Module 2: International Responses

1. Introduction: from climate change to climate crisis

As we see from Module 1, the scientific evidence of human made climate change is undeniable.  For over 20 years, the United Nations has tried to persuade the world’s 195 governments to agree to an effective international response. During this period, ice caps and glaciers have melted as the atmosphere has heated up. Extreme weather events have caused vast forest fires and floods. Across the world, greenhouse gas emissions are rising each year, reaching 40.8 billion tonnes in 2021:

Global Fossil Fuel Emissions graph

Meanwhile, the crisis of climate migration is growing, with UN forecasts of over 200 million people displaced by flooding or prolonged drought by 2050.

The language we use is changing – from talk of ‘global warming,’ which can sound pleasant, to ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate breakdown’

First breakthrough

The UN made its first real international breakthrough in the Paris Agreement, December 2015. In this voluntary agreement, governments undertook to work collectively to limit global temperature increases to below 2 degrees since the Industrial Revolution (1850). They also set their sights on a lower 1.5 degrees limit.

Trade unions, working through the International Trade union Confederation (ITUC) called for a ‘fair, ambitious and binding’ global deal. The ITUC campaigns for a Just Transition to a greener and fairer society. This gives workers and unions a voice – with employers, at national and international level.

The Paris Agreement was welcome. But it didn’t give Just Transition the status unions were looking for. The agreement’s Preamble (or guidance), merely advises that governments should be, ‘Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities…

But, a Just Transition breakthrough came three years later, in 2018, in Poland. The UN met in the Polish city of Katowice in the mining region of Upper Silesia, where tens of thousands of jobs had gone following pit closures. The Polish government, worried about social unrest, proposed the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration. This asserted that: ‘Just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs are crucial for an effective and inclusive transition…’

While climate deniers, like President Trump of the USA, President Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, who actively obstructed the climate negotiations, are no longer in power and countries across the world are steadily ratcheting up their targets, these are still below the scale and pace of what’s needed to keep below 1.5C. On the basis of current plans, we are heading for between 2.6 and 2.7C by 2100.

2100 Warming Projections graph

2. International efforts to tackle climate change

In this section, we look at the most recent international efforts by governments to tackle global overheating, starting with the talks in Copenhagen (2009), then in Paris (2015) Poland (2018) Glasgow (2021) and Egypt (2022).

Copenhagen 2009: to the brink and back

The UN’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 collapsed without an agreement. The financial crisis of 2008 played its part. Governments refused to commit the investment required for developing nations on the ‘frontline’ of climate change impacts. World leaders tried to rewrite the deal to suit their self-interests. And President Obama could not make commitments that he knew would not get past a Republican Congress. 

Paris 2015: first breakthrough Agreement

Five years on, the Paris Agreement, December 2015, marked the first real breakthrough for the UN-led negotiations. The UN and many governments, including the UK and EU Member States, were determined to recover the momentum lost in Copenhagen. And trade unions and environmental campaigners made huge efforts to raise public support for a deal. 

The Paris Agreement unites the world in a single, voluntary treaty tackle climate change for the first time in history.

Main parts of the Paris Agreement:

  1. 2 degrees target: To keep global temperatures to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial times. 
  2. Try for a safer 1.5 degrees rise: To make further efforts to limit the increase to a safe increase of no more than 1.5 degrees.
  3. ‘Net zero’ emissions by 2050: By 2050 or soon after, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by human activity must be limited to levels that trees, plants and oceans can absorb naturally.   
  4. Every 5 years: Review each country’s contribution. 
  5. 2018: Make a new scientific assessment of progress.
  6. Rich countries to help poorer nations: Providing $100 billion of ‘climate finance’ to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.
  7. An obligation on all signatories to educate their populations on the nature of the crisis and the measures needed to deal with it.

The Paris Agreement was widely welcome. But, in the face of mounting evidence of climate breakdown across the planet, worries remain:  

Mixed reactions to Paris Agreement

The ITUC welcomed the achievement of a global Agreement. But it was disappointed that Just Transition was only included as guidance (in the Preamble). 

The ITUC said:

When workers have a seat at the table and a fair and equitable stake in the dialogue, then people will know they are part of a just transition. Without a plan for a just transition, fear and uncertainty will rule for workers and for businesses. 

