Civil Society Takes Charge On Climate Action As Governments Waver

NEW YORK CITY – Youth leaders from around the world clamored for more action on climate change Saturday at a first-ever United Nation’s Youth Climate Summit – even as the actual government commitments lined up for Monday’s formal meeting with heads of state appeared likely fall far short of making the dramatic changes that scientists say would be needed to limit global warming to 1.5° C.

Youth activists and the Secretary-General of the UN give opening remarks at the Youth Climate Summit.

Sources told Health Policy Watch that some 50 national commitments were due to be announced Monday at the UN Climate Summit. But these would not be sufficient to sharply reduce the pace of climate change that right now has the world heading for 3°C or higher temperatures by the end of the century. That, health experts have warned, would trigger an unprecedented spiral of threats to human health, food security, disease transmission and to the very survival of small island states and coastal communities.

(Left to Right) Christiana Figueres, former UNFCCC executive secretary, WHO’s Maria Neira, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

Against the dark scientific predictions, Saturday’s assembly was a further reflection of how civil society organizations of all stripes – from climate researchers to public health advocates, students and urban leaders– have been mobilizing to seize initiative where governments have so far failed.

On Thursday, a consortium of scientists published The Exponential Roadmap, outlining 36 strategies that could slash greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 if they were scaled up rapidly.  These 36 solutions – ranging from solar and wind to electric bikes, commercial shipping and reduced red meat consumption – could “stabilize earth’s temperatures and significantly reduce risks to societies” said the authors of the report by the Future Earth consortium, led by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany. “This is now a race against time, but businesses and even entire industries have made many significant transitions in less than 10 years,” said report author Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany and co-chair of Future Earth, an international research programme, in a press release.

Saturday’s Climate Youth Summit also came in the wake of Friday’s historic global climate strike that mobilized 4 million people worldwide, many from youth-led movements, who demanded more accountability from government and industry leaders.

“I want the leaders of the world to respect the rights of future generations, respect the right to a habitable planet… We are not insurance policies, We are communities, we are human communities. Is it really too much to ask you to walk the talk?” Kamal Karishma Kumar, a young activist from the island of Fiji, a country threatened by rising sea levels, told the world leaders at the Youth Summit inside UN Headquarters.

Youth participants also demanded greater accountability from industry representatives who were present at the Summit. One activist challenged Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Officer, Lucas Jappa, over recent business deals with fossil fuel companies.

“If Microsoft is so committed to sustainability, why did Microsoft partner with Chevron and Schlumberger this week to accelerate oil extraction?… Do you care more about profit than you care about us?” she asked.

Making new business deals with the fossil fuels industry is an issue that “the entire tech sector  and everybody who is living in the world today, which is predicated upon an oil and gas economy, has to answer,” Microsoft’s Jappa responded.

“It’s a conversation that we’re having inside the company and it’s one that I think you’ll be hearing more about, both from Microsoft and our peers in the broader tech sector…. Know that Microsoft will be engaging in this dialogue moving forward,” Jappa added.

Monday’s Summit Portrayed as a “Beginning” not a “Milestone”

The Youth Summit took place against a background of sober recognition that the level of commitment from global leaders moving into Monday’s high-level Climate Action Summit was likely to be muted. And leaders were busy recasting the Monday meeting as the beginning and not the end of the process.

“We have 50 commitments, that is not negligible,”  said Christiana Figueres, former head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “There is nothing in life that is black or white, everything is shades of grey and I am absolutely sure that this [summit] will take us to the next level,” Figueres, now a lead actor in Mission 2020, a partner organisation in the Exponential Roadmap, told Health Policy Watch in a brief interview.

Figueres said she had been “inspired and called to account” by young people speaking out at  events such as the Youth Summit, “They have said our generation has not done our job – nobody is exempt, everybody has to do something.”

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres.

The youth movement and leaders such as Greta Thunberg will be remembered as making “the biggest difference” in the climate movement, said Norway’s Environment and Climate Minister, Ola Elvestuen, at the UN meeting.

