Is the only way to give individuals agency and hold governments to account to hold a vote the 2015 Paris Agreement? Marc Dhennin argues the case for a referendum on the climate.

Let’s call on governments to organise a referendum that will raise the question: Do I, as a citizen forming part of a society, want to take responsibility for respecting, individually and collectively, the 2015 Paris Agreement in order to ensure a liveable world for future generations

This idea could be the answer to the problem of individual and collective responsibility. The notion of responsibility is at the heart of everything. A sense of responsibility leads to action. But what is the responsibility of a government, and of each citizen, towards achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement*? Why are governments and individuals unwilling to make the necessary effort when the objective is clear and the dangers well known?

In the case of France, according to a survey, the Odoxa-SAP-Ouest-France Sustainable Development Barometer, 87% of French people say they are concerned about the future of the planet. So why isn’t a large-scale individual and governmental behavioural demonstration taking place?

Although the Paris Agreement is an obvious, good and necessary decision, one of its limitations is the lack of consultation with individuals. Indeed, this objective concerns all of us as individuals, through our individual and collective behaviour. We suffer the repercussions and we are, among others, the guarantors of compliance with these agreements.

Having said that, why didn’t we include ourselves in the equation when the decision to sign the Paris agreement was taken? How can we feel the weight of responsibility if our opinion has not been sought. How can we expect an individual to change their individual behaviour in this context? How many of us even know that these agreements exist?

The Paris Agreement concerns us all. As a result, collective energy seems more than necessary to achieve its objective. Once again, this energy cannot derive from a decision taken at a summit from which most of us were completely disconnected. If you want to exaggerate, such a signature allows each party to absolve itself of all responsibility. Individuals and businesses have not been surveyed, and as a result governments are not accountable to anyone. Who bears responsibility? This discharge leads to the Triangle of Inaction (see image below, inspired by Pierre Peyretou’s diagram).

The triangle of inaction. Showing how indivuals, governments and businesses all point the finger at eachother when it comes to taking action on climate change..

The Triangle of Inaction (Marc Dhennin)

Now, let’s imagine that instead the Paris Agreement is backed by a referendum. First, a real social dialogue will take place at the time of the vote, and awareness-raising will go hand in hand. Everyone will ask the question and be aware of the stakes and repercussions that such agreements imply. If citizens vote positively, the various governments (of the signatory countries) will be accountable to the population and will have a greater responsibility to bear. Everything would be thought through in terms of this objective. If citizens vote positively, everyone will feel responsible, listened to and have a sense of ownership. If citizens vote positively, the responsibility will be borne by everyone, and therefore transitively by all organisations and companies, since they are made up of citizens. Change will be more obvious because we’ll be doing it together, in goodwill and solidarity. Sacrifices and compromises will be shared by all, and therefore easier to achieve. Victories and joys, too, will be shared. We are all responsible. Our impact is great. With great impact comes great responsibility.

Of course, this hinges on what those in climate-spheres would deem a “positive outcome” coming to fruiting. Putting a question to the people comes with risk. Take Brexit, for example, where few in the political establishment predicted the narrow victory for the Vote Leave campaign until it happened. Brexit saw the dawn of a new age in political campaigning, one where firms like Aggregate IQ and Cambridge Analytica use vast libraries of personal data to create targeted political adverts. When speaking about Aggregate IQ’s role in the Brexit referendum, Dominic Cummins, Vote Leave’s campaign manager, was reported to have said “we couldn’t have done it without them”. While the debate on climate will likely be less divisive than Brexit (74% of the British public are worried about climate change, according to the Office for National Statistics), it is worth remembering that as soon as a question is put to the public all bets are off.

Unlike a petition, a referendum will poll every citizen (or a democratic majority, at least). A referendum is used to arbitrate the execution of a law. In this proposal, it is a motivation or objective that will be arbitrated. The resulting laws and solutions will be another challenge. All stakeholders holders at every level will have their part to play. For example, in France, “La Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat” has already proposed several levers for action. What’s more, many organisations already exist and are already playing their part, moving things forward in the right direction. The referendum will also need to consider what it would mean to respect the Paris Agreement on an individual and collective scale (transport, nutrition, consumption, etc.), so that everyone can take the measure of things. Once again, the aim here is to build momentum and collective energy.

Governments cannot legitimately refuse such a referendum, since they have already endorsed the Paris Agreement by becoming signatories to it (but without consulting the population). The fight against global warming is the battle of our generations. Let’s create this positive, collective energy. Let’s express our will through a referendum.

PS : While this article was being written, Switzerland held such a referendum for climate protection. The aim is to reduce energy dependence on foreign sources and cut greenhouse gas emissions, but without bans or new taxes. The “yes” vote received 59.1% of the vote, confirming Switzerland’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a victory.

What is the Paris Agreement?

*On 12 December 2015 the Paris Agreement was signed, the main aim of which is to set a goal to ensure a sustainable world. Three objectives were outlined:

  • Limit warming to below 2°C, if possible below 1.5°C
  • Redirect and strengthen financial flows to meet climate objectives
  • Increase capacity to adapt (resilience) to climate change

To achieve this, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per capita per year by 2050. In 2019, the average French person emitted 9.0 tCO2e per year. In 30 years, we need to divide our emissions by 5 to reach this target.