Civil society will build a bridge to a safe climate future

Global warming is a challenge so large that we can only confront it by working together.
As we approach December’s United Nations climate summit, in Paris, we can no longer afford to blindly trust political leaders to deliver a breakthrough.

We need to build change from the ‘bottom-up’. Today hundreds of thousands of people around the world are realising that they can be part of the growing climate movement.

It is clear that environmental activism alone is not enough to change global economic structures.

As with any significant transition, change depends on broad civil society engagement.

Success in fighting climate change demands that we leave the majority of fossil fuel reserves unburned; safely locked up underground. We need to act quickly and put our combined weight behind achieving a renewable energy revolution.

There is no longer any technological or even economic barrier to making deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The chief obstacle lies in managing the change and balancing competing interests.

Moving forward demands that we include ‘energy justice’ as a factor in the equation.

Workers in the fossil fuel industries, to highlight one acute example, have concerns about what the transition from polluting to clean energy means for them.

They, and millions like them in allied industries, have to be part of what we refer to as a ‘just transition‘.


Norwegian civil society as good example

The challenge is greatest for fossil fuel-dependent economies. Yet it is in the oil-rich nation of Norway that a new alliance, Bridge to the future, of potentially global significance has come together.

For the first time in the country’s history, the environmental movement is actively co-operating with leading trade unions and the Norwegian church.

To know that representatives of these pillars of civil society are speaking with one voice is truly motivating.

If we are to succeed in achieving systemic change globally we need to replicate this in similar kinds of alliances around the world.

Alliances made up of diverse interests proved crucial in the fight to overcome apartheid in South Africa, just as they have been in securing workers’ rights and winning the right for women to vote.

Now, in Norway, there is an alliance aiming for a just transition to a world that would provide prosperity for all without destroying our environment.

Norway’s trade unionists are part of the call for a transition to a renewable economy and environmentalists are joining the demand that a transition to renewable energy must be fair for those currently employed in the fossil fuel sector. Meanwhile, the church views the transition as essential on an ethical basis.

Such broad understanding and respect gives us enormous hope, and is a clear reminder of what has too long been lacking in the climate debate.

Although a society powered by renewable energy will be different in some ways, we know that today’s industrial sectors - energy, construction, transport, manufacturing, agriculture, services, and many others - will still be with us tomorrow.

But without a plan that includes workers’ involvement in a just transition the shift could cause unnecessary upheaval and even suffering.

Some may fear for their jobs and defend the current economy, despite all its inequalities. Such fears need to be aired.

Our task is to reassure people that a society that meets its energy needs renewably will be one that provides decent jobs. Millions of jobs.

The International Labour Organization has shown that policies to facilitate the energy transition create jobs and that combining economic development with environmental improvement can lead to net gains of up to 60 million jobs.

This message is seemingly lost on senior Norwegian politicians.

During a recent conference of the Norwegian civil society climate alliance both the leader of the Labour leader, Jonas Gahr Støre, and Nikolai Astrup from the Conservative Party explained that their climate policies rely largely on market forces and variations in future global carbon prices.

Neither political leader mentioned the need for a ‘just transition’ and policies that are vital to support workers and their communities, or investing to ensure the greening of all jobs.


Need to refocus the climate change debate

It is up to grassroots activists of all persuasions to accelerate progress in solving climate change. For too long the debate has been dominated by political debate contained within the narrow boundaries of accepted wisdom.

We must refocus the debate: stopping climate change is not a question of abstract “emission cuts”, it is about the future we want for our cities and communities and how, in a just way, we substitute green jobs for existing jobs and spread the benefits of prosperity.

The alliance between the three pillars of Norwegian civil society has set the stage for a common campaign for decreasing oil dependency, more climate-friendly jobs and redirecting Norway’s massive oil fund towards renewable energy rather than fossil fuel investment.

Although the alliance is founded on mutual concern about climate change, building it has not been plain sailing. Years in the making, it has involved a gradual building of trust and acceptance of differences in values and approaches.

Yet it is potentially a blueprint for spawning similar coalitions throughout civil society.

NGOs, trade unions and faith groups around the world may wish to look at this Norwegian model of co-operation with its open, just and respectful approach.

Let us be clear about what is at stake: there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Civil society’s patience has run out with leaders who have missed countless opportunities to lead against climate change.

December’s UN climate summit is a staging post towards the just transition to a world powered by clean and efficient energy.

It is civil society that will increasingly be in the driving seat in building the bridge to a safe climate future.

Politicians and corporations are welcome, if they catch up and climb aboard.