Who cares if we’re not close to a global treaty on climate change?

Photo via Flickr, courtesy of DVIDSHUB

While governments appear unable to agree on a global treaty to fight climate change, other entities are forging ahead with cross-border activity

TED, the non-profit group that spreads ideas, is uplifting. I’m leaving the TEDGlobal 2013 conference in Edinburgh an optimist after hearing so many stories of human ingenuity, perseverance and creativity. This is cause for joy because, as one of the speakers said, “An ounce of hope is worth more than a ton of despair.”

One of the issues I’m more hopeful about is climate change. It’s not that the outlook is rosy: Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, reminded the TED audience that we might be close to tipping points at which climate change accelerates.

Tipping points, inertia

One such tipping point might even have occurred last year, he explained, when for the first time the whole of Greenland’s ice sheet was melting for a period of two weeks. Ice normally reflects 90 percent of the heat that falls on it, but the darker surface created by melt-water during these two weeks trapped energy in the atmosphere equivalent to the annual consumption of the United States.

What’s more, we were reminded by Benjamin Barber, senior researcher at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, that governments are making little progress on a global treaty to combat climate change. In his view, this is because the nation state is a 17th century construct totally unsuited to tackling the interdependent and global problems that we face in the 21st century, whether it’s terrorism, pandemics or climate change.

Let the mayors rule

But now for the good news. According to Barber, the author of Jihad vs McWorld, inertia at government level matters little because another level of government is willing and able to collaborate and act on these issues: cities. Cities are in fact the only entities capable of addressing climate change and other issues that transcend national boundaries, Barber argued.

Not only do mayors tend to be local people and therefore pragmatists and problem solvers, he said, but cities are also the oldest and most enduring of entities. Athens and Rome are much older than the states of Greece and Italy.

Cities, he said, are already talking to each other and exchanging best practice on how to tackle climate change. They are doing so through multiple continent-wide and inter-continental conferences of mayors learning from each other and replicating success stories, from bike-share programs to congestion charges. Let mayors rule the world, he says.

Willing to lead

Ikea’s Steve Howard. Image courtesy of TED, via Flickr

Another cause for hope on the future of the climate was the example of Ikea, the furniture company. Ikea’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Steve Howard, is the first to admit that people associate all kinds of things with Ikea, but that sustainability is not usually one of them. And yet he spoke at TEDGlobal 2013 of some pretty ambitious targets the company has now set itself to lower its environmental impact. It plans to offer energy-efficient LED lamps only within the next two years and cotton sourced exclusively from the Better Cotton project by 2015, as well as deriving 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

“We’re not perfect; we’ll make mistakes,” Howard admitted, “But it’s about setting a clear direction. It’s about having a dialogue with the people that count and being willing to lead. Let’s not wait another 100 years before we act.”

To me, the willingness of cities and of companies such as Ikea to lead the fight against climate change seems like a hopeful sign that societies can make progress on the issue in spite of the inability of governments to reach a global agreement. Is this enough?

Categories and Tags
About the author

Malcolm Shearmur

I'm chief editor at ABB and joined the company in 2006 after more than a decade in financial journalism and radio. The tangle of challenges around making energy available, affordable and sustainable is one of my main interests.
Comment on this article