As we have moved from one major climate-change conference after the other, from Kyoto to The Hague, from Bali to Doha, the issue is treated as a global phenomenon which requires global solutions. Hence ‘global governance’ is being seen as the best way to lead these negotiations and deliver on the promise to reduce emissions. Thus climate-change discussions have been left to a web of actors, known as the Conference of Parties (COP), who tend to deal in global terms – more often than not, only agreeing to disagree.
For example, as this month’s Cover Story on COP 18 in Doha illustrates, negotiations seem driven by economic concerns and comparative advantages in trade and employment. The equally, if not more important, concerns about the health of our planet had become subservient to market interests. The present debate has descended to questions of winners and losers. Yet it is clear that there are no winners but only losers if a rational situation is not found.
However, there is good news and plenty of it. Ordinary people, alarmed at the slow pace at finding a solution, or at even the denial that any problem exists, have decided to take matters into their own hands. Rural and urban local communities, local governments and municipalities in the South and the North are actively involved in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Only last month, tens of thousands of Americans marched to demonstrate against what they feel is foot-dragging by the US government on climate change damage.
These local communities have pondered the issues and reached the iconic conclusion that, although climate change has observable and demonstrated global consequences, in reality it is an aggregate of cumulative processes which originate at the local levels – these could be a village, a ward, a city, a farm, a factory – or from the daily production and consumption patterns, and lifestyles of individuals and households. From this perspective, climate change is as much a physically induced process with the capacity to alter the environmental life-support system (air, water and nutrients), as it is driven by social, economic and political structures and processes.
Likewise, climate change alters the relationships between society and environment, contributing to structural changes in local communities. This has a direct impact on people’s access to environmental resources and economic opportunities essential for eking out a living and leading a healthy life.What the negotiators discuss in abstract terms about emission levels, carbon credits and trade permits has, in fact, far-reaching real consequences.These involve not only how to abate climate change, but also over choices such as fossil fuel and green energy consumption, current and future industrial development, technology, public or private means of transport, green cities or cities and household appliances that use conventional materials, and on and on.
Involve the people
Global climate change is local because its origins are local and this by necessity requires local solutions and behavioural changes beginning at the individual, household and local levels before moving on to the national, regional as well as the global levels.
Unfortunately, the current deliberations on climate change are dominated by globally networked organisations – governments, transnational corporations, NGOs, social environmental movements and activists of various persuasions. The more the solutions for issues that affect people’s lives, such as climate change, are delegated to the global level, the more they are removed from local communities which are at the receiving end of climate change manifestations and impacts.
In any democratic society, people should be able to deliberate on the issues that affect their wellbeing. Negotiating climate change therefore should not be only at the global level, with protocols and conventions that outlast the political life of the governments that negotiated them.
It is for this reason and others that climate change negotiations should be de-centred (instead of the current global-centred mode), multi-layered (i.e. should take place at the local, national, regional and global levels) and deliberative (i.e. conducted at all de-centred levels).
The good news is that urban and local communities, supported by local governments and municipalities, have wasted no time in engaging climate change at the local level.
In my recently published book, Local Climate Change and Society, we see that local communities and households in rural Africa (for example, in Botswana, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania) have begun taking matters into their own hands, using water and soil conservation techniques to boost food productivity in response to macro-climatic change. Similarly, local communities and municipalities in the global North have developed policy, administrative and legal frameworks backed by programmes of action to mitigate climate change.
In London, Seattle, Houston and Los Angeles, people have used what is termed ‘city power’ to influence individual behaviour through the design of physical infrastructure (buildings, streets and street lights, parking lots and parks) as well as architecture and transport.
An excellent example of how people at the local level have dealt with the negative impact of climate change was in Albay Province in the Philippines. It is an area affected by frequent floods as a result of climate change.
The people made local policies on how to deal with this disaster and put them into practice. Albay Province has therefore succeeded in mitigating and adapting to local climate change through local solutions.
On the other hand, programmes to reduce emission from deforestation and forest degradation, code named REDD, have been implemented in several African countries. But the myriad problems these programmes have faced have overshadowed the modest success they have achieved. The programmes have faced the familiar hurdles that conservation efforts, without the inclusion of projects that directly improve the livelihood of people, have confronted. It is an idea that is extremely hard to sell. The lack of attention to gender issues is another problem. Africans are often bewildered at the targeting of these programmes towards men, when it is the women who carry out the bulk of agro-forestry production.
The mixed fortunes of REDD clearly show that reducing carbon emissions through forestry programmes is a profoundly social issue in which class, gender and levels of socio-economic development intersect in everyday life In the same vein, cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Wuhan in China, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands are too impatient to wait for the conclusion of the current marathon global-level negotiations on climate change before taking action. All these cities and others have embarked on ambitious programmes aimed at creating the ecological citizens of the future. They use green solar and wind energy, energy-saving building materials, water recycling and energy-efficient transport systems.
These initiatives are of high relevance to Africa’s accelerating rate of urbanisation, phenomenal construction boom and rising middle class, with its relatively high consumption levels and exuberant life style.
Clearly, climate change begins with individual emissions in households or workplaces. These then aggregate into national and global emissions; and that is why, while policy makers worry about the global, they should be equally concerned with local manifestations and consequences of climate change. Climate change negotiations have so far taken the debate away from people. It is time to bring it back.
*Mohamed Salih (PhD, University of Manchester, UK) is Professor of Politics of Development at the Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, Rotterdam and the Department of Political Science, University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He is the author of Local Climate Change and Society published by Routledge: London and New York among other books on climate change including: Climate Change and Sustainable Development: Challenges for Poverty Reduction in the 21st Century, published by Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 2009.