Kumi Naidoo

15 December, 2015

COP 21: Governments send signal to end fossil fuels – civil society must hold them to it

Co-author Daniel Mittler, Political Director, Greenpeace International

That the Paris climate agreement for the first time sets its eyes on limiting global warming to a safer level of 1.5 degrees and sends a clear signal that the fossil fuel era is ending, is the result of real leadership from the most vulnerable countries combined with unprecedented levels of climate mobilisation over the last years, months and days. What is good in the Paris agreement is there because of people power. What is bad, and there is plenty, is where people power now, going forward, needs to be directed.

Let’s be honest: Photo by Elizabeth Stillwell, creative commons image via FlickrAfter Copenhagen six years ago, the climate movement was depressed. We tried not to let that happen (at Greenpeace, for example, we had a fresh team taking over early in 2010 to keep momentum going). But the mood was too dark, so it took months before we, as a movement, recovered. Looking back now, though, we can say that the strategic roads taken after Copenhagen were vindicated over the past few days. The climate movement’s new focus since 2010 on winning national battles had already resulted in key steps forward: Coal demand is now in terminal decline worldwide, after a dramatic – if not complete – change of course in China. This year alone Shell had to retreat from the Alaskan Arctic, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline and Alberta put a cap on tar sands oil. Combine this bad news for fossil fuels with new players – from cities to companies – coming on board with the vision of a 100% renewable future and the ground shifts. It has worked to change – from the grassroots up – the global conversation around climate change.

The climate movement mostly focused on the global deal negotiations as a hook for the global conversation about the fundamental transformation of our societies we need. We always knew Paris would only be one stop on the long road to climate justice. But we also knew it could send a helpful signal about the end of fossil fuels.

That is done now – and even The Economist concludes that after Paris “the idea of investing in a coal mine will seem more risky.” But at the global level what has really changed, so far, is only the rhetoric. That the COP 21 agreement talks of climate justice and human rights (both for the first time, even if not in operative part of the agreement) shows governments taking on the language of our movements. This is hypocritical, of course. It’s even cynical as the actions they have offered up so far will lead to a disastrous 3 degrees world – and many, too many, are already suffering climate impacts today. But governments adopting our language can be the ground for increasing our pressure and impact. Indeed, it is a classic and important task of global civil society to hold governments to their fine words and turn them into national commitments.

The crass gap between the rhetoric and the reality of climate action is now very much out in the open for everyone to see. It’s the task of civil society to force our governments to close that gap. COP 21 means that, as Bill McKibben puts it, “we know where we’re going now; no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane … But the question, the only important question, is: how fast.” There is no time for complacency. But, unlike after Copenhagen, there is also no need to fundamentally change our strategy. We must now return to the national battles and use what progressive language there is from COP 21 to increase pressure for real change on the ground. We must mobilise even more millions until we have delivered a just transition to a 100% renewable future for all. And we must also continue to use every tool in our toolbox, including legal ones, to increase pressure.

We met, in Paris, activists from around the world. Many were new to our movement but now willing to take the next steps, including mass civil disobedience. After Paris, the movement is full of energy, the momentum is on the side of the climate justice.

It is the task of global civil society organisations to foster the wider climate movement, to make it louder – and make it heard – going forward. If we work together as one movement, we can speed up the inevitable end of the fossil fuel era to secure our survival. Let’s do it.

Kumi Naidoo is International Executive Director of Greenpeace International. Daniel Mittler is the Political Director of Greenpeace International.

Photo by Elizabeth Stillwell, creative commons image via Flickr.

  1. Burkhard Gnärig18 December, 2015

    Kumi and Daniel,
    I very much agree with your analysis: Paris brought some progress but if you add up governments’ promisses this will take us to a +3 degrees world. As we know all too well governments rarely fulfil their promisses – and even less so their voluntary ones. So we can assume that the average government will only partly fulfil its commitments. This means that we will end up at an even higher level of global warming. In this situation civil society organisations (CSOs) need to become much better at striking alliances and rallying citizens’ support. I am looking to Greenpeace and other major CSOs for leadership in bringing such alliances together in order to maximise pressure on governments to over-fulfil rather than under-fulfil their promisses. Please count on our support when doing this.

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