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United Nations Climate Action Summit: Power to the People?

United Nations Climate Action Summit: Power to the People?

The climate strike in an unseasonably sunny St Andrews two Fridays ago was part of something big. More than 4 million people from St Andrews to Sydney took part in the Global Climate Strikes, likely the largest mass protest for climate change action in history. The lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit held on the 23rd of September was dominated by these events. The Summit’s outcomes suggest that climate change leadership remains tricky, but the public’s ever-increasing demands are a force to be reckoned with. 

Convened by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to boost ambitions in the fight against climate change, one of the Summit’s main aims was to accelerate the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement. In some ways, the Paris Agreement can be seen as a success. The involvement of all 196 states regardless of size and economic status against the backdrop of terrorist attacks plaguing the host country earned the negotiations the title of 'the world's greatest diplomatic success' in the Guardian. Though climate discussions often include only wealthier countries, the Paris Agreement ensured an equal voice to even the poorest countries. Currently, 185 Parties have ratified the Agreement.

The bottom-up approach of the Agreement requires each Party to develop Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), which articulate the contributions that each country will make to achieve the major goals relating to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The previous seminal climate change agreement on the other hand, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, committed its Parties to internationally binding emission reduction targets using the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which calls on developed nations to carry a greater share of the burden. This proved controversial as two of the world’s leading polluters, China and India, were exempted from the treaty. The hope of the Paris negotiations was therefore that they would encourage fair yet ambitious targets which most importantly could be realistically honoured by the respective Parties. 

Despite its marker as a diplomatic success and its refreshing approach, however, the Agreement’s lack of enforcement mechanisms makes it vulnerable to the threat of its signatories withdrawing their commitments. American President Donald Trump demonstrated this weakness when he announced in June 2017 that the United States would pull out of the agreement, citing his responsibility to ‘the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’ and an adverse impact on the national economy. His rhetoric evokes one of the persisting obstacles to global climate action - many political leaders see climate-friendly measures as a sacrifice that is not worth taking when other states can defect and prioritise what they see as the national interest. Trump’s reaction to climate negotiation demonstrates how climate action is a classic example of Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, where the pursuit of individual short-term interests compromises what is best for the collective.     

The current question for leaders in the fight against climate change is therefore how to discipline countries who are reluctant to set ambitious targets. Secretary General Guterres showed zero tolerance to inaction by taking a hard-line stance  on countries who support coal at the Summit, not inviting AustraIia and Japan to speak due to their continued investment in coal mines. French President Emmanuel Macron in turn suggested that no new trade negotiations should be conducted with those who do not respect the Paris Agreement. Some of the Summit’s successes suggest that this approach has merit - most notably that Russia, the world’s fourth largest polluter, finally joined the Agreement. 

Yet, the deafening silence of the failure of China, the U.S., and India to put forward new targets leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The irony of the matter is that the most ambitious countries, many of which are European, are already low emitters. As a result, the leadership and action of these countries alone won’t move the needle on the future of the planet. Europe is unique because for Member States, climate change policies form a part of the European Union’s legislative framework - it is included in the 2007 Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The EU’s strong stance on climate action today consequently makes sense, especially considering its position as a normative trading power.        

Increased global public demand for ambitious and effective action is the greatest source of hope for policy prioritising climate change becoming the norm in other countries. There is palpable momentum currently, most visibly in the form of the aforementioned Global Climate Strikes as well as in the media.The Covering Climate Now initiative —which includes 300 partner outlets across the Globe and reaches a combined audience of 1 billion people — committed itself to prioritising climate stories over the course of the Summit. Moreover, various publications and political bodies are declaring a climate ‘crisis’ and climate ‘emergency’, moving away from softer words like climate ‘change’. 

These social movements and actions are the best solution to overcoming the difficulties that plagued previous negotiations. They are also a logical evolution in the climate change regime - Kyoto was top-down, Paris was bottom-up, and now the grassroots level is most significant. Crucially, public calls for action can overcome the threat of countries defecting from international agreements. 

Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s idea of international negotiation as a two-level game offers a model demonstrating why public opinion works. Citizens and interest groups pursue their interests at the national level by pressuring their governments to adopt favourable policies, and at the international level governments will negotiate to meet these demands. Given that in democracies national governments require public support to gain and keep power, it follows that they will have to pursue policy addressing climate change if their citizens expect this of them.

There are myriad examples that the international political landscape is undergoing a shift reflecting the public’s concern. Greta Thunberg, the teenage leader of the Global Climate Strikes, is being credited with tripling support for the Austrian Green party. 

In the U.S., numerous presidential hopefuls, including front-runner Elizabeth Warren, cited climate change as the ‘biggest geopolitical threat to the country’ at the Democratic presidential debate on June 26th. Even China, a country where public dissent is a contentious issue, has been introducing transformative new green policies following outcry about air pollution in its major cities. 

Public action provides the accountability mechanism that proved to be so elusive in the fight against climate change. The world needs its leaders to step up, and they need us to rule.

Photo credits: UN Women/Amanda Voisard

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