Still in search of real climate leadership

by Jennifer Morgan | @climatemorgan | Greenpeace International
Thursday, 13 September 2018 10:35 GMT

A man walks past boarded-up storefronts ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ernest Scheyder

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

After losing decades when countries and companies could have reduced emissions step by step, we have run out of time

For the past 20 years fighting against climate change, I’ve watched and heard many debates about whether a politician or company CEO is a climate leader. 

Back in Kyoto in 1997, the EU’s target of a 20 percent cut in emissions by 2020 was praised by some as leadership. It was far ahead of what any other developed country was proposing.

It was a pledge made at a time when Angela Merkel was Germany’s Environment Minister. Years later, when Merkel became chancellor and committed Germany to scaling up renewables and energy efficiency while phasing out nuclear, she was heralded by some as the Climate Chancellor.

When U.S. President Obama put forward a Climate Action Plan in 2015 that used executive authority to cut carbon pollution by 26-28 percent by 2025, finally bringing the US positively into a global climate agreement, it was also seen as climate leadership.

This level of climate leadership, however, has proven insufficient and we’re now at the moment of truth. After losing decades when countries and companies could have reduced emissions in a step by step fashion, along the lines of what Merkel and Obama claimed to be doing in the past, we have run out of time.   

Thus, today, I’m still waiting and demanding for real climate leadership to step up.

The impacts and tipping points that scientists thought would happen in the future are happening now. If we stay on the path we’re currently on, climate science warns us we’ll cross the tipping point towards a “hothouse” climate.

But we are not there yet.

We need leaders to respond to the climate reality we face now and lead with people and the planet first and foremost, not special interests. They must react to extreme weather events like the heat waves of Europe, the successive natural disasters to hit Japan this year or Hurricane Florence , as impacts caused by fossil fuel burning and deforestation, not as a set of random events not linked with climate change. They are consistent with the climate models and will continue to worsen if we fail to act.

Leaders who act in bold and transformational ways, who can say with strength and conviction: “Not on my watch” are the ones who will be remembered. They will be remembered for their courage, their wisdom and their integrity.

 As U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said, “the time has come”

But we currently lack the kind of leaders needed in such urgent times. French President Macron claims to be that leader, but France’s emissions are rising, renewables targets are being missed and his words are not backed by action.  

One bright hope comes from New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government decided to ban all new offshore oil exploration.

Governor Brown has also been a leader in the past, moving California forward on renewable energy and pushing back on the immoral positions of US President Trump. He must now raise the bar on what climate leadership truly means.

I am convinced he understands the science and, as he nears the end of his time in office, Brown could catapult the climate debate into another plane by committing to no new fossil fuel development. 

Brown is hosting the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) this week; an event that will see thousands of people come to San Francisco to hopefully announce new commitments and share ideas on how to create momentum and climate action. This is a Summit that can hopefully shift the debate about what it means, in 2018, to be a climate leader.

Governor Brown has this week committed California to rely entirely on “zero emissions” energy by the year 2045, but that’s not yet enough. As the sixth largest oil producer in the US, California needs a clear and specific commitment to keep fossil fuel in the ground. That would be the climate leadership we need.

Brown still needs to send a signal to fossil fuel companies that their current business model is a relic of days past: ‘No new fossil fuel infrastructure in California’ – what a headline that would be!

In addition to such a commitment by Governor Brown, GCAS should be the platform for others to show climate leadership and build hope through real climate action.

That means banks and insurance companies must commit to no longer finance fossil fuel development. Utilities must commit to phasing out coal and cities need to follow London and New York’s examples in divesting from fossil fuels.   

Each of these, coupled with strong 100 percent renewable energy commitments, would begin to build the new base of climate leaders we so desperately need and provide reasons for hope.

Bold action. Smart action. Action that puts them on the right side of history. That’s the climate leadership we need. 

Jennifer Morgan is executive director of Greenpeace International based in Amsterdam