By Lorna Gold
Whatever way you look at it, the last week of September was an extraordinary week in climate politics. The risen dust is only starting to settle. It started with over 2,000 coordinated global demonstrations, including a march of 400,000 people through the streets of New York, demanding climate justice. This was followed by the UN Climate Summit, convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to raise the ambitions of Governments coming up to the critical UN Framework Convention on Climate Change talks to be concluded in Paris in December 2015.
In the competition between global crises, climate change had slipped far down the agenda since the collapse of the Copenhagen talks in 2009. The fact that so many Heads of States turned up to the UN Climate Summit and made speeches on climate change is significant in itself. Even if many of the commitments were not new, the tone reflected a new urgency. There were a few shifts signalled by big players that mark a new departure for climate politics.
Private-finance bigwigs came to the table with commitments to shift significant investment portfolios out of fossil fuels. The most high profile was the announcement that the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund would join the Divest Invest Philanthropy group and move its asset portfolio away from fossil fuels. There were other, less high-profile, commitments from the insurance industry. These have been a decade in the making. In total, the tally of private investment committed to moving from carbon amounted to around $200 billion. This is a significant move, if it happens, as it gives the first concrete signal from the markets that the fossil fuel era may be coming to an end.
However, in terms of new public finance to address critical areas such as climate adaptation, the commitments made at the Climate Summit were much smaller. In total, $2 billion in new commitments to the Green Climate Fund were announced. This is far from the minimum $100 billion annual commitment that is required to support investment in adaptation, particular within developing countries.
China’s announcement at the Climate Summit that it is to set out a timetable for peak emissions in the next few months represents a potentially seismic shift if it materialises. Given the disproportionate role that China and the US play in emissions, any signal that their emissions will peak is worth noting.
The rise of a more co-ordinated layer of local governance in the form of a coalition of mayors of cities representing 400 million people also points to a change in the political landscape. The alliance announced plans to reduce emissions and is not waiting for national governments but responding to the climate challenge itself.
Despite these shifts, much of the old politics of climate dominated the formal sessions of the Climate Summit. New commitments to emissions reduction targets were few. Nobody expected significant new targets, but the lack of any ambition was depressingly familiar. In the conference hall, listening to the endless four-minute cleverly crafted speeches, you had the impression that the formal political processes are as stuck as ever in an outdated system where ‘form matters more than substance’.
Energy was high around a number of new voluntary initiatives. These included the launch of the ‘Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture’, which Ireland has signed up to. The aim of this multi-stakeholder alliance is to catalyse action to address the issue of agricultural productivity in a climate-constrained world. It includes corporations, research institutes, a small number of NGOs, and certain Governments.
The Alliance has already drawn serious criticism from civil-society organisations. These include Oxfam, Christian Aid, Action Aid and Trócaire who participated in the initial conversations about the Alliance, but withdrew their support. Amongst their concerns are the lack of clarity concerning the concept, the accountability gaps in the Alliance and the way in which corporations were promoting specific products via the Alliance.
The emergence of the Alliance and other similar voluntary initiatives is actually a worrying trend. On the face of it, these new initiatives seem to tick all the boxes. They are multi-stakeholder, results -ocused, and formed by a coalition of the willing rather than being held back by the lowest common denominator. Such initiatives, however, by definition are self-selecting and free to pick and choose their policy frameworks according to which bits best suit the partners involved. The energy for producing change is diverted into initiatives funded largely by private finance, or by Public Private Partnerships. They lack accountability and transparency.
There has been a shift to ‘invitation only’ events on the margins of the UN General Assembly over the past five years. If these initiatives were merely side-shows to the main event, it would not be so worrying. These events are, regrettably, where the main action is now happening due to the imbalance between public and private funding.
The effective transfer of commitment for action from within the multilateral forum into private, invitation-only spaces, points to a fractured political system that is ill-equipped to deal with problems of common concern, such as climate change. It is an approach that is literally bankrupt and reliant on private finance to sustain its operations.
In many instances, these new initiatives have emerged from years of pent-up frustration at working within the system. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, it is going to be impossible to put it back. There is a serious need to strengthen the accountability of such initiatives and ensuring that they are linked closely to agreed multilateral frameworks. In the case of the ‘Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture’, for example, it is critical to make a strong link to the Committee on Food Security.
The biggest shift in climate politics over the past few weeks did not happen in the UN General Assembly Hall or in these new initiatives. It happened out on the streets. The march through the streets of New York, and the hundreds of other events throughout the world, marked an increase in intensity for the climate movement which had lain dormant and despondent since Copenhagen in 2009.
The streets of New York were not full of NGO supporters or environmental campaigners but ordinary citizens who have come to the conclusion that climate change is an issue that is going to affect them and their children. The marchers came from local community groups, health centres, trade unions, mosques, churches, synagogues, universities – from all over the country.
In the five years since Copenhagen, the conversation and the means of communicating on climate change have shifted. People are making the links between addressing climate change and related challenges of divesting in fossil fuels, stopping fracking, addressing corporate power, and stopping the privatisation of public services. This sense of connecting the dots was evident in the thousands of home-made banners, many of them works of art: “Keep the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole”; “there is no planet B”; “Buck Fig Oil”; and “Explain to future generations ‘it was good for the economy’”. They are generating their own media and not relying on the corporate-driven mainstream media. They are growing new media channels such as ‘Democracy Now’ via social media.
The challenge is to build on the momentum behind this movement, and in particular the mobilisation of ordinary citizens. It is going to take more than several hundred thousand people coming out on the streets to bring about the kind of changes needed to address climate change. It requires a global movement on a scale perhaps never seen before and with a political sophistication never seen before.
Such a movement shouldn’t just be focused on the outcome of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. A global deal is key, but it is essential to shift the national conversation in every corner of the globe and generate bottom-up action. As one poster in the climate march said “To change everything, it takes everyone”.
In Ireland, we need to shift the national conversation on climate change and to push it back up the political agenda. The promise of a Climate Bill before Christmas, however flawed, must provide an opportunity for a national conversation on how we make the transition to a post-carbon society. •
Lorna Gold is Head of Policy and Advocacy with Trócaire