10 things we learnt from the New York climate talks

1. People care about climate change.

Sunday’s march was massive. Really, really massive. 400,000 people stretching right up Central Park. It was good humoured and peaceful, whilst also angry and looking for greater ambition from leaders. It showed a strong public appetite for action on climate change which was hard for the delegates at Ban Ki-Moon’s summit to ignore. It was referenced in several of the speeches, including President Barack Obama’s. Many of the delegates would have been feeling local pressure from actions at home too, as the weekend saw people in more than 150 countries joining over 2,500 events.

2. Greening the economy doesn’t seem so tough.

As Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, put in his speech: “There is a future to be won and money to be made.” Other speakers echoed this sentiment, though they were more likely to argue ideas of green and growth were not in conflict, as opposed to actively suggesting people might make money from climate change (though people undoubtedly will). Market-based action on climate change is nothing new, but the new confidence of such discourse comes on the heels of the New Climate Economy report, released just before the summit. Business was also active in and around the summit, with statements like going 100% renewable is a smart business decision; not simply being talked about by politicians.

3. More talk than detail on the Green Climate Fund.

There were a few pledges to the Green Climate Fund. First mentioned at the Copenhagen talks in 2009, it was formally established in Cancun a year later and has gradually been growing teeth as a mechanism to shift money from richer countries to help others deal with climate change. We saw South Korea pledging $100 million (the fund is based there), were told Switzerland was considering at least that, and heard France commit to $1 billion. A few others have already signed up, and there were several expressions of interest – including Denmark celebrating their private-public partnership approach – so we might hope to see more of these at a pledging conference in November. Still, as Oxfam Germany emphasised, there is still a long way to go here.

4. Hello China.

Both Sunday and Monday saw headlines riffing off the Global Carbon Project’s announcement that, for the first time, China’s per capita emissions have outstripped Europe’s and China has surpassed the combined total emissions of the US and Europe. This recent rise of China even made it’s way into Obama’s speech as he very conspicuously noted the US is the world’s “second-largest emitter.” As Grist’s David Roberts tweeted, hello China! That said, the speech from Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli kept things very general, with little to write home about.

5. Polar bears remain at the forefront of the battle.

One of the stars of Flood Wall Street – a protest on Monday, explicitly pointing fingers at the Stock Exchange – was a charismatic polar bear who was one of the several dozen arrested. It wasn’t the only polar bear causing headlines, as Tuesday saw some more non-violent direction action as protestors in the UK blocked a 1,500-tonne coal train, bringing one of their polar bear puppets for the ride.

6. Momentum is building.

These talks were always about momentum-building, and they seemed to have achieved it. Something feels different. The march was probably more impactful here, rather than the talks but, by it’s nature, momentum doesn’t work in isolation. The talks and the march both gave each other power. In turn, they also supported and were bolstered by a range of other activities from the media around the New Climate Economy report to the launch of Naomi Klein’s book, with the Global Carbon Budget, the news that the $860 million Rockefeller Fund would divest from fossil fuels (and yes, they get the irony), the World Bank’s push on carbon pricing, Flood Wall Street and Google cutting ties with lobby group ALEC over climate change ‘lies’ all playing a role too. Despite all this, media coverage remained relatively marginal, with airstrikes in Syria and the ongoing Ebola crisis competing for attention. And where exactly all this momentum is heading is still hard to tell. Still, it was never about getting a bit flashy front page, it was about helping grow something to be built on. It appears they did do that.

7. The World Bank wants to talk to you about Carbon Pricing.

Carbon pricing was a big topic for many at the summit, especially the Private Sector Forum. A World Bank announcement the day before – backed by over 70 countries and 1,000 businesses – pushed the idea as a business-friendly process to lower overall emissions, and a spur for innovation. In particular, it seemed to be the policy choice favoured by the oil industry. You can watch a nifty little PR video from the World Bank too.

8. Elections matter.

After Obama’s speech, Kalee Kreider tweeted that “Compared to the Bush era, it was such a difference” to hear the President of the US use terms like “carbon pollution” reductions; “Elections matter.” Perhaps this also explained the rather guarded statements from Brazil and the UK. Either way, there are several elections before the Paris talks in December 2015, and the US will be heading squarely towards another US one by then too.

9. Marshall Islanders aren’t just symbols for the victims of climate change.

One of the best of the national leaders’ speeches came from Christopher Loeak, President of Marshall Islands. Arguing his people were used to being wheeled out as the face of the victims of climate change, a moral voice. But they aren’t just that, they can and will take actions towards mitigation too. Using the bulk of his speech to discuss policies he was putting in place at home, he invited other countries to join such a vision. With a very knowing reference to the sort of global leadership asked of big economies and big emitters like the US and China, Loeak punctuated a lot of their hyperbole whilst also showing the role of his people as empowered global leaders. Earlier, another voice from the Marshall Islands – civil society leader Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner – touched many with a poem to her daughter.

10. It’s an international business.

UN talks are, by their nature about global collaboration, but the quantity of rhetoric stressing no nation can do this alone was striking, a point foreshadowed by the network of global marches. As Obama put it “We can only succeed if we are joined – nobody gets a pass.” As well as discussions of shifting resources to the developing world (or at least sharing some) which surrounded the Green Climate Fund discussions, China made specific pledges to advance South-South cooperation and Norway and Liberia cut an interesting deal on deforestation. The international aspect of climate change isn’t just a simple good news story though. The Greenpeace-UK action helped underline the multinational nature of the problem; held on UK soil, the coal in question was going to a French owned power station, and activists shovelled it into bags labelled “return to sender” with Putin’s name on them. It is also worth mentioning the speech from Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, who quite plainly talked about climate change as “a new form of aggression” with a very explicit nod to colonialism.

Written by . Published on September 24, 2014. Last edited on December 19, 2014.

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