'To succeed, the climate action community must speak the language of the people'

25 November 2016

by Mr Alexander Pfieffer

Alexander is studying for a DPhil in Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, with a focus on Stranded Carbon Assets and their effects on Financial Markets. He holds a M.Sc. (German “Diploma") in Business Administration and Manageme...

201611 Marrakech COP
© Alex Pfeiffer

The COP22 climate conference in Marrakech was given an impossible mandate: to make the Paris Agreement happen. But it failed. The task now falls to civil society - and to succeed we must move beyond the alienating discourse of science and diplomacy, and show marginalised communities that climate solutions can also deliver for them.

Disenfranchised and disillusioned citizens are less and less receptive to traditional arguments, facts, or statistics. The climate action community must speak the language of the people, not the dialect of the climate scientist or the diplomat.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the 22nd UN Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change was brought to an official close, amid a series of final declarations.

Many had called for COP22 in Marrakech to be the 'COP of action'. There's a big problem here, though: the fundamental nature of these conferences is not active - it's diplomatic. And diplomacy is far better at holding action back, than driving it forward.

The reality is that Marrakech was never going to be the COP of action in the way that campaigning groups around the world advocated for. It was the COP for cleaning up the forced, last-minute consensus of the Paris Agreement forged at COP21 last December.

Paris was the photo-op, and Marrakech was the first of the nitty-gritty, argumentative, tense meetings that would follow. COP22 was always going to be the one where the Parties decided what the Paris Agreement actually meant. This is not a recipe for ambition, or grand bargains. It is a recipe for pragmatism - and that's exactly what we saw.

Kicking the diplomatic can down the road

High-level diplomatic action is a very different beast than putting-to-work action or implementation at the level of national governments, local governments, the private sector, civil society - down to individual households.

Marrakech did feature action, but predominantly diplomatic and rhetorical action - which does not amount to much in the real world, and certainly does little for the legitimacy of the UNFCCC process.

That's not to say there was a great surge of diplomatic action in Marrakech, either. In fact, there are many reasons to be disappointed by the lack of progress. The technicalities of implementing each country's National Determined Contributions (NDCs) remain vague.

The open questions that have been kicked down the road at every COP for so many years - like financing, adaptation and compensation to states suffering from loss and damage from climate change - saw the usual spirited debate and confusion, but very little progress.

On new topics raised by the Paris Agreement that needed to be filled out in detail and implemented into the Paris framework - like the 'Rulebook' for state action and the 'Facilitative Dialogue' for non-state action - the advance was limited, and disappointed observers and Parties alike.

The best that can be said about this year's COP is that it sent a firm, appropriate signal in the aftermath of the US election, thanks in no small part to the Chinese delegation. In the 'Marrakech Action Declaration', Parties to the COP "call on all non-state actors to join ... for immediate and ambitious action and mobilization, building on ... important achievements".

This, at least, is where we agree - if we want the fast and decisive action on climate change needed to have any hope of achieving the Paris goals, the best place it can happen now is outside the COP process.

Climate campaigners must give up their own denialism

As 2016 draws to a close, earth-shattering election results in two of the world's major powers, first the UK and now the US, have profoundly shaken global - and environmental - politics. The implications of these developments for the COP were captured by UNEP Executive Director Eric Solheim at this year's Sustainable Innovation Forum, the most high-profile business-focused side event during the COP.

It is not the US electorate that has failed us, he argued, it's the climate change community, the already converted climate action-ists: "If we cannot make environment a kitchen conversation in Kentucky and Texas, then we are failing." The climate change community must learn how to work with the new wave of ultra-conservative, post-factual populism. The task at hand is to stop failing people that do not align with the promised neo-liberal, sustainable development utopia.

It has never been so obvious that deploying the same old arguments to convince climate sceptics doesn't work anymore, despite the ever-growing mountains of evidence. Maybe it never worked to begin with. And maybe the issue of climate change in itself doesn't have much to do with it.

In a media world unconcerned with truth, disenfranchised and disillusioned citizens are less and less receptive to traditional arguments, facts, or statistics. The climate action community must speak the language of the people, not the dialect of the climate scientist or the diplomat. There are some organizations that understand this - 350.org is perhaps one of them.

We must frame the social changes that we all believe are necessary for tackling climate change in the context of the social and economic benefits they will bring with them. Those disillusioned with globalisation have little interest in the self-reflected glory of international diplomacy or UN agreements. In fact, this is only pushing them further away.

The self-congratulatory celebration that followed the signing of the Paris Agreement is the polar opposite of the way the discussion should be framed to reach those persuaded by Brexit, Trump, and bad science.

A new audience for climate action?

The Paris Agreement is only made possible in a globalised, multilateral world in which diplomacy takes small and incremental steps - the same world that drives disruption, rapid change, and exploitation of communities across the world. When your very well-being and security is threatened, incremental international climate diplomacy does nothing for you.

If this sea change in communicating climate change is the task at hand, a COP of action was never going to achieve it. This is not the purpose of a COP, nor is it the task of traditional diplomacy, or even a task for major multinationals, or the President of the United States.

It is a task for individuals, local governments, schools, universities, community action groups... it is a task for 'we the people'.

Now is the time to ride this new wave of populism and make it work for the climate movement: to show that the new economic thinking necessary to stop climate change can also raise the disenfranchised and dispossessed from the economic margins.

To make the case towards not only a cleaner and more sustainable but also a better and more just livelihood. It is time to put people right at the centre of climate action.

Alexander Pfeiffer is head of Young European Leadership's delegation to the COP and a doctorate student at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) at the Oxford Martin School. See his website.

Elizabeth Dirth is the Chair of the 2050 Climate Group and studying an MSc in Sustainable Development with a specific focus on international climate governance.

Alex Clark is the Henry Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, having graduated from Oxford University with an MSc in 2015. He is currently working on energy policy, climate change and global health and is also Project Leader for Operations with SDSN Youth, the global youth division of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

This article was originally published on The Ecologist website

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.