THE Conference of Parties to the UN Treaty-COP26 has been rescheduled to take place in November 2021. The journey that started in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, with the goal of stabilising green house gas concentrations at a level that does not interfere with the climate system, achieved global consensus in 2015 at COP21 in Paris.
However, the future remains uncertain, with countries not willing to make firm commitments to reduce emissions or agree on how to govern carbon credits exchanges.
At COP25 held in Madrid in 2018, voices were raised in support of pledges to compensate poorer countries for climate losses but no action was taken to guarantee emission reduction to prevent extreme events from taking place. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere continue to increase with no sign of moving towards the sharp decline needed to avoid catastrophe as cautioned by scientists in the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Researchers at the University of Southampton examined CO2 levels during the Late Pliocene, about three million years ago, to search for a modern and near future-like climate states. According to co-author Thomas Chalk, the warmest part of the Pliocene had between 380 and 420 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. The values today hover around 415PPM which means that we are already at levels that in the past were associated with temperature and sea level rise significantly higher than today.
The report also states that when CO2 levels peaked during the Pliocene, temperatures were three to four degree Celsius hotter and seas were 20 metres higher. Chalk said that currently our CO2 levels are rising at about 2.5PPM per year, meaning that by 2025 we will have exceeded anything seen in the last 3.3m years. Co-author Gavin foster warned that we are burning through the Pliocene and heading towards a Miocene-like future, referencing a period from about 23m to 5.3m years ago.
Put simply, we are living in an age of transition where fragility and crises are the new normal. Disruptions at multiple levels taking place simultaneously are likely to unravel the social fabric, become the cause of an economic meltdown, contribute to environmental degradation and ultimately result in the collapse of ecosystems.
The world has witnessed crises before but it has never been faced with a situation where the cascading impacts of interwoven crises like Covid-19, climate and economic upheaval have hit it all at once. At present, we are headed on a collision course with nature but there is still time for mid-course correction and identifying the roots of the problems that connect us and the values that unite us.
We are entering a decade when competing visions for the future of people and the planet will come to a head. Civil society must seize this moment to demand bold climate action and unleash a global wave of mobilisation to ensure a just and green recovery. Fragility and crises do not only risk lives and livelihoods. They challenge the fundamental values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
“For several years now, the Western democracies have shown signs of change with the rise of populist, nationalist leaders and parties. Liberal values and the familiar free market values, long advocated by the West, are under attack. Alt-right elements openly assert racist and tribal sentiments. The authoritarian regimes on the other hand have become more repressive. A walled city mentality is taking over the world, reinforced now by the Covid-19 pandemic” (Riaz Mohammad Khan). Civil society cannot escape the sinister impact of these trends and has an increasingly important role to play in steering the moral debate on present and future models of governance.
From Friedrich Hegel and his concept of ‘bourgeois society’, and the writings of Karl Max and Friedrich Engels who followed this understanding that led to the term ‘civil society’ as used by Alexis de Tocqueville, the role of civil society has come full circle. The terms ‘civil society’ and ‘social movements’ have conceptual differences but can come together as a powerful mix to become catalytic agents of change.
The concept of civil society is linked to liberal democracy whereas the concept of social movements is seen in the context of the French Revolution when the potential of mass behaviour became apparent and the value of critical mass was recognised as a game changer.
Covid-19 has slowed down emissions but it is not a substitute for sustained and coordinated climate action. The 2015 Paris Agreement is criticised by scientists and activists for not being ambitious enough but it is the only international agreement that is backed by nearly all countries in the world. The current crisis offers a unique opportunity for a profound systemic shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet.