Climate Week presented a two-front push for nations to take action on climate change. The moral case was emphatically made by a record-setting, 400,000-person march through Manhattan. What followed was a similarly unprecedented barrage from investor groups and corporations to convince world leaders that there's also a compelling economic case for taking steps against global warming.
The business presence last week was particularly striking because of its breadth and heft, and because of its extension well beyond the so-called "green bubble" that surrounds companies, investors and advocacy groups who embraced the cause long ago.
Signatories representing $26 trillion in investment funds called on world leaders to enact strong policies, cut fossil fuel subsidies and make polluters pay for the effects of their emissions. There were commitments and pledges from the likes of General Motors, food makers Mars Inc. and Nestle, and consumer products giant Unilever. And a string of corporate CEOs joined early-adopters like Ikea Group in supporting renewable energy and citing proof that companies and countries can tackle climate change and prosper at the same time.
"More and more businesses are coming forward and saying look, we can do this. We can cut energy use, we can become more efficient, and we can provide solutions—and this represents an enormous biz opportunity," said Paul Simpson, chief executive officer of London based CDP, a company that collects corporate climate change data on behalf of shareholders. "That's not a completely new message, but I think there are far more companies on board with saying it, and that's really a fundamental shift."
At the end of his summit meeting on the climate crisis, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put out a list of accomplishments festooned with 46 bullet points, some of them marking concrete new pledges, others diaphanous phrases.
Other announcements, such as promises by France and Germany that each would commit $1 billion to a fledgling fund to assist poorer nations, lent support to existing UN arrangements that have been slow to mature.
And there were also agreements that could help hold down emissions with or without a new treaty. These included pledges by dozens of big corporations to price the cost of carbon into their business decisions and force governments to follow suit; the formation of a compact among cities to track and reduce their own emissions; and new steps to make it easier for municipalities to borrow for projects like energy efficiency, a key to reducing their carbon footprints.
But would all of this really enhance the likelihood of a successful treaty negotiation?
Even as nations gathered in New York this week to discuss global-level action on climate change, there was strong recognition that cities, not countries, have so far played the pivotal role in the world's fight against climate change—and will continue to do so in the decades to come.
Urban centers house 54 percent of the world's population and account for approximately 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But they are also where most of the most innovative emission reduction strategies and adaptation measures are being implemented. These programs, as well as the question what needs to be done to further this work, were the topic of events throughout Climate Week New York City, from the United Nations to hotel conference rooms to the Empire State Building.
"We need to drive the global economy toward zero carbon by the second half of the 21st century," said Rachel Kyte, Vice President of the World Bank. "And we don't get there without cities acting differently."
It took hundreds of millions of years for Earth's fossil fuel deposits to form, but mankind has burned much of it in just a couple centuries—in geologic terms, that amounts to an explosion of carbon emissions.
Jane Kleeb is the founder of Bold Nebraska, a grassroots group that opposes the Keystone XL pipeline.
Before I left for Climate Week in New York, I was with a room full of volunteers in Nebraska, painting buffalo hides. Our painting was part of an honoring that will take place with Willie Nelson and Neil Young at the Harvest the Hope concert Sept. 27. The ceremony and the concert will be held near Neligh, Neb., directly on the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The next day, I stood with the Cowboy and Indian Alliance—a group of farmers, ranchers and tribes opposing Keystone XL—in New York to ask for permission to be on the land of the Shinnecock Nation, through a water ceremony and exchange of gifts.
We marched proudly in the streets, holding flags, banners and signs from pipeline fighters back home. I marched with a flag displaying my husband’s family cattle brand, to make it clear I was there standing with folks who have deep roots to the land and will not let TransCanada or anyone else think they can walk all over our families.
As I marched in the street, instead of looking up at the massive buildings in New York, I was looking down to see the shoes of all those people marching against climate change and tar sands. Cowboy boots, moccasins, sneakers, work boots and, yes, Birkenstocks. It will take all of us marching together, not only in the streets, but also straight to the voting booth on Nov. 4.
This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. EST.
