DISPATCHES: After the UN Climate Conference: The meeting over, the movements growing

By Anna Gyorgy

Originally published in the Montague Reporter
December 17, 2018

German radio reported that 91% of Germans did not expect major advances from the 24th UN climate conference that ended late Saturday night December 15, in Katowice, Poland. But conference delegates did reach their basic goal, allowing relieved conference organizers to declare COP24 a success.

For after a long extra day and night of deliberations, delegates from almost 200 countries unanimously approved a detailed “rulebook” to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. In the huge Polish coalmine themed conference center (built on a closed one), they agreed to make national plans to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius (2.7°F) compared to preindustrial times. That was the hoped-for goal in Paris. And one that will be hard to meet, given that the average temperature is now already at 1.1°C, and more than that in particularly vulnerable areas, like the Arctic.

At the beginning of the Katowice conference in early December there were 1908 places in the document marked with disagreements. On Saturday the last ones were settled, with a few delayed for future meetings. Next year’s climate conference will be in Chile, instead of Brazil, as planned. The incoming president there, archconservative Jair Bolsonaro, rejected the plan for Brazil, stating high costs and the limited time his government would have to prepare. However he is well known as no friend of the environment, having announced plans to further develop the Amazon for agriculture etc., a major ecological and climate threat.

But if the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement and setting targets for lowering emissions are now set, just how the very ambitious goal of controlling warming will be reached was not defined. The only mechanism to ensure that countries meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce emissions is the requirement to report regularly, publicly and following guidelines that apply to all countries. As a German commentator said (in English), for those not meeting their targets or setting ones not high enough, the ‘enforcement’ process amounts to “naming and shaming.”

There are also no fixed goals for phasing out fossil fuels, nor specific requirements or enforcement mechanisms. Contributions to the fund for affected countries are voluntary. So what happens now depends on the individual countries, and action on the local as well as national levels.

At least the conference results keep the UN and International process going. Even given the situation in Poland, with its strict, even repressive, regulations limiting demonstrations and civil society actions at and during the COP, the two-week event provided a forum for strong statements and protest, especially from island nations and climate activists present.

The speech and press statements of 15 year old Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg resonated especially, as she accused world leaders of “stealing our future” and called for student strikes around the world for action on climate.

US negotiators were present, as the Trump pullout from the Paris Agreement will only be official in January 2021. Although American delegates actively attempted to weaken the results, the leading German weekly news magazine Spiegel’s report concluded that “probably the most important result from Katowice is that the UN steamship was not forced off course even by the world power USA, and that the climate process continues – and all countries are taking part.”

Climate NGO Germanwatch policy director Christoph Bals agreed: “The achievement of Katowice is also a victory for multilateralism… The test will be implementation of the Paris Agreement. We need Government decisions for ambitious climate protection at home. The climate movement, that has developed worldwide from the (defense of the endangered German) Hambacher Forest to resistance against pipelines and student strikes, has also been present here in Katowice, and will be ever stronger and demand the necessary climate protection.”

And in the streets

Parallel to the conference in Poland, major blockades and demonstrations took place in French cities, with highway barricades preventing holiday shoppers from reaching towns and gas stations.

The first actions of the so-called ‘yellow vest’ activists started in mid-November in response to an announced increased tax on diesel gasoline. Identified by the emergency vests they wore, a safety requirement in French cars, the protesters organized over social media. Their actions were ‘spontaneous’ in not having defined leadership, organizations and meetings.

Touted by French President Emmanuel Macron as a way to reduce both pollution and gas consumption, the tax was seen by working people, especially in rural areas, as the last straw in a policy of taxation clearly benefiting the rich and large corporations. A tax that was accompanied by increasing closure of local state facilities, from post offices to the local rail lines. Support from both left and right militants and extreme violence, including from the police, has changed the nature and demands of the movement, but the issues it is raising remain.

The situation in France was reportedly a major topic of conversation during coffee breaks at the climate conference. It was clearly an example of a top-down measures, not part of a coherent plan to deal with transportation pollution or climate crisis. It was also perhaps a warning to decision-makers as to how not to force changes in lifestyle and costs connected with a renewable energy transition.

Meanwhile, new initiatives around climate action were being announced: in Washington by newly elected progressive Democrats presenting plans for a Green New Deal, and in the streets of London, with the new direct action movement Extinction Rebellion.

Visiting Extinction Rebellion’s website at https://rebellion.earth/, I found what should be of interest to communities in Western Mass. For many are well aware of the dangers of climate change and its realities in our own area. Hundreds have been involved in opposing the NED gas pipeline and similar projects. And we may know that it is those people around the world who are least prepared and contribute the least to the causes of global warming who are most affected. But what to do on a state and national level?

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a response to the realities of climate changes that are drastic, and cannot be reversed or cleaned up, and of the need for emergency action to force attention and action for change.

The group formed just this past October in England, but is part of the activist group Rising Up, that practices nonviolent civil disobedience in various and creative ways. In a 50 minute video on the homepage of their website, Dr. Gail Bradbrook, of Rising Up and an XR founder, presents a packed program. It starts with the most recent scientific data around climate change and what it can mean. New information makes the timeframe shorter and more deadly. Her description of why putting yourself at risk of arrest, and agreeing to be part of a focused movement is itself moving.

Impressed, I signed up for more information, and found that among the list of new area groups forming there are in fact three in our great state: Boston, Cape Cod – and Western Mass! Right there above the last, Wyoming. An international time of actions is being planned for next March. Interest and sign-ups are growing internationally, as people fight despair on the subject with – if not hope – then courage.