26/09/2014 09:57 BST | Updated 25/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Beyond the People's Climate March


Cambridge PhD candidates Libby Blanchard and Jasper Montana argue that the People's Climate March should be a reminder to global citizens that they are needed catalysts for developing effective and equitable climate solutions.

Ban Ki-moon's decision to temporarily step out of his role as UN Secretary General and assume his role as a citizen during Sunday's People's Climate March in New York City was symbolic of a broader shift that must happen in our search for climate solutions. While the People's Climate March sent a clear message to international negotiators that they must take meaningful action on climate change, it should also be a reminder to global citizens that they are needed catalysts for developing effective and equitable climate solutions.

The People's Climate March was the largest climate march in history. Over 400,000 people took to the streets in New York City, and over 2,800 solidarity events coincided with the march in 166 countries around the globe. The march preceded the 2014 UN Climate Summit in attempt to galvanize world leaders into developing an ambitious global agreement that would replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2020.

Mobilising international cooperation in intergovernmental negotiations is clearly crucial for global climate change mitigation. Equally crucial, we argue, is reclaiming and maintaining our roles as citizens in climate action. Perhaps the most important lesson of the People's Climate March is that action on climate change should not be left to governments alone, but should also come from citizens, families, communities, businesses, and multiple levels of government. This is both instrumentally necessary to effectively manage our future climate, and will be good for democracy. We are an important part of the climate solution, and are crucial players to ensure that climate solutions are developed and that they are drafted in a fair and equitable manner.

Further, bolstering and weighing in on climate agreements and action is likely to have its benefits.

First, opening up our expectations of what a climate solution 'is' beyond a single, elusive international agreement, may provide us with more and better options and innovations. Effectively mitigating climate change will require social innovation beyond the offerings of regulation, carbon markets and national targets. Innovation is an elusive entity, not easily understood nor directed, but one thing is known: imagination is key. And as political scientist Yaron Ezrahi suggests in his book Imagined Democracies, the collective imagination has a profound effect on shaping political realities. Rather than restricting our future to the hoped for panacea of an effective top-down global agreement, citizen engagement is crucial to developing innovative solutions that may lead to better future scenarios with lower aggregate global warming.

Second, citizen engagement in the climate change dialogue can also reduce the creeping sense of democratic disengagement across the Western world. Global agreements are top-down solutions. They tend to concentrate power, place decision-making into the hands of governments, and place action into the hands of industry, leaving citizens largely out of framing and acting upon solutions. Often, this leads to anger and frustration redirected to governments, big business and the actions of 'irresponsible' forbears. This sense of disconnect from the processes of decision making and climate action is likely to be precisely the thing that has stalled global citizens from demanding action on climate change at the scale of the People's Climate March until now. On the other hand, democratic engagement, as exemplified by the People's Climate March, can spur imagination, innovation and change.

The potential for the international community to successfully ratify a post-Kyoto climate agreement has captured the popular imagination. Having a global agreement drafted and signed by the end of next year and go into effect in 2020 moves us towards the future we want. But the future we want should also include the people as change makers, and citizens ensuring that climate agreements are both effective and equitable.

Regardless of the outcome of the UN Climate Summit this week and the UNFCCC proceedings in the next year, the People's Climate March will be an important event in climate change history. As Ban Ki-moon has demonstrated, it was an opportunity to unite as global citizens to reflect on our own role in creating the future we want.

Let's not let such an opportunity pass us by.

Co-author Jasper Montana is a sociologist of science and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Working in the field of Science and Technology Studies, Jasper investigates the role of experts and institutions in the development and use of methodologies and support tools for the translation of biodiversity knowledge into policy. Jasper also has over five years of experience in science broadcasting with the BBC and National Geographic, where he made natural history documentaries that explored human-nature relationships. For more details, visit