New York summit renews confidence in climate action

From 400,000 marching in New York to world leaders’ speeches at the UN, there is a renewed confidence in climate action

Ban Ki-moon rides a wave of optimism on Sunday's climate march (Pic: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Ban Ki-moon rides a wave of optimism on Sunday’s climate march
(Pic: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

By Ros Donald in New York

There’s a renewed confidence in the way people are talking about the possibility of international action on climate change.

On Sunday, an estimated 400,000 people from all walks of life flooded the streets of New York, as part of a global demonstration calling for global emissions cuts. Yesterday leaders, businesses and campaigners gathered to discuss how they can increase momentum toward a global deal to achieve them.

Despite beaming late summer sunshine, Sunday’s joyful atmosphere did not reach the UN compound on 42nd Street and 1st Avenue. Nor were there any of the corridor conversations and NGO side events that characterise a typical climate negotiation.

But few were expecting any great surprises that would set delegates abuzz. The 2014 climate summit was what one onlooker described as a “pep rally” – nothing to frighten the horses.

Many hoped for pleasant surprises. They knew there would be announcements from national and business leaders keen to show they are keeping up momentum toward a global climate deal and ensure others are doing the same.

US president Barack Obama takes the stage in New York (Screenshot, UN livestream)

US president Barack Obama takes the stage in New York
(Screenshot, UN livestream)

And announcements there have been. Ahead of the summit, the World Bank revealed 73 countries including China, Russia and South Africa, 22 states, provinces and cities, and over 1,000 businesses and investors have signalled their support for putting a price on carbon emissions.

And on the day,  US president Barack Obama announced that his government would incorporate the need to adapt to the effects of climate change into its international development programmes, including early warning systems to allow countries to prepare for extreme weather events. Samoa, Tuvalu, Costa Rica and Denmark pledged to get 100% of their power from renewables while Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, Ethiopia and Iceland pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050.

Observers said there was a different feeling to the announcements, too. Just as the march on Sunday showed a more representative, inclusive and articulate climate movement than ever before, countries’ and businesses’ attitudes seem to have evolved.

There was widespread hope before the Cophenhagen climate summit in 2009 that leaders would reach a global deal on limiting global emissions.

But sources say they felt that the needed grassroots support was lacking, while many countries still felt that they need not commit to sustainable growth. In the years since then, efforts have been ploughed into fostering much broader and deeper backing for change.

Shorefront communities flag up the threat from rising seas (Pic: Flickr/Light Brigading)

Shorefront communities flag up the threat from rising seas
(Pic: Flickr/Light Brigading)

This may in part be because climate change no longer feels distant. Chairman of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, told RTCC that the science is more definite than ever, giving negotiators far more information about the expected impacts of climate change. In addition, the problem has become more immediate. “People are experiencing climate change right now” – from extreme weather events to rising sea levels, the impacts of climate change are “very much in evidence”, he said.

Developing countries have announced they will break with the old high-carbon development path. Liberia has agreed to completely stop deforestation by 2020 in return for US$150 million in aid from Norway.

Liberia faces huge challenges – and limiting logging will hurt its economy in the short term, but in an emotional session its foreign minister Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan told RTCC that carbon payments would help ease the pressure and set the country on the path to sustainable growth. Meanwhile, Bangladesh – a country highly exposed to sea level rise – is leading the way in adapting to the effects of climate change.

Christian Aid’s senior climate change advisor Mohamed Adow said the day marked a change in the political climate. “Here in New York we’ve seen a new crop of climate leaders, from rich and poor countries, help shift the world towards a resilient, low carbon future.”

Leonardo DiCaprio spoke at the opening ceremony in his new role as UN messenger of peace (Screenshot, UN livestream)

Leonardo DiCaprio spoke at the opening ceremony in his new role as UN messenger of peace
(Screenshot, UN livestream)

While it was the UN secretary general’s summit, the event wasn’t immune to a bit of stardust. Leonardo DiCaprio made an appearance and Bianca Jagger was spotted wending her way to a private sector lunch, which author Naomi Klein also attended.

Klein expressed unease about the some economic messages that appear to hold that the change needed can be achieved without disrupting the status quo. She told RTCC: “There’s a tendency to try to package action as non-threatening to business and I don’t think that’s helpful because the truth is we are going to have to get in the way of a very large and powerful sectors of the economy and tell them they can’t do what they’re intending to do.”

Yet others were wary of praising the level of effort in evidence at the summit. Climate Action Network director Wael Hmaidan said: “Leaders in New York, including US president Barack Obama, acknowledged they can no longer act against the will of the people. And on the weekend, the will of the people was made profoundly clear. Mums and dads, people of faith, progressive business leaders, union members and youth – all are already taking action in massive numbers, and they expect heads of government to join them and do more, now.”

The Ban Ki-moon summit was a flawed event, held at a messy time in the history of action on climate change. The story of humanity’s response to the challenge of climate change is still in flux. In many ways, the day was an exercise in affirmation  – a day like many others in which initiatives are announced piecemeal to applause.

But even the most jaded campaigner couldn’t help but feel excited that the “how” of tackling climate change is finally being discussed. Not just noble-sounding promises but real, messy, problems and solutions.

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