Later this month, world leaders will gather at the United Nations for an unprecedented climate summit in hopes of drafting an international climate agreement by 2015 to address rising greenhouse gas emissions. The stakes are incredibly high. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, developed by an international body of scientists tasked with compiling research on climate change, told us that a comprehensive emissions reduction agreement by 2015 is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. Yet world leaders’ track records, which include decades of inaction despite growing scientific certainty, do not exactly presage substantive action. If we expect them to take real leadership we must create the political pressure needed to compel them to act. In an effort to apply this pressure, 250,000 people from all corners of society — teachers, pastors, scientists, union members, indigenous people and students — will be taking to the streets for the People’s Climate March on September 21, the weekend preceding the summit, to tell President Obama, the nation and the world that we need real climate action now. There will be free buses leaving from Swarthmore and other colleges in the area to bring students to this historic event.
The march’s location is particularly pertinent: less than two years ago, Hurricane Sandy — the type of storm we will see more of as the climate changes more dramatically — hit the New Jersey coast and New York City hardest, destroying homes, causing tens of billions in damage and leading to hundreds of fatalities. Sea level rise threatens to exacerbate storm surge and coastal flooding in the short term and submerge large parts of the city in the later part of the century.
The destruction New York City faces is only a fragment of the international effects of climate change and fossil fuel consumption. Climate change is devastating those already marginalized by systematic oppression most — working-class people, people of color and those living in the global south. Sea level rise is threatening the existence of many Pacific Island nations; droughts are exacerbating conflict and civil war in Sub-Saharan Africa; and around the world, communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction and combustion suffer from severe public health consequences due to the world’s over-reliance on fossil fuels.
But our so-called leaders have not acted. Since being tasked with drafting a comprehensive climate agreement in 1992, the UN Conference of Parties annual meetings have continuously fallen short of their goal. Since then, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have ballooned from 356 ppm to 399 ppm, sea levels have risen nearly two inches, severe weather has worsened, the ice caps have continued to melt and scientific confidence in anthropogenic climate change has reached new heights.
At COP 19 last year, after his town was destroyed by climate-fueled Typhoon Haiyan, Naderev “Yeb” Saño, the lead Filipino negotiator at the conference, implored the delegates to “stop this [climate] madness,” and pledged to fast during the two-week conference until a meaningful agreement was in sight. Saño fasted throughout the conference in the final days; 800 civilian observers and representatives from 132 developing and island nations walked out of the conference in protest of intransigence of developed countries like the United States. Other Swarthmore students and I fasted for varying amounts of time in solidarity with Saño and those affected by climate change around the world.
COP 21, hosted next fall in Paris, will be the next — and perhaps the last — opportunity to prevent runaway climate change: any agreement signed in 2015 will not take effect until 2020. Scientists say that if the world does not begin reducing global emissions by 2020, we could be “locked in” to runaway climate change as rising temperatures melt sea ice and unleash massive amounts of methane from under the oceans and permafrost. In essence, COP 21 might be our last chance to avert climate catastrophe.
While Ban Ki-moon’s call for this unprecedented climate summit is a hopeful change of tune, in order to have any chance in succeeding, the United States must stop blocking progress. The influence of the fossil fuel industry in our democracy continues to drown out ever-growing calls for action from scientists, human rights groups and people around the world impacted by climate change and fossil fuels. If our government is to stop preventing action and instead demand a stop to climate madness, it needs to be us, the people, that apply pressure and create the political conditions in which a climate agreement is not only possible but a political necessity.
By stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry, hundreds of divestment campaigns across the world have been taking critical steps to erode their political licence and highlight the injustices of the fossil fuel economy to create the political climate in which America’s responsibility as a climate leader is embraced rather than shirked. Our political leaders have proven unwilling to take action on their own for fear of backlash from the powerful fossil fuel industry. It is our job to show that if they don’t take action, they need to fear the even greater power of people who are awake, engaged and organized. On September 21, we have a historic opportunity to show that power and to capitalize on the historic shifts brought on by grassroots organizing and the increasingly visible impacts of ever-worsening climate change.
Reserve seats on a bus to The People’s Climate March at bit.ly/swatPCM and learn more about PCM at peoplesclimate.org/march. Email sohanlo1 if you have questions.