Guest Article #92

Public Backing is the Key to Political Action on Climate Change

The world is already in the grip of environmental and social megaforces including climate change, water scarcity, population growth and ecosystem decline. These megaforces portend economic, social and ecological disaster unless a dramatic change of course can be engineered. 

But with so much political attention currently fixated on the seemingly more urgent imperative of short-term economic and financial crises, addressing the longer term megaforces requires political focus, public support and international cooperation, which are currently in short supply.

I see two key opportunities to galvanize public opinion and political action around mitigating the worst of the megaforces' disruptive effects. The first is the publication of the fifth International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report on the scientific, technical and socioeconomic aspects of climate change, which is due in October 2014. The second is the prospect of a new global climate deal to be agreed at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2015.

The focus now must be to ensure that the new IPCC report's credibility is unimpeachable, and that there is both the political will and ability to act at the 2015 conference.

I believe the new IPCC report will do much to help people realize we are in deep trouble, and that limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees, as agreed in the Copenhagen accord, is a dream of the past. But skeptics are adept at finding the chinks in the IPCC's armor, and while people's awareness of the reality of climate change is growing, their confidence in both scientists and science is easily shaken.

For this reason, a carefully planned communications strategy for the new IPCC report will be needed maximize its impact. ‘All politics is local,' so the saying goes, and so far the IPCC reports have failed to demonstrate how the global problem of climate change will personally impact citizens.

The scientific communities in every country must work closely with schools, universities and governments to present the findings of the new report in a local context. To avoid paralysis in the face of this often alarming information, local awareness campaigns should put equal emphasis on describing what mitigating actions lie within the reach of politicians.

The second opportunity for action is the proposed 2015 international deal on climate change. A successful agreement must fulfill four criteria: it must be a credible answer to the climate challenge; it must deliver real leadership by industrialized countries; it must lead to meaningful action by all major economies; and it must provide real adaptation and mitigation support to poor countries.

France has offered to host the all-important 2015 UN Climate Conference. It could demonstrate its leadership by formulating a proposal that meets these three criteria and use its influence as a global superpower to garner high level political support for it. I think that President Francois Hollande is up to that challenge and a place in history awaits him should he succeed.

It is developing nations that are most at risk from climate change and other megaforces, and therefore most in need of a climate deal. However, two decades of climate action have offered them broken promises regarding implementation and empty United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) bank accounts.

There is no need for more mechanisms to assist developing countries; the UN architecture already provides the necessary means but we need to make better use of that architecture.

In the context of the 2015 climate agreement, the UN Secretary-General should determine which part of the UN system should implement what part of the agreement, drawing on finance from the World Bank, Regional Development Banks and the Green Climate Fund. New implementation mechanisms are not required when mature ones already exist. Why build a mansion only to live in a hastily constructed garden shed?

Looking forward to 2015, we must recognize that we cannot manage and mitigate the effects of climate change and other megaforces by driving people into poverty or keeping them there. The only chance of success lies in creating a new definition of value to create broad-based prosperity rather than wealth. I am convinced that leading businesses are ready to rise to that challenge, through my experience in working with KPMG member firm clients. But business can only undertake a sea change if government policy choices create enabling conditions.

After the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, many declared the United Nations process dead. But my most powerful memory of Copenhagen is that world leaders understood the issues at stake, the responsibility that they carry and the need for compromise. The challenge now is to provide these leaders with an appealing proposition and public backing for a meaningful agreement. This must happen, or the world risks facing head-on the potentially catastrophic megaforces building just over the horizon.