Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | November 21, 2013

Charting a New Course on Climate Change from the Wreckage of Warsaw?

The juxtaposition of two recent, seemingly unrelated news stories about the prospects for addressing climate change very much lay bare the need to chart a new course for the global response to climate change. The first is Suzanne Goldenberg’s story in The Guardian  detailing how a mere 90 corporations are ‘responsible’ for roughly two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. I put the quotations around responsible because companies are the producers of fossil fuels and the responsibility for emissions is at least shared with those who consume fossil fuels. The second is Graham Readfearn’s report on the mass civil-society/NGO walk-out of the Warsaw COP 19 climate negotiations that are closing their two week run this week. Angry that this meeting seems likely to be the latest of many disappointing results and that nothing is being accomplished, civil society is protesting by abandoning the talks. The anger has peaked in part because worse than nothing maybe being accomplished at Warsaw given Australia’s retreat from action on climate change, Japan’s sharp downward revision of its emissions targets, the organizing Polish government’s promotion of coal during the climate meetings, and the opening of a new potential rift between the Global North and South over payment for climate change damages.

So what does this juxtaposition say about the necessary shape of the global response to climate change? The first article tells us that we need to attend to the underlying structural nature of the problem. Clearly responsibility for climate change lies with more than 90 companies, but this article is a useful and creative corrective for the increasingly popular and paralyzing notion that we are all (individually) responsible for climate change and can solve it by changing our (individual) behavior. There are large economic structures involved in the extraction, production, and consumption of the fossil fuels that propel our economic, energy, and transportation systems. We need to both understand this and work to transform them if we have any hope of effectively addressing climate change. Highlighting the concentration of some of the economic interests involved in upholding the poisonous fossil fuel system provides a different way of identifying and conceiving the leverage points that should be the focus of the efforts and resources of those looking to transform the system.

The second article sows significant doubt that the UN mediated negotiations process is not, despite all the best efforts of thousands of dedicated negotiators and staff, able to lead the way on a global response to climate change. The deadlock arising from very different interests and negotiating positions in the international community has remained essentially unchanged for 20 years and shows signs of getting worse not better. Civil society has said “enough!” at least for the negotiations in Warsaw. The realization that must come from this frustration, however, is that the deadlock in the negotiations can only be broken by attending to and transforming the kind of structural forces noted in the first article. Getting nation-states on board with a progressive and effective international climate agreement will only come after transformation of major interests at least begins. The UN process cannot get out in front of or push beyond the interests of the nation-states and right now nation-states simply have too many conflicting interests to reach an effective agreement on climate change.

The ire of the activists thus needs to be focused on the steps that will alter the interests at play around the negotiating table. Clearly activists know this and are acting on it. Ed King reported on a WWF statement that read “we are now focusing on mobilizing people to push our governments to take leadership for serious climate action.”  We need a concerted effort to invert the logic of the global response to climate change. Instead of or in addition to pushing for an international treaty that will catalyze nation-states to take actions at the national and local levels, resources and efforts must be directed at enhancing the climate friendly activities taking place at the local, regional, national, and transnational levels already. There are myriad initiatives working on renewable energy, smart transportation systems, information and communications technology, distributed and smart grids, building infrastructure, urban planning, and more. These efforts need scaling up and entrenching in order to alter the structural forces that dominate climate politics—highlighted by the concentration of ‘responsibility’ of the problem in the hands of 90 corporations.

Work to find structural leverage. Support the expansion and entrenchment of climate friendly initiatives happening all around us. Then, perhaps, the UN negotiations will be able to cement and enhance progressive, effective action on climate change and be more worth engaging than abandoning.



  1. […] from something extraordinary into an issue that must be dealt with on a day to day basis by a whole host of people and corporations and political jurisdictions from the local to the […]

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