The Future is Equal

The road through Paris

This article originally appeard in the New Zealand Herald, December 11, 2015 by Rachael Le Mesurier, Executive Director, Oxfam New Zealand. 

This article originally appeard in the New Zealand Herald, December 11, 2015

By Rachael Le Mesurier
Executive Director, Oxfam New Zealand

As the UN climate talks in Paris come to their conclusion in an exhausting marathon of plenary sessions and side meetings, many people around the world are likely to be wondering, “Are they finally going to stop climate change?”

The answer is no. But the good news is that a deal is likely to be agreed, unlike in Copenhagen in 2009, and it won’t close the door on stronger climate action in years to come. The road doesn’t end in Paris – it runs through Paris.

The world is changing quickly, with or without high-level agreements. On one hand, the effects of climate change are coming on quicker than scientists had predicted: global temperature rise, destabilisation of ice sheets, glacial melt, ocean acidification, worsening cyclones, increasing severity of droughts and sea level rise. On the other hand, responses are growing: extraordinary rise of solar and other clean technologies, fossil fuel divestment, calls for strong climate action from the world’s major religions, unprecedented alliances and collaboration amongst the poorest and most vulnerable nations, and a truly global mass movement for climate solutions and justice. This was seen in the People’s Climate Marches, which brought together nearly 800,000 people in 2300 events around the world two weeks ago.

The Paris agreement will not solve the problem. It’s likely to be less than 30 pages long and general enough to be acceptable to all, with a high probability it will not legally require countries to cut their pollution or provide the promised and much-needed climate finance. As an interesting counterpoint, the TPPA is around 6000 pages and, if signed, is legally binding.

However, this is a historic moment. Public opinion will continue to shift as climate deniers lose their credibility and climate damage becomes apparent for us all. A super-El Niño is impacting 4.5 million people right here in the Pacific, who are struggling to get enough food and water, not to mention the likelihood of even stronger cyclones from now through to March. Many businesses and communities are becoming more sustainable and the call for governments and multinationals to up their game is increasing.

The injustice that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are both least responsible for climate change and first to suffer the consequences is now commonly understood. Basic fairness dictates that industrialised countries, which have developed largely though burning fossil fuels, accept responsibility and stand with those most affected, including our Pacific neighbours.

Despite being generous with its carefully crafted language, the New Zealand Government is clearly failing in this regard. We are a pariah on the international stage – the first to receive the Fossil of the Day Award in Paris, our emissions still growing, our commitment to reduce them panned as “inadequate”, and we have now slipped seven spots to 42nd amongst the industrialised nations for poor performance against a range of climate indicators. While new Minister for Climate Change Issues Paula Bennett shows no concern for these “unscientific” findings, chunks of our global credibility calve off like a disappearing glacier.

So what are the people most at risk of losing their homes pushing for in Paris?

Firstly, for global warming to be limited to no more than 1.5°C. The current pledges add up to as much as 3.7°C. A mechanism for ratcheting up the pledges, quickly and with real compliance, must be one of the outcomes in Paris.

Secondly, for developed countries to live up to their promise and provide significant climate finance. Building defences against rising seas, changing agriculture to produce during unpredictable weather, and strengthening buildings to withstand stronger storms all cost money – precious funds that the most vulnerable countries do not have. Oxfam estimates that even with the new pledges announced ahead of Paris, only around US$5-8 billion a year will be available for communities to adapt by 2020. To put that in perspective, fossil fuel subsidies alone are around US$500 billion per year.

Thirdly, that “loss and damage” is recognised in the agreement. No matter how much we cut emissions and work to adapt to climate change, in some cases this will be too little, too late. Saline-tolerant crops, sea walls and rainwater collection are of little use if your island is gone. While unlimited liability is a red-line that the US is unwilling to cross in Paris, a legal compromise must be prioritised.

Paris is a significant milestone, yes, but it is not the sum total of the world’s response. Every day more people are making changes to reduce their impact on the climate. Businesses are transforming to pollute less. The power of people is growing, lining the road through Paris towards a safer and more fair world. There is much to do. For all of our sake, let’s walk that road.