Speaking at today’s Youth Summit event, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, sounded a note of hope. “When I started two years ago… I felt very discouraged in relation to the perspectives about climate action. We were already facing a climate emergency… At the same time, there was an apathy, there was a sense of difficulty in getting people to act.”  Now, he said, public sentiment is finally turning around.

But asked later by Health Policy Watch if he had “high hopes” that Monday would be a milestone, The Secretary General paused and said only “I have… hopes.”

Health Mobilizing More Aggressively

Recognizing that climate impacts people’s health can also help motivate climate action, said Thunberg upon a visit to a “Pollution Pods” exhibit on the UN lawn, sponsored by the World Health Organization.  The traveling exhibit, by British artist Michael Pinsky, recreates the experience of pollution in five cities of the world, ranging from highly polluted Delhi and Beijing to moderately polluted London and Oslo.

Greta Thunberg at WHO’s Pollution Pods exhibit.

“If we can connect the climate crisis with air pollution, it is just so connected and we cannot solve one without solving the other,” said Thunberg.

WHO has been leading research and policy synthesis  on climate and health issues for nearly two decades.

Now some of the largest humanitarian and health civil society organizations are speaking up more assertively. The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) both issued statements just ahead of the Summit about the urgency of addressing climate change.

The International Federation of the Red Cross report, The Cost of Doing Nothing, warned that by 2050 some 200 million people a year will be in need of humanitarian assistance due to climate related events, double today’s level.  Costs of responding to humanitarian crises will balloon to USD$20 billion.

The global health and humanitarian aid communities are facing a “climate emergency,” said the Executive Director of MSF USA, Avril Benoît, in another statement, issued on Thursday.

Vital Strategies, a longtime health actor on tobacco control, NCDs, and traffic injuries has also become active in the climate space (see interview).  And dedicated NGOs, such as Health Care without Harm, and the Global Climate and Health Alliance, have also appeared on the scene to address health workers about the urgent health impacts of climate change, as well as to advocate for reducing the climate footprint of the health sector, which is responsible for as much as 4.5% of climate emissions, according to a recent report.

New Roadmap Provides 36 Solutions to Cut Climate Emissions 50% by 2030 Worldwide

Among scientists, as well, there is a stronger note of activism, as reflected in reports such as the Exponential Roadmap.  The report identifies a number of “tipping points” it says could accelerate transformation toward a more sustainable global economy, including:

  • Low cost solar, wind, and battery technologies, which are on profitable, exponential trajectories that if sustained, will be enough to halve emissions from electricity generation by 2030;
  • Electric vehicle growth, which has the potential to reach a 90% market share by 2030 if sustained, but only if strong policies support this direction;
  • Growing social movements changing the public conversation in parallel with companies and cities stepping up climate action;
  • Emerging political support for more ambitious targets, for example countries such as the UK, France, Norway and Sweden adopting laws to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.

Along with that, digital technology could support a rapid transformation of economic systems – although if it is not managed, digital transformation also could drive emissions higher, the report’s authors warn.

Of the report, Figueres said, “I see all evidence that social and economic tipping points are aligning. We can now say the next decade has the potential to see the fastest economic transition in history. The 2019 Exponential Roadmap is an excellent guide for the necessary journey to net-zero emissions.”

Manuel Pugal-Vidal, leader of the climate and energy practice at WWF, a partner of the report said in a statement, “Governments must introduce national targets to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 with targets to cut emissions 50% by 2030. Immediate removal of fossil-fuel subsidies is a priority. Yet policies must be equitable and fair or risk failure.”

“Developed nations with significant historic emissions also have a responsibility to reduce emissions faster. Cities and states – not only countries – will also be important change makers,” he adds.

More from HPW’s interview with Maria Neira, Christiana Figueres, and Michelle Bachelet:




For more about the story of the “Pollution Pods” see here.

Grace Ren also contributed to this story. 


This story was published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story, co-founded by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.



Image Credits: UN Photo/Kim Haughton, Fletcher/HP-Watch.

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