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COP21: The tip of the iceberg for climate campaigners

As the dust settles from the Paris climate talks, environmental campaigners have plenty to feel good about.

These sorts of global deals can always go further. But a global coalition of NGOs, civil society organisations, and grassroots movements played a crucial role in pressuring governments to commit to limiting global warming. Years of action culminated in a final push in Paris. Social media campaigns like Oxfam’s #eyesonParis told politicians that the world was watching.

When the final draft text was published at the weekend, it incorporated some of campaigners’ key messages. Governments signed up to aspire to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, which had been forcefully pushed by a coalition of civil society groups and climate-vulnerable nations. They also committed to spending US$100 billion a year to help poorer nations deal with climate change—one of the key demands of charities like Oxfam.

However, campaigners have little time to celebrate. The Paris Agreement’s preamble highlights the ‘significant gap’ between countries’ emissions targets and their aspirations to limit global warming to 2°C, let alone 1.5°C. Scientists warn that climate pledges need to be drastically ratcheted up—and soon.

At key moments like this, campaigns can run out of steam. Given apparent diplomatic success, the public may think that the work is over and shift their attention to the next big issue. Famously, the Make Poverty History campaign succeeded in getting G8 nations at Gleneagles in 2005 to commit US$50 billion to fighting global poverty. After the Gleneagles summit, however, the impetus behind the campaign dropped massively. The G8 nations ultimately failed to meet their promises.

So what can environmental campaigners learn from Make Poverty History? Firstly, they need to capitalise on their successes and maintain the momentum after Paris. Kumi Naidoo, international executive director of Greenpeace, acknowledged that ‘we are going to need to mobilise in ever greater numbers… Paris was always a stop on an ongoing journey.’

Secondly, campaigners need to ensure that they have a broad coalition of partners—with representation and support from around the world. A major flaw of Make Poverty History was that it was a British-dominated campaign with little input from groups in the Global South. When Gleneagles was over, the campaign did not have a global movement of people ready to take its messages forward.

There are signs that the climate change movement has a broad enough base to overcome this pitfall. Campaigning groups like 350.org refocused their efforts several years ago into connected local campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground and transition towards 100% renewable energy. The coalition behind the campaign for 1.5°C includes partners from around the world—not just Northern NGOs—and is powerfully led by the voices of the nations most affected by climate change.

After Paris, campaigners face the prospect of a long, hard slog to achieve their goals. The years ahead will determine whether or not the diplomatic success of Paris can be translated into tangible actions that limit global warming to 1.5°C. But perhaps we should allow them a moment of celebration after Paris. As Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace says, ‘This deal alone won’t dig us out the hole we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep‘.

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.