Confronting climate change requires moving beyond ‘interests as usual’

For eight days in Warsaw, I was in the milieu of the 19th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As an observer, I followed developments at the science-policy interface as well as the civil-society-policy interface. Frequently, we heard that confronting climate change requires moving beyond ‘business as usual.’ However, this advice may run much deeper than admonishing us to cease using fossil fuels. We may need to examine further other aspects of our lives that are business-as-usual, such as who we believe to be our political enemies and allies.

During a ‘Climate Solutions’ conference hosted by World Climate, Ltd., someone made a comment that it should come as little surprise that governments have been unable to come to consensus on the UNFCCC, as civil society has been unable to do the same. I believe the speaker was referring to the uneasy relationships between various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the ENGOs (environmental NGOs), BINGOs (business and industry NGOs), and sometimes RINGOs (research and independent NGOs).

One can imagine that the fissures between these groups hark back to much older arguments, such as whether maximizing profit can be consistent with sustainability, and how prescriptive policy recommendations from NGOs should be. For the most part, NGOs have stayed off each other’s turf, but infighting is common over topics such as the use of nuclear power, the encroachment of renewables into habitats, and the development of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Such infighting can have the effect of dampening core messages that all members of civil society agree upon, namely:

  • Climate is changing
  • Climate change is due to human activities especially energy and land use
  • Observable climate change (about +0.8 degrees C compared to pre-industrial time) has already given rise to dangerous weather
  • The most expeditious way to decrease CO2 emissions is to set a price for carbon that quickly ramps up to $50/tonne and continues to rise

During Climate Solutions, it was recognized that members of the business community have important advocacy work to do among their peers. In the words of Andrew Steer, a speaker from the World Resources Institute (a RINGO), “Governments listen to business, and business has been saying the wrong thing [about climate change].” Steer’s words may be instructive for civil society as well, as large swaths of the public listen to ENGOs.

ENGOs rightly advocate for renewable energy and transportation alternatives to passenger cars running on petrol. Some also advocate for nuclear power. However, many are critical of CCS, as it associated with the catch phrase, “clean coal,” an apparent oxymoron. As a researcher in the energy policy field for the past eight years, I am troubled by the dismissive rhetoric of ENGOs to CCS. Currently, industries reliant upon fossil fuels are most interested in the technology because they could benefit from it in the near term. However, the real reason why CCS might be needed is to remove carbon from the atmosphere – that is, to bring the concentration of CO2 back down to 350 ppm (currently we are at 400 ppm). Even scientists from the IPCC presented this case at COP to government negotiators during the Structured Expert Dialogue. It would be a shame if this technology were abandoned politically because ENGOs disapprove of the players involved at this stage. In other words, I am glad that much of the public listens to ENGOs, but ENGOs are saying the wrong thing about CCS.

To be clear, this is not a blog post about CCS; CCS simply serves as an obvious example where the views of civil society are not aligned. This misalignment matters because many governments take positions in international negotiations that they believe are the most likely to be ratified back home. If civil society continues to work into a frenzy over the finer points of climate policy while we do not yet have a global agreement, they may risk losing the prize of ambitious goals to decrease CO2 emissions. Of course, civil society plays important roles as informant, watchdog, and communicator. However, I question if the best messaging strategies are currently being employed. In these last few meetings running up to COP21 in 2015, what is needed is a clear, united call for ambitious commitments to decrease CO2 emissions. Energy companies that are prepared to support this message should be welcomed as partners in this effort rather than discredited. Since climate change requires big solutions, as many players as possible should be invited to make their contribution.

Author: Vanessa Schweizer

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