The masses are mobilising against climate change

People power has brought down dictators and secured civil rights for the marginalised. Former UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres and executive director May Boeve believe that the people are now rising up to demand climate leadership.

A protest in Bangkok in 2009
Thai civil society and grassroot groups protest outside the UN conference centre to demand developed nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Image: Mongkhonsavat Luengvorapant/Oxfam, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This year, extreme weather conditions have ravaged our planet, subjecting vulnerable communities around the world to the ever-increasing impacts of climate change. With each passing day, we learn more about—and experience directly—the dangerous consequences of extracting and burning fossil fuels. Floods, droughts, and wildfires are becoming deadlier, and weather patterns more severe.

Later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ scientific taskforce on the subject, will deliver its first major report in four years. It will outline in detail the devastating consequences that await us if we do not keep average global temperatures within 1.5°C of the pre-industrial level. Despite existing government and industry commitments, we have already reached the 1°C mark, and the impacts are terrible. We need urgent change.

Fortunately, immediate action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions confers immediate benefits. When eight coal- and oil-fired power plants were retired in California between 2001 and 2011, the fertility rate in mothers living close to each facility increased within just one year.

To usher in a new era of clean air and better health, communities around the world are speaking out, making it clear to decision-makers that a fossil-fuel-free economy is what the public wants. They will continue to demand action to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and to deploy more just and sustainable forms of energy.

The science on climate change is sound, the technologies for addressing it are already available, and the necessary financing is being mobilised. In addition, a rapidly growing social movement has been inspired by the universal benefits of a clean energy future: people are ready to be the change they want to see in the world.

Rise for Climate, a global mobilisation of 250,000 people taking part in over 900 events in 95 countries took place on September 8. It has set the tone for a series of upcoming political events to address climate change, including this month’s Global Climate Action Summit, the One Planet Summit, and the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland (COP24) this December. In each case, policymakers will be challenged to recognise the unvarnished reality of the climate crisis and step up their actions to tackle it.

April marked the 400th consecutive month of global temperatures above the 20th century average.

What this international mobilisation of cities, civil society groups, businesses, and individuals across five continents shows is that people power works. It has been the driving force behind civil rights victories from the abolition of chattel slavery to the contemporary movement to secure the rights and dignity of LGBQT people. And it has emerged at key moments in the effort to combat climate change—an effort that is very much a part of that larger struggle for justice.

In 2014, the first People’s Climate March in New York brought together 400,000 people, and set the stage for escalating interventions around the world in the years to follow. Civil society helped convince world leaders to sign the Paris climate agreement in 2015, and they have brought pressure to bear on the policymakers responsible for meeting national emissions reduction targets. Meanwhile, individuals and civil-society groups continue to demand that companies, universities, and other institutions divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. These movements have created the space for forward-thinking politicians to take action.

Nevertheless, the climate crisis continues to grow, demonstrating that we still have a long way to go. This year alone, catastrophic heat waves have stricken North Africa, Europe, Japan, Pakistan, Australia, and Argentina. Deadly wildfires have taken lives and destroyed billions of dollars worth of property in Greece, Sweden, the United States, and Russia. Droughts have struck in Kenya and Somalia; and Afghanistan and South Africa have suffered major water shortages. Hawaii, India, Oman, and Yemen have been wracked by severe storms and flooding. And ice in the Bering Sea has reached record lows. April marked the 400th consecutive month of global temperatures above the 20th century average.

All people have a responsibility to step up and demand urgent action. Only by coming together can we build a groundswell of support for climate leadership and create the right momentum to secure a fast transition to a sustainable and equitable world.

Christiana Figueres is the former Executive Secretary at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and convener of Mission 2020. May Boeve is Executive Director at 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

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