In the midst of this Roundtable, global climate talks involving 193 nations got under way in Warsaw. Just days previously, Typhoon Haiyan had struck the Philippines, leaving thousands dead and an estimated 4 million displaced.
One might expect a typhoon as powerful as Haiyan to inspire extra urgency in climate negotiations (even if it's not possible to attribute a single weather event to global warming). One might expect nations to promise greater reductions in their carbon emissions, and rich countries to commit significant support to initiatives such as the Green Climate Fund. But negotiations in Warsaw have moved backward. Japan, the world's fifth-biggest carbon emitter, has backed off a previous pledge to reduce its 2020 emissions by 6 percent below 1990 levels; now its emissions would increase by 3 percent over 1990 levels. Meanwhile, data released amid the Warsaw conference showed that pledges to international climate funds so far in 2013 are 71 percent lower than during the same period in 2012. The response to Haiyan has been even worse than business as usual.
When I find myself complaining to negotiators about disappointing climate talks, some say that "this is just how negotiations work." Negotiating an emissions pledge, much less a firm commitment, is time-consuming and difficult—and negotiators, who receive their instructions from national capitals, are not empowered to move talks forward on their own. Others say that there is no point in asking nations to do more than they are willing to do, and indeed a new climate treaty should be tailored to fit the agendas of the United States and China (though such an agreement would in fact be tailored to burn the planet). "At some point," still others say, "governments will react to the climate crisis." But when? How many more people have to die? And what if countries react so late that the chance to limit warming to a tolerable level is lost?
The climate problem will not be solved through international climate negotiations. No hope lies in governments, which are focused on the next elections or other political imperatives, which have been captured by corporations and elites. Elites simply don't care about devastating typhoons and the like. If climate change begins to inconvenience them, they can take a plane to a different part of the world, buy a new house, and start a new business.
Hope lies in people, and climate solutions must emerge from the streets of Washington, Beijing, and elsewhere. People must start to realize that climate justice concerns not just environmentalists and climate activists but everyone on this planet. It concerns them, for example, because democratic governance and long-term employment are not compatible with societies whose relationships to nature are badly out of balance. Economies that grow beyond the limits that nature imposes on them will sooner or later collapse.
National and global climate policies will change only when strong social movements embrace the fight for justice—across countries, across continents, and along the economic, political, and environmental dimensions. The fight must embrace concrete goals such as shutting down coal mines, stopping pipeline construction, halting fracking projects, imposing carbon taxes, preserving indigenous lands, and putting an end to land grabs. These goals must be pursued through diverse means—from political pressure to consumer boycotts to civil disobedience to hunger strikes. Capitalism's greatest advantage is inertia, and overcoming it will require the involvement of workers, peasants, indigenous people, women, youth, faith communities, migrants, intellectuals, artists, and human right activists.
The struggle at hand is both to stop climate madness and to create a world where human beings and nature are respected. This is a fight that must not be lost.