Shane Tomlinson
Shane Tomlinson
Former Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources
‘A week is a long time in politics’ is the famous phrase, often attributed to former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, which highlights just how quickly political fortunes can rise and fall. The current ‘climate week’ playing out in New York may well be remembered as a seven-day period that provides a lasting rise in momentum to take serious steps to address climate change.
An attendee at the People's Climate March in New York on 21 September 2014. Photo by Getty Images.An attendee at the People's Climate March in New York on 21 September 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

From the largest ever climate change march, to heads of state meeting at the UN Climate Summit, and investors such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund divesting from fossil fuels, a clear signal to move away from business as usual is being made.

The last time heads of state met to discuss climate change, in Copenhagen 2009, they failed to agree a meaningful global deal. A key lesson from that experience was the need to mobilize broader circles of influence, both inside and outside the formal UN process. This influence must reach beyond the traditional prism of greenhouse gases to encompass development, prosperity, security and health. The signals from New York and elsewhere show that a year before the next opportunity for a global deal in Paris 2015, these circles of influence are now being built.

The People’s Climate Change March last Sunday was a significant public statement that climate is not a marginal issue.  Estimates suggested over 300,000 people attended, comfortably breaking the previous record of 85,000 people in Copenhagen. However, it is not just grassroots mobilization that matters in shaping the politics for climate change. The decision by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, itself created from oil wealth, to divest from fossil fuels is a powerful signal that investors are taking these issues seriously, just as the recent New Climate Economy report highlights the risks of locking-in high carbon pathways through infrastructure investment in the next few years. These circles of influence, outside the formal UN negotiations, are creating both the conditions and the urgency for leaders to act.

Inside the UN system the Climate Summit provided a platform for significant announcements; such as by China on cutting it’s carbon intensity by 40-45% by 2020 from a 2005 baseline; and France announcing $1 billion for the Global Climate Fund. It was also notable that statements by many countries, including China and the US, included a strong focus linking climate change with air pollution, health and security concerns. But as important as the formal statements, the summit also provided a valuable space for leaders to meet informally to discuss climate issues. Building personal trust ahead of Paris 2015 will be important to resolve the final substantive elements ahead of a deal. The process in Copenhagen was not well managed, with heads of state coming together in an ad-hoc manner at the last minute to try and salvage an agreement. The opportunity provided in New York this week could pay substantial dividends in the final diplomatic efforts 15 months from now.

Taken in isolation each of these elements is significant but not necessarily game changing. However, coming together in a single week they are a real signal of how far the climate debate has travelled since 2009, and that there is a building momentum to act. A low carbon economy is no longer just an idea being promoted by activists and academics; it is something mainstream investors take seriously. Climate impacts are not something that may happen to future generations; they affect people’s lives today.

This is not to say that success in Paris will be easy or guaranteed. There is still a significant gap between countries statements and intent, and what science says is required. But the prospect that Paris can deliver a signal to shift long-term investments; act as a reference for future ambition; and be a source of credibility and visibility on climate action is increasing. A week is a long time in politics, but this week may resonate all the way to Paris.

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