Prof John Shepherd of the National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton, said ‘the only mechanism remains voluntary national caps on emissions, without even any guidance on how stringent those caps would need to be. It is hard to be optimistic that these goals are likely to be achieved.’(6)

The Paris deal does not, on its own, solve global warming. At best, scientists who’ve analysed it think, it will cut global greenhouse gas emissions by about half the amount necessary to stop a global temperature rise of 2 degrees. That is the point at which, scientists say, the world will be locked into a future of devastating consequences (7).

Watch the following video of Professor Kevin Anderson speaking from the 2015 Paris Summit about its significance and how he thinks scientists are now underplaying the climate crisis because they don’t want to challenge the economic system.

Kevin Anderson interviewed by Democracy Now

3. UN October 2018: Scientists say we have ‘12 years’ to act

As promised in the Paris Agreement, the UN scientists’ panel published a global warming progress report in 2018. Known as the 1.5 Degrees Report, it bluntly warned: 

  • Greenhouse gas emissions have risen so rapidly that there are only a dozen years for action to be taken to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C.
  • Beyond 1.5 degrees of overheating, even half a degree more will significantly worsen the risks. Drought, floods and extreme heat and poverty faced for hundreds of millions of people.
  • Carbon pollution must be cut by 45% by 2030, and come down to zero by 2050. 

The panel, known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said we need radical shifts to renewable energy, electric vehicles, home energy saving through insulation, and massive reforestation to limit overheating. New technologies, such ‘carbon emissions capture’ technology, are required.

Without radical action, the world will be locked into a future of devastating consequences (7).

Poland 2018: UN backs unions’ Just Transition 

The scientists’ latest warnings were ringing in the governments’ ears when they met again in Poland, December 2018. Governments agreed to support:  

  • The Solidarity and Just Transition Declaration. This says that ‘Just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs are crucial for an effective and inclusive transition…’
  • A new ‘rulebook’ instructing governments on how to account for and record their greenhouse gas emissions. The rulebook – one set of rules to bind them all – tells governments how to put the Paris goals into action. 

But they put off the two most difficult questions for future years: 

  • How to boost existing commitments on cutting emissions, in line with stark scientific advice.
  • Finance for developing countries to adapt to the current impacts of climate change – such as coastal flooding and prolonged droughts.  

David Waskow, of the World Resources Institute, said the final deal was ‘a good foundation for countries to go about implementing the Paris agreement… It sets the direction of travel and will spur countries to act. Now countries need to go home and do their homework, by increasing their commitments.’

Glasgow, November 2021.

Delayed by a year through COVID precautions, this COP saw an increase in the number of countries committing to Net Zero by 2050, or, in the case of China and India, 2060. It was agreed that national targets should be ratcheted up annually, not every 5 years as previously agreed.

That year’s IPCC Report warned that the rebound of carbon emissions following the 2020 slowdown due to Covid lockdowns threatens to take us beyond tipping points.

Egypt 2022

Only 30 countries submitted an updated target while 165 did not. The key breakthrough at this COP was the agreement to set up a Loss and Damage facility for countries worst affected by climate impacts. Exactly how this will work and how it will be financed will be negotiated between now and the 2023 COP, which will be held in Dubai. The long standing pledge from the world’s richest countries – which accumulated their wealth through burning fossil fuels – to pay $100 billion annually to the Global South to help mitigate climate impacts has still not been fully met.

4. A short history of global heating

You could perhaps believe from the snail’s pace of government reactions that global warming has only been known about for a few years. But this is not the case. Our understanding of how certain atmospheric gases trap heat dates back nearly 200 years.

In 1824 Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician and physicist, considered the following mystery – why doesn’t the planet keep heating up as it receives sunlight? What is regulating our atmospheric temperature? Joseph Fourier’s answer described what we now know as ‘the greenhouse effect’.

Carbon dioxide, ‘natural gas’ (methane), and other ‘greenhouse gases’ trap heat that would otherwise escape from the Earth’s atmosphere. With the right mix, these gases do a critical job ensuring the atmosphere holds onto enough heat to support every kind of life on the planet. Without them, the Earth would lose so much heat that life as we know it would be impossible.

But the problem is that greenhouse gas levels are all too high, because of human activities, trapping too much of the sun’s energy as heat. This has upset the natural systems that regulate our climate.

