It has been a big week for climate awareness. On Tuesday, the United Nations hosted a landmark Climate Summit in New York City, attended by over 125 world leaders. While the Summit didn’t result in a definitive plan for international carbon emission reductions, it was a clear indication of the growing urgency for a comprehensive global climate action strategy.
It wasn’t just world leaders that converged to confront climate change. On Sunday (prior to the UN summit), millions of people took to the streets to participate in the People’s Climate March, the largest climate action rally in history. 2,646 marches took place in 162 countries
Some marchers were happy that climate change continues to play a larger role on the world stage, hopeful that a tangible plan to cut greenhouse gasses will be developed between now and the next major UN climate summits (scheduled to take place in Lima in December 2014 and in Paris in December 2015.) Others were frustrated by international inaction, sounding the alarm that it may already be too late to combat the negative effects of global warming
In New York City, over 400,000 people marched, joined in solidarity around a central rallying cry—climate change must become a top political priority and we must act now. “Today, civil society acted at a scale that outdid even our own wildest expectations,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org and one of the main organizers of the People’s March. “Tomorrow, we expect our political leaders to do the same.”
Was the People’s Climate March a day that will change the course of history, as sustainability activists claim? Perhaps.
The massive mobilization certainly got the attention of President Obama and others attending the UN Climate Summit. “As citizens keep marching,” President Obama said in an ardent speech to his fellow leaders, “we cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.”
Obama also confirmed his pledge to reduce US emissions levels by 17% (below 2005 levels) by 2020. “America will meet that target,” he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also responded to the energy of the moment, first by commenting during the Climate March that “there is no plan B, because there is no planet B”, and then by challenging government and business leaders to set a new course on climate change, reducing emissions aggressively, attaining carbon neutrality before the end of the century, and placing a tax on carbon.
“All people, communities, and sectors stand to benefit from the vast opportunities presented by the transformation to climate-resilient, low-carbon economies,” Ki-moon said. “First we must put a price on carbon. This is one of the most powerful and necessary instruments for reducing emissions and generating innovation and finance for low-carbon, resilient growth.”
Throughout the Climate Summit, leader after leader promised billions of dollars to support climate protection and emissions reduction plans, including France’s $1 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund, which is poised to become the main vehicle for securing and distributing funds across the globe to address climate change issues.
The European Union announced new goals to reduce emissions levels by 40%, utilize renewable energy for 27% of its needs, and boost energy efficiency by 30%--all by 2030.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to the unification of so many of his constituents by committing the city to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
A plan called the New York Declaration of Forests was proposed to cut the rate of natural forest loss in half by 2020 and eliminate that loss completely by 2030. The plan would bolster forest governance, transparency, and local community use rights.
Business leaders joined in as well, pledging resource use, waste, and emissions reductions across the board. Nestlé, Unilever, and Philips stole the spotlight with their commitment to price carbon internally, promising to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and actively advocate for policies that place a price on carbon in markets around the world. IKEA pledged to source 100% of its power from clean energy by 2020.
Even the International Union of Railways chimed in with a commitment to reduce their transportation emissions by 75% by 2050.
While most of the commitments made during the Summit showed positive progress towards meaningful climate action, there were a few disappointments. Brazil refused to sign the agreement that would halt deforestation by 2030, and China attempted to categorize itself as a developing nation, insisting that that it should be able to produce more heat-trapping gases than developed nations.
Despite these few outliers, the unification of global leaders at the UN Climate Summit as well as the massive mobilization of the People’s Climate March substantiate that climate change is transforming "from an environmental concern to an everybody issue." Even political stalemate in Congress can no longer erase climate change from the global agenda or negate the growing desire for ambitious action.
The scale of involvement this week from government officials, corporate executives, and individuals around the world has been encouraging. Perhaps the most important takeaways from Climate Week are the empowerment of the people, the strength of the public voice that promises to hold leaders accountable for future climate action, and the confirmation that we ourselves are our best hope for change.
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