The 25th Conference of Parties (COP) kicked off in Madrid, Spain. It was moved from Chile in “a complete affront” to Chilean civil society, which had called on the government to withdraw the military from the streets and continue to host the global climate talks.
That the COP was moved is a scandal, but that it was done in fear of protests over rising inequality is also telling.
Never before have so many people taken to the streets as they did this September to protest over climate change. As a result, this is the first time in the 25 years that delegates have gathered to wrangle over climate policy that a COP has played out under such a watchful public eye.
This year, 2019, has been a year of climate firsts and emergencies around the world. Last October’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had a dramatic wake-up effect, dominating global headlines and driving home the realities of the latest science. From unprecedented fires in Brazil, the Arctic and Australia, to terrifying cyclones that laid waste to Mozambique and the Bahamas, to the flooding of Venice, the impacts are growing by the day.
Greta Thunberg too has mobilised the youth and media in a way no one anticipated when she first sat as a lonely figure outside the Parliament of Sweden in August 2018.
But the marching, striking youth are not just looking for emission commitments – although that is critically important – they are looking for an entire system overhaul. People have begun to connect the dots, and address the fact that climate change exacerbates every aspect of our fractured system.
Climate change is a threat multiplier, and there is a fundamental inequality in how people are impacted, with the poorest and those less equipped to withstand climate shocks and stresses – essentially those who did the least to cause the crisis – bearing the brunt.
Protesters, often led by young people, women and social movements on the front lines of these crises, are not marching about climate or inequality; they are standing up to the injustice of both. They are taking a stand against consumerism, because they see that the climate crisis is a direct result of a neoliberal system that prioritises profit over sustainability – a system that allows extractive business models to prosper while our planet suffers.
Only 100 fossil fuel companies have been the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 – emissions that have pushed our planet to the brink. A very small section of society has profited enormously, while poorer, more vulnerable communities all over the world are now on the front line, facing the consequences.
Research from this year’s Oxfam inequality report said that the world’s 26 richest people own as much wealth as the poorest 50 percent. The scale of this societal inequality is astonishing.
Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, has seen his fortune increase to $112bn. According to Oxfam, just 1 percent of the fortune of the world’s second-richest man is equivalent to the whole health budget for Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people.
In fact, the wealth of the world’s 2,208 dollar billionaires is now five times the gross domestic product (GDP) of the whole of Africa – a continent that has only contributed 2 percent of cumulative global emissions from energy over the last 100 years, but is now suffering from extreme droughts, food insecurity and storms.
Yet, the political and industrial powers profiting from the status quo, making millions from business as usual, have started spinning stories and implementing policies that push the burden of the transition away from them on to individuals. Any transition to a carbon-neutral future is being presented as something to fear, something that will cost the average person either financially or in their quality of life.
Yes, there will have to be some changes, but this harsh, negative and binary version of the future is being presented by those who have the most to lose from a transition to a clean, sustainable and fair economic system. In fact, we all have so much to gain.
This false narrative, and this culture of fear and blame, is driving far-right populism and enabling authoritarian leaders – forcing an unnecessary and imagined wedge between societies that should be united by what we share: A desire for a just and equal society, and a sustainable planet for us all to live on.
If we can unite in the face of these forces trying to divide us, if we can join hands across the globe and refuse to be blamed, scared or pressurised by the bully tactics of the wealthy and powerful, this is a fight we can – and will – win.
We can create a financial system that does not invest in fossil fuel or deforestation but rather in solutions that benefit people most. We can work towards a zero-carbon world that has social justice at its heart. It is the wealthy who must pay and bear the costs of this transition that will ultimately lead to a fairer and more functional system, not the average person on the street. Big polluters must spend some of the enormous amounts of money they have made from pillaging our planet on implementing policies that benefit everyone, especially vulnerable communities.
Sometimes UN climate negotiations might seem dry and inaccessible – far from the movement on the streets. We must also acknowledge this year’s quashing of civil dialogue, and the many voices, largely from the global south, locked out of this year’s negotiations because of the last-minute move to Europe.
But at this COP, if we continue to stand together, the movements against the inequality and climate crises can show the powerful that we are not going anywhere. We must continue to work together to increase the public pressure until they act in the interests of the people, not the polluters and the billionaires.
In Madrid, governments must move to step up climate ambition and action immediately. They must enact a socially just climate transition that leaves no one behind. They must show us that they are listening. That is the only way they can prove they have heard the demands of the people in Chile – and around the world.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.