Our oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere wherever air meets water. Wind causes waves and turbulence, giving more opportunity for the water to absorb the carbon dioxide. … Ocean plants take in the carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, just like land plants.

In 1896 Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, was the first to measure how carbon dioxide (CO2) contributes to the greenhouse effect. He later made the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming.

Look at the table below for other key events in the history of climate change and the growing international response to the crisis.

A History of Climate Change

1712 British ironmonger Thomas Newcomen invents the first widely used steam engine, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution and industrial scale use of coal.
1824 Joseph Fourier, a French scientist is the first to recognise the greenhouse effect.
1861 Irish physicist, John Tyndall, shows that water vapour and other gases create the greenhouse effect. More than a century later, he is honoured by having a prominent UK climate research organisation – the Tyndall Centre – named after him.
1886 Karl Benz unveils the Motorwagen, often regarded as the first true automobile.
1896 Svante Arrhenius measures how carbon dioxide from fossil fuels contributes to the greenhouse effect.
1927 Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning reach one billion tonnes per year.
1958 Using equipment he had developed himself, Charles Keeling begins systematic measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii and in Antarctica. His project provides the first unequivocal proof that CO2 concentrations are rising.
1965 A US President’s Advisory Committee panel warns of the greenhouse effect.
1987 Montreal Protocol agreed, restricting chemicals that damage the ozone layer. Although not established with climate change in mind, it has had a greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions than the Kyoto Protocol.
1988 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed by the United Nations to collate and assess evidence on climate change.
1990 IPCC produces First Assessment Report. It concludes that temperatures have risen by 0.3-0.6C over the last century; that humanity’s emissions are adding to the atmosphere’s natural greenhouse gases, and would result in warming.
1992 At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, governments agree the United Framework Convention on Climate Change to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions. Developed countries agree to return their emissions to 1990 levels.
1995 IPCC Second Assessment Report makes the first definitive statement that the balance of evidence suggests “a discernible human influence” on the Earth’s climate.
1997 Kyoto Protocol agreed. Developed nations pledge to reduce emissions by an average of 5% by the period 2008-12, with wide variations on targets for individual countries. US Senate immediately declares it will not ratify the treaty.
1998 Publication of the controversial “hockey stick” graph showing rapid temperature rise. It would later be the subject of two enquiries instigated by the US Congress.
2001 President George W Bush removes the US from the Kyoto process.
2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report finds “new and stronger evidence” that humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause of the global warming.
2006 Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning reach eight billion tonnes per year.
2007 The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report concludes more than 90% likely that humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for modern-day climate change.
2009 192 governments convene for the UN climate summit in Copenhagen but leave only with a controversial political declaration, the Copenhagen Accord, as no deal agreed.
2011 Human population reaches seven billion.
2012 Arctic sea ice reaches a minimum extent of 3.41 million sq km (1.32 million sq mi), a record for the lowest summer cover since satellite measurements began in 1979.
2014 IPCC 5th report human-induced global warming is happening at unprecedented rate.
2015 UN Climate Summit in Paris, largest gathering of world leaders in history of the world.
2017 Carbon emissions continue to rise, now at 37 billion tonnes of CO2 and other gases per years.
2018 UN’s 1.5 Degrees Report warns there are only a dozen years for action to be taken to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees.
2019 September 2019: UN summit, New York, to mobilize political and economic energy at the highest levels to advance climate action. Earth Strike, global grassroots movement demanding immediate climate action from governments and corporations worldwide.
2019 December, Chile: The ‘Blue Conference’: the Chile government plans to focus attention on the world’s oceans, our most important carbon sponge.

Covid lockdowns lead to a sharp drop in carbon emissions of 7% globally. To be on target to reduce emissions by the necessary 45% by 2030, that would have to be replicated every year.

Extreme climate impacts becoming increasingly visible.
Rapid acceleration in pace of investment in renewable energy with projection that by 2025 90% of all new energy generation will be zero carbon. But that still leaves 10% that won’t be; which is not compatible with IPCC guidance that says that there should be NO new fossil fuel investment from here on.

Adapted from the BBC ‘A brief history of climate change’.

