The Time is Now

The March-April issue of the TCCPI Newsletter highlights the wide ranging work of the Tompkins County government and other members of the TCCPI coalition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. Clearly, it’s an impressive record, one that demonstrates the commitment of our community to meet the central challenge of our time.

Elsewhere in the United States and around the world similar work is going on in thousands of communities. The crucial question, of course, is will it be enough to stave off runaway climate change? Can we make the changes necessary at the required scale and rate to avoid the 2 degrees Celsius increase scientists say will set off climate catastrophe

The latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations group that issues periodic summaries of the ongoing research on climate science, underscores the speed at which we are hurtling toward the point of no return. As the Guardian observes, the new study emphasizes five key points:

  1. Climate change is already posing a serious threat to the world’s food supply and will only get worse, especially in light of projected population growth.
  2. Potential shortages of food and water will become major drivers of future conflicts, undermining human security in every hemisphere.
  3. Climate change is going to intensify existing inequalities and have a disproportionate impact on poor people in both developed and developing nations.
  4. Our current trajectory puts us on course to raise the average global temperature 4 degrees Celsius, ensuring that no one will escape the effects of climate change.
  5. We face a difficult but not hopeless task and can still prevent the worst effects off climate change from occurring.

It’s a sobering picture: the passenger jet on which we are traveling is in a steep dive, we don’t quite know when the craft will begin to come apart because of the stress on its systems and structural integrity, and if we don’t pull out of the dive soon, it will surely crash.

Fortunately, in a follow up report released on Sunday the IPCC finds that the cost of implementing the transformation necessary to avoid the crash would shave only 0.06% off expected annual global economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%. The IPCC analysis does not take into account the environmental and health benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which could very well offset the costs of a sweeping shift to clean energy.

Here’s the rub, though: the longer we wait the more it will cost. In short, the time for a massive mobilization is now.

Off the Climate Cliff?

Right on the heels of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a startling paper appeared last week in the journal Nature. It was the proverbial train coming down the track, driving home the message that dramatic, life altering global warming is just a few stops away.

According to the study, the new normal for millions of people in a few decades will be hotter than the warmest years between 1860 and 2005 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

“Go back in your life to think about the hottest, most traumatic event you have experienced,” lead scientist Camilo Mora told the New York Times. “What we’re saying is that very soon, that event is going to become the norm.”

Analyzing data from 39 different climate models out of 12 countries, the team of scientists from Hawaii and Japan sought to predict the timing of a move to the new climate regime rather than examine the climate at a fixed date such as 2030 or 2050, as most previous studies have done. The paper concludes that the tropics will undergo this extreme shift first, as early as 2029, and by 2047 more than half of the planet will experience average temperatures hotter than anything recorded between 1860 and 2005.

Coming in the midst of the confrontation between President Obama and Congress over the federal budget and debt ceiling, it’s hard not to draw a comparison. In politics, when playing “chicken,” the first rule of game theory is throw the steering wheel out the window. It’s one thing for Republicans and Democrats to pursue this tactic, however, and another thing for the human race to try to pull this stunt on nature.

Even in the most intractable situations, political parties can negotiate with each other and come to some reasonable resolution, but as Bill McKibben has pointed out numerous times, you can’t negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. Go ahead and throw the steering wheel out the window; it’s not going to change the outcome one whit. When it comes to climate change, better to acknowledge that reality than drive the car off the cliff.

From “Egosystem Awareness” to “Ecosystem Awareness”

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Yogi Berra once declared.[i] He wasn’t talking about climate change, but he could’ve been. Eight out of the nine hottest years on record worldwide, including last year, have occurred since 2000. The rate of the Arctic summer melt is accelerating at an astonishing pace and the latest reports now predict that we could have ice free summers in the Arctic as early as 2015.

Scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced this past May that for the first time in human history the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 ppm. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was probably in the Pliocene epoch, over three million years ago. To top it off, a paper just published in Nature predicts that by mid-century over half the planet will be experiencing average temperatures equivalent to the hottest days recorded since 1860.[ii]

As bad as this news is, and it is bad, there is some really good news on the clean energy front. According to a recent flurry of studies, we have the ability with existing technology to get 80-100 percent of our power from wind, sun, water, tides, and other renewable sources, and prevent runaway climate change, far worse than what is already locked in, from taking place. A 2011 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, concluded that already existing technologies could, in combination, make up almost 80 percent of our energy supply by 2050 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by a third from business-as-usual projections.[iii] Earlier this year, Stanford and Cornell researchers issued a detailed analysis explaining how wind, water, and solar power could replace all fossil fuels in New York State in an economically viable way if the external health and environmental costs are taken into account.[iv] In both cases, the message is the same: the critical missing components are the policies necessary to drive change in this direction and the political will to implement them.

At another, deeper level, of course, climate destabilization is more than a physical problem to be solved by technology or a policy problem to be solved by politics. It is, in Malcolm Bull’s words, “an ethical problem that necessarily requires moral solutions.”[v] The real question is not so much whether we have the technical ability or the political will to slow down the rate of global warming but whether we have the capacity to expand our moral imagination so that we can grasp the importance of doing so.

Transforming our exploitation of Earth into a relationship that is mutually beneficial must be at the core of this enlarged moral imagination. We need to move from what Otto Scharmer calls “egosystem awareness to ecosystem awareness.” In Scharmer’s words, “we have to open up, let go of the past, and tune in to what we feel is a field of future possibility, something that might be possible, something that we could bring into reality, a future that would be very different from the past.”[vi] Unless we act now to make this shift to “ecosystem awareness,” devoting ourselves to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, we will become, as Thomas Berry writes, “impoverished in all that makes us human.”[vii]

Notes

A longer version of this post was originally published in Second Nature’s The Implementer newsletter in November 2013.

