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Never Mind the COPS - Negotiating With Ourselves

Updated: May 24

And something about the five stages of grief

Photo: Ágnes Nagygyörgy

“After the final no there comes a yes

And on that yes the future world depends.”

Wallace Stevens

“Blah, blah, blah.”

Greta Thunberg

“Grief is real because loss is real. Each grief has its own imprint, as distinctive and as unique as the person we lost. The pain of loss is so intense, so heartbreaking, because in loving we deeply connect with another human being, and grief is the reflection of the connection that has been lost. We think we want to avoid the grief, but really it is the pain of the loss we want to avoid. Grief is the healing process that ultimately brings us comfort in our pain.”

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

The audio version of the essay, read by me.

Excuse the pun in the title, I couldn't resist.

COP is short for Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). That's quite a mouthful, and COP is a very welcome abbreviation.

I've been stuck with the feeling that I want to say something about this conference for a while, but at the same time I kept feeling some resistance to write a text about this annual ritual.

When I try to feel what that resistance may be about, I end up with a number of realizations, insights, perspectives and ideas that I now want to share in this essay.

Especially in order to point towards other ways of thinking and feeling that are more likely to succeed than this annual ritual. Because there is still much reason for hope, we just need to put on different glasses, shift our perspective, and dare to let go. And among other things, we must also dare to let go of the idea that a ritual like COP will bring us closer to a fundamental change of direction.

Letting go is always accompanied by some form of grief or mourning, and that is necessary. And actually, the whole COP thing, in my opinion, is currently still a ritual in which the world community is trying to postpone the much-needed process of mourning and grief and acceptance.

That is why I will talk later in this text about what Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said about grief, sorrow, acceptance and letting go.

It is not so difficult to point out the shortcomings of this ‘Conference Of The Parties’.

I could talk about the fact that this COP was chaired by the CEO of the United Arab Emirates' state-owned oil company, who from the outset showed above all an intention to use this COP to market his company's products and services.

A CEO who additionally reported that there is "no scientific evidence that fossil fuel use must be brought down to avoid climate catastrophe”.

I could talk about the approximately 2,500 fossil fuel industry lobbyists who participated this year, which made their delegation larger than any national delegation but two.

I could talk about the very worrying trend of NGOs, activists and representatives of ‘indigenous’ nations being increasingly harassed, threatened and intimidated at these meetings.

Or I could talk about how this COP often seemed more like a 'trade fair' (not to be confused with 'fair trade'!) in which participants in quite a few cases appeared to be present primarily to market products, often fossil fuels, oh irony.

Or I could cite that the next COP conference, in Azerbaijan, promises more of the same: the country is already signaling that it is going to promote its own reserves of natural gas as a 'clean' fuel for transition, just as the UAE wanted to take advantage of the past COP to promote its own oil products.

Or on the other hand, I could talk about the shortcomings in the focus of these conferences.

A focus that still isolates ‘climate’ too much from the other ecological crises that are unfolding (the biodiversity crisis, the ‘top-soil crisis’, the crisis in our oceans, the waste crisis,...)

Too narrow a focus on 'climate' allows the global community to continue to see the whole thing as a technical problem for which technical solutions exist, a temporary obstacle on our ever-rising path to mastery over nature and a technological super-civilization with unlimited economic growth.

As long as we keep seeing ‘climate’ as something separate from the crisis in our entire biosphere, we are going to keep making the same thinking errors and mistakes because we are looking at everything through the wrong lens.

I could talk about how this kind of conference also, within the narrow focus of 'climate’, again takes a too narrow approach to that concept of ‘climate’ itself.

Climate is in mainstream discussion mainly a matter of our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, especially from energy generation, industrial processes and transportation. But the deregulation of our planet's climate has not only to do with our energy consumption and burning of fossil fuels (serious as that issue is): it is an incredibly complex fact that has to do with the whole living being that is our biosphere, not just with our emissions of CO2 and methane. Our biosphere is not a machine but a fabric in which everything is connected to everything else, and in which every ‘part’ has an impact on the dynamics of the whole, and thus also on the climate. (Note: 'part' is a word that is not quite right in this context, a complex system like the biosphere cannot really be broken down into 'parts,' unlike a complicated system like an airplane or a gasoline engine).

Kelp forests, whales, algae, bacteria, krill, coral reefs, grasses, small and large mammals,.... literally àll that lives has an impact on the dynamics of water, energy and temperature that we commonly call ‘climate’. See the video of the blog post in the ‘Musings and Meditations’ series in which George Monbiot explains how whales affect climate.

