Hot, thirsty, hungry, and homeless: sound much like a real-life version of the movie Day After Tomorrow? Probably too close for comfort if you listen to the alarm bells sounded by delegates from all 194 UN nations joined by hundreds of the world’s most prominent scientists meeting in Lima, Peru. Yet, almost seven in ten people alive today will live to see this future. Scientists warn that we are irreversibly on course to trigger the 3.6 degree Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) global temperature tripwire that will “increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report echoes the work released by 13 US federal government agencies this past spring predicting that climate change would harm the American economy in real and dramatic ways, as clearly it would the whole planet. This is not a new flash alert. A decade ago, I wrote that without substantial mitigation, the world could expect food and water shortages, displacement of people, degraded health, and residual financial impacts so severe as to render parts of the planet increasingly uninhabitable by the end of the 21st century.
So how is it, if the preponderance of scientific evidence puts us on a collision course with nature, that we are not further along the path of effectively addressing this threat to our lives and livelihoods? In fact, the UN Environment Programme concluded that the only way we could avoid the catastrophic 3.6 degree tripwire would be by cutting global emissions in half by midcentury. Surely we could meet this ambitious goal within the next 35 years? But the agreement being negotiated in Lima, even if it were inked, wouldn’t be effective until 2020, with enough wiggle room for countries to fall far short of what science tells us will be required to avoid climatic Armageddon.
Three basic hurdles frustrate our ability to do what’s needed to secure the planet’s future.
First, leadership of every stripe - public and private sector alike - suffer from terminal short-termism. We urgently need near-term leadership decisions to secure our longer-term well-being. But our political and economic cycles are decidedly short-sighted. Leaders everywhere feel compelled to fight for their survival based on demonstrable short-term gains. This is regrettably as true for those in the private sector as it is for those in the public sector. Few political leaders have mastered the art of inspiring followership based on responsible medium- to longer-term goal setting. Private sector leaders complain they too are constrained by the tyranny of the quarterly earnings statement. As this column has highlighted in the past, some political leaders, and certain corporate leaders have successfully bucked this trend. Regrettably, they are in the minority.
Second, our governance structures are too feeble to secure cross-border agreements. Today’s most challenging threats (environmental degradation, disease contagion, terrorism, and cyber-crime, to name a few) respect no borders. Hence, they cannot be fundamentally addressed by unilateral or even bilateral decision-making. Rather, they require global governance structures. Those that we have are simply not up to the task. In fact, we seem to be moving in reverse these days, seeing more manifestations of strong-arm unilateral actions based on audacious calculations of narrow self-interest.
Finally, there is an undeniable language and knowledge gap. We are not making the right longer-term decisions needed to secure our environmental future because cautious scientific language often confuses the public, relieving us of feeling compelled to act. Human nature is such that few are prepared to sacrifice current gains to gamble on uncertain, or unnecessary, future returns. This is true even though, as a recent New York Times/CBS News poll reveals, Americans increasingly acknowledge human activity as a major cause of global warming. But foreign policy, poverty, education, immigration, and politics all outranked climate change in importance. With many still stuck in a period of economic duress, most feel they have enough to worry about in the here-and-now. So why force change that could do little more than mitigate negative climactic effects later?
Unfortunately, climate change isn’t waiting around for us as we drag our feet. It doesn’t care whether you live in a poor, rich, island, or Arctic nation. Some areas are already feeling the effects: In the Marshall Islands, for example, rising sea levels are killing crops, and the population may need to relocate in the coming decades. But the changes will eventually affect everyone, and the world needs effective, visionary leaders in the fight to reverse—or at least stall—global warming.
How do we get off the global policy shoals we’re on?
To start, straight talk is needed. We require clear, authentic communication from all public and private sector actors. Beginning with the scientific community, which by discipline is not given to hyperbole, we need to dramatically define the disastrous course we’re on in simple, unvarnished, easy-to-digest terms – and use every medium to convey the reality of our situation. Credentialed scientists are among those in whom the public place the greatest trust. So the scientific community has a special obligation to dramatically turn up the volume and the clarity on this urgent global need. The civil sector and our academic institutions, also among those most highly regarded by the public, have to organise a prairie fire of public debate and dialogue that demands the leadership needed to change course. Finally, they must be joined by private sector leaders willing to use their respective platforms to support the change needed to secure our future.
Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, over the course of history, the public has demonstrated its ability to act in its own self-interest, after having exhausted every other alternative. Well, we’re at that point. Churchillian, stark, compelling language may be just what is so desperately needed right now.