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Expert Comment: Climates of unity, activity and activism

Climate change Monday 22 September 2014

As hundreds of thousands of people take part in climate change protests around the world Steve Axon, a student in the Geography Department, looks at the prospects for the future. 

Climate change is a controversial and divisive issue. Climate scientists and environmentalists suggest that there should be a radical change in everyday lives across the globe to address the issue, whilst sceptics challenge the underpinning scientific consensus that the climate is changing due to human causes. However, in recent weeks there have been a number of interesting developments that could lead to the beginning of an engaged, united and environmentally (and climate) active society, aiming for a sustainable future.

Last weekend saw over 600,000 people across the globe campaign in the largest demonstration of public concern towards climate change. The People’s Climate March took place in 156 countries and over 2,000 locations including London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Jakarta, Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Melbourne and New York saw tens of thousands of protesters call for governments to pledge meaningful actions to address climate change. The organisers of the People’s Climate March commented that the mass demonstrations aimed to transform climate change from “an environmental concern to an everybody issue”. The protests took place ahead of a UN meeting in New York, and to galvanise over 100 member states to sign up to a new agreement in Paris in 2015. 

The march in New York drew crowds of over 310,000, drawing more than half of those estimated to have joined rallies around the world. What is significant about the demonstration in Manhattan is that it was also attended by celebrities, politicians and environmental campaigners including Leonardo DiCaprio, Hollywood actor and newly appointed UN ambassador for climate change; Al Gore, former Vice-President of the US; primatologist Jane Goodall; Segolene Royal, French ecology minister; and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. However, the People’s Climate March demonstrates a unity that has not been seen before, and something that is incredibly valuable for the future of addressing climate change. It demonstrates that an increasing number of the public, globally, are concerned about, and engaged with, climate change to the extent that they have openly campaigned for their governments to act.

The significance of the People’s Climate March is that those participating in the demonstrations were not just colourful activists brandishing posters. The reality is that tens of thousands were ordinary people, including couples with children, teenagers and senior citizens campaigning for a better world and a more environmentally sustainable future. This reality does indeed reflect the aim of the march by the organisers that climate change is becoming an “everybody issue”.

The global march comes alongside distressing news from The Global Climate Project. It reports that China’s emissions per head of population have surpassed the EU for the first time, and account for 29% of total global emissions. The latest data shows that a record 36 billion tonnes of carbon were released into the atmosphere in 2013, and that global sources of carbon dioxide are increasing so fast that they will likely exceed the limit of climate change in the next 30 years.

This week, the UN is hosting a climate summit in New York, to be attended by 125 heads of state and government – the first meeting since the unsuccessful climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009. The goal of the summit for the UN Secretary General is for global governments to make their offers public on addressing climate change, ahead of the meeting in Paris in 2015. Whilst there is no guarantee that Mr Ban’s plan will work, there are some encouraging signs. For example, French President Francois Hollande pledged $1bn for climate adaption for poorer countries, and Norway pledged £90m to Liberia to end deforestation by 2020. However, there were still trepidations amongst politicians in New York. President Obama did not pledge any substantial actions. Yet, he underlined that carbon emissions should be regulated by executive powers rather than a divided Congress and appealed to China to lead on addressing climate change.

Whilst the leaders of China, India and Russia were not present at the UN climate summit, the Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli did attend and commented that China aimed to become a more carbon efficient country by 2020, arguing that its emissions would peak “as soon as possible”. China’s aim, according to Mr Zhang, will be to reduce its emissions of carbon per unit of GDP by 45%, compared to 2005 levels. 

This past week demonstrates a number of important issues. Firstly, it highlights that there are a substantial number of individuals who care passionately about addressing the negative consequences of climate change. Secondly, the demonstrations demonstrate that the unity and activism is multifaceted. The presence of high profile campaigners, politicians and celebrities provides a sense of unity that may bridge the divide between those who shape policy and those that implement it into practice. Additionally, the fact that the People’s Climate March took place in 156 countries across the world indicates that the issue is not isolated to one geographic region, but is an environmental concern globally. It proves that the concerns held by people are shared irrespective of development, and that a sustainable future is becoming an increasingly normative concept.

Thirdly, the pledges of action at the UN climate summit in New York demonstrates that politicians from the developed and developing world are willing to place more offers of action on the table. This is encouraging news. It is particularly encouraging because these pledges could, and should, act as a springboard for further pledges of action to be formally agreed in a legally binding international agreement on addressing climate change in Paris next year. Fourthly, and finally, the UN climate summit has shown that there is a unity between politicians, their rhetoric and pledges of action to address climate change. This unity between the politicians was described by President Obama referring to the “special responsibility” that China and the US (the world’s top emitters) had to address climate change. Indeed, all eyes will be waiting eagerly for this special responsibility to be transformed into meaningful pledges of action for a legally binding, but flexible, international agreement in Paris next year.

At the People’s Climate March, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that climate change is a “defining issue of our time”. Indeed it is. Yet it is being defined by the increasing number of environmentally engaged, united and active citizens around the world. 

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