The Road to and from Paris

All eyes are on the upcoming climate talks in Paris. Set to begin November 30, the UN Climate Change Conference is widely viewed as the last chance for a substantive international agreement to head off runaway climate destabilization. It seems likely that a deal will be struck, but the real question is whether it will be enough to do the trick.

Over the past several months, about 150 countries — including China, the United States, the European Union, and India — have made voluntary pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, when the deal is supposed to take effect. Negotiations in Paris will seek to build upon those commitments and create a structure to monitor and strengthen them.

The major problem facing negotiators is that the commitments made so far are not sufficient to hold the world under 2 degrees C of warming. The general scientific consensus is that anything over 2 degrees C runs the risk of triggering dangerous changes that could cause global havoc.

This news comes as a flurry of new reports remind us that the road we are on currently will lead to disaster and that changes already underway will have terrible consequences, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations, the poor, young, old, and sick, to say nothing of other nonhuman species, many of which are vital to the health of the world’s ecosystems.

A study issued just days ago by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, warned that greenhouse gas emissions will cause a dramatic collapse of the ocean’s marine life unless we reverse course. A massive coral bleaching event that is sweeping across oceans from Hawaii to India to the Caribbean is among several developments underscoring the report’s findings.

Another recently published analysis estimates that, given carbon emissions to date, the world has probably committed to at least 1.6 meters of long-term sea-level rise, more than five feet. This level of locked-in increase will submerge most of the homes in over 400 U.S. towns and cities, including New Orleans and Miami. Among cities tbat will experience similar fates if they do not take drastic action soon are New York City, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville.

Even as scientists point out that we have already experienced a global temperature rise of almost 1 degree C since the Industrial Revolution, many of them maintain that the worst effects of global warming can still be avoided. “The climate change problem is one that can be solved,” insists climate expert Professor Chris Field of Stanford University. “We have the technologies, the resources – we just need to make the commitment.”

The rapid drop in the cost of producing wind and solar energy is certainly among the most hopeful developments. As a result, the International Energy Agency earlier this month projected that by 2020, 26 percent of the world’s energy will be generated by renewable sources. That’s definitely good news.

The talks in Paris will make it clear whether we can avoid pushing the temperature up another 1 degree C. If not, the road from Paris will be much more difficult than anything we have had to deal with on the road to Paris. Let’s hope that our leaders recognize this and act accordingly.

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]


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.; Nafeez Ahmed, “White House Warned on Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral,” The Guardian, May 2, 2013.; John Vidal, “Global Carbon Dioxide Levels Set to Pass 400 ppm Milestone,” The Guardian, April 29, 2013.; Andrew Simms, “Why Did the 400 ppm Carbon Milestone Cause Barely a Ripple?” The Guardian, May 30, 2013.; Justin Gillis, “By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say,” New York Times, October 9, 2013.

[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).

[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). See also Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” Scientific American, 301 (November 2009): 38-65.; Adam White and Jason Anderson, “Re-energising Europe: Putting the EU on Track for 100% Renewable Energy.” 2013 World Wildlife Fund Report.

[v] Malcolm Bull, “What is the Rational Response?” London Review of Books, vol. 34, no. 10 (May 24, 2012), pp. 3-6.

[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.

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