Protesters marching in Paris on Sunday the 21st of September, Credit to Rosalie Salaün
Sunday saw the largest mobilisation of climate activists and the general public calling for urgent action on climate change in history. The numbers were truly astounding, with over 2,000 events across the globe. More than 40,000 people took part in London and 100,000 in New York, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The sentiment on the ground at these events was one of frustration and anger. The public is wondering why, given the sheer scale of the oncoming effects of climate change, so little action is being taken at the political level. The conclusion that many are reaching is that politicians don't care and the process is fundamentally broken. I can't speak to the former, but I will attempt to address why so many people subscribe to the latter.
One of the biggest causes of this public mistrust is the opacity of the UN process on climate change, along with just how little it has achieved over the years. Back in 2009, after so much energy and hope, activists were left broken following the complete breakdown of negotiations in Copenhagen. While the process has been rebuilt to an extent, the increasing encroachment of big business at climate talks coupled with the marginalisation of civil society has further frustrated activists, culminating in the mass walkout of delegates from NGOs and other organisations at the climate talks last year in Warsaw. Without significant change, this does not bode well for the future of the UN climate talks.
Furthermore, the public is truly bewildered as to how the process even works. Governments and news organisations all too often fall back on the line that 'progress is being made' rather than communicating the real issues and detailed insight into what is being achieved. Indeed, to the uninitiated, interpreting a UN briefing can be as confusing as reading a text in a foreign language. Littered with acronyms and terms used only in international diplomacy, it is easy to see how many can deride the UN as a 'talking shop', a view only compounded by recent failure to reach solutions.
I should say that this is not a view I share. The Secretary-General and the UN as a whole face a gargantuan battle to reach anything like political agreement among member nations, and as such the positions taken have to be nuanced and carefully balanced in order to maintain the support of major players. Climate change, however, is not an issue that can afford to be broken down into piecemeal solutions to be slowly built upon over years or decades. The time for urgent action has been and gone, so solutions must be radical so as to mitigate the impacts of rising sea levels and global warming as far as possible.
It must also be said that the UN is not the only body who should take blame for the lack of action on climate change. The European Union, despite its assertions that it is a global leader on climate change mitigation and emissions reduction, has failed to show any real ambition in recent years. The US, China, Canada, Australia and India among others have all had a hand in slowing or blocking progress at one stage or another. If we put assigning blame to the side for a moment though, what really can be done to address public confidence?
Ban Ki-moon said in a press statement on Sunday:
"While marching with the people, I felt that I had become a Secretary-General of the people. I am the Secretary-General of the United Nations; I am now working for the people."Sadly, this is not what the public has seen during his time as Secretary-General. He does, however, have the opportunity to do so over the coming year and a half, starting with the leaders' meeting in New York this week, continuing through the negotiations in Lima this December and up to the conclusion of talks in Paris next December.
Any agreement reached in Paris has to be ambitious enough to be effective. That means that Ban Ki-moon needs to be pushing for measures which keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, rather than just reaffirming vague commitments to that number. It also means that the Green Climate Fund needs to be financed now in order to reach climate funding targets of US $100 billion per year by 2020, instead of the pitiful June 2013 level of US $7.55 million. Finally, the push must be made to get countries to commit to as close to zero net emissions by the second half of this century as possible. The Secretary-General must show the public that he is doing these things, and clearly explain what progress is being made.
It's now make or break for Ban Ki-moon. The time has come for him to take a leading role in pushing all parties to a binding and ambitious agreement in Paris. He needs to ensure that the process is transparent and open to the public around the globe. In short, he must live up to his self proclaimed title of "Secretary General of the people." If not, what little credibility he and his institution has left will be washed away with the tides of climate change.