This morning I visited the Place de la Republique, in many ways the heart of Paris. It’s where people chose to place their memorial to the victims of the terrorist attacks two weeks ago, and there was still a huge crowd, gathered round the central monument in intense, almost ritual silence, taking in the thousands of pictures, candles, flowers and messages left by well-wishers.
Just a few steps away, a different ritual was taking place. Thousands of Parisians, denied by the police, owing to security concerns, the chance to hold what might well have been the largest single climate change march in history, were bringing their shoes, one by one, to be lined up symbolically on Monday morning along the march route through the Republique. An eloquent expression of their determination to be heard.
The experience of the Republique was emotional for me. You have the sense that history is happening here - that this time and place is a crucible in our journey as humanity, and that the best and the worst in our natures are rising to meet it. It is a test of who we are. And from the tiniest actions of an old woman bringing a pair of shoes, to the grandest of the largest climate summit in history, we human beings are deciding the stand on our future.
Climate change is in many ways a crucible. It is the greatest threat we have ever faced, and will require us to come together as never before, in the most ambitious solution we’ve ever attempted. That solution is clear, the only answer we have - to transform our economies to be powered by 100 per cent clean energy. But will we be wise enough, skilled enough, brave enough, to answer the call of our people, of our children and their children?
For 20 years we have talked in these climate conferences. Progress has been glacial. The largest corporations in the world are almost all oil companies. The top four have the same budget as the government of China. The top ten have the same budget as the US government. They are states, superpowers unto themselves. And to save our species from the threat of catastrophic climate change, they must radically change, or die. So far, most of them have chosen to fight for short-sighted profit, and our demise.
So every year, they send their pocket-politicians to hamstring the world’s progress. In the past it has been former US President George W Bush, or Canada’s ex-prime minister Stephen Harper. In the consensus-based politics of the UN, just a few spoilers are enough to torpedo any ambitious agreement. The standard tactic is to indignantly demand more action, or politically impossible action, from other countries before agreeing to act yourself. This year’s spoiler may be Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is very close to big coal, and faces a historic choice: will he be a genuine champion of the world’s poor, or the planet’s chief lobbyist for the coal industry?
But more than ever, we have no cause for despair. Eighteen months ago, that’s where most people were, with good reason - political will on climate change was very, very hard to find. Then, hundreds of thousands of citizens chose hope, and belief in ourselves, and came together in the largest climate change mobilisation in history on September 21, 2014. It utterly changed the atmosphere. The marches were joined by dozens of top political leaders, and almost every head of state responded to it directly. “We must answer the call,” said US president Barack Obama the next day.
The year since has seen unprecedented progress on climate change. The world’s biggest polluters have made major new commitments to cut emissions, and for the first time in history, these commitments are coming from developing countries too. We have begun to address this problem together, as one people. Attention to the issue is sky high, with the Pope asking Catholics to join climate marches this weekend, Google and YouTube sending people to sign our movement’s climate petition, mayors around the world committing to clean energy in their cities, and so much more. The first marches to happen this weekend are twice the size of last year’s mobilisation.
The climate movement will persist and ultimately win whatever happens in the Paris conference. But it’s precisely because we have so much momentum to succeed that the Paris conference is a real test of humanity.
Climate change is a long fight - our children will be fighting it - and we can’t give up because one conference doesn’t produce a quick fix. We must set our sights on an ambitious and achievable next step, and fight hard for it.
That ambitious next step is a grand bargain to be struck between the global north and south. One in which all countries agree, for the first time, to a powerful goal of transitioning the world to 100 per cent clean energy. This commitment would have an immediate impact on trillions of dollars of private investment, that would begin shifting further from dirty energy to clean energy. That shift is already driving an exponential increase in clean energy, currently providing 22 per cent of the world’s electricity and growing. Already, renewable energy is cheaper than coal in many countries. A declaration that the days of fossil fuels are numbered would accelerate that trend.
But transitioning our economies will cost money, and it’s not fair to ask the poorest countries, many of whom haven’t created this problem, to pay the full bill. So the bargain is that rich polluters agree to a price tag, of $100 billion per year, to help developing nations fund this transition.
The world has dithered on climate change for too long. But this year has been different, and this summit may be too. Different because of that old woman dropping off her shoes at la Republique, and the young volunteers who stood in the cold and thanked her. The people of the world are coming to understand that there are no spectators on these issues. Citizens are marching, acting online, and burning up phone lines. We understand that what our governments do or don’t do is on all of us. That’s why the next two weeks, and the outcome of the Paris conference, is a test of all humanity. Will Indians let their government shill for the coal industry? Will Americans let their government skimp on the price tag for a clean energy transition? Will Brazilians and Europeans demand that their governments refuse to accept a weak deal? This is a moment where we show who we are as a people. What happens next, depends on all of us.