Or this essay from Climate Water Project, which explains how the biosphere, as a self-regulating system through biodiversity, manages to balance the carbon cycle, if only we give it the chance.

But I won't talk so much about all those things now, although many of those aspects will still pop up in the blog and the project regularly.

Rather, I wanted to point out the curious fact that the failure of almost all COP - conferences does seem ‘baked-in’ in the nature of the process itself.

Thirty years of COP, and greenhouse gas emissions in 2023 were again the highest ever. And in 2024, that record will be broken again. Since the first COP took place in Berlin in March 1995, mankind has already pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere than in the entire history prior to that COP1. So it doesn't seem to be doing much good, this annual high mass that seems to be taking on increasingly grandiose forms

Strangely, this time there was some joy and optimism even among some environmental movements and NGOs, now that the two words ‘fossil fuels’ are mentioned in the final agreement, even accompanied by the word ‘phaseout’.

Whether we should be happy that after 30 years of negotiations those two words are in the final agreement, when in fact we should already be further than halfway through that famous 'phaseout,' remains to be seen. It is absurdly little and endlessly late, and it is all still non-binding and there is also no 'road-map' on how that 'phaseout' is to be achieved.

So is there no reason for joy, for optimism?

Yes, there is always reason for joy and optimism, but not because of what was said, decided or written at the most recent climate summit.

So should we stop these meetings altogether? No, but we do need to let go of the idea that the big change in direction will be initiated there. And the process must be thoroughly reformed. Journalist and activist George Monbiot puts in this article, which originally appeared in The Guardian, explains why COP meetings are dysfunctional and have so far barely achieved anything. One reason is the fact that every decision must be approved unanimously, something Saudi Arabia insisted on at the time, and which makes every country have a de facto veto power.

Monbiot cites some proposals in his article that could make the process more effective, including also changing the decision-making process and keeping out lobbyists.

But Monbiot also points out that COP really does have an improbably bad record so far, as evidenced by the fact that after 30 years of negotiations, we are setting new records on greenhouse gas emissions year after year. All COP conferences so far may be bookended as failures except two (Tokyo and Paris).

In one sentence, Monbiot says, "They are talking us into the abyss." The final analysis by Greta Thunberg, who also skipped COP last year and this year, was similarly poignant: "Blah blah blah."

And so we must also ask ourselves the following question: are COP conferences meant to be a success? Monbiot points out that the processes and protocols used here are only used at conferences in the domain of ecology. If the world community really wants something to happen, other methods are used, which then also tend to be more successful.

But why would the world community set up an annual ritual that is also becoming more and more grandiose, with the (unconscious) intention that this ritual cannot or should not lead to real success or real change?

Who or what develops habits regarding intentions and promises to change behavior in which failure is, as it were, built in?

It resembles the kind of ritual where an addict solemnly promises over and over again to detox, promise that keeps ending in failure.

What exactly is an addiction? Many define addiction as a strategy to avoid the real trauma, to avoid feeling the real grief, to avoid experiencing the deeper wound, to avoid facing a truth.

In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published the book "On Death and Dying. It was a groundbreaking work because in 1969 the process of the end of life and how to deal with it was still a taboo - doctors and medical personnel were not dealing with it at that time, and the subject of dying and death was also shunned in the wider society. We have come a long way, but I think it is fair to say that the taboo is actually still intact - we rarely talk about death, dying, illness and suffering in our society. The great Stephen Jenkinson calls our civilization ‘death-phobic’ and he is more than right.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stated in her book that people diagnosed with a terminal illness go through five stages of grief:

1.Denial: the first reaction is denial. In this stage, people believe that the diagnosis is somehow wrong and cling to a false, preferable reality.

2. Anger: When the individual realizes that denial cannot continue, he becomes frustrated and furious, especially toward nearby individuals.

3. Negotiation: the third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. It usually involves negotiating for a longer life in exchange for a changed lifestyle. Individuals with less severe trauma may negotiate or seek compromise.

4. Depression: During the fourth stage, the individual despairs at the recognition of their mortality. In this state, the individual may become quiet, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and cranky.

5. Acceptance: In this final stage, individuals embrace their mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or some other tragic event. People who die may precede survivors in this state, which is usually accompanied by a calm, retrospective outlook for the individual and a steady state of emotions.

