BY 1993, the DuPont chemical company had evidence suggesting that the manufacturing of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was causing live lab animals to develop some seriously nasty cancers and tumours when exposed to it. Colloquially known as C8, the compound was linked to testicular cancer and pancreatic and liver tumours.

A problem for DuPont would have been that the manufacturing of the compound, used in the production of Teflon, played such a vital role in the company’s annual profits in excess of $1 billion that to scrap production would cost the company substantially.

The use of C8 at the Virginia plant continued – and since then, people who lived near it have blamed tainted drinking water for illnesses linked to the chemical.

Scientists working within the chemical giant itself initially set the safety threshold for how much PFOA could contaminate drinking water as one part per billion (ppb) – but later, a scientist brought in by the company recommended that West Virginia set a safety threshold of 150pbb – 150 times higher than the earlier limit.

So, what does this have to do with COP26?

Well, the story of C8 and DuPont is, to me, a frightening example of exactly why capitalism can never be trusted to effectively self-regulate and, further to that, how compromise in the face of environmental disaster is no compromise at all.

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What level of PFOA do you think would be acceptable to drink? In the eyes of businesses who huge profits from its manufacturing, the answer can easily be “whatever amount is needed to protect the company’s revenue”.

I say jump. You say “how high?”.

I say drink. You say “how much?”.

West Virginia did ultimately accept the recommendation to set a threshold of 150pbb. That wasn’t a compromise. It was too late.

The DuPont Co and its spin-off business Chemours this year agreed to resolve legal disputes over environmental liabilities for pollution relating to human-made chemicals associated with health problems.

The Ohio verdict came following a class action lawsuit involving 80,000 Ohio and West Virginia residents who drank water contaminated by chemical releases from DuPont’s Washington Works facility. After three verdicts in favour of plaintiffs, DuPont in 2017 had agreed to settle the remaining 3500 cases.

So prolific and long-lasting are its properties, PFOA is understood to be present in the blood of 98% of the general US population.

There is no compromise when it comes to drinking polluted water, as there is no compromise when it comes to climate change. There is only the abject futility of stomping down to a beach and trying to rationalise with a rising ocean, or appealing for a deadly heat wave to see reason.

You cannot bargain with an ecological disaster any more than you can the passing of time itself – so how can we consider COP26 to be anything other than a failure when the responsibilities of the fossil-fuel industry were so weakened over the course of the summit?

The climate conference in Glasgow held at its core a pledge to “keep 1.5C alive”; a commitment to limit our impact on the environment so that global warming does not press past that threshold and into further ecological disaster. It’s an all-or-nothing outcome – yet our politicians and their sponsors have treated it like any other political issue, where a safe middle ground is an option.

The fossil-fuel lobby led the charge to water down the agreement, and succeeded.

So now there is no commitment to “phase out” the use of coal, but rather to “phase down”, whatever that means. And even if there are some positive developments in

the final deal, that doesn’t

change the fact that we are still dangerously close to missing that target. There is success, or there is failure and the irreversible, world-changing consequences that come with it. There is still poison in the well, even if there’s a little bit less than before.

That’s why I find the concessions given to the fossil-fuel industries so terrifying. And no, I do not mean “disappointing” or “disheartening” or any other weak rhetorical platitude. I mean terrifying.

How can world leaders approach the timebomb of climate change with any mindset other than a driving need to find a solution? Are we expected to placidly sit back and accept a world leader telling us “well, we tried to stop the destruction of the planet as we know it, but in the end we just couldn’t agree on how to do it”?

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Depressingly, it isn’t a surprising outcome to COP26 that world leaders have failed to set a strong enough path to keeping 1.5C alive. This was the first year that fossil fuels were even explicitly mentioned in a UN climate agreement, so pathetic have countries been on taking their respective industries to task. Just one in five people in the UK even believed that politicians would deliver ahead of the conference’s conclusion.

The public’s desire to see bold action on the climate is barely recognisable in the softly, softly approach of our political class, who still seem more focused on securing a third summer home for oil and gas executives than on curtailing their power.

So once again, it comes down to us to push, pressure and force our governments and politicians to prioritise the planet over the revenues of rampant capitalism; to press them into actually meeting the goals they have set for a change; and to tell them to stop trying to convince us that we should be happy to drink a little poison, because it’s better than a lot.