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Just why DO we need system change?

ActionAiders at the Climate Strike in NYC

Teresa Anderson is ActionAid's Climate Policy Co-ordinator. In this blog she explains why we need system change to tackle climate change.

On the Climate Strike in New York last Friday, ActionAid‘s placards weren’t the only ones calling for “System change not climate change!” I saw many other homemade signs held by young people and adults at the 300,000-strong New York march making the same demand. The sentiment was repeated in the thousands of Climate Strikes held around the world.

Amid all the joyful chanting, a teenager walking with her friends alongside me asked what the slogan really meant. I tried to explain that to avoid climate disaster and ensure a safer future, we will need to really change the way we get our energy, food and transport, and the way we manage our economies. These systems not only pollute the planet, but also tend to be controlled by a few powerful corporations and elites, making the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

Instead, I said, we need renewable energy that can be small-scale, owned and run by local communities. We need agriculture that benefits nature, farmers and everyone who eats. We need scaled-up affordable public transport to help people to get around easily and reduce dependence on cars and planes. We need to spread the wealth around more fairly. If we are to avoid climate change, we can’t just tinker around the edges and stop drinking with plastic straws, we need the ways our economies and related systems operate. We need to undertake serious system change.

To be honest, I’m not sure I did justice to the vision. But she nodded thoughtfully, and asked if I had a spare placard she could borrow.

And I was left reflecting, once again, on the huge scale of the climate challenge. 

Agriculture is a particular focus area for ActionAid. Not only does the world need to reduce the huge carbon footprint caused by large-scale industrial agribusiness – particularly in the global North - but we also need to make sure that crops are resilient and able to cope with irregular and extreme weather patterns. 

Approaches like agroecology work with nature and avoid the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that harm the environment and human health. Agroecology can provide multiple benefits to farmers, including improved resilience to climate change. Techniques include using compost, manure and mulching instead of chemical fertilisers, using herbs for treating pests, and diversifying seed and crop varieties. These approaches help farmers to become less dependent on buying agribusiness inputs, which means they can retain more of their income, power and knowledge. And importantly, agroecology dramatically reduces the carbon footprint of your food and rebuilds soils to store carbon that would otherwise end up as CO2 that heats up the atmosphere.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on Land and Climate released in August this year, confirmed what ActionAid and civil society allies have been saying for many years: that if want to limit global warming to 1.5°C and secure our ability to feed ourselves in the face of climate change, we urgently need to transform food systems from dependence on industrial agriculture towards more sustainable approaches like agroecology.

The UN Secretary General’s high profile Climate Action Summit on 23rd September must act as a turning point in raising awareness and shifting attention to the importance of ambitious nature-based solutions for climate action. This must include transforming our food systems from dependence on Big Agribusiness corporations, towards people-powered agroecology. 

The good news is that that the seeds of this system change have already been planted. 

We just need our governments to have the courage to stand up to powerful agribusiness corporations. We need them to bring about real system change, not climate change.