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OPINION: In 2020, the power of people must defeat failing politics on climate change

by Tasneem Essop | Climate Action Network International
Monday, 24 February 2020 11:40 GMT

Nigerian youths gather at a Global Climate Strike protest to protect the Earth and its climate in Abuja, Nigeria, September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

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

It’s time to reject political leaders who offer gradual steps when what we need is transformation

2020 was pitched as a goalpost for climate ambition. A moment when the fog of political apathy would clear and governments moved by mass public protests, the unwavering evidence from science and a commitment to honest governance would line up to deliver new climate targets that collectively cut global emissions by half by 2030.

There should have been substantial money on the table this year, including the $100 billion a year in climate finance that rich countries, back in 2009, promised to provide developing countries by 2020. 

Developed countries should have met their pre-2020 emission reductions for an equitable transition to a zero-carbon future.  

Governments should have agreed to a “loss and damage” funding mechanism as a lifeline of support and a means of justice for those suffering unavoidable climate damages. 

The 20 largest economies in the world should have ceased all new fossil fuel production and stopped their subsidies.

But at the start of a key year for climate action, the global community is far off track.

Following the debacle of the UN climate talks in Madrid last December, where major emitters, backed by fossil fuel lobbies, steadfastly blocked progress, we now see them continue their tactics at home.

Canada is approving a gas pipeline through indigenous people’s land; Japan is opening 22 new coal mines; and Australia is expanding fossil fuel production as the country burns. 

At the start of 2020, let’s take a moment to condemn the broken promises that have exacerbated this climate and ecological crisis. We grieve the loss of lives, livelihoods and ecosystems that is a direct result of bad-faith politics by putting profit ahead of people, especially vulnerable people in the Global South.

If 2019 comes to be remembered as the year that the climate emergency finally broke through mass consciousness, 2020 must be the year we stop shifting the goalposts to accommodate weak leaders and mobilise the power of people to tip the scales towards lasting change. 

This change means ensuring more and more people show up and feel welcomed to join the struggle for climate justice, in whatever capacity they can exercise their rights and influence.

The student climate strikers have made an enormous impact in a very short time. But there is also much to learn from and about grassroots movements and environmental defenders around the world as we gear up for a new decade of organising and mobilising.

International solidarity means ceding space and power to historically marginalised voices and shifting the spotlight to those on the frontlines. 

As citizens and consumers, we can make those in power feel the consequences of their decisions. It’s time to roundly reject political leaders who offer incremental steps when what we need is transformational change.

Declarations of net-zero by 2050 that fail to outline immediate plans to cut emissions at source, for example, defy science and principles of equity. Fossil fuel companies, swayed by massive social pressure, are co-opting similar goals while continuing to damage the planet.

Much work remains to be done to overhaul financial systems and dismantle fossil fuel cartels, but even hard-line financial commentators say oil and gas stocks are turning toxic, and global investment firms like BlackRock acknowledge that a seismic shift away from fossil fuels is inevitable.

Recently, multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos announced $10 billion for climate action. We know Amazon employees have been pushing for their company to rectify its woeful record in this area. This is one example of how workers can demand accountability but - as they rightly point out - Bezos must first cut harmful emissions from his business empire and stop enabling fossil-fuel expansion. 

In this ‘decade of action’, we need climate activism that straddles other struggles like workers’ rights, the rights of indigenous peoples and the fight against inequality, while demanding tax reforms and social justice.

Let us acknowledge the complexity of the task ahead and get prepared. We need to become better allies, build stronger networks and sustain each other through periods fraught with inevitable setbacks. 

Unleashing the power of people in unity and respect is not just possible but necessary. Now is the time to get it right.