The Rhetoric of Climate Leadership

by Denise Fernandes
Ph.D. Student, Environmental Studies Program, University of Colorado Boulder

The Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September 2018 was an attempt to bring together diverse global initiatives on carbon emission reduction. It was space whereby all levels of state actors, industry, civil society, artists and research groups were trying to mobilize technology and finance, share knowledge on innovative climate policies and garner political will to act quickly. The summit was largely an attempt to bring together like-minded Americans to support the Paris Agreement after President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the process. But the summit reflected three types of contested interests or activism in response to the climate change multilateral crisis (1) an American state government led activism against the federal government’s action to withdraw from the UNFCCC process (2) climate justice activism organized by grass root organizations and members of marginalized communities to protest the destructive forces of the green energy economy particularly in the USA (3) and a subtle activism from global South leaders reminding the global North of their historic responsibilities while also showcasing their efforts in climate action.

Currently, climate change governance at the international level is shaky with no clear climate leadership or signal of proactive action. The summit appeared to showcase a contested struggle of the three types of activism to get a better hold of world politics. This struggle left many unanswered questions on which stakeholder is responsible for the problem or can leadership emerge from contested interests and activism? According to the International Energy Agency, the total carbon emissions are about 32.5 gigatonnes and this increased by 1.4% in 2017. But would these disjointed efforts and world views at different levels (multilateralism, bilateralism, industry, grassroots, federal v/s state v/s city level) be able to reduce carbon emissions. Though the summit managed to showcase a space for different worldviews and approaches to come together in the face of a multi lateral crisis it did leave many climate action enthusiasts doubtful. Is a state government led climate action enough for a large global dialogue or is there any country or actor going to take responsibility in the multilateral vacuum of doubtful leadership? The ‘We’ and ‘Us’ did caste a dark haze on climate leadership and action at the summit leaving many of us wondering what does shared responsibility mean in a time of contested interests and activism.

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