[i] Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said (New York: Workman Publishing, 1989), pp. 118-19.

[ii] Tia Ghose, “NASA: 2012 Was 9th Hottest Year on Record Worldwide,” Live Science, January 15, 2013. http://www.livescience.com/26277-nasa-2012-ninth-hottest-year.html.; Nafeez Ahmed, “White House Warned on Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral,” The Guardian, May 2, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/earth-insight/2013/may/02/white-house-arctic-ice-death-spiral; John Vidal, “Global Carbon Dioxide Levels Set to Pass 400 ppm Milestone,” The Guardian, April 29, 2013. http://www.guardiannews.com/environment/2013/apr/29/global-carbon-dioxide-levels; Andrew Simms, “Why Did the 400 ppm Carbon Milestone Cause Barely a Ripple?” The Guardian, May 30, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/may/30/carbon-milestone-newspapers; Justin Gillis, “By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say,” New York Times, October 9, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/science/earth/by-2047-coldest-years-will-be-warmer-than-hottest-in-past.html.

[iii] IPCC, Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report.

[iv] Mark Z. Jacobson, et al., “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water, and Sunlight,” Energy Policy (2013). http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf. See also Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” Scientific American, 301 (November 2009): 38-65. http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/sad1109Jaco5p.indd.pdf; Adam White and Jason Anderson, “Re-energising Europe: Putting the EU on Track for 100% Renewable Energy.” 2013 World Wildlife Fund Report. http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/res_report_final_1.pdf.

[v] Malcolm Bull, “What is the Rational Response?” London Review of Books, vol. 34, no. 10 (May 24, 2012), pp. 3-6. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n10/malcolm-bull/what-is-the-rational-response.

[vi] C. Otto Scharmer, “The Blind Spot of Institutional Leadership: How to Create Deep Innovation through Moving from Egosystem to Ecosystem Awareness,” delivered at the World Economic Forum, September 2010, Tinjan, China. http://www.ottoscharmer.com/docs/articles/2011_BMZ_Forum_Scharmer.pdf.

[vii] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower Books, 2007), pp. 201, 200.

Boiling the Ocean?

As you may be aware, a draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2013 Summary for Policymakers report was leaked to the press last week. The findings were far from comforting.

As someone who grew up in the Sputnik Era, a time when science and technology became a central focus of national policy, I remain baffled by how such a large segment of the U.S. population could be so firmly committed to climate denialism, ignoring the overwhelming consensus of scientists that global warming is accelerating.

NYC Under Water

But, of course, logic and reason have very little to do with the refusal of many Americans to acknowledge the threat that runaway climate change poses to the health and security of people around the world.

For those who still think science is a valid way of thinking and knowing, there were some real OMG moments contained in the leaked IPCC draft, which of course is still subject to revision. Mother Jones shared what it called “five ‘holy crap’ statements”:

  • We’re headed toward transforming the planet in a way “unprecedented in hundreds to thousands of years.”
  • Ocean acidification is “virtually certain” to increase.
  • Long-term, sea level rise could be 5 to 10 meters (16 to 32 feet).
  • During the last interglacial period, the melting of Greenland alone “very likely” accounted for between 1.4 and 4.3 meters of global sea level rise.
  • Even if we were to immediately halt all greenhouse gas emissions warming would continue for “many centuries.”

Particularly alarming is the finding about ocean acidification. We may not be able to boil the ocean but we sure are changing it. The ocean absorbs over a quarter of the carbon dioxide released each year, much of it the result of human agricultural and industrial activity; after decades of rising carbon dioxide levels, the chemistry of the ocean is clearly beginning to shift.

As Mother Jones observes, ocean acidification “threatens the survival of entire ecosystems from phytoplankton to coral reefs, and from Antarctic systems reliant on sea urchins to many human food webs dependent on everything from oysters to salmon.” In other words, virtually the entire marine food chain is at risk. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or even a post-Sputnik student to realize this could be big trouble.

Creating New Spaces for Connecting in New Ways

As more than one study has determined, we have the means at our disposal to move into a clean energy world in which the power of the wind, sun, water, tides, and other renewable sources is tapped and runaway climate change is averted.  The latest of these reports comes from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which earlier this month released an investigation surveying the already existing technologies that, in combination, could make this happen.  The critical missing components are the necessary policies that would drive change in this direction and the political will to implement them.

I get up every day and do the work that I do because I want to help create the public pressure and culture of collaboration that will make these changes occur.  I get up every day and do the work that I do because I believe each one of us has the responsibility to be a subject in history and not just an object of history.  I get up every day and do the work that I do because there is no silver bullet, no magic wand, that can make the immense problems confronting us go away.  The only thing that will work is to escape from the old myths of independence and self-reliance and embrace the truths of interdependence and mutuality.

Understanding these truths and harnessing the power of the network is at the heart of what makes Second Nature so effective.  The American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) are both products of this approach to change. They are collaborative efforts to create the conditions for the emergence of a new paradigm, one that involves a shift from the mechanistic, atomistic solutions of the industrial age to the organic, interconnected web of the digital age.  They are part of the largest social movement in all human history, what Paul Hawken calls “the blessed unrest.”

The overturning of the old paradigm will only happen if we intentionally and strategically create what Gibrán Rivera refers to as “the spaces for connection.”  Collaboration, inclusivity, and mutual respect make it possible for us to move upstream, where the real solutions are.  As Rivera puts it, “By re-inventing the ways in which we come together we begin to live in the world we are trying to build.”  Second Nature, together with the generous support of the Park Foundation, have provided me with the invaluable space not only for connection but also experimentation, the opportunity to reinvent myself as a social entrepreneur and explore new models of partnership and change such as the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI).  And for that I will always be grateful.

Note: This post originally appeared in Second Nature’s blog here.