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Now is not the time for small steps: Why the COP21 Climate Talks in Paris are so vital

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I am in Paris during the COP21 talks and to experience the climate action atmosphere, which has brought in people from all over the world, and from all walks of life.

The COP21 talks include over 130 country representatives whose aim is to forge out a global deal on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change. In addition to the formal party members and negotiators, there are hundreds of civil society members from indigenous groups, activism groups, NGOs, Charities, and so forth.

These COP negotiations have been more inclusive of civil society groups and the corporate, business world than previous negotiations and despite slightly opening up the process, and including more voices in the procedure it is becoming more and more likely that the deal, supposedly to be finalised later this week, will be crossing the ‘climate’ red lines.

That is to say, the deal will be too weak and will lead us down a very dangerous and perilous path; at least this is the message supported by major environmental organisations such as 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and many others. Perhaps surprisingly, big business names - such as Richard Branson - are calling on a strict climate deal, limiting the rise in global temperature to 1.5+ degrees. 

The planet is undoubtedly facing many challenges; the most pressing, devastating and perhaps receiving the least attention is climate change. This doesn’t refer to solely global warming and rising sea levels, it refers also to our vast resources depletion, raging floods and increased extreme weather – which the UK is currently experiencing. It refers to drought and increased desertification putting our food security at risk; it refers to water depletion, soil erosion and total ecosystem breakdown. Our seas, oceans and rivers are in crisis due to over fishing, increased acidification, and unprecedented biodiversity loss. We are at a critical point and yet no one seems to feel the immediate emergency, or at least the reaction from world leaders is much slower than the urgency requires.

The list of climatic challenges could go on forever, but the point of all these fears isn’t so much the environmental destruction; it goes further than that. Last night I attended a Trade Union and Climate-Change Action talk at an Opera house in eastern Paris during which Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein poignantly articulated my greatest fear, and probably the globes greatest fear: “It’s not about things getting hotter and wetter, it’s about things getting meaner”.

Only last week the French far-right party, led by Marie La Penn, won landslides of votes. Racism is on the rise across Europe; even the extremely liberal Nordic countries have recorded a huge rise in support for far-right parties and their racist policies.

Over the next decades, due to climate change and stresses – lack of water, lack of food, lack of ability to survive – the UN estimates that more than 200million people will be displaced. To put that sheer number into context, that’s more than three times the entire population of the UK having to evacuate and leave the country as life has become too unbearable or impossible to stay. It’s not a fantasy, it’s something which is currently happening – only two years ago Kiribati, a small low-laying nation in the South Pacific, bought up land from nearby Fiji to relocate it’s 100,000 citizens as the rising sea levels have caused saltification of their water resources and are acidifying their soils to the point where the basics of surviving (having food and water) are a daily challenge.

So the talk given by Klein and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was aimed at inspiring greater climate action through the engagement of the world’s largest civil society organisation: the labour movement, of which there are 200million members worldwide. At first the link between trade unions and climate change may seem a little vague, however soon the link becomes very apparent. Transition is inevitable, it’s how we transition which is the challenge, and in order to achieve a low-carbon economy, we must ensure a just transition for workers. As Naomi Klein and Corbyn both articulated, we should use the current low oil prices as an opportunity to encourage divestment in fossil fuels, and fossil fuel technologies, instead encouraging a movement toward renewable energy and low carbon sectors. Low carbon sectors mean public sectors: care, social work, teaching, community work. Not only do these sectors have to stop being privatised, squeezed, with budgets cut, they need more investment.

Corbyn and Klein, amongst the other panellists who also spoke as the event, advocated energy democratisation, taking Germany as a good example. Energy democratisation, or energy justice as Klein put it in the ‘Leap Manifesto’ - which she, with several other prominent names, created last year in response to “what would you like the future to look like” – is energy that belongs to the people, for the people and with respect to nature. Essentially, community owned renewable energy systems.

Germany, which is working toward energy independency and carbon neutrality, revolutionised its energy system. Now energy production is not monopolised by a few, over two million German citizens are now energy suppliers. The job creation behind this is huge; the potential to transition to an economy that is not dependent on fossil fuel actually becomes a possibility, and what’s more important is that having energy democracy means we create a more equitable, equal and just world. The message was “people power”, through citizen democracy, care capable of demanding change: from destruction to the creation of a better society.

Corbyn raised some very important issues, that in a time of austerity, the Conservative government has attacked the most vulnerable members of our society, and in doing so has also jeopardised our future. The scrapping of the Green Deal, stopping the solar and wind subsidies, giving huge tax breaks to oil and gas companies, opening up vast areas (some protected) to fracking – whose process is believed to have hugely devastating health implications. In addition to cutting social housing, social programmes, welfare, arts programmes and so forth.

The argument is that we are locking ourselves into an austerity programme that doesn’t allow for a transition into a low-carbon economy, it pushes the inequality gap wider yet and takes for granted the very basic science that we cannot continue on our current trajectory. Without being Malthusian about this, life on this planet will be quite literally unimaginable if the temperature increases by 6-7 degrees, which scientists have predicted will happen if we don’t take drastic action.

As Corbyn put it, the argument that there is no money for a transition to a low-carbon economy is flawed. It may be complex and difficult to implement, but it is simple to imagine. The removal of fossil fuel subsidies, setting a financial tax, a carbon tax, ecosystem destruction tax, ensuring that corporations don’t avoid paying their taxes, removing money havens, bringing the financial system into stricter regulation – all these measures would generate more than enough to ensure a just, safe and equitable transition into a low-carbon economy. Fossil-fuel keeps many of us employed; Klein identifies this is the main barrier behind why so many are afraid to join the climate justice campaign.

However, soon it will be too late. It is “not a time to take small steps”, it is a time to start building a new economy and taking our energy systems back, with clean, community owned renewable systems.

In the closing remarks both Corbyn, Klein and the other panellists made emotional appeals to realise that it is easier to change our human systems and economy than it is to change, alter or adjust the climate.

“Unleash your hope, unleash your imagination and realise that climate change is not a threat – it is an opportunity.”

You can find more information on the Leap Manifesto at leapmanifesto.




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