With strong opening remarks at the launch of the United Nations-sponsored climate summit Monday morning, U.S. President Barack Obama "has lifted up climate change as the great moral issue of our time," said 350.org director May Boeve. "Now, he must deliver."
Global leaders are gathering in Paris over the next two weeks to negotiate a deal to avert dangerous global warming and provide assistance to frontline nations already dealing with the impacts of rising sea levels and deteriorating ecosystems.
But civil society and environmental groups warned delegates that there is no more time to waste on empty rhetoric and inadequate targets.
"Climate catastrophes are a reality right now.... COP21 is not based on that reality, only on what is politically expedient," said Alberto Salamando, a human rights expert with the Indigenous Environmental Network.
A "Trojan horse" for fossil fuels
The groundwork for a subpar deal—heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry—is already being laid, according to a grassroots alliance of frontline advocacy groups which traveled to Paris this week to speak out against the agreement as it currently stands.
That includes an emphasis on market-based and corporate-friendly solutions, rather than renewable energy, and a targeted exclusion of voices from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) delegation and green groups operating from the sidelines.
In his speech, Obama touted a recent agreement on a hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) phase-out and U.S. plans to join a clean energy project announced Monday. "Let's show businesses and investors that the global economy is on a firm path to a low carbon future," he said in his remarks.
However, such capitalist-oriented climate promises are a "Trojan horse" for the fossil fuel industry and a "crime against vulnerable communities," according to Grassroots Global Justice.
"If the Obama administration is serious about climate change they also have to be serious about the changes they are willing to make," said Kandi Mosset of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "Those changes will not be easy, but going the easy way and conceding to fossil fuel interests is what got us to this crisis in the first place.... It's time to change and stand with the people, not the polluters."
"The President's own delays...mean that we have an even larger hole to climb out of."
—Jamie Henn, 350.org
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Other world leaders used their platforms to call for much bolder action. In his speech to the summit on Monday, Bolivian President Evo Morales unequivocally named capitalism as the most environmentally destructive force and introduced a series of solutions written by many of Latin America's social movements to save "Mother Earth."
As Boeve explained, the answers are clear, and they come from the activists and advocacy groups that have demonstrated tirelessly in cities around the world to highlight their message of a clean future.
"We must end the use of fossil fuels and fully transition to 100 [percent] renewable energy by 2050," she said. "Here in Paris, politicians must agree on that North Star and chart a clear course to get there. The hundreds of thousands who took to the streets over the weekend for the Global Climate March expect nothing less."
The whole world is watching
Obama acknowledged the U.S.'s part in fueling climate change, as the world's largest economy and its second-largest emitter, and noted that the 150 leaders attending the summit are under global scrutiny for their decisions in Paris. "Let there be no doubt, the next generation is watching what we do," he said.
That includes activists on the ground in Paris, who defied a protest ban and, in some cases, faced off with police during a violent crackdown on marches over the weekend. Maxime Combes, an organizer with the advocacy group Attac France, told Common Dreams that the "struggle for climate justice will not stop. We have a duty to stand up and continue to fight for a just and livable planet for all."
"To be standing in the streets to fight against climate change, whatever is the form, is a resistance against all the fanatical visions of religion that spread terror, against all the scavengers who are propagating hatred and racism, and against all the pseudo democrats who are [undermining] our democracy and who are selling our freedom for nothing," Combes said.
"We have a duty to stand up and continue to fight for a just and livable planet for all."
—Maxime Combes, Attac France
Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace U.S., said the president's remarks "made clear that communities around the world can’t wait any longer for real action on climate. His speech showed that the political leaders and diplomats gathered in Paris need to deliver an ambitious agreement to protect those least responsible yet most affected by climate change."
"As the world's second largest emitter and the biggest economy, the U.S. has a key role as a leader in international climate negotiations," Leonard said. "That leadership entails a huge responsibility to those most affected by the negative impacts of climate change, not only in America but all over the world."
Indeed, 350.org communications director Jamie Henn said Monday that Obama's comments ring hollow in light of his environmental track record.
"After he took four years to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, and waited to really start acting on climate until the final years of his Presidency, it's a bit ironic to hear President Obama warning us that 'there is such a thing as being too late.' The President's own delays, and his years of promoting an 'all of the above' strategy, mean that we have an even larger hole to climb out of when it comes to climate," Henn said in an email to Common Dreams. "It makes it all the more urgent the President builds on his rhetoric and starts keeping fossil fuels in the ground."