Four months ago I wrote about how the climate movement finally seemed to have stirred broader action at political levels (if you didn’t read it or want to fresh it up, read this first). With another four months to go until the climate summit in Paris, it becomes clear it was not just a lonely sparkle. It was the beginning of a fire.
The politicians are heating up
In an open lettre to president Obama himself, founder of the environmetal group 350.org Bill McKibben pointed the head of the United States on the things he and his administration are to be admired for and the things they better had given a second thought. Unfortunately, those outnumber by far the accomplishements. And so Bill McKibben layed-out a list of four important measures for Obama to keep the Earth from warming more than 2°C and leave office in 2016 with a legacy to be proud of.
In fact it all comes down to common sense. The dirty oils from tar sands in Alberta have to stay in the ground, just like the oil under the Arctic. It doesn’t make any sense to say climate change is the biggest challenge of our time and at the same time give Shell the permission to start drilling for oil in the Arctic region. Same goes for the new leases for coal companies to dig for more oil and gas. And apparantly the Deep Water Horizon disaster wasn’t enough to hold mister President back to approve for new offshore drilling in many coastal regions of America.
But look. The lettre apparently worked. Obama seems to have chosen to spend his last months in the White House focusing on climate change indeed. He doesn’t seem to bother about the Republicans anymore -what is there to loose for him? From stricter rules on fracking, over regulations for heavy trucks and airplanes, to regulations for coal-fired power plant emissions. And Obama certainly wants other countries to do the same.
After the historical agreement with China back in 2014, India and Mexico have been talking with the States on the issue as well. At the end of June, Obama and Brazilian President Rousseff met each other and climate change was at the very top of their priority list.
On the G7 meeting in Germany in the beginning of June, the leaders of the world’s major industrial democracies formally announced they want to keep global warming below 2°C. Under the lead of Germany’s prime minister Angela Merkel, who has always been a “climate chancellor”, the leaders discussed the issue thoroughly besides other stringent problems such as the Greece crisis.
Altough the countries didn’t come to agree upon immediate collective targets, the announcement of collective action was received with much enthousiasm from environmental groups. Activist network Avaaz wrote that G7 leaders finally said “Auf Wiedersehen” to fossil fuels.
On the last day of June, the long awaited greenhouse gas targets form China were presented. Although they’re not much more ambitious than the earlier made commitments back in November 2014, they show us that China is making climate action a priority. And it’s not just about plans for the future. In the first months of 2015, the use of coal had dropped 8 percent compared to the same period last year. And in 2014 China invested more than Europe and the US togheter in renewable energy.
With this commitment, the three biggest polluters in world, the US, China and the European Union, have all presented their targets ahead of the Paris talks later this year. With four more months to come, let’s hope they inspire bold targets from other countries as well.
The Pope that gave the climate debate a new dimension
So far on the political level. But where it started with activists and spread to politics, the fire has now spread to the spiritual field. In a long anticipated Encyclical (a Catholic teaching document) “Laudate Si: On care for our common home”, Pope Francis calls humanity to unite in a revolution towards a sustainable future for everyone. The encyclical is the first to solely focus on the environment, although his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI criticized the current economical system and its implications of the planet multiple times.
In a 184-page long call-to-action, he urges us to change consumerism which implies deep inequalities in our societies and asks more from the planet that it can give us. He stresses that, again, the poorest and most vulnerable groups will be hit first and hardest. Having contributed the least to the current ecological crisis, this is nothing else than injust. He argues that the care for the planet goes farther than science, economics and politics, which he thinks now lacks the courage to take action and think on the long-term. There is a moral and spiritual aspect to the debate as well. The Pope challenges the deep-rooted interpretation of Genesis that men are dominant creatures, put on Earth to master the other species of God’s creation. In paragraph 67 he writes: “The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.”
Keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.
The encyclical spread shock waves around the globe. In the States, it probably deepend the chasm between republican and democratic Catholics. Many of the Republican president candidates have turned down the encyclical. Candidate Jeb Bush believes the Pope should stay away from this issues: “… I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” He clearly didn’t read a word of the Pope’s document, which is all about becoming a better and more equal society where everyone can lead a life in dignity. Rick Santorum thinks the Pope should leave the climate debate to scientists, a rather bizarre statement for a man denying most of the recent climate science.
In other parts of the world, especially in Latin America and Asia, the Pope’s message was received positively. This is not a surprise because those are often exactly those poor and most affected communities the Encyclical is talking about. In Glastonbury, the Dalai Lama endorsed the pope’s radical message on climate change and called on fellow religious leaders to “speak out about current affairs which affect the future of mankind”.
And if you thought that the Pope would retreat from the climate debate foreground after the release of his encyclical, you’re wrong. Last week, 60 mayors from around the world gathered at the Vatican for a two-day conference on climate change and modern day human traffic and slavery, which are closely correlated. Extreme weather events bring along climate refugees, who are often forced towards the slums of big cities. They become easy preys for what an Indian mayor called the “dark dungeons of slavery” and exploitation. Many believe that cities hold the key to a sustainable future and where national governments fail to introduce climate policies, many cities have set up their own goals and actions.
Climate debate in court
It doesn’t stop with the politicians and spiritual leaders though. The climate debate has found its way to the court room by now. In a historical verdict on the 24th of June, the court in Den Hague, The Netherlands, announced its judgement in the Dutch climate case against the government. NGO Urgenda had started the case since they were convinced the Dutch government was not doing enough to mitigate the effects of a dangerous climate change even after having agreed to do so in multiple international agreements. The court finally made a distinction between three different aspects to be considered and their sentence can be summarised as follows:
- Yes, based on the current scientific evidence we can conclude climate change is a very real and urgent danger;
- Yes, based on independent measurements it is clear the Dutch government is not doing enough to mitigate;
- And yes, in a democratic system people can sue their government if their policies are not safeguarding the well-being of its citizens (this was the main objective of the state’s lawyers)
Conclusion: Urgenda won over the whole line. The Dutch government is obliged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with at least 25% in 2020 in comparison to 1990 levels. In the meantime, a similar case is started in Belgium and there are initiatives under way in Norway, France and the Philippines. Besides the overwhelmingly positive reactions from environmentalist groups, many people seem to have doubts about the case.
It’s all up to the State now. Luckily, sustainable solutions are ripe for the picking. -Marjan Minnesma, director of Urgenda
Is it the job of a court to decide about what a government should do? Isn’t this a violation of the separation of powers? The answer is no. The court declared that “The State must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment. […] With this order, the court has not entered the domain of politics. The court must provide legal protection, also in cases against the government, while respecting the government’s scope for policymaking.” Indeed, the court judged that the government should reduce emissions, not how. That’s up to the politicians.