A groundswell in New York: Tackling climate change and sustainable development from the bottom up

Climate Action
Top-down rhetoric, even from the Pope himself, only goes so far. True efficacy in the fight against climate change starts with grassroots organization. — illustration by Brock Muench

On my Friday morning flight, on the tiny screen attached to the back of the seat in front me, Pope Francis delivered an address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as part of the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York City on Sept. 25. A few hours after I arrived in New York that afternoon, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) had been passed by the UNGA and Climate Week NY—a symphony of events linking climate change solutions to sustainable development—was in full throttle. From the perspective of someone in the field of global climate change governance, the coalescing of these monumental events held a poignant significance: This was a global call for a connection between top-down policies and ground-up action on climate change and poverty.

The two, of course, are linked. In May 2015, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked at a ceremony held at Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, “We are the first generation that can put an end to poverty and we are the last generation that can put an end to climate change,” he was referring to both the adoption of the SDGs and to an anticipated global agreement at the upcoming 21st Conference of the Parties (COP-21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to take place in Paris this year from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. Around the same time, Pope Francis released his now-famous climate-focused encyclical, Laudato Si’: On care for our common home. The encyclical opens:

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore — “Praise be to you, my Lord.” In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.

At his UNGA address, Pope Francis called for interfaith collaboration to preserve both the environment and human rights, exclaiming that harm done to the environment was in fact harm done to humanity itself. Truly, Pope Francis aptly chose his Papal name after Saint Francis of Assisi, who was known for caring for the environment, the impoverished, and women; he also cited the need for access to natural, medical, and educational resources as a means to exercising the rights and freedoms associated with the eradication of poverty and the disposal of gender imbalances.

Most of us know that fossil-fuel based energy has spurred economic development since the Industrial Revolution, and we know that, in addition to local pollution, greenhouse gases emitted from the process of turning fossil-fuels into energy is the primary source of the anthropogenic enhanced greenhouse effect that is increasing Earth’s average temperature. With some exceptions, this basically means that where it is wet, it will soon be wetter; where it is dry, it will be drier; and where there are major storm occurrences, storms will be stronger and more frequent. Climate change will cause increased flooding, droughts (and subsequently, fires) and other extreme hardships to the biosphere at large. These hardships will exacerbate food and water insecurity, cause a decline in public health, and create a multiplier effect for conflict, as is the case in Syria.

But in the lead-up to the Copenhagen COP, only developed countries were required to reduce greenhouse gases to meet targets and timelines, so there was concern that developing countries—specifically those that were growing rapidly—would be held to more lenient standards. Developing countries have rights to develop—what Pope Francis calls a “freedom of humanity”— but the developed countries didn’t want to increase their energy costs unless developing nations did the same. The global negotiations to solve climate change came to a standstill.

Consider the way energy relates to development initiatives such as the access to education and improved public health. Access to energy can simply mean turning on a light, but a single light bulb can offer many people—especially women living in areas where formal education is either difficult to attain or denied outright — the opportunity to do homework or self-educate during non-working hours. Now imagine: Without access to adequate, consistent energy, how well can a healthcare facility in a developing nation operate compared to standards we have in Iowa City?

In the lead up to COP-21 in Paris this December, states are submitting their intended Nationally Determined Contributions (iNDCs), detailing plans to address climate change. This approach differs from the internationally negotiated targets and timelines that plagued the Kyoto Protocol and Copenhagen Accords, and is more likely to offer long-term solutions, but right now this new process is expected to provide only half of the greenhouse gas reductions that are needed for a safe climate world. Those of us in the international policy world are not expecting Paris to deliver the ultimate solution. Instead, we know that the Paris agreement is left to the hands of top-down policy-makers. The ground-up action is left to us.

Since the COP in Lima in 2014, where the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) was launched, when the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA) was formalized there has been an awakening. A new global phenomenon informally called the Action Agenda came to the fore this year. Action on climate and sustainable development, tied to the SDGs and the Pope’s Eco-encyclical, is making its mark on international policy. I am a member of the steering committee of Galvanizing the Groundswell of Climate Actions (, and we not only support the formal UN platforms, such as NAZCA and the LPAA, but all actions linked to both the sustainable development and climate change agendas.

The world needs more of these policy and market signals sent to policy-makers and business-leaders because it is about everything Ban Ki-moon, Pope Francis and many others have been prompting the world to do, which is change the classical economic system. Even though the world is witnessing changes in the international climate change negotiations, the SDGs and the Pope call for more action from all, from the ground-up, on addressing environmental degradation and eradicating poverty. We have a lot left to do. It needs to be done now. And, it needs to be done together.

After my time in New York, I am returning to our Iowa City community with the same message that has been around for years, but it is now louder, now more resonate, and now with more people behind it than ever before. We are the people of the world, and this world will only treat us as well as we treat Earth. So, I ask what is it that we are not doing that we can do now? What are we going to do so that we can say that we are the generation that eradicated poverty and the generation to put an end to climate change?
Regardless, our generation will leave behind a legacy, and we will choose it.

For further reading, I recommend the Galvanizing the Groundswell of Climate Actions (GGCA) website. We have held numerous workshops on climate action from the bottom-up and discuss how it is linked to sustainable development. We hosted another workshop of the GGCA during Climate Week New York to emphasize that climate action and sustainable development are in fact the same side of the same coin when it comes to the long-term solution to improved global cooperative environmental governance. The Climate Week events can be found on the Climate Week website, hosted by the Climate Group, and it is organized in part by my colleague Rei Tang at the Stanley Foundation.

Todd J. Edwards, Ph.D., is the Program Officer on Climate Change at The Stanley Foundation. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 185.

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