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The power of collective leadership applied to climate change

On dec 9, we were lucky enough to listen to Elena Fagotto and Alice Plane share with us their practical insights on local and international mobilization to confront the climate crisis, together.

Elena Fagotto is the volunteer co-lead of Mothers Out Front/Cambridge. She is the former Director of Research at the the Transparency Policy Project and remains a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. She shared with us the successful mobilization of Mothers Out Front/Massachussetts with the "Race Against Time" campaign, led by mothers (and non-mothers!) to urge utility companies to address the thousands gas leaks that pollute our cities, stop distributing "pedagogical materials" in schools that promote fossil fuels and eventually contribute to Massachussetts' commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2050 by moving away from gas to clean energy.

Alice Plane is Adjunct Professor at Brown University, where she teaches the Practice of Climate Negotiations, as well as Public Policy to Mitigate Greenhouse Gases' Emissions. She is the former Head of Unit for Climate Change at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She shared with us her analysis of the climate conference that recently took place in Glasgow, taking stock of international commitments to maintain the world below 2 degrees of global warming, taking into account climate justice.

Here is a wrap up of what has been discussed :

From individual commitments …

We all try our best: from eating less red meat, using public transportation or cleaner electric cars, thinking twice when we travel (in particular with airplanes), sorting waste, educating our kids... Oftentimes, we as women bear the brunt of those efforts in our homes, and some of us also get unexpected push from teenage kids asking for more radical efforts. Sharing how concerned by climate change we felt, and what we already did as individuals, there was a feeling of powerlessness.

… To collective empowerment at the local level …

What is done “at home” is relevant and necessary. But it’s not enough: about a third of the effort can and do come from individual choices.

Yet, this focus on individual action is actually part of a greater discourse of climate delay. It is still little known but the very idea of the individual carbon footprint actually came from British Petroleum - as a means to deflect responsibility from the company onto the individuals, the so-called “consum’actors”, as if we had been given a choice in the infrastructures that constrain our everyday choices.

Elena’s experience at Mothers Out Front was enlightening: what we can actually do is to get organized, collectively, to make sure we have a greater impact on what is considered as a “public good” (as Earth is, including the air we breathe and the water we drink). Roads, public buildings, energy grids are made for each and any of us. It’s our power and our responsibility to set an intention about this public good to “go green”, and to get together, in order to be heard. We can get politically involved, write to our political leaders to share our concerns and ask them to act, join local associations, challenge our employers to do more and better…

We were admirative of the ongoing action led by mothers to urge utility companies to move away from gas to clean energy.

“More than 1 million homes are heated with utility gas in Massachusetts. The gas distribution system that delivers fracked methane gas to our homes is accelerating climate change. The gas pipes that run beneath our neighborhood streets are riddled with leaks. In 2020, it is estimated that gas utilities leaked over 5,753 megatons of methane into the atmosphere – the equivalent of adding 107,000 cars to the road. It’s our power and our responsibility as residents to get organized, demand action, and keep leaders accountable”.

Mothers Out Front not only mobilized parents and non parents alike, getting to know local inhabitants one by one, harnessing their will for change and transforming it into a powerful driver for effective action. MOF has collected data, gotten in touch with researchers about climate change but also for our own health ; breaking it down in a palatable way. Then, MOF mobilized to change the legislation - contributing to the writing of a new piece of legislation for Clean Heat in Massachusetts, making constructive proposals to go beyond gas and keep within reach the limit set by Massachusetts’s state to become GHG net-zero by 2050. Lastly, it reversed the power of the individuals, the “consumers” of these utility companies, and held a campaign to request that they change their ways. This was done through postcards - more than 3,000 were collected and eventually delivered to National Grid – Boston Gas, Eversource, and Berkshire Gas through a state-wide relay from Pittsfield through Waltham to Boston - where these companies have their headquarters.

These postcards (and a few chants in the streets at the entrance of Prudential tower downtown Boston) were sufficient to finally be invited for a discussion with Eversource’s CEO. This is just a beginning - but what a powerful display of collective power!

… To enhancing international leadership.

Finally, local actions will need to be strengthened by national commitments and international policies. It’s why we also listened to Alice’s experience of climate COPs (or “conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”) and a debrief from COP26:

  • On the opening ceremony of COP26, Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, made an inspiring speech asking: when will leaders lead?Not investing =all= efforts to remain below 1.5 degrees Celsius is immoral and unjust. While we were able to mobilize 25 trillion dollars in quantitative easing to sustain growth in the past years (including 9 trillion in the past 18 months only), we were not even able to mobilize the 100 billion dollars in climate finance promised to support developing countries. Mia Mottley concluded: “we are here to say, Try Harder! Try Harder, because our people need our action now, not next year, not in the future”. Alice also referred to Sir David Attenborough’s introductory remarks on the state of climate change:this story is one of inequality as well as instability”, as those who’ve done the least are being the hardest hit. Sir David Attenborough insisted that “we will all share the benefits (of taking action)”, “ nature is a key ally”.

  • Indeed, climate COPs, as any multilateral framework, cannot impose their will on States or ignore their national sovereignty. Quite the opposite in fact: it is States that can decide, only by consensus, to take collective commitments – and they actually did:

    • While we approached COP26, current commitments were estimated to lead to 2.4 degrees. Additional commitments, if withheld, offer a possible trajectory of 1.8 degrees. States also agreed to raise more efforts by next year (COP27 will be held in Egypt)

    • All the rules of implementation of the Paris Agreement were finally adopted (including those on carbon markets, and on transparency – which calls upon States to publicly present their efforts to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions every two years, allowing all other States and Observers to enquire on their efforts, setting the peer pressure that pushes all States to take more and more actions).

    • In parallel, COP26 also served as a catalyst for coalitions of countries on several topics, including deforestation (“to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2028”, pledging 12 bn USD to support this declaration), methane (“to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030”) and electric vehicles (33 countries to forbid sales of new non-electric cars by 2035) to name just a few; setting clear directions for the industries to scale their efforts.

    • While the US and China are not in the best diplomatic terms, they agreed on an ambitious joint declaration to enhance their climate actions and will work bilaterally in the coming months on these.

  • As such, even if it is never enough (the 1.5 degree limit will still be crossed in the coming decade, and more action is still needed now), true progress was achieved at COP26. Commitments now need to be maintained, implemented, and strengthened in due time. Our collective and constant attention is crucial to keep our governments in check.

So now, let us ask you: what are you doing to combat climate change? It does not need to be big. It does not need to be hard. But it needs to be now.

Starting today, you can take action.

By joining a collective, by calling out your elected officials, by checking efforts in your office or in your kids’ schools, by switching your utility provider, by talking about it with friends… you can act now. Do it!

Also - you will find below the newsletter from Cambridge Mothers out Front members, to give you an idea of what they do. In it are some concrete actions we can take. The kids in the photo with the green and red jackets are Elena’s twins, by the way ! If you are interested, check out their website !


1 Comment

Charlotte Turnier
Charlotte Turnier
Feb 16, 2023

Great event! Thanks

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