Climate change – are we there yet?

Reflections on Climate Week NYC, 2014, from Rohan Hamden.

Climate Week NYC 2014, image courtesy of Rohan Hamden

Climate Week NYC is a high profile event dealing with global climate reform. For the first time since 2009 the event coincided with a UN Summit on Climate Change where leaders were set to announce their commitment to a global agreement by 2015. Have we finally arrived? Is humanity safe from the perils of our own making, or do we will still face an insurmountable mountain with no clear way to the summit? As with any long trip where the children are in the back constantly asking “are we there yet?” Well, the answer is pretty much the same, “nearly kids, nearly”.

But in reality, how “nearly there” are we? Has the stage been set for a grand agreement at the UNFCCC COP in Paris, 2015? Or instead, will we again have to lift our gaze further and look to 2016 and beyond.

The week started well with the People’s Climate March. The orderly procession of over 400,000 citizens bussed from all over the country started in Central Park and made its way across the city. By any standards, this was an enormous crowd, even in a city like New York. People are clearly starting to weary of the slow pace of negotiations and are rising up to make their voices heard.

As you have already heard in the media, the UN Summit itself was a bit below expectations. Surprisingly, the talk after the event did not dwell on the absence of China’s leader. It is clear that their domestic policy is targeted towards fixing the problem.

Instead people were lamenting the poor showing of President Obama. While he gave a stirring speech during the Summit itself, he chose not to attend a key dinner afterwards where deals were being thrashed out. Instead he was uptown at a Democratic Party function. At least he spoke openly about the limitations of his aggressive Congress. It is by no means clear that the US will be able to deliver what is necessary for COP 21 in Paris.

In contrast to governments, the rallying cry from the corporate sector was loud and clear. They want action and they want it now. The roll call of global chief executives who took time to come to New York was truly impressive and included many of the largest companies in the world. The day when I was sitting in the audience listening to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, Paul Agnefjall CEO of IKEA, and Sir Richard Branson head of Virgin Group all speaking out for binding targets will stay with me for a long time.

A large global contingent of 3 and 4 star general and admirals even descended on the Summit. Their message was that climate change represents a far greater threat to the security of any nation than terrorism or a pandemic. Bold words from bold and impressive people.

The Rising Seas Summit held in the latter part of Climate Week demonstrated that climate change adaptation planning and practice is becoming quite deep and sophisticated. There was an outstanding array of case studies in adaptation planning, risk mitigation and community engagement. While the activity is occurring in isolated pockets around the nation, there is certainly a good knowledge base and network of practitioners who can lead the change as communities continue to wake up to the challenges.

Despite this growth and improvement in the adaptation sector, it will perhaps not be nearly enough if we don’t reach some sort of agreement soon to cut our emissions. We still face enormous changes to our climate, and it is by no means certain that an effective agreement to mitigate the worst effects of this will be established in 2015.

I do have more hope for the future than I have ever had before. The task before us remains enormous, but on balance I think we can finally be truthful when we say “yes kids, we’re nearly there”.

Posted: 29 September 2014

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