Oxfam head of policy for food and climate change Tim Gore reflects on what happens next after the euphoria of New York (and asks you to vote, right)
Over recent days in New York, we’ve seen the emergence of a new people’s climate movement, broader than anything that has gone before. Oxfam asked supporters to join us in the world’s biggest #foodfight, marching to stop climate change from making people hungry. It was thrilling to have massed ranks of demonstrators calling for ‘good food for all’ as we surged down 6th Avenue, past Fox News and the offices of Bank of America. Ten years ago climate activists were chanting about oil; in New York progressive movements made the links to food, water, jobs, health, children and culture. Although yes, the polar bear costumes were still there too.
Ban Ki Moon said he felt like the Secretary General of the People. President Obama told his fellow leaders that they couldn’t ignore it if their citizens keep marching. More than 400 000 were on the streets, and it wasn’t to listen to a concert, or even a speech by a celebrity, it was just to walk together. The marchers and their demands weren’t owned or framed by any of the big campaigning organisations, but reflected New York itself in all its glorious diversity. The best speech made in those days was delivered by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a mum from the Marshall Islands, whose poetry has given us all a new voice for our struggle.
Kudos to those who got the framing for New York so right. But where do we go next, and critically, how should we frame our next major show of strength on the streets of Paris in just over one year’s time?
In some ways, the UN Climate Summit that provided the back-drop to the People’s Climate March was an easy hit. Expectations were so low, the message of the march was never designed to influence its specific outcome, but to offer an alternative narrative to it. As one of its key organisers has said: “the ‘Climate Summit’ that took place in the streets on Sunday was… Far more powerful than anything that took place inside the UN”.
In Paris next year, where governments are due to agree a new international climate deal for the post-2020 world, the positioning will be much more challenging. Some groups will want desperately to see a new deal secured. They may even talk down expectations, arguing that the multilateral system cannot bear another Copenhagen meltdown. Others will insist from the outset that no deal on the table will be strong enough. Some will want to point to the positives – the signals sent to investors and other influentials. Others will insist that no agreement is better than fooling ourselves with a bad one, and declare that the struggle continues.
These different strains of thought were already on display in New York in two books published in the run-up to the city’s big climate events. The New Climate Economy report was billed as the successor to the Stern Review – the new bible for those looking to make the case for climate action in the Ministries of Economics and Finance around the world. And it certainly does a decent job – providing talking points for policy wonks and savvy journalists. The best? Reduced fuel expenditures from renewable energy (which as a source is free) compared to fossil fuels will save around $5 trillion by 2030, more than compensating higher up-front capital expenditures (oh, and health costs of GHG emissions in the most polluting countries are 4-10% of GDP!)
The vision it paints is of a low-carbon world within our grasp, requiring just a few tweaks to our current economic model. Internalise the price of carbon here, shift some subsidies there, and the magic of an otherwise largely neo-liberal market economy will take care of the rest. The We Mean Business coalition came out with their own version a few days later. For some in civil society, they have charted a new path that can convince the bastions of economic power in our world to alter their course just enough to avert climate catastrophe.
As the title of her new book – This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate – suggests, Naomi Klein served up a more wholesale model of change. Here the vision is one which links the climate crisis to soaring and historically unprecedented inequality, driven at its heart by the same failed economic model. She does not set out to convince civil servants in finance ministries, but to spur people to tear down their walls. She was a headline speaker for those who tried to Flood Wall Street the day after the mass protest march.
So how should we approach Paris? Which vision of change will serve us best? Is this the moment to grab what we can – the results of a year’s renewed
campaigning on the back of New York – or to raise the stakes higher? If we walk-out of the Paris COP, as many of us walked-out of Warsaw last year, will we inspire millions of people to more impassioned climate activism around the world, jolting leaders to finally get real about the scale of response this crisis demands? Or will we be dismissed as dreamers, or malcontents who will never be happy, as our new supporters drift away again to focus on their daily lives and struggles. Would the poorest and most vulnerable countries walk with us, or take the deal on the table? What would you do if you were in the position President Nasheed of the Maldives found himself in at Copenhagen, painfully depicted in The Island President?
These are some of the questions that now confront our movement. We must challenge ourselves to answer them together, wherever possible in solidarity not in discord.
One thing that should be different in Paris compared to most other UN climate meetings, is that the big march will be planned for the end – not the mid-way point – of proceedings. This should give civil society the final word, framing the outcome, rather than hoping to influence it – in recognition that whatever comes out of Paris, the struggle against climate change will be far from over. All groups should thus be able to focus on driving greater ambition from the next day. Some will do so having rejected the Paris outcome as the latest example of green-wash. Others will amplify what they can, even as they demand much more must yet be done.
In New York civil society spoke with one very loud and – while disparate – largely united voice. Our challenge now, even as we deepen our particular models of change, is to ensure that the next time we speak we do not allow our differences to undermine our impact. Having spent more than six years stalking the halls of UN climate talks trying to secure tweaks to text, I know one thing: insider advocacy alone cannot deliver us the political agreements we need. Building this movement on the streets and outside the corridors of power is the only way we will win, our strategies must be centred on achieving that.
And to help Tim work through his dilemma, here’s your chance to vote on future climate strategy – see poll, right.
Update: After first 50 votes, the poll is pretty much tied – I’d be interested in hearing your reasons for voting one way or the other