Climate change: from talk to action in challenging political times

Published on 21 November 2016

Climate change and politics have jostled for attention – in the media, in development thinking, and in my own mind – during a dramatic last fortnight.

Next steps for climate change

In Marrakech, Morocco the latest global Climate Change summit has just drawn to a close. COP22 has long been dubbed the “COP of action”. It also served as the first meeting of the Parties to last September’s Paris Agreement (CMA 1), and indeed it saw the launch of a number of initiatives and action plans that suggest that implementation of the Paris Agreement is truly underway. These included the 2050 Pathways Platform – an initiative designed to help governments, cities, civil society and business to collaborate in developing national long-term decarbonisation plans.

It followed the release of decarbonisation plans by the US, Canada and Mexico. Several further countries ratified the Paris agreement, including the UK, whose Foreign secretary Boris Johnson signed after no objections from parliament. The summit launched the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action calling for strengthened global collaboration to implement the Paris accords. And there were calls for further large scale mobilization of funds. To keep to the two degree limit for global warming it is claimed that global investments in infrastructure needs to increase from USD 3.4 trillion per year today to USD 6 trillion per year on average during the next 15 years.

Towards a sustainable earth

Meanwhile I spent a week with fifteen international science and policy leaders debating research and action priorities ‘Towards a Sustainable Earth’ (TaSE). This was an early part of a new initiative led by the Rockefeller Foundation, the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Economic and Social research Council (ESRC), to shape narratives and plans around human-environment relations necessary to fulfill the UN Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) by 2030. An intense set of discussions hosted at Rockefeller’s inspiring Bellagio complex charted some of the major transformations needed to meet SDG challenges, including climate change.

We agreed that an agenda integrating science (including social science) with policymakers, practitioners and publics is required. Such ‘co-production’ of engaged, solutions-oriented research is the approach already embedded in Future Earth, the major ten-year international research platform established in 2015 to provide the knowledge and support to accelerate transformations to a sustainable world. As co-chair of Future Earth’s Science Committee I’ve been involved in the formation of its series of ‘knowledge-action networks’, including one specifically on the SDGs. There are important opportunities to build a strong alliance between the new TaSE initiative and Future Earth.

Challenging politics

The dramatic shadow hanging over both these meetings was the US presidential election of Donald Trump, emerging as shocking news in the middle of the debates. President-elect Trump has a past record of outspoken, climate change skeptical statements. He has called climate change a hoax, and a ‘Chinese conspiracy’. During his presidential campaign he claimed plans to rip up the Paris deal, to halt any U.S. taxpayer funds for UN climate change programmes, and revive the U.S. coal sector. But of course he is also known for his unpredictability, raising questions about what he will actually do once in office.

Worrying signs are the people he is appointing to his team. For instance Trump has selected Myron Ebell, a prominent climate skeptic, to head up the Environmental Protection Agency Transition team team (and potentially become EPA Administrator). This suggests that the Trump team is looking  drastically to reshape the climate policies the agency has pursued under the Obama administration, and angry environmentalists are already signing petitions in protest. Meanwhile Sarah Palin has been named as a possible candidate for Interior Secretary, potentially giving this staunch supporter of fracking and fossil fuel extraction control over the US’s national parks. We should not forget that the establishment of several major parks, and indeed key parts of the US’s environmental and conservation architecture, was the achievement of an earlier Republican administration under President Theodore Roosevelt in the early twentieth century. Is the hope that the Trump administration might seek to claim green credentials as part of its contribution and legacy a vain one?

Clearly climate change is a global challenge that needs a global response, requiring cooperation between nations. In this light Trump’s election – along with the growing nationalist isolation we are seeing in some countries, including around Brexit – are worrying indeed.

A politics of hope?

More positively, many other participants at COP22 re-urged the need for the biggest world powers to work together. China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, ahead of the United States, said it would push ahead with its promises to limit climate change and urged Trump to reconsider. “As the largest developed economy in the world, U.S. support is essential. We have to expect they will take a smart and wise decision,” Liu Zhenmin of the Chinese delegation told a news conference in Marrakech.

China has also hit the climate change news in other positive ways. New research from the Global Carbon Project and the University of East Anglia released during COP22 shows that carbon dioxide emissions barely increased in 2016, despite large economic growth in parts of the globe. The projected rise in emissions of only 0.2 percent for 2016 marks a clear break from the rapid emissions growth of 2.3 percent per year in the 10 years leading up to 2013. Decreased use of coal in China is the main reason behind the three-year slowdown – helped by China’s unprecedented investment in and policy support for renewable energy.

Although there are signs that the world may have reached ‘peak carbon’, however, this is clearly not enough for tackling climate change; global emissions now need to decrease rapidly, not just stop growing. Countries need to ‘decarbonise’ many sectors of their economies, along with transformations towards more sustainable, climate compatible ways of living, and adapting to the unavoidable climate change that so many people and places are facing.

A grassroots movement?

Here, it is not just international politics that are important, but local and national ones. As colleagues in the ESRC STEPS Centre have been showing, grassroots innovations in areas like renewable energy have enormous potential to contribute to climate change challenges, and especially to pro-poor adaptation and mitigation in the least developed countries.

Alternative local economic arrangements also offer exciting seeds for building more sustainable, climate-compatible futures. Here, I was excited during our Bellagio discussions to learn more about the community-business alliances being fostered through the Great Transformation Collaborative of the B Team, a platform for business leaders seeking to foster alternative, more sustainable models.

Such initiatives ‘from below’ can help catalyse, add up to and push for the major national and global changes needed to tackle climate change. This this requires policies and politics that nurture and support local ideas, capacities and arrangements – a politics in which social movements, working with enlightened politicians and business leaders, have key roles to play.

Climate change action from the bottom-up can’t substitute for what is needed from the top-down. But they can work together. In a world where international leadership looks patchy and uncertain, these politics from below are more important than ever – and a cause for hope that we must hang on to.


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