Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

COP21: Obstacles and Solutions to Climate Action

By Elizabeth ChiPublished November 9, 2015

Climate solutions must be many, diverse, and strategic to have any notable effect on the global scale. When civilians cannot rely on those in power"”be they politicians or corporations"”to understand the intricacies, or even the importance of climate action, inaction is never the answer. Unfortunately, both problems and solutions must be viewed holistically, and to a degree that is not seen in other fields.

By Elizabeth Chi, 11/9/15

Three words: Business. As. Usual. A euphemism for the underlying mindset that assumes a model of "short term gain for me and long term pain for everyone who won't sue me."

This past weekend, the Cornell University Board of Trustees (to nobody's surprise) voted against divesting the endowment from fossil fuels. Many of the trustees and divestment opponents in general see only the direct financial implications of the exchange, which are admittedly small, and therefore conclude—falsely-- that it is ineffective.  Another unfortunate, but equally pervasive, misconception is that climate action/sustainable/green policy is a checkbox; that pursuing one, or heck, even a few practices that are supposedly good for the environment is more than sufficient. When the delegates from over 190 nations gather in Paris to attempt to reduce global greenhouse gas levels to 40-70% of 2010 levels (with steeper reductions to be borne by more developed nations), the key obstacles to achieving that goal are remarkably similar to the ones hindering fossil fuel divestment at Cornell.

The fight for climate action, which has—in many circles— become synonymous with the fight for the world and humanity as we know it, needs to be fought on all fronts: in food sourcing and production, in vehicle and industry emissions, in electricity production, heat generation, ecosystem and natural resource conservation, waste management, policy implementation, and yes, even in investment portfolios. Regardless of whether we consider divestment to have a notable direct financial impact on fossil fuel stock values, the movement sure does send a message. Here's the thing about symbolic actions: they're powerful in more ways than just the financial transactions that they may involve. When, in about the course of a year, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, World Council of Churches, British Medical Association, Norway (and California) Pension Funds, and the UC school system all purposefully pledge to remove their financial holdings from coal, oil, and/or gas, the media notices, and then elected officials, corporations, and communities start talking about issues that industries have tried to silence.

On the global scale, the road to Paris has been hopeful, but is still incomplete as November 30 looms nearer. According to the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, there is a "significant gap" between the goal of reaching no more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050 and the actual pledged carbon reductions of participating nations. Here in the United States, President Obama's Clean Power Plan is facing an onslaught of lawsuits from local and state governments and kill-bills from Republicans in Congress. Carlos Klink, national secretary for climate change at Brazil's Ministry for Environment, commented, "The way we see it, developed countries, which have more capacity and responsibility, should come first and stronger." These developed countries, as expected, are less than eager to comply, although efforts are being made, as evidenced by the $100 billion fund to help developing nations meet emissions reductions goals. However, this amount sounds less impressive when we consider that the most recent estimate of global fossil fuel subsidies is a whopping $5 trillion, an amount comparable to the total market value of fossil fuels,. Subsidies to fossil fuels give the industry an enormous leg up when competing with renewables, as well as immense lobbying power, and will likely continue to hamper progress on climate action.

Clearly, in today's economy, the odds are not in favor of a clean energy revolution—at least not without some creative thinking and grassroots pressure. When energy lobbyists and oligopolies have government officials at their fingertips, it is simply not enough to hope that standing local, national, and now international politicians will make the right choices on climate change mitigation. For community and service-oriented organizations, even pursuing climate-friendly practices may not be enough. It is the responsibility of these groups to engage others to follow suit because if not the leading progressive universities, municipalities, and organizations, then who? When money speaks louder than words and the opposing side has a lot more of it, we must turn to the masses—which now includes individuals, businesses, institutions, churches, and a wide assortment of other groups—to join forces and demand to be heard by legislators, in spite of the money thrown at them by fossil fuel industries. This is why divestment, too, matters.