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A week that may change the world

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I have just returned from an exhilarating and exhausting week in New York, where I was one of 38 representatives from global civil society invited by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to attend the UN Climate Summit.

The week kicked off on 20 September, when I was invited to spend the afternoon with SouthBronxUnite – a community of people affected by Hurricane Sandy that is still struggling for environmental justice. Their community spirit was truly humbling and their music and street theatre was amazing.

The same evening I was invited to speak to the Bangladeshi community in the Jackson Heights neighbourhood of Queens at an event organised by the Bangladesh Environmental Network (BEN), which is very active in the New York area. I was struck by how similar the struggles of the South Bronx community were to communities in Bangladesh.

A South Asian contingent against climate change

The next day, on Sunday, 21 September, I joined the People’s Climate March under the BEN banner. We were part of a larger cohort of South Asian groups given the privilege by organisers of marching up front as “Front Line Communities”. It was nice to be joined by alumni of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) who live in the New York area and who brought an ICCCAD banner to the march.

It was by far the most exhilarating experience I have had, marching with fellow South Asians from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan who had come from across the USA, even all the way from California. Sikh drummers provided a rhythm to march to (indeed the drums are still ringing in my ears!).

On Monday, as the heads of government and their delegations started to arrive, I donned my suit and tie and went to brief some of the ministers and heads of delegation from Least Developed Countries (LDCs), including Bangladesh, the Gambia, Nepal (which chairs the LDC Group in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Benin (which chairs the LDC Group in the Sustainable Development Goal negotiations).

Big promises at the Climate Summit 

Finally, on Tuesday, 23 September, the official Climate Summit started in the United Nations General Assembly hall with an opening ceremony that included speeches from Ban Ki Moon, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Dr. R.K. Pachauri, and actor and newly appointed UN Special Envoy on Climate Change Leonardo DiCaprio.

However, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands was the one who brought the entire assembly to a standing ovation (something that rarely happens in that location), with a moving poem dedicated to her newborn daughter (who also joined her on the podium at the end).

Next, heads of government from more than 100 countries, including US President Obama, Francois Hollande from France and many others, made four-minute speeches describing what they were doing to combat climate change and what more they were prepared to do. Many echoed the demands for action from the People’s Climate march and some of them made some significant promises.

Among the most important were commitments to take ambitious actions from both the USA and China – the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, as well as a pledge from France to provide a US$1 billion towards tackling climate change in developing countries.

A host of government leaders made pledges at the 2015 UN Climate Summit hosted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (Photos: Saleemul Huq/IIED)

After the speeches, a number of civil society groups and business leaders also made pledges for actions to tackle climate change. Parallel sessions followed, on themes including energy, forestry, agriculture, transport, finance, science and voices from frontline vulnerable communities, the last two of which I attended.

LDCs speak out

I was pleased to see heads of government from LDCs, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia, Tuvalu, Benin and others, stress the fact that LDCs, while the poorest and most vulnerable, are actually leading the world on tackling climate change impacts at home. This is changing the narrative of LDCs as passive victims to proactive leaders in tackling climate change.

As I took a taxi to catch my flight out of JFK airport, I started talking to the driver, Shafiq, who turned out to be from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and had been been living in Jackson Heights for eight years. He told me about his experiences during Hurricane Sandy and how Bangladesh and New York had had such similar experiences in dealing with natural disasters such as hurricanes and cyclones.

One week, three insights

On reflection, I have three main impressions from this past week in New York.

  1. With citizens from all over the world demonstrating in 200 cities, with more than 300,000 people taking to the streets in New York City alone, it was a truly global coming together on the need to take climate change seriously. I was also struck by the similarity in challenges faced by  people in both rich and poor countries
  2. The heads of government who gave speeches at the official Climate Summit recognised this demand for positive actions and responded, at least rhetorically. They will need to channel their rhetoric into the UNFCCC negotiations at December’s Conference of the Parties (COP) in Lima, Peru, and into the new global treaty planned for the COP in Paris in December 2015, and 
  3. The momentum for the global investment community to get the ball rolling on divestment from fossil-fuel based companies and to invest in clean energy companies has started to build and will grow over time.

So I think that we may have achieved a turning point this week in New York and around the world in recognising the magnitude of the climate change problem, and also on how to link bottom-up efforts by all citizens with top-down decisions by heads of government.

The proof will be seen in Paris in December 2015.

Written by: Saleemul Huq, Director, ICCCAD


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