Walking through the halls at the UN Climate Negotiations in Poznan last December, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at the heart of the struggle to defeat dangerous climate change. Top-level ministers from every government in the world met to forge a global agreement, the contents of which will decide how the latter half of this century plays out. But from my experience as a UK youth delegate, the real decisions are not made at the UN.
Woven through the endless meetings, lobbying sessions, cocktail parties and plenaries was a palpable sense that we will pass the critical 2 degrees tipping point causing ‘runaway’ climate change with the very real possibility of 6 degree temperature rises within this century. Forget far off impacts for our grandchildren, this is about you and me over the next 50 years. At the talks, negotiators repeated ad nauseam the party line about how CO2 concentrations of 450 parts per million will stave off the worst impacts of climate change, whilst being briefed behind closed doors about exactly how out of date this same target is. When we cornered negotiators with questions like these, they often admitted the contradiction. It’s exasperating to watch because we know that the time left to act is running out.
Is there an end to this? Not within the conference halls. Negotiators have little freedom to negotiate freely. One NGO put it to me that up to 90% of their platform is pre-determined before they even step on the plane. With special interests, short-termist electoral cycles and near instantaneous judgement by stock market edict, it is easy to see why governments act in this way. Operating within such rigid parameters, our negotiators are essentially players in a game. The small slice of autonomy granted to them offers precious little potential for a breakthrough and is certainly not enough to secure a deal which takes the latest scientific discoveries seriously.
So, what do we need now? Firstly, to recognise that we are a long way from where we need to be and second, to understand that our power lies in the ability to make a just agreement possible. Negotiators are not champions of humanity or social justice. They’re playing a game, according to the rules they’re given. Their capacity to act is limited by what is politically acceptable.
Nonetheless, politicians as individuals want to act on this – nobody who has seen the true scale of this problem couldn’t. But at the moment, taking meaningful action necessitates defying the negotiating position set by domestic governments, which means losing your job. By Copenhagen next year, where the final treaty will be agreed, the playing field must look substantially different. In essence, the ground rules must be that taking strong action on climate change is the only way a treaty can be signed because the public will accept nothing less.
To drive this point home, just a few weeks ago Climate Change and Energy Secretary Ed Miliband called for a “popular mobilisation” to make it possible for the process to move forward, whilst Al Gore has said publicly that he “can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.” We should think seriously about this call to action – it comes from a place of real desperation and an awareness of the limitations of a politics not yet built to deal with a problem like climate change.
Having watched the negotiations for two weeks, I can tell you that if the situation continues as it is currently, we will fail to halt runaway climate change. The enormity of this statement should not be underestimated. In the time remaining before Copenhagen next December we must substantially alter the context of the debate to make it impossible not to act. Many more campaigns like those that forced through the Climate Act in the UK will be needed and on a far bigger scale. Now really is the time to consider what role you as a Sussex student have to play in this, our last best chance to stop dangerous climate change. History shows time and again the importance of a strong student voice at the heart of progressive social movements and yet, with notable exceptions, we’ve not been anywhere near loud enough.
We’ve got to stop pretending that this is about polar bears or banners that rhyme because at its heart, climate change is about social justice, it’s about people. It’s about whether or not we chose to act now to safeguard a livable society whilst we still can or whether we take a back seat as our future gets pissed up against a wall in favour of short-termist and ill conceived economic pressures. The next year is the most important in human history. It’s up to us, not the politicians in Poznan, to determine how it plays out.
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