In a book she later co-wrote with David Kessler and published posthumously, Kübler-Ross expanded her model to include any kind of personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or income, a major rejection, the end of a relationship or divorce, drug addiction, incarceration, the onset of an illness or a diagnosis of infertility, and even minor losses, such as the loss of insurance coverage. Co-author Kessler also proposed "meaning" as a sixth stage of grief in his later book 'Finding Meaning'.

I would argue that we, the world, our species Homo Sapiens Sapiens, are collectively going through these stages regarding the convergence of ecological crises we are in the midst of, and that the ritual of the COP negotiations is part of the third stage of mourning we are going through: as the ritual suggests, the third stage of negotiation (figuratively speaking ànd, of course, literally speaking!).

Of course, this statement is a simplification: I think the process is more complex than that. In fact, Elisabeth Kübler Ross also always indicated that these stages should not be taken too strictly, and that it is certainly not a linear process that goes the same way for everyone. A person may also go through these stages in a different order, or the end result may be something other than acceptance, for example, enduring resistance and depression.

But I think this picture of the stages of grief contains a deep truth, and as the author also pointed out in her later book, can apply to multiple types of processes.

And I think that we can indeed apply this image of the stages of mourning also to the process that the global community is going through (until now largely unconsciously) regarding what we usually call the ‘climate crisis’ but what I prefer to call the ‘biosphere crisis: the convergence of ecological and other crises that means the end of something that is (currently still) very dear to us. This ending is like dying in a way, this ending that we don't want to see for now.

What will come to an end? Not yet immediately mankind itself. But the present world, as we know it in the sense of a system of technological, practical and ideological organization, including what we call ‘economics’, international trade, the monetary system, our methods of industrial agriculture and fishing, our conceptions of labor and redistribution of wealth, the concept of ‘wealth’ itself, the international relations between the North and the South,...and many other things that we now take for granted as being part of ‘our world’.

But what is also coming to an end is our worldview, the way we defined ourselves in the world, the position we assigned ourselves and the future we saw for ourselves. Our dream is coming to an end, you might say. And we have a lot invested in that dream, in that worldview.

Philosopher and author Charles Eisenstein calls that image ‘The Story of Ascent’, the story of man's ever-increasing power and control over his environment, with the supposed result of ever-increasing prosperity for man, and the eventual triumph over nature itself. His magnum opus ‘The Ascent of Humanity’, in which he situates the origin of this story very far back in history (much further back than we usually do), is warmly recommended reading!

The meta-story or paradigm coming to an end is complex and layered, and includes many ‘side-stories’, ‘sub-plots’, different versions also, depending on aspects such as religion and local cultural differences.

Therefore, I will not attempt to define that story in this essay, that would go much too far. But an important aspect of this story (or stories) coming to an end does involve power: our idea of the power we can exercise over each other (the outgoing worldview is very hierarchical in nature and reflected in the social structures that have grown over millennia) and over all living things with which we share the planet. In virtually every version of the old story, the world is merely a ‘thing’, a machine or an essentially inanimate object that we may use (and abuse) to our heart's content, since we have the power to do so. A power that in one version of the story was given to us by God, and which in another version of the story we ourselves have achieved to enforce this supremacy by using our reason and technology, our 'left-brain'.

That story is very dear to modern humanity. Virtually all cultures have their version of that story, because they all stem from a 'meta-story' that underlies the aforementioned 'sub-plots,' different stories that originated in different places and at different times in our history.  Stories such as recently the idea that (much) more material prosperity will make us happier, or the idea that capitalism reflects a 'natural' order, or the idea of the benefits that an ever-deepening technological revolution will bring us through a thorough mechanization and automation of just about everything, to the idea that with A.I. we are spawning a new form of life that will eventually colonize the universe.

So, in the image I suggested, the world is negotiating with itself as a stage in a grieving process over a loss we cannot yet accept. So the grieving process is indeed in progress - even denial is already part of that process. And the stage of simple denial does seem to lie behind us at the world level. 

But that does not mean that everything and everyone on our planet is at the same stage of this process.

Different regions of the world and different segments of a country's population may be at different stages. Different parts of the world may be at different stages depending, for example, on how much damage is being experienced locally from the disrupted climate, or depending on the amount of information available locally, the level of democracy of the country in question, or economic or cultural factors. Denial may resurface when a far-right government takes power after elections, such as in Brazil, the U.S, and now Argentina.

