Comment: People power the force behind action on climate change

Climate change Paris conference
French President Francois Hollande (C), flanked by the administrator of the College de France Alain Prochiantz (L) and professor Edouard Bard (R), takes part in a meeting entitled 'Climate, Energy and Society: the College de France and COP21'. Source: AAP

The fact that world leaders are coming together to discuss climate change is good. But let's not forget that ordinary people are taking to the streets to make their voices heard.

As world leaders and civil society groups prepare to head off to Paris for the next round of UN climate negotiations, it’s worth remembering that these talks are not the end point on the road to a safer global climate.

They are a place to help focus the world’s attention on the need for urgent climate action and hopefully to set up a framework for global climate commitments to be increased over a rapid and predictable timeframe.

There’s no question that we must hold our political leaders to account in Paris and push in every way possible for a strong global agreement, which includes Australia carrying its fair weight in emissions reduction and climate finance. 

But, instead of expecting these talks to deliver final solutions to the climate crisis, we should also pay close attention to the many forms of action occurring all over the world, particularly on the streets where the largest ever People’s Climate March will take place in cities from Melbourne to Montreal, from Brisbane to Barcelona.

What occurs inside the negotiating rooms of the Paris climate conference is obviously crucial, but the real barometer of global momentum is taking place elsewhere.

All over the world we are hearing from people who have found themselves impacted by climate change and are increasingly frustrated by governments pressing on in a ‘business as usual’ mode, ignoring accumulated and compelling climate science and blithely approving new coal mines and thwarting the transition to clean energy.

In Australia the lead up to climate rallies taking place across the nation from November 27 have already brought together unprecedented alliances of groups across society including Indigenous and faith communities, unions, teachers, the health and medical sector, firefighters and farmers. In fact, we began with the aim of forming around 60 partnerships, but this has already ballooned to around 200 different groups coming on board.

These alliances are showing Australians want to see a planned transition to a clean energy future, with renewable energy replacing dirty fossil fuels and much greater energy efficiency resulting in carbon pollution being taken out of our economy. Australians look forward to embracing the thousands of new jobs and investment in renewable energy and a well-planned shift to a new cleaner economy.

However, our government appears to still be bewitched by the big polluters, and putting their short-term profits ahead of the good of the Australian people. This shift from dirty, old energy to clean renewable energy has gained incredible momentum at the community level – but thus far the government is still missing in action.

In spite of this, Australia has recorded one of the fastest uptakes globally of solar power in the world – with 1.5 million homes housing around 5 million Australians now powered by solar panels.

More and more Australians are now joining the dots and recognising that the actions we take here are having tangible and devastating impacts on our neighbours in the Asia Pacific region. The President of the low lying Pacific Island nation of Kiribati has recently called for a global moratorium on new coal mines as his nation’s 100 thousand residents across 32 atolls contend with encroaching sea levels.

"Let us join together as a global community and take action now," President Anote Tong wrote in a letter to world leaders, "I urge you to support this call for a moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions.” Meanwhile, elsewhere in Australia farmers and Traditional Owners are demanding the right to say ‘no’ to mining on their land.

Yet Australia’s Environment Minister Greg Hunt has just re-approved Australia’s biggest ever coal development – the Carmichael mine in the Galilee basin. ACF has just launched a major legal challenge against this mine – no to delay it, but to stop it in its tracks.

Given what we already know about how climate change is impacting on our neighbours and oceans, the approval of Australia’s biggest ever coal mine is the kind of cognitive dissonance that will drive people all over Australia and the world onto the streets in the days prior to the Paris conference to demand better of governments.

We have just seen the power of organising result in US President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline amidst acknowledgement that much of the world’s fossil fuels need to remain in the ground. This makes President Obama the first world leader to reject a project because of its effect on the climate – so it can be done!

And so it should – because the stakes are just too high.

We now know that we need to set targets that keep our climate well below a 2 degree threshold or the consequences will be dire. The hundreds of thousands of people that will take to the streets in the lead up to the Paris climate summit have made a personal decision not to sit idly waiting for a fully formed global agreement before taking action.

They will do so knowing that the nature of global summits is that they will be slow, cumbersome and will likely deliver imperfect outcomes. Yet they also know it is time for all governments to get on with the job - as we have recently seen in political machinations in Australia and Canada – climate inaction has become poison at the ballot box.

We are in an exciting, pivotal period when the cost of renewable energy technologies are plummeting just as new technologies that promise to store clean energy more effectively are advancing rapidly. So, no matter what the outcome is in Paris - let this not be an excuse for delay or inaction on moving swiftly toward a cleaner, safer world.

Victoria McKenzie-McHarg is climate change manager for the Australian Conservation Foundation.