The summer of 2018 was marked by extreme weather anomalies. Heatwaves of unprecedented extent affected almost every continent, with numerous heat-related deaths reported in places as varied as Canada, Algeria and Japan. Wildfires raged from Greece to Arctic Sweden. Increased use of air conditioners caused power outages in Los Angeles, which affected tens of thousands of households. People in northeastern England were banned from using water to conserve scarce resources in a country famous for its rainfall, yet which had not seen rain in weeks. Nuclear power plants in several European countries had to shut down as water in rivers was too warm to use for cooling.
The fact of climate change is not new. The first article ever mentioning the link between greenhouse gas emissions and warming climate was published in The New York Times back in 1956. However, as another author in the same newspaper put it more than 60 years later, this is the first year we “started living climate change rather than just studying it.” Almost 30 years of climate negotiations have not made sufficient progress in tackling the problem. From Kyoto to Copenhagen, they have been marked by a failure to achieve a legally-binding agreement on emissions reduction. The Paris conference in 2015 gave the world a new reason for hope when almost every country submitted a voluntary pledge to reduce emissions based on what it considered feasible given the unique local context.
Yet this hope has been dampened by the developments of the last few years. For one, global carbon dioxide emissions have actually grown. In addition, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States, historically the largest emitter, from the Paris agreement. This decision led to the emergence of a unique movement.
In September 2018, the governor of one of the coalition member states, Jerry Brown of California, hosted the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. It was a strange case of bottom-up democracy. Those who would otherwise be considered elites – governors, mayors of major cities all over the world, and executives of global companies – met up to discuss the contributions they can make to help tackle climate change. The aim was to lead the rest of the world, especially those at the highest office of political power, by example. The timing could not have been more momentous. Just a few days before, preliminary climate talks in Bangkok concluded with only ‘limited’ progress achieved. The meeting was held to prepare for the climate conference later this year, where national leaders will meet to agree on a strategy for implementing the Paris agreement. The major source of disagreement reportedly was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lack of actual funding that had been promised to the developing states to help with emissions cuts.
In contrast, the California summit had no shortage of ambitious announcements. Governor Brown pledged 100% zero-carbon electricity in California by 2045, five million electric cars on the road by 2030, and the launch of a satellite to monitor emissions. Other cities joined in with commitments to buy electric buses and offset all of their electricity consumption with renewable sources. Philanthropists promised $4 billion over the next five years to address key climate change challenges. Companies such as IKEA, Walmart and Unilever aim to adopt electric delivery trucks and work to prevent deforestation in the Amazonian rainforest through their supply chains. Others are investing in new solar and wind farms. Unlike the summits held with the highest political leaders, where climate negotiations can quickly degenerate into a platform for furthering competing national interests, California was marked by cooperation and a sense of individual and collective responsibility in the face of a common challenge.
However, the success of climate negotiations cannot – or should not – be measured in terms of how well parties can agree on a common goal. The best of intentions and the most ambitious of targets will not mean much if they fail to avert dangerous levels of climate change. If all of the current pledges of the Paris Agreement were realised, the world would still be en route to 3°C of warming compared to pre-industrial levels, which, scientists agree, would have catastrophic consequences for hundreds of millions of people.
Yet all the commitments made at the California summit by American local and state politicians and businesses would only deliver half of the emissions reduction the Obama administration pledged in Paris – which, as discussed, was not an ambitious enough target to start with. Furthermore, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report argues for the necessity of limiting climate warming at 1.5°C rather than the previous aim of 2°C. The difference of even half a degree would substantially amplify the risk of droughts, floods, heatwaves and other disasters that will affect the livelihoods of people all around the world. As things stand now, we have just 12 years to make emissions cuts sufficient to keep global warming at this level.
Nevertheless, perhaps it is unrealistic to place the same expectations on a group of local government leaders and businesses as on nation states. At the time that this article was being written, president Trump gave an interview to 60 Minutes, where he argued that while global warming is real, the climate might just ‘change back again.’ Given the profound indifference at the political top, it is truly a laudable achievement for individuals to come together and try to deliver on the responsibilities that the Commander-in-Chief has abandoned.
The sheer scale and imminence of the action needed to combat climate change requires strong and consistent commitment on behalf of national leaders. However, the California summit can serve as a symbol of willingness and capacity for action for the environmentalists all over the world who have been finding it increasingly difficult to carry on in the face of continuous disappointments. As Antonio Gramsci once said, ‘The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.’ In a doom-and-gloom narrative of an impending climate catastrophe, a little hope in honest politicians and responsible businesses may just be what is necessary to keep up the fight for our planet.