Last week, the climate change movement experienced a jolting resurrection. On Tuesday 23 September, heads of state from over 120 countries gathered in New York City for a monumental UN climate summit. “The human, environmental and financial cost of climate change is fast becoming unbearable […] We need a clear shared vision”, said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the summit’s opening ceremony.
Granted, not much was resolved in the short timespan. With a tight schedule, and a four minute speech limit per leader, the summit served as a launchpad for future international climate talks at the upcoming 2015 Paris summit rather than as a draft for policy agreement.
Two days earlier, however, something big happened. Ahead of the summit, New York City’s streets flooded with an estimated 400,000 people walking in solidarity with the People’s Climate March. Thousands more joined them in locations around the world stretching from Edinburgh to Papua New Guinea, rendering the collective People’s Climate March the largest climate demonstration in history.
The march, combined with the climate summit, made headlines worldwide and served as an important reminder: climate change is the unifying issue of our generation, spanning borders, demographics, and classes. The sentiment was perhaps best encompassed by Desmond Tutu, in a Guardian article about our “global enemy” – climate change – wrote: “Never before in history have human beings been called on to act collectively in defence of the Earth.”
Tutu’s words express a core conviction that climate change needs to be viewed as a human issue, and not as just another political issue.
In accordance, there is great need to change our pattern of thinking about climate change. It is important to venture away from associating the issue solely with the notions of gas, oil, and carbon emissions, and capitalise on thinking in terms of its real human impact. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), between 2030 and 2050, climate change related causes are expected to cause an approximated 250,000 additional deaths per year. The direct damage costs of climate change are expected to be between 2-4 billion US dollars per year by 2030. Further, developing countries, which represent the smallest contributors to climate change, will be the most affected by further temperature rises and least able to cope.
Such issues are critical, and any hope of their mitigation requires urgent steps to be taken, not only by policy makers, but by a collectively engaged international society.
Most are aware of the rising sea levels, receding glaciers, and frequent extreme weather events escalated by the global fossil fuel dependence inherited from the industrial revolution. However, that the power of decision-making and action is concentrated in so few government and industry hands has made it easy for individuals to blame all on irresponsible policy and companies. Unfortunately, in recent years, this has given rise to the emergence of a concerned but widely disengaged global society.
The issue has been exacerbated by the relative ineffectiveness of international protocols and legal frameworks. The current international operational protocol for climate policy, the Kyoto Protocol, finalised in 1997 but effective only from 2005, mandates each nation to cut its yearly carbon emissions by a certain percentage, averaging 5.2 per cent worldwide. The meagre targets have proven ineffective for substantive change, and further, partially due to its late enforcement, an overall 40 per cent increase in carbon emissions has occurred in the 1990 to 2009 timespan, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
Further aggravating matters, an air of futility has lingered for the past several years following the arguable disappointments of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, the result of the most recent large-impact UN climate summit. The accord, originally projected to be a breakthrough global agreement increasing international action on climate change, ultimately took shape as a modest five country deal, led by the US, with surprisingly low targets for CO2 emissions decrease.
With this week’s events, however, the stagnant atmosphere of the climate game has undergone major upheaval. A new wave of climate policy formation is approaching, and along with it hope for tangible change. In the upcoming six months, every country in the world will submit its climate goals for negotiations ahead of the 2015 Paris climate summit. If successful, the Paris climate summit will hope to draft a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol.
The coming months, therefore, are crucial for upturning the widespread disengagement and collectively mobilising policy makers to push for brave and effective climate litigation. “All we need is political will,” said Former US Vice-President Al Gore at the New York summit. “But political will is a renewable resource.”
The People’s Climate March has provided a glimpse into how a mobilised international society can expedite and pressurise change. “There is a gap between the speed of action our survival requires and the action our governments are taking,” wrote Ricken Patel, one of the organisers of the march, in an op-ed for CNN. “The street is how we close the gap, because politicians will move faster when people move them”, Patel added.
The march has provided a strong momentum for the pressing future of the climate movement. It is evident that the climate movement is no longer only for scientists and social activists. Individuals, students, companies and cities can all partake in challenging the climate crisis.
Such a call to action is not just about saving energy. While individual lifestyle changes are important, changes to the infrastructure of the global energy economy are required for meaningful progress in curbing climate change. Right now, spreading societal awareness is key.
The People’s Climate March was indisputably a great victory. However, great victories can also be achieved at local levels. People and Planet’s ‘Fossil Free’ campaign, for example, which calls for the University of Edinburgh’s to divest from fossil fuels, has made national news and turned heads throughout the UK, attesting to the efficacy of local, grassroots movements.
Societal awareness can be spread through a variety of means: by educating oneself and the community about worldwide energy consumption and the global health and environmental threats it gives rise to; by encouraging organisations and companies which touch our daily lives to cut ties with fossil fuel industries; and by pressuring governments to stop subsidising the fossil fuel culprits, and instead to invest in a sustainable future.
Ahead of the game-changing 2015 Paris summit, it is important to continue acting collectively to change our patterns of thought and action against our “global enemy”.
“We are made for each other, for interdependence,” wrote Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. “When we, humans, walk together in pursuit of a righteous cause, we become an irresistible force.”