UNITED NATIONS, New York—From vanishingly small island states to the world's largest carbon economies, leaders of more than 100 countries pledged their support—at least in principle—to a new treaty addressing the global climate crisis. But many of them didn't weigh themselves down with concrete details.
In the session’s signature event, the United States and China said they would do everything in their considerable powers to achieve a binding, universal accord in Paris at the end of next year, but neither President Obama nor Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli set firm targets beyond the commitments they made after the faltering of treaty talks in Copenhagen five years ago.
The delegates also heard from nations who were making much more ambitious declarations, as well as from some who are in much more dire circumstances.
Sweden said it would eliminate its carbon emissions entirely by 2050. Tuvalu, in danger of elimination itself, called for an end to “pandering to the interests of the fossil fuels industry.”
But together, China and America give off half the world's carbon dioxide, and if there is to be a treaty, they will have to reach some kind of detente on its terms.
Yeb Saño is commissioner of the Philippines Climate Change Commission.
No one who was there–and survived–will ever forget Nov. 8, 2013. The strongest storm in the history of humanity devastated Tacloban and many other cities and towns in the Philippines. Three days after Super Typhoon Yolanda hit, I stood on behalf of the Philippines at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw. I appealed to the whole world to take urgent action to address climate change.
Yolanda devastated communities and claimed thousands of lives. My own brother A.G. Saño, whose environmental and peace murals have adorned many walls around the country, was in downtown Tacloban when the storm hit. He bravely helped gather the bodies of the dead for several days. He is truly my hero. Every single person who works tirelessly on the ground to make people’s lives better joins the true heroes of our times.
When we talk about heroes and about saving humanity, it means humanity needs saving.
The flags of all its member states flutter outside the United Nations as world leaders gather for a summit meeting on September 23 to help shape a global treaty confronting the climate crisis. But not all of those nations have caught the same wind.
Neither the prime ministers of Canada nor Australia will speak at the summit, and the subordinates they have sent will not be offering the kind of “bold” new steps that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is seeking on the way to a treaty in Paris late next year.
Instead, these two governments, with their energy-rich domains sprawling across opposite ends of the earth, will present strikingly similar defenses against what much of the rest of the world is offering. And their stance is earning them opprobrium among advocates of strong and immediate action.
While a consensus is forming around setting a price on carbon and urgently converting to a carbon-free economy, Canada and Australia have turned themselves into an axis of carbon. If they attract others, this axis could become a potent force standing in the way of progress toward a universally binding pact.
Dozens of faith leaders from across the globe gathered in New York City on Tuesday to discuss how to engage their constituents in the climate change debate. All acknowledged that religious groups are in a powerful, influential position to push forward climate action in their communities.
"Our political leaders are failing," said Ajarn Sulak Sivarksa, one of the founders of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. "What sane people would see all of these signs, but not act? We must demonstrate how the world must be."
Charles Komanoff directs the Carbon Tax Center in New York.
This story was updated at 1:15 PM EDT.
Which is mightier—the obstacles to enacting a U.S. carbon tax, or the tax’s unique capacity to drive down global-warming emissions quickly, massively and equitably?
At the Carbon Tax Center we’ve bet on the latter. And our bet will only get better if the climate movement coalesces its advocacy and organizing around a carbon tax.
Making polluters pay to emit carbon isn’t just textbook economics and basic fairness—though it is those things. A carbon tax is the only way for the climate damage caused by burning fossil fuels to be brought inside the arc of individual and societal decision-making that determines how much of those fuels society uses and, thus, how much carbon it emits.
These decisions range from the immediate and quotidian: take transit vs. car, refill at the tap vs. buy bottled water; to institutional and far-reaching: build airplane frames with ultralight composites vs. aluminum, locate in town vs. on the outskirts, contract with a wind farm vs. a coal generator.
Without a tax on carbon emissions, every choice like these―and billions are made daily―will remain so rigged that fossil fuels will never yield their central position in world energy supply—or at least not fast enough to keep climate change from spiraling out of control. But a tax gives us a fighting chance to keep climate tipping points at bay and stave off global warming’s most dire effects.