration and sacrifice that could reverse our direction, not merely promises to do so.
Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 35 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.