The first wake-up call

In 1988, James Hanson, director of NASA, (the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration), testified before a packed US congressional hearing that he was 99% sure that human-induced global warming was happening. That testimony marked the beginning of an international response to climate change. Hundreds of scientists and policymakers discussed emissions’ reduction at a world conference in Toronto later that month. The UN then set up the independent panel of scientists known as the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change). It held its first meeting in November that year.

Even the conservative Time magazine recognised the gravity of the situation in 1988 and put an endangered planet Earth on its front cover. It called for “… a universal crusade to save the planet.”

“Now, more than ever, the world needs leaders who can inspire their fellow citizens with a fiery sense of mission, not a nationalistic or military campaign but a universal crusade to save the planet,” stated Time magazine’s editorial. 

This international recognition that climate change was real and caused by humans resulted in the largest environmental conference ever held, the Rio Earth Summit.

Rio Earth Summit 1992 – recognises ‘dangerous climate change’ 

In 1992, governments met for the first United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where they signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the (UNFCCC). This document bound governments to act to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’ but did not specify what ‘dangerous’ meant, nor the actions required to avoid it. However, the Framework Convention is the basis for all the UN’s climate negotiations. 

One of the more memorable moments of the conference was the address given to world delegates by a 12-year-old girl called Severn Cullis-Suzuki.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki aged 12 years speaking at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992

In 2018, the young climate activist, Greta Thunberg spoke at the UN’s climate conference. She said, ‘You only talk about moving forward with the same ideas that got us into this mess.’

View Greta’s address here:

 Arguments around COPs

Historic emissions vs current emissions. According to the Lancet in 2020, Global North countries, the USA, EU, UK, Japan and Australia are responsible for 92% of historic global emissions. The UK alone is responsible for 7%, just 1% less than the entire global south, including India and China.

 Arguing that all countries have to cut emissions at the same rate, regardless of their level of development, is unfair on poorer countries.

Total vs Per Capita carbon footprints. On current emissions, China now has the world’s largest carbon footprint by a long way. But it also has a population that is larger than Europe, North America, South America and Australasia combined. So does India.

Small rich countries can have a small total carbon footprint, but a very high per capita carbon footprint (the average made by dividing the total by the number of people in the country). So, China has a total carbon footprint about double that of the United States, but because it has a population that is four times as big, the footprint of each citizen is about half the US level.

Calculation by territorial production or calculation by consumption. One aspect of globalisation is that a high proportion of goods consumed in the global north are made in the global south.

 A lot of “dirty” high carbon industries have closed down or shrunk in the rich countries and expanded in the developing world. Calculating carbon emissions by territorial production means that goods manufactured for export are counted as part of the emissions of the exporting country.

The impact of this can be very large. As the most extreme case, between 2002 and 2008, 48% of China’s emissions were from goods produced for export.

For the UK, while the government likes to claim that carbon emissions have been cut by 44% since 1990 while the economy has grown by 78%, the WWF has calculated that 46% of the UK’s true carbon footprint comes from overseas emissions made from making goods for UK consumers. Taking that into account means that the actual drop in UK emissions is just 15%.

5. Looking ahead: Unions will continue to demand climate action

For trade unions, there are three main challenges in the coming years:

  • Lobbying the UN to make the Paris Agreement really effective.
  • Lobbying the UK government to invest for a zero-carbon future. The UK’s own expert advisers described the government’s efforts at tackling climate change as like ‘Dad’s army.’
  • Unions to work together for a just transition, and collectively to agree a plan for a zero-carbon future

In the UK, the TUC’s report, A just transition to a greener, fairer economy (July 2019), restated its support for the Paris Agreement. The TUC wants ‘a fair and robust plan to get there that everyone can get behind. That means government, business and trade unions working together on a ‘just transition’.

‘Working people must have a say through transition agreements in their workplaces. And there must be a guaranteed path to high-quality work in a green economy for anyone whose job may be at risk,’ the TUC says.



  1. ‘A brief history of climate change’
  2. ‘China as Chimney of the World’ Andreas Malm
  3. ‘This Changes Everything’ Naomi Klein (P.79)
  4. 2009 conference:
  5. BBC news Global Climate Deal in Summary
  6. BBC news Global Climate Deal in Summary
  7. UN’s 1.5 degrees report:

Naomi Klein interviewed at the Paris Summit by Democracy Now

James Hansen Why I must speak out about climate change

TUC 2019, A Just Transition to a Greener, Fairer Economy:

UN 2018, Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration,