The largest ever gathering for climate action took place in New York on Sept. 21, just two days ahead of a major negotiations on a climate treaty between global leaders at the United Nations.
The “People’s Climate March” attracted an estimated 400,000 people and the message to the political class was clear: stop dithering – it’s time for meaningful action to reduce global carbon emissions.
Despite the impassioned plea, most protestors are placing little faith in the UN process, as each summit seemingly ends in vague commitments and empty promises to slow the burning of fossil fuels. The 2014 meeting is intended to lay the major groundwork for an ultimate agreement in Paris next year, but few analysts are expecting a breakthrough. (Related: Standard Oil Heirs Join Movement To Divest In Fossil Fuels)
As the traditional UN pathway to agreement has proven intractable and largely ineffective, the climate movement has grown louder and more aggressive. Voices within the environmental movement that eschew incremental progress and partnerships with corporations have risen to the forefront. They criticize centrist environmental groups for selling out and helping big polluters “greenwash” their operations.
These environmental leaders include Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, who has said that the vast majority of oil and gas reserves already under control of the largest companies in the world will have to stay in the ground if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
He has led a global divestment campaign, convincing foundations, philanthropies, and other major investment institutions to pull their money from fossil fuels. He achieved perhaps the most important symbolic victory yet on Sept. 22, when the heirs of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller agreed to withdraw their investments in oil and gas.
There is also Naomi Klein, author and activist, who has pointed the finger at capitalism itself. She argues that climate change makes the injustices of “neoliberalism” worse, and in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, the entire economic system needs an overhaul.
This strain of more aggressive environmentalism was on display on Sept. 22 during the “Flood Wall Street” event, in which protestors engaged in a sit-in in Manhattan’s Wall Street district to highlight the role that major financial institutions play in climate change. More than 100 people were arrested.
While it remains to be seen what kind of momentum this movement can achieve, it is hard to argue with the logic that not enough is being done. Global greenhouse gas emissions grew by another 2.3 percent in 2013, hitting their highest level in the history of human civilization. Arctic sea ice retreated to the sixth lowest amount on record, and is well below the long-run average. And 2014 is shaping up to be the hottest year ever recorded.
But despite the lack of faith in international negotiations, there is evidence from the past that global deals can work. “The Economist” surveyed the most effective policies from around the world aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and found that the single most successful action ever taken, by far, was the Montreal Protocol. This was an international treaty agreed in 1987 to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, a highly potent greenhouse gas. By itself, the Montreal Protocol has avoided the emission of 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of two years’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions at today’s rates. (Related: IEA Says Investment In Clean Energy Will Keep Growing, Slowly)
The Montreal Protocol apparently achieved far more than the combined installed capacity of nuclear power, hydropower, or renewable energy in the entire world, or any other major policy for that matter. The magazine says that one of the largest and lowest hanging fruits left would be to expand the treaty to include other harmful gases.
Not that global leaders are on the verge of taking up such an idea. The UN meeting is likely to be overshadowed by the new war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. launched a barrage of missiles in Syria on Sept. 22, and U.S. President Barack Obama has decided that stemming the flow of recruits to the militant organization will be a top priority for global leaders at the New York summit.
So, just as the climate movement has captured global attention, major leaders are shifting their attention elsewhere.
The climate movement has become louder and is attracting growing numbers of people. But the decibel level may need to keep on rising in order to convince major economies to act.
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