Grassroots set to drive 2019 climate action as climate change deniers take center stage

The environment needs help. When politicians out themselves as climate change deniers, grassroots and civil society groups get louder. But how much can they achieve?

As negative superlatives and doomsday predictions have become the uncomfortable norm of our daily environmental digest, we've grown increasingly used to hearing about the havoc and devastation caused by heat waves, storms, fires and flooding. But even all that groundwork hadn't prepared the world for the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 global warming report. Its October release was a bombshell moment.

Nature and Environment | 21.01.2019

Read more: Opinion: 1.5 degrees — do we want climate catastrophe or not?

"Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require 'rapid and far-reaching' transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities," the report read. In other words, if we're to hit that target, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) will have to fall by some 45 percent of 2010 levels by 2030, and reach "net zero" 20 years after that.

There is then a huge amount of work to do. But with Germany still uncertain on when it can phase out coal (and therefore on track to missing its carbon reduction targets), Brazil's new far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, considering pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, and US President Donald Trump publicly declaring he doesn't believe the climate change predictions presented to him by his own federal agencies, there's something of a question mark over how we're going to achieve such ambitious goals.

Read more: How right-wing nationalism fuels climate denial

"Public opinion around the world is that our leaders, governments and businesses should be doing more on this vital issue," Hoda Baraka, global communications director with environmental campaign organization 350.org told DW, adding that "when governments fail, it's up to people to lead."

Last year was testimony to that notion, with massive people power mobilizing to resist fracking in the UK, march for a transition to renewables in the US, and protest lignite production – the dirtiest and thus most climate change inducing form of coal – in Germany.

Thousands also came together to pressure German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to seek a more ambitious target for its coal phaseout.  

The ambitious road ahead

Though still in its infancy, this year has already picked up where the old one left off.

"2019 got off to a pretty intense start," Baraka said, citing last week's 67 demonstrations of international support for indigenous land defenders blocking the path for a fracked gas pipeline in Canada.

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Around the same time, formerly evicted activists in Germany's Hambach Forest, the center of the nation's lignite battle, were re-erecting around 20 tree houses from which to lead their protest.

People took to the streets in support of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation opposing a planned pipeline in Canada

And events on the calendar for the coming months include international action preparation camps, and climate change related actions around general elections in Nigeria and Indonesia.

Read more: Climate change: Governments don't act? We do!

"As we go through 2019 and build towards 2020, we're going to see many more coordinated actions from a multitude of organizations and movements," Baraka said.

Claudia Kemfert, Head of the department of Energy, Transportation, Environment at the German Institute of Economic Research, told DW she also expects this to be a "year of change where climate action is coming from civil society and young people more than ever before."

In the mix will be school children who are planning global and national strikes to protest a lack of climate action.

Greta Thunberg started a protest movement that has been picked up by children all over the world

The student climate action movement ostensibly began when Swedish 15-year-old Greta Thunberg made lone Friday protest vigils against climate change outside the Swedish parliament. She then delivered a landmark address at the COP24 climate conference in Poland last month.

"We've run out of excuses and we are running out of time," she told the adults of the world. "We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not."

Civil society serving as a watchdog?

So the stage looks set for another year of bold grassroots and civil society climate action, perhaps the boldest yet, but how effective is it?

"Unless you have public pressure, national governments who are often looking at the shorter term, will put aside climate change," Antony Froggatt, energy policy consultant and Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House told DW.

He says civil society action has been a key actor in the debate in terms of alerting governments to environmental issues, establishing networks and talking to both the media and the public. Going forward, he also sees scope to get involved in monitoring individual states' pledges to reduce emissions.

"It's important that there's a verification of national contributions and there, I think civil society, acting as a watchdog, has an important role to play."  

The economic factor

Equally though, Froggatt says, non-state actors working on environment issues can be effective in influencing attitudes, both at an individual consumer level, and in the world of commerce.

"Civil society targets business, which then doesn't only change its own behavior but also supports governments if they have more ambitious plans in terms of climate change."

Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Brasilia-based Climate Observatory, agrees on the importance of going "beyond the climate debate" to connect it with economics.

"It's extremely important to show that mitigation is not only good for the planet," Rittl told DW, adding that farmers and agribusiness must also understand that energy and land use efficiency of sustainable agriculture make the industry more economically competitive.

But in a country now led by a man already giving over the Amazon – one of the world's largest carbon sinks that will be vital to fighting climate change – Rittl says getting that message across "won't be easy."

That though, goes for most environmental fights. And certainly for the one to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial averages. But that reality won't stop grassroots and civil society groups from giving it everything they've got.

'We're running out of time' on climate change

Time is running out

The protesters' symbol was a clock to signal to those meeting at the United Nations climate change conference (COP24) that time is running out if the world is to limit global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Negotiations at the COP have been tough, with disagreements on financing for developing countries and on how states should report their emissions cuts.

'We're running out of time' on climate change

Sending up Bolsonaro

Some marchers made giant puppets, including of Brazil's president elect, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, to protest the leader's climate policies. Bolsonaro has threatened to follow US President Donald Trump and withdraw his country from the Paris climate agreement. Bolsonaro has also talked about loosening protections for the Amazon rainforest — the Earth's green lungs.

'We're running out of time' on climate change

Air pollution woes

About seven million people worldwide die prematurely due to air pollution every year. Poland's air quality is particularly bad because of the country's dependence on coal for electricity and heating. Some protesters decorated pollution masks to make a statement about Poland's coal policy. During the COP, the country's president said there was no intention to phase out coal.

'We're running out of time' on climate change

'Don't nuke the climate'

Some groups, like the International Atomic Energy Agency, are promoting nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. It would provide a stable and greenhouse gas-emission-free energy source, says the IAEA. A number of protesters turned up to advocate against nuclear, because there is no good way to deal with the radioactive waste it produces and because it is potentially unsafe, they say.

'We're running out of time' on climate change

A sustainable Christmas

Sustaina Claus arrived at the climate march with his Christmas elves to preach the message of sustainability. The environmental activist says we need to stop overconsumption if we are to stop climate change and protect the planet's resources. Instead of buying mountains of gifts for your loved ones at Christmas, "you should give the gift of you."

'We're running out of time' on climate change

Activists held at the border

NGOs said a number of environmental campaigners were refused entry at the Polish border or deported from the country, having been deemed a "threat" to national security. Climate Action Network, an umbrella group of climate groups, called the actions worrying. A spokeswoman for Poland's border guards said she could not say whether the refusals were connected to the COP, according to Reuters.

'We're running out of time' on climate change

Cycling for the climate

Climate activist Lander Wantens cycled over 1,000 kilometers from Belgium to Katowice for the protest and to deliver a message to delegates to do more to combat climate change. He hopes that if the negotiators see "four guys from Belgium are crazy enough to bike to the climate summit in Poland in winter, maybe that's a signal that they have to work on an ambitious climate agreement."