They came from everywhere — from the Arctic to the Amazon, from the mahogany forests of Peru to the plains of North Dakota. They brought icebergs from Greenland and life-sized sculptures of blue whales and plastered Parisian bus stops and metro stations with their artwork. When they were told not to come, they set out shoes — thousands of ghosts marching through the streets of Paris. And when it was all over, they took to the streets in person, holding red ribbons that seemed to stretch on for miles.
They weren’t the delegates in the backrooms negotiating, but the leaders and activists on the front lines of the climate movement — and they deserve as much credit for the news that yesterday, nearly 200 nations unanimously agreed to a historic climate deal.
“We met the moment,” President Obama said as news of a successful deal broke, but that wasn’t quite right. The word “moment” implies something much too transitory, too evanescent, to aptly describe the momentum that pushed world leaders towards an international agreement meant to stave of the worst of climate change.
To call the Paris agreement a “moment” is to ignore the lasting impact that the agreement will have in the months, years, and decades to come. The agreement sends a clear signal to governments and the market that the tide is turning against fossil fuels and towards a renewable, greener economy. It gives diplomatic and political clout to ideas that had previously been reserved for climate activists. The idea that fossil fuels will need to remain in the ground in order to avoid more than 2°C of warming, for instance, is no longer simply a rallying cry of activists and indigenous communities — it’s a blueprint for businesses looking for their next investment, for politicians looking for a way to guide their constituency to a low-carbon future.
The Paris agreement will likely lead to an enormous shift in capital, as investors and enterprises race to capitalize on a new, green economy. But the underlying strength of the agreement — the aspirations that will drive the market shifts — didn’t come from governments or industry. They were ideas born from the climate movement, from activists and scientists who warned of the consequences that could come from inaction on climate change.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Dunham
Even before Paris, the momentum of the climate movement was palpable. This summer, Pope Francis threw the weight of the world’s largest Christian church behind the movement, issuing an encyclical that made acting on climate change a moral imperative and speaking about the issue during his widely publicized visit to the United States. Later, activists hung from bridges and kayaked into the Puget Sound to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic — and an exploratory mission that once seemed inevitable cracked under the pressure of both activists and low oil prices. Then, weeks before nations convened in Paris, climate activists earned another crucial victory with the final rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline after almost a decade of back-and-forth from the United States government. In a world that for more than a century has built itself on fossil fuels, David seemed to be claiming more and more wins over Goliath.
Days before the final agreement in Paris, Ban Ki-moon called the climate movement “a huge trend.”
“Nobody can go against this wave,” he said.
Paris was a crest in the wave — even with security restrictions limiting the ability of civil society members to gather in protests, thousands still came to Paris to witness the talks and make their voices heard. They brought with them aspirations that, before the Paris talks, had been considered impossible. As Emma Ruby-Sachs, a campaign director at Avaaz.org, told ThinkProgress, months ago the idea of including a 1.5°C target or 100 percent renewable goal in an international agreement were fringe ideas that were championed by activists but ignored by world leaders. And yet both are included in the final version of the climate agreement out of Paris.
“People power delivered on this moment,” Ruby-Sachs said. “This is one step — a turning point in history where we have been given a path to survival.”
Of course one victory — or even three, or even a dozen — isn’t enough to turn the tide. But this year, in Paris and in cities around the world, grassroots campaigns have proven that local movements can compel leaders to act. Portland, Oregon recently passed what environmentalists are calling the strongest anti-fossil fuel regulations in the country, requiring the city government to write into law codes that prohibit new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built in the city. It’s a remarkable step for a municipality to take, and even more remarkable when one considers that months before the regulation passed — by unanimous vote in city council — Mayor Charlie Hales was considering allowing Pembina, a Canadian oil and gas company, to build a petroleum export terminal in Portland. It was the groundswell of local opposition to the project, Hales said, that changed his mind.
“I, as an elected official, need to pay attention to where my constituents are going, and sometimes follow them,” Hales told ThinkProgress in Paris. “This was one of those instances.”
The agreement out of Paris, while historic, is not perfect — it sets 1.5°C as an aspirational target but — without further action from countries — puts the world on track for more than 3°C of warming. And it directs countries to peak their emissions “as soon as possible,” a vague request that could prove feckless in the coming years. Other issues — the rights of indigenous communities, for instance, or the livelihoods of smallholder farmers — have been left out of the agreement, leaving frontline communities vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.
But the Paris agreement has shown the reach of the climate movement as well as its power and ferocity — from faith groups campaigning for climate action to private industry offering its own solutions. The climate movement, it seems, is no longer a fringe issue — people are starting to understand that from food security to public health, all aspects of life are wrapped up in climate.
“The climate movement is an everyone movement now,” Ruby-Sachs said. “There are no spectators.”
After the Copenhagen talks ended in disappointment in 2009, the climate movement ebbed — many left dejected, taking time to lick their wounds. In the months following those talks, the movement fell silent.
“In Copenhagen, we were hoping the negotiations would inject some mojo into the movement,” David Turnbull, senior campaigner with Oil Change International, told ThinkProgress. “After Copenhagen, the movement spent months reflecting on what went wrong.”
Activists expect the opposite to come from these talks. Critics of the Paris agreement say that it lacks an enforcement mechanism, something that will make sure that countries are held to the aspirational goal of the agreement itself. But armed with an international agreement, the climate movement looks poised to act as that enforcement mechanism — pushing governments and private industry to transition to a low-carbon future quickly, efficiently, and successfully.
“We needed a North Star, we needed an agreement that was global that provided the path to the clean energy future. We got that,” Ruby-Sachs said. “Now, it’s about us walking that path and bringing our governments along with us.”