Today, the 21st UN Climate Change Summit (COP21) starts in Paris. All the way since the Rio Conference in 1992, the aim of these summits has been to agree on policies which can stop global warming and prevent climate catastrophe. The concrete aim has been to limit global warming to maximum 2oC (preferably 1.5oC). The emission of CO2 in the atmosphere is the prime driver of the process of global warming, and the use of fossil fuel is the most important source of CO2. Therefore reduction in the use of fossil fuel, and transition to renewable energy, are at the core of the climate change problem. After more than 20 years of climate summits, however, CO2 emissions have not been reduced. They have rather increased by more than 60% (1992 – 2014). This illustrates more than anything else the failure of the COP process so far.
A global warming of 2oC will already create enormous problems in terms of extreme weather conditions (draughts, floods, storms etc.). The average global temperature increase is just about to pass 1.0oC since pre-industrial time, and we have seen devastating effects (the hurricanes Haiyan in the Philippines, with 6,340 fatalities, and Sandy in New York are among the most resent). A temperature increase higher than 2oC – up to 3, 4 or even 6oC – will therefore represent a climate catastrophe of unknown dimensions, of which consequences we are hardly able to imagine. We are, in other words, faced with a planetary emergency. So the question is: will the Paris Summit be able to agree on measures sufficient to prevent the catastrophe?
The aim of the Paris summit is to negotiate a global agreement on climate change. After preparatory meetings it seems as if there will be an agreement in Paris, and that this agreement will be presented as a great victory. An agreement is important, but the problem, as it looks today, is that the contents of the agreement will not be sufficient to prevent climate warming of catastrophic dimensions. The most important weakness of the agreement seems to be that it will not be legally binding. It will be an agreement based on voluntary pledges (so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – INDC) from countries on how much they are prepared to cut their emissions. By now, most of the countries have presented their pledges, and, summarised, the cuts are not sufficient to keep global warming below the 2oC threshold. A scenario of 3oC+ is more likely. With such an agreement, we will face irreversible climate change, including massive job losses and a destructive development crisis.
The main reason for this failure of the COP process is, among other things, that we are up against very strong economic and political interests linked to the fossil fuel industry – as well as a neoliberal political offensive. Of the 10 biggest and most powerful companies in the world, 7 are oil companies, and these companies are using all their power to avoid policies which can hurt their economic interests. They are supported by an army of neoliberal politicians of different kinds. Our struggle to avoid devastating climate change is therefore closely linked to the interest-based struggle on what kind of society we want. The trade union movement will have to play a decisive role in this struggle, because of its strategic position in society. It has not yet taken sufficient responsibility for this development, but ever more trade unions are actually joining the campaign against climate change. Initiatives like the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) and the Global Climate Jobs network represent important developments, and the ITUC has taken an important lead in pushing for more activities and more pressure from below.
The climate crisis can be prevented. We do have all the knowledge and technology we need to do so. What we lack is the social, political and economic power sufficient to carry out the measures necessary to stop global warming. This will not come from the economic and political elites that govern us and control big oil and big finance. Only massive pressure from below, from a broad coalition of trade unions, other social movements, environmentalists and others can save us from climate catastrophe.
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If so, we have to go beyond what is now being prepared for us during COP21 in Paris. The massive mobilization of 400,000 people against climate change in New York on 21 September last year, and the impressive mobilizations all over the world yesterday and the day before, are thus encouraging. It is the pressure form below, from popular forces, not only in Paris, but all over the word, which decides how far beyond the current position we can move the result in Paris. After the closing of COP21, we will have to strengthen our mobilization for more ambitious cuts of CO2 emission – for a future without devastating climate changes.
Asbjørn Wahl has had a long career in the trade union movement at national and international levels. Retired from his formal positions, he is currently a trade union adviser, political writer and activist. Until recently he was president of the Urban Transport Committee of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and leader of the ITF working group on climate change.