Paris, France—Here at the Paris climate summit, the big news is that the final agreement governments hope to sign by week’s end may urge limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This would represent a major shift from the current international goal of 2 degrees C as well as a historic—and surprising—victory for the world’s poor and most vulnerable nations. Their representatives, joined by climate-justice activists, have long criticized the 2 degrees C goal as a virtual death sentence for millions of people already suffering from the sea-level rise, harsher droughts, and other impacts unleashed by the 1 degree C of temperature rise measured to date.
“If it were New York City or London that was disappearing beneath the waves like some of these Pacific Island states are, I guarantee you there wouldn’t be any debate about 2 degrees versus 1.5 degrees,” Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, told The Nation. “We need to set an official target of 1.5 C, challenging as it will be to meet it, in order to save as many people as possible.”
Previously dismissed by most wealthy countries as economically unrealistic, the 1.5 degrees C target has reemerged at the Paris summit due to a confluence of factors: increased recognition by many wealthy countries that even 2 degrees C will bring ruinous changes to food, water, and other vital systems; a more unified diplomatic posture on the part of the 100-plus poor and highly vulnerable countries on record supporting a 1.5 degrees C target; and relentless pressure from civil society.
Civil society has been creative, outspoken, and even boisterous during the first week of the UN climate summit, despite the official ban on large public gatherings that canceled a massive march intended to greet world leaders arriving a week ago. If pressure is sustained during the second and final week of negotiations, said former heads of state, business executives, and climate-justice activists on Sunday, the summit could end up endorsing a long-term target of 1.5 degrees C, an agreement of unprecedented ambition.
After French authorities banned large outdoor marches in Paris following the November 13 terrorist attacks, climate activists accepted the decision but quickly devised alternative methods of making their voices heard. Thousands joined hands to form a human chain along the two-mile route of the cancelled march, while hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in cities around the world. Also in Paris, activists placed an estimated 20,000 shoes in the Place de la République to symbolize people who were prohibited from marching. Pope Francis donated plain black dress shoes; Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, donated a pair of jogging shoes.
On Saturday, Nation contributors Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein hosted a mock trial of ExxonMobil at a “People’s Climate Summit,” held in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil. The next day, activists carried 196 office chairs through the square facing the Montreuil city hall—chairs that had been “liberated” from banks throughout France. “These chairs were requisitioned to reveal the links between the tax evasion practiced by big banks and the lack of funding needed against climate change, particularly the $100 billion a year for adaptation that wealthy countries have promised poor countries but that has been blocked by financial elites,” said Cindy Wiesner of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. “Thirty trillion dollars disappears every year into the black hole of tax havens that these banks control, tax havens that benefit criminals and murderers—drug cartels, gun traffickers, and the banks themselves. These 196 chairs represent the 196 countries whose people deserve a seat at the table for a just global economy.”