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12/12/2015 02:05 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2015

The Paris Climate Agreement Is One Huge Step For Mankind

The accord shows humans can transcend narrow national interests.

Matt Dunham/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Humanity has passed a vital test.

The significance of nearly 200 countries coming together to agree on a historic deal to limit catastrophic climate change shows that countries can go beyond their narrow national interests when the future of civilization is at stake.

It is fitting that the agreement was reached in Paris, which just a month ago was victim of a terrible terrorist atrocity.

In these two events we see a perfect representation of our duality and the choices that humanity faces in the decades to come.

We are essentially at a crossroads. One path is to fall prey to righteousness and extremism, which sees people retreating into a place of fear and anger, which in turn leads to escalating violence and the scapegoating of communities. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump falling into the Islamic State’s trap by calling for the banning of all Muslims entering the United States is a perfect example of this escalation of hostilities.

The other path humanity can take is for people to recognize that what unites us is far greater than what separates us.

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, announcing the final draft of the climate agreement on Saturday, talked of how someone had “the other day reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s sentence: it always seems impossible until it’s done. I wish to add some other words to that, words spoken by the same hero: None of us acting alone can be successful. Success is built collectively.”

Christiana Figueres, who has masterfully supervised the climate talks in her role as head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, says this is a time in our history where it is more important than ever to respect our differences and work collaboratively.

She told me recently that the climate talks should not be seen in isolation but as a gateway to creating a new global governance structure to deal with the many challenges we face. She sees this almost as a spiritual journey that requires us all to expand of our awareness and consciousness of what it means to be a citizen of planet Earth.

She has spent enormous efforts bringing the world’s religions together to support a climate deal, in part because she recognizes there is a common thread in all spiritual traditions; a recognition of the inter-dependence of all life.

This essentially means that individuals, communities and nations must look beyond their own particular needs and recognize that true prosperity can come only from everyone winning.

We are already seeing the results of what the opposite path could look like. The Syrian civil war was preceded by what experts say was the worst drought in more than 800 years, and we have already seen how the crisis is leading to countries’ fear of being swamped by refugees.

But these numbers would be dwarfed if climate change went unchecked. Noted climate economist Nicholas Stern told me that “hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions of people would have to move. If we’ve learned anything from history that means severe and extended conflict."

“We couldn’t just turn it off," he said. "You can’t make a peace treaty with the planet, you can’t negotiate with the laws of physics. You’re in there, you’re stuck. Those are the stakes we’re playing for."

A failure to work together would cause dislocation across all areas of society. Referring to climate change, Paul Polman, the CEO of global consumer goods giant Unilever, repeatedly states that business cannot prosper in a failing society.

What makes the climate agreement particularly significant is the increasing recognition that our lives are intimately connected to nature and that, far from being all-powerful, humanity is intensely vulnerable to any changes in the balance of the environment.

We are already seeing that with less than a 1-degree rise in global temperatures, extreme weather has the power to devastate communities and to hamper the ability to grow enough food to feed a growing global population.

The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has hundreds of thousands of followers around the world and has been a strong advocate for climate action for decades, once told me that "fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the centre and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing."

When we act with generosity and passion, humanity is able to produce extraordinary feats. The climate agreement represents a common purpose in which every person on the planet can participate.

As the eco-philospher Joanna Macy, with her co-author Chris Johnstone, pointed out in her book Active Hope: “When we become aware of an emergency and rise to the occasion, something powerful gets switched on inside us. We activate our sense of purpose and discover strengths we didn’t even know we had. Being able to make a difference is powerfully enlivening; it makes our lives feel more worthwhile.

“Seeing ourselves as separate entities, rather than as connected parts of a larger whole, reduces the search for purpose to a preoccupation with how well our self is doing compared with others. As a result, the unhealthy obsession with appearance and status known as ‘affluenza’ has become a major contributor to emotional distress.

“To promote the recovery of our world and the healing of our communities, while also living lives that are rich and satisfying, we need to embody a larger story of who and what we are.”

The Paris climate agreement is not the end of the story, as now begins the hard work to ensure that it is transformed into meaningful action.

There are many who will see the agreement as not going as far enough as they had hoped. But stepping back a moment brings to mind Neil Armstrong’s most famous line, spoken after becoming the first person to set foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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