THE BLOG

Collective Action Is Dead, Long Live Collective Action!

11/03/2016 16:20 GMT | Updated 12/03/2017 09:12 GMT

In a little over a month, the world's leaders will assemble in New York to sign a global agreement on tackling climate change. The agreement - a somewhat-surprising result of marathon talks at the climate change conference in Paris last year - goes beyond what so many of us expected to happen, and many marched in the streets for. It makes clear the commitment of the world's nations to reducing carbon emissions to a level that might avoid catastrophic change.

So we've solved climate change, right?

Just before our world leaders emerged red-eyed and blinking to deliver their historic agreement to the expectant masses, I was giving a talk about the psychology of collective action on climate change, as part of a conference at Confer. It was called 'Why I Don't Care About Collective Action'.

In it I explained my scepticism about the potential of protest, petitions or party politics to bring about substantive action on climate change. Why scepticism? Simply because I didn't believe the objects of such action - the national governments at the centre of our efforts - are in a position to respond to our demands. I still don't.

In today's global market, national governments have no choice but to keep their economies internationally competitive - which means substantive action on climate change goes by the board, and our collective actions are all for naught.

Since I gave that talk, Paris has happened, leaving us in an interesting place, and me having to disprove the proverbial egg on my face. On the surface, it looks like I was wrong because, to everyone's surprise, an historic agreement was reached - our campaigns of political pressure worked. Listen carefully enough, and you might be able to hear campaigners around the world packing away placards and patting each other on the back. But will the agreement actually stick? Will it be implemented?

The biggest issue is that this agreement isn't legally binding, and so nations will inevitably remain cautious. Anxious not to harm their international competitiveness, they're likely to fight shy of taking any action that might jeopardise it - such as imposing tighter restrictions on carbon emissions, despite appearances (or promises) to the contrary. Already, the EU is set to emit 2bn tonnes more carbon than it can allow under the agreement's guidelines, while the world is waiting on tenterhooks to see how the results of the US Presidential race will affect the agreement's future.

My guess is that even the relatively mild ambitions of the Paris agreement are likely to remain unfulfilled. My fear is that it will take us 5 years to realise it, to see that, while full of good intentions, Paris only served to lose us yet more precious time. All talk, but no guarantee of action.

Does that mean we need to dust off our placards again? Exercise our signature-fingers on more petitions? Play party politics? Or is it time for something new? When it comes to getting real about climate change, I think it's time we co-created a form of collective action that delivers more than just the promise of an agreement. A form of collective action with binding deliverables. What I said back in November still stands - we still need a form of collective action we can believe in.