Imagine an asteroid is headed towards Earth. Every evening, you turn on the television and watch experts explain its course towards Earth. Every night, before you go to sleep, you check to see if you can identify it on the night sky. For each day, you learn more and more about when and where it's going to hit. The whole world is watching in horror trying to estimate what the impact will mean for their lives, jobs, homes, etc.
Faced with the threat of extinction, the world decided to pull together. Gone were past power structures, manmade differences between different religions, political views, political agendas and different economic schools of thought. Gone were the communication barriers between politicians, businesses and the public. The asteroid resulted in an unprecedented joint effort by organizations such as the World Bank Group, the UN, the EU, the WWF, Greenpeace and many others.
Because of this unparalleled course of action from all groups of the world society -- we were successful in avoiding the biggest threat ever experienced by mankind.
Unfortunately, the first part of this story is true; there is an asteroid headed towards Earth. Scientists have warned us about the climate asteroid and its devastating consequences for decades. Recently, reports from the International Energy Agency, the World Bank Group, and the PWC conclude that a 2-degree temperature increase is highly unrealistic and that at our current rate, we are heading for a 4-6 degrees Celsius increase. No doubt it represents the biggest threat ever to mankind.
Unfortunately, the second part of the story is not true: The world society is not dealing with the threat. As a matter of fact: We are close to giving up. We are still discussing the reality of the "asteroid," and alarming reports about its course towards the Earth barely makes headlines or catch serious political interest. The response from the world society is best captured in the recent COP 18 climate negotiations in Doha in Qatar. For almost two weeks the political leaders of the world have met for the 18th time to discuss what to do about the "asteroid" while it is dramatically gaining in speed and strength. The best possible result is to agree on what to agree on when they meet next time. What was it that Albert Einstein defined as insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But we have now passed a tipping point where no one is able to imagine the consequences of political inaction
Start Accepting a New Reality
For too long, we've been stuck in denial. How real is climate change? Isn't nature regulating itself? Instead of calling things by its name -- climate Change -- we've preferred to call them names like "Katrina", "Isaac", "Sandy", etc.
Bloomberg's iconic front page stating "It's Global Warming, Stupid" illustrates the point very well; it broke through the wall of denial and called things by its rightful name. We don't have time for the stages in between; in order to face climate change, we need to accept that it's already done irrevocable damage. First step is to accept that a limit of a 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase is highly unrealistic. Second step is to prepare for the world we're headed towards. Within the last couple of months, several scientific reports have surfaced with very dramatic warnings. Here are a couple of outtakes from the most prominent reports:
The World Bank Group paints a dire picture of a 4 degrees Celsius temperature increase and why it should be avoided:
"Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial climate. Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4 degrees Celsius could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6 degrees Celsius, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries."
You can read the report here.
PWC's low carbon economy index describes the challenge with the following words:
"Business leaders have been asking for clarity in political ambition on climate change. Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world -- not just 2 degrees Celsius, but 4 degrees Celsius and, at our current rate, 6 degrees Celsius ."
You can read that report here.
According to IAE's Energy Outlook 2012, energy‐related carbon dioxide emissions rise from an estimated 31.2 Gt in 2011 to 37.0 Gt in 2035, pointing to a long‐term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius. A lower rate of global economic growth in the short term would make only a marginal difference to longer‐term energy and climate trends .
Science writer, Mark Lynas, who combed all the available scientific research to construct a picture of a world with a 6 degrees Celsius temperature increase describes the scenario like this: "It would cause a mass extinction of almost all life and probably reduce humanity to a few struggling groups embattled survivors clinging to life near the poles."
These reports represent the most updated conventional wisdom available at the time. Even if you disagree about what has caused these projections, we could at least agree about the consequences and the need for massive, worldwide collaborations now! We can't afford to do otherwise. It makes little sense to lock the world's political leaders in closed rooms in remote areas, where they argue over time frames -- time frames which within a very short time will be irrelevant. Remember that it is only a couple of years ago that we talked about a 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase; now we're seriously talking about 6 degrees Celsius. And without having any widespread public debate about a challenge, which most scientists don't hesitate calling the biggest ever threat facing our civilization.
If you knew that a big asteroid was headed towards Earth and were convinced about its catastrophic consequences for mankind, would you accept that the world leaders kept meeting once a year just to agree on what to discuss next year, and never succeeding in constructing an action plan that could stop or even slow down the asteroid? Surely, not.
Then why do you accept it, when it comes to climate change? Because the climate story is filled with incomprehensible words, frightening images and complex, intertwined problems that seem unrelated to most people. It is much easier to talk about a concrete asteroid, which you can observe with your own eyes. It is a simple and strong story we all can relate to. Popular movies have featured these kinds of situations. While on the other hand, scientific information about a 6 degrees Celsius temperature scenario hardly receives any attention at all. What should have been a global wake-up call of massive proportions has so far ended up being yet another push on the snooze button.
If the public doesn't understand the threat, how can we expect them to react to it and put pressure on the politicians? Hence, the world needs a political timeout; before we can discuss solutions, we need to understand the problem.
In the timeout, we need to figure out how to best tell the story about climate change and define the solutions. How can we make the story about climate change hopeful, full of solutions and positive images of how good life could be if we used all the available solutions and ideas out there? Even if the challenges are big and threatening, we have to make the best out of them. They can still be solved and we still have a possibility to pass a higher quality of life on to future generations -- provided we act now and do it as joint global action.
Instead of planning more high-level COP conferences, we should take a year or two off and let the greatest and most creative minds within the fields of storytelling and communications unite and figure out how to reduce the complexity of climate change. We need a new narrative -- a new language -- and a new common understanding of the climate challenge. Solving the climate problem is not just about politics, economy and technology; it is about communication and about creating new excitement and engagement.
It is a big task, but the investment in effective climate communication will be the one with the biggest return. It will make the alarm sound so loud that going back to sleep is not an option.
Is this possible? Yes, it is a matter of imagination and innovation. If you need inspiration and guidance, visit www.sustainia.me or on www.facebook.com/sustainia.