Hundreds of thousands will march at the United Nations September 21 when the UN opens its general assembly with a focus on averting catastrophic climate change. The rally may be the largest public outcry at the UN since the February 2003 rally against the Iraq War.
Where the 2003 protests at least succeeded in preventing the UN from authorizing the American invasion of Iraq, this movement demands that the UN achieve an enforceable treaty to save the planet from escalating greenhouse gas emissions. The treaty process will include another huge gathering in Lima this December, and rapidly unfolding talks to culminate in Paris one year later.
Will the climate change movement, and the public opinion it represents, become "a second superpower," as the startled New York Times called the Iraq protests in 2003?
The driving force behind the New York events is the movement of young people led by 350.org which has aroused many campuses, organized civil disobedience, pressured President Barack Obama, and focused increasingly on divestments from the fossil fuel industry. Hundreds of institutions are expected to announce their investments in September.
Former Vice President Al Gore is among those expressing cautious optimism that the treaty goal will be reached (Rolling Stone, June 18). Since Gore's 2000 loss of the presidency at the hands of the Electoral College and Supreme Court, coal interests and climate-deniers have dominated the federal government. The present US team, led by President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and White House adviser John Podesta, is definitely committed to achieving a climate change legacy. Obama has signaled that he will attend the September UN proceedings, and has issued new regulations that threaten to shut down new and even existing coal-fired plants. That White House commitment has increased the interest from other polluting nations, especially China, to engage in the process by showcasing their own proposals for emissions reductions.
With House action blocked, much depends on local and state efforts to create credible models Obama can present to the world. Leadership on that front often comes from California, and Governor Jerry Brown is expected to offer a green state model during the New York events. Brown is contemplating announcing a significant acceleration of the percentage of renewables in California's energy portfolio by 2030, on the way to a fully "decarbonized" economy in the next generation. If California's one remaining nuclear plant is phased out in the next five years, the state will be a model of an advanced economy fully powered on clean energy resources. California has led in green energy diplomacy as well, joining in low-carbon pacts with multiple states across the US and Canada, Germany, China, and most recently, Mexico. This emerging "green bloc" could become the vanguard of the global treaty process.
The international context underscores the significance of environmental justice in confronting the climate crisis, since the burdens of pollution and poverty fall most heavily on the world's poor and working class majority who cannot afford a clean energy transition without a green parallel to the New Deal or Marshall Plan of past decades.
Several recent reports are crucial for understanding the rising stakes, the most important being "Pathways to Deep Decarbonization" by Jeffrey Sachs and teams of experts in fifteen countries which represent 70 percent of global emissions. (Sustainable Development Solutions Network, June 2014). Written for the UN, the interim Sachs report is a blueprint for the coming negotiations ahead. It warns that the world is "not on track" to stay within the 2-degree Celsius temperature rise, which is, thought to be an upper limit before reaching a planetary catastrophe. Keeping below that limit is "challenging but feasible", the study concludes, while noting the mounting political pressure to ignore the 2% goal as infeasible. The three "pillars of deep decarbonization" are identified as:
- Energy efficiency and conservation in transportation, buildings, and industry;
- Replacement of fossil fuels with low-carbon electricity from renewable energies - including nuclear power, which is sure to be opposed by California, Germany and most environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council.
- Fuel-switching to low-carbon electricity or sustainable resources like biomass.
"Business as usual means catastrophic climate change is likely," the Sachs report concludes. Anticipating the gravity of the debate, the report proposes to take up the financial assumptions and cost-sharing burdens only in a subsequent document.
For California, a key document is "A Roadmap for Repowering California for All Purposes with Wind, Water and Sunlight" by Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and a score of scientists and ecologists. The well-researched paper summarizes the case for a transition to a fully renewable resource economy by 2050, a roadmap similar to one developed by the same team for New York State. The proposed "first steps" include:  large-scale projects involving wind, solar photovoltaics, geothermal and hydro energy, aimed at achieving 63 percent of California's power from renewables by 2030, a doubling of the present rate;  smaller renewable projects in the residential, commercial and government sectors, including widespread rooftop installations, with financing partly provided by a Green Bank modeled after Connecticut and New York;  energy efficiency in buildings and the grid through doubling the current target to 2 percent savings by 2020 and beyond, through measures such as passive solar heating and more efficient insulation;  transportation policies such as California's goal of 1.5 million zero-emission cars, the use of hydrogen as employed in Denmark, and the electrification of freight rail instead of continued use of trucks.
That such goals are technically achievable is a powerful argument in the mainstream debate over resolving the climate crisis. The real obstacles are more political and institutional, which is where the pressure of protest and social movements are a crucial factor. In a recent email, May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, noted that, "The only way 350 got started is a bunch of college kids starting doing climate activism together, and here we are."
Now they act for millions. In New York, before over one hundred heads of state, the whole world will be watching.