Module 2: International Responses

1. Introduction: from climate change to climate crisis

As we see from Module 1, the scientific evidence of man-made ‘climate change’ is undeniable.  For over 20 years, the United Nations has tried to persuade the world’s 195 governments to agree 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 37 billion tonnes in 2018:

Meanwhile, the crisis of climate migration is growing, with 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 ‘global overheating’ or ‘climate crisis.’ 

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 much safer 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 wants the added ingredient of 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…’

International efforts continue to agree firm, binding and adequate commitments to tackle climate breakdown.  

And still today, of course, powerful climate deniers, like President Trump and President Bolsonaro of Brazil, actively obstruct the climate negotiations. 

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2. International efforts to tackle climate change

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) and Poland (2018). 

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.

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

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.’

Chile, December 2019: attention to focus on the world’s oceans 

Known as the ‘Blue Conference’: the Chile government plans to focus attention on the pollution of the world’s oceans, our most important natural resource to absorb CO2 emissions.

London, December 2020: governments to be held to account 

The UK government will host this critical meeting. December 2020 is the deadline for countries to update their contributions to the Paris Agreement by strengthening their climate targets. It’s a critical opportunity for the TUC and trade unions to take a lead in demanding action to meet the 1.5 degrees target. And for the government to work with unions for a just transition in the UK

4. A short history of global warming

4. A short history of global warming

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. The have 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.
2020 December, UK: The UK government will host this critical meeting. December 2020 is the deadline for countries to update their contributions to the Paris Agreement by strengthening their climate targets.


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:


Free trade deals drive up consumption and carbon emissions

Ironically, in the same year that the first UN climate agreement was signed in Rio, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was also signed. Multinationals were given the freedom to comb the world in search of the cheapest and most exploitable workforce. It has led to massive jobs losses in developed countries and propelled the consumption of disposable goods. These goods are produced cheaply in developing countries, and then transported thousands of miles to be consumed in the developed countries. All of this has vastly increased global emissions of CO2.

Between 2002 and 2008, 48% of China’s emissions were related to producing goods for export (2). ‘When China became the ‘workshop of the world’ it also became the coal-spewing ‘chimney of the world’(3).

Kyoto 1997

Kyoto Protocol logo - Globe made up of world flags.Over the 5 years following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, governments argued over what actions each should take, and the how effort should be shared between ‘polluting’ developed countries and poorer nations, many in the frontline of climate impacts

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted containing the first binding emission reduction targets. It required worldwide cuts in emissions of 5% by 2012, compared with baseline levels in 1990. 

However, developing countries like China were given no targets and allowed to increase their emissions. The agreement was never ratified in the US by Congress or George W Bush. Russia also failed to endorse it until much later.

Although the Kyoto agreement was a legally binding treaty, it never really met its objectives. A study of the emissions of industrialised countries that had signed the treaty found that, while emissions had stopped growing, it was largely due to international free trade that had allowed them to move their dirty production overseas. In addition, none of the countries which failed to meet their commitments under the Treaty have ever been sanctioned.

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

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 by 2020.
  • 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,