Why 2015 Might Actually Shake the Status Quo

The Changing Politics of Development and Climate Change

by Maria Camila Bustos

Illustration by Kara Fan

published October 9, 2015

On September 21, 2014, over 400,000 people marched in the streets of New York City to demand action on climate change. The People’s Climate March was the largest climate march
in history, marking a day some media outlets have referred

to as “the day that climate change action went mainstream.” The march was also historical given its composition: it was the first time environmental justice groups and large green organizations like the Sierra Club joined together in such a massive scale. Frontline communities, labor groups, students, anti-corporate campaigns, scientists, faith groups, and many others marched through the center of Manhattan for several hours. There were also demonstrations in more than 150 countries around the world.

Building on the momentum and energy of the People’s Climate March, a coalition of climate and non-climate groups have organized a day of action that will take place on October 14, 2015, across the United States. The march will bring together front-line communities, workers, immigrants, faith leaders, and activists working on racial, economic, and climate justice in order to promote the notion that a clean energy economy must also be inclusive, just, and improve peoples’ lives. This national day of action has been planned to precede the United Nations climate negotiations at the end of the year.

From November 30 to December 12, representatives
of more than 190 countries will meet in Paris to negotiate a global agreement on climate change. For over two decades, Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have met to debate a possible solution to climate change—however, they have yet to reach a major breakthrough. Moreover, referring to climate change as an 'environmental issue' paints an incomplete picture. What is really being discussed at the UN negotiations is not 'the environment' per se, but the way we understand economic development in the 21st century.

Shifted Status Quo

Since their beginning, the climate negotiations have been framed as a battle between rich and poor countries. Only until very recently, a majority of developing countries refused to engage in robust climate action. They argued that they would not sacrifice their right to development when developed countries were responsible for the problem in the first place.

This narrative was particularly relevant in 1992, when the UNFCCC was created. Yet, today’s world looks very different. As climate expert Monica Araya has said, “the negotiations
are always told as a battle of North versus South, rich against poor, but each time this explains less and less of what’s happening.” Since 2009, the increasing fragmentation in the G77 and China negotiating bloc has become more visible on account of changing geopolitics, divergent interests among countries in the Global South, and the emergence of new negotiating groups at the climate talks. The assumption that

the negotiations remain a battle between the developed and developing world is an anachronistic oversimplification.

The economic and political rise of Brazil, Russia, India, and China pose a challenge to conventional wisdom at the climate negotiations. These countries' economic capacity—as well as their greenhouse gas emissions—have significantly increased since 1992. Together, they account for over
36% of the world’s total emissions and have a combined population of over 3 billion people. The economic emergence of these countries has even allowed them to challenge the Western financial order, exemplified by the launch of the
New Development Bank earlier this year. Although they continue to deal with widespread poverty and low per capita emissions, the international community has pressured them to demonstrate leadership on climate change given their present and future contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The same is also increasingly true for other emerging economies like Mexico, Turkey, and Indonesia.

After the Kyoto Protocol failed to reduce global emissions by a significant amount, the negotiations have sought a different approach to a global climate agreement. Rather than a top-down method where commitments are imposed, countries are now expected to develop a strategy internally. By the time the Paris talks start in November,
all countries are expected to have submitted their national plans (also known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) to combat climate change, offering an individual mitigation target as a contribution to the global climate regime. This would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when only developed countries were expected to present commitment reduction targets. These contributions will then be included in a broader global agreement that—in theory— will push towards decarbonization of the world economy.

The New Climate Economy

The submission of these national plans has presented a unique opportunity to foster domestic debates on climate change. They are a way of integrating environmental consciousness into development plans that engage all government

agencies. Indeeed, one of the biggest challenges has been communicating to other sectors in the government that, though the problem is environmental, climate change is inherently tied to the myriad aspects development.

INDCs have been an opportunity to fight the inertia of an economic system dependent on the undisrupted flow of fossil fuels. As expected, there has been some pushback against increasing ambition in all countries. There are still those who argue that climate action is too costly, that climate change should not be a priority, and that environmentally sustainable development is something only rich countries can afford.
This has been the argument presented by ministries of foreign affairs in India and Brazil as well as by industries interested in

preventing climate policies from stifling energy, transport, and agricultural sectors.

This stance too often drowns out the voice of the
parts of civil society and government that are interested
in taking action. It reinforces the false idea that prosperity and development cannot be decoupled from environmental degradation or greenhouse gas emissions. It has become increasingly clear that countries can reap economic benefits from climate action. In 2014, The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, a major international initiative comprised of former heads of government and finance ministers, released the New Climate Economy. In essence, this report explains how climate action and economic growth are not mutually exclusive. For example, building better connected, more compact cities can save over $3 trillion in investment while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving quality of life. Similarly, decentralized renewable energy in developing countries can create jobs and provide electricity for more than a billion people.

The 2015 climate talks are not just about stabilizing climate change; they are about inclusive development, clean energy, and better cities. If countries fail to look beyond traditional narratives of development, the public will lose
an opportunity to realize that something else is possible and within their reach. Government, civil society, and businesses will miss their chance to leverage the momentum around climate change action in order to push for a transition towards a better tomorrow.

Negotiating Climate Justice is Not an Option

What is at stake if countries fail to secure a robust agreement? The livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Climate change is, and will continue to be, the biggest threat to human rights; it will aggravate existing inequality and conflict and impact those who are already most vulnerable and marginalized. While understanding that transformative initiatives often occur at the local, regional, and national level, countries cannot afford to give up on an international strategy.

This is the time neither for developing states to hide under traditional discourses of “historical responsibility”
to justify climate inaction nor for the industrialized world
to keep postponing serious emission reductions while marginalized populations (outside but also inside their countries) suffer the most. The world is running out of time.

2015 may be the year when we understand that climate justice also means economic justice, the year when we add more capacity for renewable power than for all fossil fuels combined, the year when, with a little bit of luck and the voices of people all over the world, we actually shake things up.

Maria CaMila BuStOS B’16 will be making a lot of noise in Paris.