Climate COPs: A Modern-Day Cargo Cult?

In the shadow of the escalating climate crisis, a ritualistic celebration has emerged: the annual climate COP (Conference of the Parties) gathering. Yet, as years roll by, one begins to wonder: are these high-level meetings, with their grand declarations and ambitious pledges, merely modern-day incarnations of a cargo cult?

Cargo cults emerged in the Pacific Islands, where indigenous people, having observed the seemingly miraculous arrival of western goods via military cargo planes during World War II, later built mock-up runways and wore coconut headphones, hoping to bring back the cargo laden planes. 

A disturbing parallel emerges when we scrutinize the climate COPs. Year after year, world leaders and public figures convene at COPs to design elaborate frameworks and set ambitious climate goals. But the actions needed to prevent the catastrophic consequences of climate change remain undelivered, like the undelivered goods of the cargo cults. 

This raises a critical question: are we, through climate COPs, engaging in a sophisticated form of wishful thinking? Are our high-level meetings and resolutions, though well-intentioned, nothing more than symbolic acts, like the mock-up airstrips of the cargo cults? 

As someone once remarked, when it comes to cargo cults, the planes don’t land. The recurrent failure to address the phasing out of fossil fuels underscores the parallel between climate COPs and cargo cults: hopes are raised at each COP but the aftermath reveals a stark rift between rhetoric and results. In climate COPs, it’s fair to say, the private jets land but the planes don’t. 

As we reflect on the outcomes of past climate COPs, it’s time to ask ourselves: are we content with the ritual of negotiation and pledge-making, or do we demand the actual delivery of the cargo of substantive fossil fuel phase-out policies? The world cannot afford ceremonial runways leading nowhere; it needs real pathways to a sustainable future.

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