Looking at my part of the world, Europe, I think a large part of the population is indeed still in the stage of denial. Another and growing part is going through the stage of anger: people who feel threatened by aspects of the meta-crisis like migration, or increasing restrictions on agriculture, or rising energy prices. It is a dangerous stage as the anger may give rise to populist and extremist policies, or to a ‘relapse’ into denial.

Another part is negotiating: people at this stage nurture the belief that by buying an electric car or installing solar panels, they are doing their part for ‘green growth’, that will make our society ‘sustainable’ while allowing the economic order as we know it to continue. (Not that it is therefore in every case wrong to buy an electric car or install solar panels, but as long as we think that that will solve the issue, we are bargaining - in order not to have to see that there will also be other and way more essential things to be done).

Others have already given up hope and have reached the stage of (often unconscious) depression: the conviction that the world is doomed in any case, that it is not going to end well with Homo Sapiens anyway, and that it is immoral to bring any more children into the world. A few have already reached the stage of acceptance, but I dare say that is a very small minority of the population for now. So acceptance is something completely different from ‘depression’. It is facing the very difficult reality head-on, but also the possibilities that are latent in that reality.

And I would then include the sixth stage of mourning: meaning.

The sixth stage of mourning defined by David Kessler seems to me to be of great importance: beyond the acceptance of the end of something or someone dear to us lies the giving of new meaning to this end, and possibly insight into what follows that end. In this context, the sixth stage of mourning could be an insight into the anòther world that is possible, and that awaits us when we accept that the present world is coming to an end. We must always die a little in order to be reborn, and the longer we try to stretch or prevent the dying of the present world, the longer it will take before a new world can be born.

But I would venture to say that very few people have reached that stage yet. They are the seers, the people who can already imagine another world, the free thinkers who dare to let go of ‘common sense’ and propose things that for most of us still seem impossible. One of my intentions with this blog and the project, is to do my part to help spread the new ideas that point into the possibility of a different and better world (however remote that possibility may seem at the moment).

But as I said, it is not a linear process, and the whole complex organism called humanity by no means moves through it uniformly and simultaneously. People can flip back and forth between two stages, or ‘relapse’. Discouragement can cause us to 'slip back' one or two stages. Or we may find ourselves in several stages simultaneously.

I like to think of myself as being in the fifth or sixth stage, but that may be wishful thinking. Possibly I only think that because I am still partly in denial. More realistic is probably to say that I am also still shifting back and forth between stages. And some days (thankfully not often anymore) I feel more like I am still in the stage of despair or anger.

The 100,000 participants in COP 28 were also undoubtedly in different stages of this process. And some seem to be at different stages simultaneously, such as the president of the conference himself, who claims one day that there is no ‘scientific evidence’ that we need to phase out fossil fuel use (denial), and then still helps bring about a final agreement that defines that intention anyway, albeit in an extremely non-committal way and without a plan on how to achieve it (negotiation).

But the COP process as a whole, I feel, belongs to the third stage of mourning: negotiation (with ourselves), both in the figurative sense of the word and in the most literal.

I believe (with many other and greater minds than myself) that the task awaits us to move through the process of mourning without further delay, so that we can move forward. And everyone can contribute something to how the collective shifts in that sense. Everyone has an influence and an opportunity to make a difference. From accepting and giving meaning to the loss, or the end of something currently still dear to us, we can re-engage the imagination: what kind of world do we really want? What kind of world would we wish our descendants of many generations to come? Can we still imagine that we will create a more beautiful world if the current world makes way for something else?

But we must be able to die in order to be reborn. As long as we cling to (our image of) the world as it is now, we will remain trapped in the past, and given the rate at which the living fabric of our biosphere is decaying, that is not an option.

And we will have to feel; thinking alone will not get us there (see the text ‘To feel or not to feel, that is the question’, which you can find among the essays on this site). Because even more than not wanting to see something rationally, the avoidance process that is the stage of negotiation is still an aspect of not wanting to feel grief.

In the words of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: “We think we want to avoid grief, but actually it is the pain of loss that we want to avoid. Grief is the healing process that ultimately brings us comfort in our pain."

Processes like COP will only be able to produce real results if they are done in the spirit of giving meaning to the loss, rather than trying to avoid that loss at all costs. And maybe, also begin to see the perceived loss as a potentially huge gain.

I'll talk about what all that might mean concretely another time.

Thank you for reading, and until the next installment,

All the best to you,


Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven


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