Climate change made the news several days in mid-September. That was the least that could be done to acknowledge the massive and historic mobilization of people in numerous cities around the world prior to the UN summit, where world leaders gathered to set the stage for global climate negotiations over the next few months. The event was more than just a Climate Week. It was the grand opening of a period that will last over a year and witness an intensification of events to raise awareness of and demand action on climate change. The final act will happen in December 2015 in Paris where it is hoped that all nations will come to a legally binding agreement on climate.
It is tempting to analyze these past and upcoming events from a dualistic perspective that stresses the traditional tensions between the individuals and their institutions, blame one side or the other for the present situation and craft simple solutions to the problem of climate change. But the complex reality calls for a more sophisticated approach. The discourse on the environment, and more specifically the ongoing climate debate, offers the unique opportunity for all protagonists of change — individuals, communities and institutions — to unite around a common aspiration and work together to achieve it. We are at a turning point… but maybe not the one we are inclined to think.
* Recognizing the progress made…
We have come a long way since awareness about the severe consequences of climate change came to a head in 1992 when the first international treaty to address this issue was negotiated. Notable progress has been made at all levels of society since then. Increasing numbers of individuals are making daily efforts to adjust their lifestyles to lower their carbon footprints. Local and regional governments enjoy a closeness to citizens and a leeway that have allowed them to lead institutions in taking concrete measures to tackle climate change. While California promotes low-emission cars through financial incentives, Barcelona, Melbourne and Curitiba are making efforts to expand public transportation. Some nations have taken strong and effective climate-conscious measures: Costa Rica has extended a ban on petroleum exploration and extraction, and on October 24th, the European Union adopted the most ambitious energy and climate policy to date, thus committing to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. Other major institutional players, such as universities, faith-based organizations and philanthropies have divested from fossil fuels for cleaner alternatives.
*… and the efforts that lie ahead…
Yet, needless to say, a lot still needs to be done. Pledges are still far below both what is needed to effect meaningful change and scarcely tap countries’ capacities to restructure their energy systems. And when we know that only 54% of the Americans believe that mankind is responsible for climate change, we realize that the many efforts made over the years shouldn’t obscure the fact that, for whatever reason, most people go on with their daily lives without paying much attention to their environmental footprint — i.e. waste disposal, water and energy consumption, carbon emissions, etc. Everyone has a part to play to save the planet. Citizens and their governments, for sure. But also the many other actors that bear equal responsibility to respond to the crisis: businesses, religious groups, NGOs, universities, etc. As Mr. DiCaprio expressed so clearly in his speech before the leaders gathered for the climate summit in September, “This disaster has grown beyond the choices that individuals make. This is now about industries and governments around the world taking large-scale and decisive action.” This fundamental understanding helps us adopt a more nuanced approach.
*… to adopt a new mindset
Remarks that exacerbate the tensions between individual and institutions are counter-productive. Believing that high-level meetings are doomed to fail before they even get started won’t help bring about their eventual success. Writing that “the leaders will disappoint the marchers” is as despondent as titling a whole article “Largest Climate-Change March in History Unlikely to Convince Idiots” — referring to those Americans who still doubt mankind has anything to do with climate change. Thankfully, these two viewpoints were put forth in the same well-known weekly magazine, and it seems that not all media outlets report on climate change-related events through a reductive, dualistic lens.
While it is very tempting to withdraw behind all kinds of perceived differences — culture, religion, gender, language, ideology — just as many as one chooses to see — and fall into a relativism that will eventually justify our inaction, environmental causes offer a long-awaited catalyst to help us awaken to the plain truth that we are one people living on one planet. With this in mind, how are we to approach the current and upcoming political negotiations on climate change? We know that neither governments nor individuals are perfect; both have made tremendous progress and both still have a long way to go. All face the same struggle that require them to get out of their comfort zone, familiar habits and complacent mode of operation. How can they both seize this opportunity and encourage each other?
Maybe the mobilization on climate change could help overcome the “them vs. us” divide and create new ties between individuals and institutions.
As a review of the last two decades shows, from the creation of the IPCC to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol and today’s People’s March, the progress of one influences progress of the other. So, moving beyond “bottom-up” or “top-down” movements, what figures or systems could describe the dynamics climate change really needs?
 The history of human rights sadly sits as the most obvious example of the paralysis that relativism can engender.