This week I had a chance to sit down with Kelly Rigg, the Executive Director of GCCA (the Global Campaign for Climate Action) and TckTckTck during Climate Week NYC for an informal conversation on the state of affairs in the current climate negotiations, the differences between China and the U.S. and what the future looks like for the climate advocacy movement. Here are her thoughts:

Copenhagen raised global awareness around climate change, but are people actually doing anything to make a difference?

We are seeing increasing numbers of people writing in to our different partner organizations asking what they can do. People want to make a difference. They realize climate change is an issue that is really going to affect their lives, and their families’ lives. They feel somewhat powerless to get their governments to do something about it, so they’re starting to take matters into their own hands reducing their own emissions wherever they can.

But I have to say at the end of the day, personal efforts are only going to take us so far. Until governments create the necessary incentives for industry to put their investments into the right places, we will probably never have enough action to turn this thing around. So it needs to be a combination of both personal and political action.

People need to take action. They need to change their light bulbs and power down their appliances… all those things we have the power to do. But people also need to let their government representatives know that they want them to take action as well — politically.

With the heads of state meeting in New York this week to discuss, amongst other UN initiatives, the climate commitments pledged in the Copenhagen Accord, will we see any significant progress in international climate negotiations?

I think one of the most difficult problem with the Copenhagen Accord now, leaving aside the problems with how it was negotiated, is that the U.S. continues to suggest it’s an all or nothing package deal — that they are not going to move on anything until the complete package is acted upon. At this point a lot of countries are looking for the U.S. to move first. In particular because the U.S. has asked to be exempted from the kinds of commitments that everyone else is being asked to make.

The U.S. is talking about 17 percent reduction on 2005 emissions, not the 25-40 percent commitment on 1990 levels that the IPCC says is necessary. This is something like a 3 percent reduction on 1990 levels compared to the 20 percent commitment that the EU has made. So the U.S. asks for special treatment while at the same time suggests they won't move until others do. That rubs a lot of countries the wrong way.

I think that what needs to happen is that in particular the U.S. must signal it will meet those commitments it made, and do it unilaterally — not on the condition that they will do so only once everyone has signed up to the complete package. That’s not helpful and will not stimulate a breakthrough in the negotiations.

What’s wrong with climate perception in the U.S.?

The politicians are the ones lagging behind. They have a misperception that the electorate is not interested in climate. A Thomas Friedman column this week talks about the difference between the U.S. and China on climate. In China, climate change spells J-O-B-S and in the United States it spells J-O-K-E.

I think the public is being scandalously misled in the U.S. Because of the divisions in our political system and the vitriolic debate between Democrats and Republicans, people are just being shamelessly misled. They’re being told that global warming is a hoax by powerful lobbies in Washington and unfortunately there are certain network news stations and radio stations that feed that propaganda and misinformation. At some point I have to believe truth is going to prevail. The fact is there is not a trade-off between jobs and solving global warming. In fact doing so is good for the economy. People are being lied to, and until people start getting the real information things will not change.

We need more politicians to be leaders, telling the truth and encouraging the country to do the noble thing. This needs to be validated by other respected leaders and then it will become a more serious issue in the U.S. Civil society has a role to play as well, reaching out to people who have not previously been engaged on the issue and speaking to them in meaningful ways. And we need to put pressure on our political leaders to stop being held hostage to fossil fuel industry lobbyists.

Is there a country where we’ve seen a major public rally on climate issues?

How about Australia? In the previous election a new government came to power with climate change as one of its major agenda points. Then the prime minister reversed himself and people got really, really angry that their government let them down. That was part of the downfall of Kevin Rudd. It’s still a major issue and the recent success of the greens in this election shows that the public wants action now on climate. Australians are on the front lines of climate change — they are facing major problems with drought, for example as a result of global warming. People are a lot smarter than politicians think, and once politicians catch up to where business and the public is on climate, things could change very quickly.

What’s the outlook for China in the upcoming climate negotiations this fall?

After the Copenhagen debacle, China took a lot of blame which I think was scandalous. Most of the developed country governments that were there must share the blame for what happened. And the U.S. played no small part. But China can play a much more constructive role. In particular China has been reluctant to embrace the 1.5 degree temperature rise target. There are more than 100 countries that have supported that target for the very survival of low-lying countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. China I think needs to listen to that and play a strong counter-role to the kind of laggard behavior being shown by other major economies.

It is important to recognize that China is doing a massive amount on renewable energy. They are now in the lead in the clean energy race and they should get a lot of credit for that. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions are far lower in China than the U.S and while they are developing quickly they have the opportunity to set an example.

The UNFCC Intercessional in China provides an opportunity to communicate the fact that China is ahead in the “Race to the future” and that other countries need to get with the program. They can cry all the way to the bank and complain about “command and control” economies, but at the end of the day they are going to lose that race if they don’t mobilize now. That could be the game-changer, for people around the world to see in China what a massive investment in clean energy technology really looks like.

What gives you hope?

At the climate week New York opening ceremony, all these heavyweights in business and finance stood up and talked about fact that the technological solutions are here. Amazing things are going on. Last year, for the first time more than 50 percent of new electrical power installation in Europe was from renewables. That's an amazing milestone! There’s a road map in the EU which says we can get to 100 percent renewable electricity supply by 2050. People are getting on with it and doing it, and there is now a public appetite for change because of increasing concerns around climate change.

If there is a will to do it, it will happen. It’s the political will that’s missing — a game of brinksmanship. Once we have that, everything will fall into place. Look at the Americans in the race to the moon or the national mobilization during WWII. Once Americans make up their minds to do something, they roll up their sleeves and make it happen. We need to see that spirit in Americans on climate and tap into that innate sense of American heroism. They can do it. They can save the world while ensuring long-term economic growth in a low carbon economy.

NOTE: I'm currently working with GCCA in support of their digital media initiatives.

Where do we go from here?
NGO leader Kelly Rigg weighs in on the climate movement in the U.S. vs. China and what is needed to make a shift.