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On Sunday, September 21st, about 400,000 people, including Loretto sisters, co-members, volunteers and friends, gathered in New York City to demand climate justice at the People’s Climate March. It was a spirited day – a chance for ordinary citizens to come together and remind world leaders of the urgency of climate change, and that this issue must be addressed in a just, ambitious and legally-binding way.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined in Sunday’s demonstration before convening more than a hundred heads of state and government at the UN Climate Summit on September 23rd. Tuesday’s summit was not a part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiation framework, which will meet this year in Lima, Peru, and next year in Paris, France. Instead, it was a special event convened by the Secretary-General. Ban stated that the summit’s purpose was to “raise political momentum for a meaningful universal climate agreement in Paris in 2015 and to galvanize transformative action in all countries to reduce emissions and build resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change.”
In three simultaneous sessions, world leaders reiterated their previous commitments, and announced national plans to combat climate change. These announcements included non-binding pledges to cut emissions, donate money to the Green Climate Fund, halt deforestation and undertake efforts to put a price on carbon. The morning session closed with speeches from small island states and African leaders who lamented the growing number of climate refugees, and national statements from China and the United States, the top carbon emitting countries in the world. In his statement, U.S. President Barack Obama said “We embrace our responsibility to combat it. We will do our part and we will help developing nations to do theirs.” Many are disappointed that Obama’s rhetoric-heavy speech did not offer many details, and that the United States did not offer any new ambitious targets or financial commitments.
The Climate Summit put climate change back on the agenda – it was not a negotiation space. There is a lot of hard work to be done in the months ahead, and there are still many questions that must be answered. How will the words spoken at the podium at the UN be implemented on the ground? There is a lot of capacity needed – money, technology and creativity. What will member states’ climate finance pledges look like? Will they be loans or grants? Official development assistance or reparations? Will a potential climate agreement in Paris be ambitious enough? Will it really be legally-binding?
There are reasons to be hopeful. Heads of state and government from all regions of the world described the effects of extreme weather. These climate events are providing a basis for action that was missing the last time leaders gathered to discuss climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009. Perhaps most importantly, the movement to fight climate change has real people power, and the voices raised at the People’s Climate March did not go unheard at the UN. “Our citizens keep marching,” President Obama said in his statement. “We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.”
The most powerful voice of the summit was that of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a 26-year-old poet from the Marshall Islands, a small nation in the western Pacific. Watch her read a poem for her daughter here: