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The fight for climate justice will not be won inside the halls of power – it must be fought for on the streets

At the UN Climate Summit, world leaders continued to show a dangerous level of impotence. It’s up to us to make them listen.

Aaron White
2 October 2019
Student climate strikers marching through Wall Street, September 20
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Aaron White

On Friday September 20, thousands of students gathered in lower Manhattan to take part in the global climate strike. The following Monday, world political and business leaders gathered at the United Nations for the UN Climate Summit.

The stark contrast between these two gatherings, which took place just miles away from each other, speaks volumes about the nature of the climate crisis, and how it must be addressed.

Outside

Absences were excused for New York City public school students who participated in the climate strike last Friday. Estimates suggest that nearly 250,000 people descended upon lower Manhattan to demand that our leaders take immediate action to address the climate crisis.

Marching through the canyons of Wall Street, the protest had a distinctly anti-capitalist flair. As the crowd passed Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street movement nine years prior, an older gentleman asked the adolescent strikers: “do you remember Occupy?”

While the vast majority of strikers were infants during Occupy, they deployed the same systemic critiques that defined the movement as they marched into the heart of global finance. Many of the chants and signs articulated a clear antagonist, from “Exxon knew” to “the capitalist fairy tale is over!”

The streets were transformed into a colossal playground. Students climbed onto any elevated surface they could find – scaffolding, lampposts, and bollards – demanding that the adults in power take immediate action to save their future.

Students climbing on scaffolding in lower Manhattan, September 20 | Aaron White

As Greta Thunberg surveyed the thousands of youth strikers congregating in Battery Park, she asked if the world leaders gathering at the UN Climate Action Summit will hear them. The crowd reacted with an emphatic “No!”

“We will make them hear us,” Thunberg responded.

Inside

The following Monday, the United Nations hosted a Climate Action Summit attended by heads of state and business executives from all over the world, ahead of the 74th General Assembly. World leaders were invited by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to highlight their “concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next decade, and net zero by 2050.

The summit was a spectacle. It had all the hallmarks of theater – dim lighting, projected scenes of wildfires and floods, with a galvanizing opening act to entice the spectators.

Climate disaster scenes projected inside the UN General Assembly, September 23 | Aaron White

Thunberg pierced through this superficiality during the first panel, proclaiming: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of economic growth. How dare you!”

While a few gasps circulated the assembly, Thunberg was swiftly led off stage and business promptly returned to normal.

Some of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in the world took turns addressing the audience, applauding the student strikers while failing to commit to actions that would keep the world below 1.5 degrees warming.

Some announced plans to divert funds from fossil fuels and assist vulnerable global communities. Michael Bloomberg touted his ‘Beyond Coal’ campaign, proclaiming that “non-state actors can lead the way.”

A host of investors, including the insurance giants Allianz, Swiss Re and Zurich, announced they will transition $2.4 trillion of their portfolios to “net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.” Meanwhile, Bill Gates revealed a $790 million initiative to help small farmers adapt to climate change.

Although these are steps in the right direction, they are baby steps: they do not reflect the urgency and totalizing nature of the crisis we face.

And what about the largest emitters of greenhouse gases?

Small states continue to remain dispensable to the global community

Unsurprisingly, the United States, China and India failed to present stronger measures.

Donald Trump, who withdrew the US from the Paris climate accords, made a surprise fifteen minute appearance before attending his own event on religious persecution.

China, represented by Wang Yi, the special representative of Xi Jinping, announced it will implement commitments in line with the Paris Agreement, while failing to introduce new actions in line with the IPCC report to cut 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, while stating that the “time for talking is over, the world needs to act now” failed to produce any significant initiatives that would curb greenhouse gas emissions at the scale required.

The most comprehensive proposals came from smaller and poorer nations, many of whom are on the forefront of the ecological crisis even though they have emitted the least amount of greenhouse gases.

The following countries all pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050: New Zealand, Switzerland, the Marshall Islands, Belize, Fiji, Costa Rica, Denmark, Grenada, Sweden, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, the Marshall Islands, Saint Lucia, and Vanuatu.

“Small states continue to remain dispensable to the global community,” said Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados. Mottley insisted that the voices of the AOSIS coalition of 16 small island or low lying coastal states will be heard.

“We refuse to be relegated to the footnotes of history, and to be collateral damage to the greed of others. For we have contributed less than 1% of greenhouse gas emissions… the young people of world demand climate justice, as do we.”

Today the richest 10% produce half of all carbon emissions, and 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions.

It is therefore no coincidence that the young climate strikers are demanding structural change or that Thunberg is insisting on the need to abandon the myth of unlimited economic growth. It is our extractive capitalist ideology that is responsible for the crisis.

As a global and intersectional climate movement continues to grow and mobilize against the powerful few that have a vested interest in continuing business as usual, our chief obstacle is time.

Last week, scientists revealed that 2015-2019 will be the hottest five year period on record, while our oceans are reaching “unprecedented conditions.” However these findings have been largely ignored in the mainstream media, as our political turbulence and charlatan leaders take precedence over the future of human civilization.

While the business and political elite remain wedded to incremental solutions, younger generations are bringing a sense of urgency and moral clarity to the climate crisis. Our leaders need to stop commending them, and start listening to them.

The fight for climate justice will not be won inside the halls of power – it must be fought for on the streets. We don’t have any time to waste.

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