03/19/2013 04:40 am ET

What Connects Us Most: Climate Change and Humanity

This post draws from remarks at the Names Not Numbers Conference in Aldeburgh, UK, March 19, 2013

To start, please forgive an American pressing an audience of Brits about climate change, as your country at least has climate goals, while half our Congress still won't even accept that humans are heating the planet. Of course, you sent us religious fanatics who won't accept science -- some wish you had sent them to Australia instead of the criminals.

We are connected by and to the natural systems which sustain humanity, most notably a stable climate. If we overwhelm nature, we will sunder our connection, risk our economy, spirit and our very existence. And that is exactly what we are doing -- imperiling the climate that has sustained civilization, pushing the earth's thermostat to maximum. Contrary to popular notion, we are not risking the planet -- in the long run, the planet will recover. What we are risking, however, is the human race, along with the many other species we are taking down with us.

Certainly human civilization will be gone along with the climate that enabled it when the oceans have acidified and sea level has risen 15 meters -- its level the last time in earth's history there were 400 parts per million carbon in the atmosphere as now (we are at 397 today). And the last time carbon concentrations were 600 to 700 ppm, levels we are rushing towards this century if we don't change course, the sea was over 50 meters higher. While scientists can't tell you the precise moment this will come about, they say it's inevitable with energy business as usual. Already change has come much sooner than expected. We are seeing big climate impacts now at only 0.8 C average warming -- far earlier than the 2-3 C threshold that dominated thinking for a decade. Every year now is critical, as once the glaciers begin to break up, we don't know how to stop them.

We are connected to this issue, climate change, because if we don't solve it, we won't get to solve any of the other issues while worsening most of them, especially war and poverty. And we aren't solving it -- the world's governments are rushing to develop every fossil fuel on earth -- tar sands, shale oil, shale gas -- making each year hotter, causing ever more extreme weather.

We have yet to even experience fully half the warming from emissions already released. It's built into the system, lurking in the oceans, soon to come forth. Yet with the warming we have already experienced, the north polar ice cap will soon be no more, while land-based glaciers are melting, threatening to cause unstable coastlines for generations to come. It's happening now - heat waves, droughts, floods, superstorms, lost crops, more rain in the UK from an atmosphere with 5% more water vapor in it. 50,000+ people were killed by the 2003 European heat wave that has now been directly linked by scientists to global warming... it was not "natural variation." The Russian heat wave raised food prices that helped trigger the Arab Spring. Climate change-induced droughts have begun and the drought predictions for mid-century suggest 2~3X Dust Bowl levels throughout much of America and Europe. Consider this: we are adding the energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima bombs to the climate every single day ( a half watt per square meter of the earth for you science buffs).

The real tragedy is that we can still avoid the most dangerous climate change and create a much more prosperous world. There is still time if we get started soon, but not much time -- just a few more to start making big, steady reductions. We have the technology to wean the world off fossil fuels, and we can certainly afford to do so. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, The Rocky Mountain Institute, McKinsey -- there are quite a few roadmaps already. The transition, properly financed, need not cost much or even anything on a net basis -- while climate inaction will ruin the economy, perhaps forever. And after we change energy technologies, we will still be able to fly, drive, heat and cool our homes, run industry and continue the rise of billions out of poverty. I've promised Julia Hobsbawm that we can all still fly to vacations around the world -- of course she will hold me to that! We will get energy from different sources, and we will do more with less energy too. 40% of the energy used in buildings is wasted and can be saved on a three year payback, as the Empire State Building has just shown. This is but one example.

The problem is not a lack of technology. It's a lack of urgency. A lack of political will. And the pollution of our politics and the distortion of perceived reality by the most powerful industry in the world. At bottom, it truly is a small number of oil, coal and gas companies in the way (oh yes, and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News and Wall Street Journal, and your Daily Mail, shame on them for even now calling climate change a hoax). The ultimate human drama is being played out -- will we let them block progress till it's too late? Carbon stays in the atmosphere for close to a thousand years.

Imagine if we found out the North Korean government was secretly pumping a gas into the atmosphere which was raising temperatures, searing crops, raising sea levels and increasing the severity of storms? We would demand immediate military action of course. So why aren't we demanding a transition to non-carbon energy from our leaders?

Here in Britain, things are sliding backwards. Deniers are gaining influence, even creeping into BBC coverage. The climate promise once showed by your Prime Minister is slipping, pushed by a Chancellor who claims addressing warming will hurt the economy. I assure you the very opposite is true -- not addressing it will guarantee economic decline as the weather worsens. It is imperative that this issue be depoliticized and made bipartisan again before your next election. And ours.

To preserve a livable climate, scientists have calculated that fully 80% of the known reserves of the fossil fuel companies must be kept in the ground (and that means shale gas too). 80% of their equity must be written off. Many say this is impossible -- this war can't be won. I don't believe it. I'm sure humanity will wake up and force them to a different business model than hijacking the climate. I'm sure that the intelligentsia of the world will wake up too -- although it's pretty asleep right now --and use its skills and influence to force action. I'm sure conservatives will eventually realize that the market mechanism of pricing carbon is far preferable to the inevitable government command and control the public will demand as the weather worsens. I'm just not sure any of this will happen in time, since we have so little left.

Will you all please help join in making sure it does happen in time, for the sake of our children and everything we are truly connected to? More than any other challenge we've faced, this one needs the best and brightest to come together urgently. We must connect for the climate and humanity. Thank you.