What To Do Now

December 10th, 2007

The world today is facing an unprecedented set of crises.

The most recent to burst upon public awareness is that of global warming, and it is indeed a matter of urgency and of critical importance. We have, according to the latest scientific estimates, only seven years in which to level off our greenhouse gas emissions – and then begin to reduce them sharply – if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. This alone requires a massive transformation of our infrastructure, our economy, our energy use, our way of life, our society.

But the climate crisis is not occurring in isolation, as if it were an asteroid hurtling toward the earth. It is a consequence of many other factors: resource extraction and fossil fuel use, industrialization and massive population growth, scientific and technological immaturity, and the willful perpetuation of ignorance and superstition. It is not separable from the many other crises that we see occurring on the planet, from the growing disparity between rich and poor, the violence and conflict that afflict many parts of the world, the fear and oppression visited upon our own people as well as upon our so-called adversaries. To solve the climate problem, we will need to address some other difficult issues as well, including the demands of other nations to reach our level of economic development and their willingness to imitate us in the unlimited pollution of our environment.

The consequences of environmental degradation are not felt equally around the world; but they will eventually be felt by everyone. Here is how Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, described this in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

One of the most significant aspects of the impacts of climate change, which has unfortunately not received adequate attention from scholars in the social sciences, relates to the equity implications of changes that are occurring and are likely to occur in the future. In general, the impacts of climate change on some of the poorest and the most vulnerable communities in the world could prove extremely unsettling. And, given the inadequacy of capacity, economic strength, and institutional capabilities characterizing some of these communities, they would remain extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and may, therefore, actually see a decline in their economic condition, with a loss of livelihoods and opportunities to maintain even subsistence levels of existence.

But since the IPCC does not provide policy prescriptions, it does not make recommendations as to how to avoid the looming conflicts over water, food, health, and human habitation – which will add to those already occurring over oil, access to markets and capital, and ethnic, religious, and idealogical divisions.


Climate change is likely to lead to some irreversible impacts on biodiversity. There is medium confidence that approximately 20%–30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5–2.5 ºC, relative to 1980–99. As global average temperature exceeds about 3.5 ºC, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40%–70% of species assessed) around the globe. These changes, if they were to occur would have serious effects on the sustainability of several ecosystems and the services they provide to human society.

Certain regions, such as the Arctic, Africa, the delta regions, and island nations, are likely to be especially affected; and the vulnerability to climate change is increased by “poverty, and unequal access to resources, food insecurity, trends in economic globalization, conflict, and incidence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.” In addition, “migration and movement of people is a particularly critical source of potential conflict,” as I believe we are already experiencing in America.

The IPCC has concluded that

anthropogenic factors could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending on the rate and magnitude of climate change. For instance, partial loss of ice sheets on polar land could imply metres of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines, and inundation of low-lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands.

The only question is how long it will take for these conditions to materialize if we do nothing; and what is likely to occur even if we are able to mitigate our GHG emissions.

Science tells us not only that the climate system is changing, but also that further warming and sea level rise is in store even if greenhouse gases were to be stabilized today. That is a consequence of the basic physics of the system. Social factors also contribute to our future, including the ‘lock-in’ due, for example, to today’s power plants, transportation systems, and buildings, and their likely continuing emissions even as cleaner future infrastructure comes on line. So the challenge before us is not only a large one, it is also one in which every year of delay implies a commitment to greater climate change in the future.

Pachauri states somewhat abstractly that

– For a CO2-equivalent concentration at stabilization of 445–490 ppm, CO2 emissions would need to peak during the period 2000–15 and decline thereafter. We, therefore, have a short window of time to bring about a reduction in global emissions if we wish to limit temperature increase to around 2° C at equilibrium.

– Even with this ambitious level of stabilisation the global average sea level rise above pre-industrial at equilibrium from thermal expansion only would lie between 0.4–1.4 metres. This would have serious implications for several regions and locations in the world.

The mostly likely scenario is that we will not achieve this goal, and therefore average sea level will exceed several feet. For those living near the coasts (i.e., about one-third to one-half of humanity) this is not good news. We are in a race against time to prevent things from getting much worse; but we’ve already done irreversible harm to the ecosystem.

Al Gore, the co-recipient of the Peace Prize with the IPCC, puts things in even starker terms:

Even though I fear my words cannot match this moment, I pray what I am feeling in my heart will be communicated clearly enough that those who hear me will say, “We must act.”

The distinguished scientists with whom it is the greatest honor of my life to share this award have laid before us a choice between two different futures – a choice that to my ears echoes the words of an ancient prophet: “Life or death, blessings or curses. Therefore, choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”

We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency – a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst – though not all – of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively and quickly.

However, despite a growing number of honorable exceptions, too many of the world’s leaders are still best described in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored Adolf Hitler’s threat: “They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.”

So today, we dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow, we will dump a slightly larger amount, with the cumulative concentrations now trapping more and more heat from the sun.

As a result, the earth has a fever. And the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal by itself. We asked for a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. And the consistent conclusion, restated with increasing alarm, is that something basic is wrong.

We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.

Last September 21, as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is “falling off a cliff.” One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.

Seven years from now.

In the last few months, it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter. Major cities in North and South America, Asia and Australia are nearly out of water due to massive droughts and melting glaciers. Desperate farmers are losing their livelihoods. Peoples in the frozen Arctic and on low-lying Pacific islands are planning evacuations of places they have long called home. Unprecedented wildfires have forced a half million people from their homes in one country and caused a national emergency that almost brought down the government in another. Climate refugees have migrated into areas already inhabited by people with different cultures, religions, and traditions, increasing the potential for conflict. Stronger storms in the Pacific and Atlantic have threatened whole cities. Millions have been displaced by massive flooding in South Asia, Mexico, and 18 countries in Africa. As temperature extremes have increased, tens of thousands have lost their lives. We are recklessly burning and clearing our forests and driving more and more species into extinction. The very web of life on which we depend is being ripped and frayed.

We never intended to cause all this destruction, just as Alfred Nobel never intended that dynamite be used for waging war. He had hoped his invention would promote human progress. We shared that same worthy goal when we began burning massive quantities of coal, then oil and methane.

Even in Nobel’s time, there were a few warnings of the likely consequences. One of the very first winners of the Prize in chemistry worried that, “We are evaporating our coal mines into the air.” After performing 10,000 equations by hand, Svante Arrhenius calculated that the earth’s average temperature would increase by many degrees if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Seventy years later, my teacher, Roger Revelle, and his colleague, Dave Keeling, began to precisely document the increasing CO2 levels day by day.

But unlike most other forms of pollution, CO2 is invisible, tasteless, and odorless – which has helped keep the truth about what it is doing to our climate out of sight and out of mind. Moreover, the catastrophe now threatening us is unprecedented – and we often confuse the unprecedented with the improbable.

We also find it hard to imagine making the massive changes that are now necessary to solve the crisis. And when large truths are genuinely inconvenient, whole societies can, at least for a time, ignore them. Yet as George Orwell reminds us: “Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

In the years since this prize was first awarded, the entire relationship between humankind and the earth has been radically transformed. And still, we have remained largely oblivious to the impact of our cumulative actions.

Indeed, without realizing it, we have begun to wage war on the earth itself. Now, we and the earth’s climate are locked in a relationship familiar to war planners: “Mutually assured destruction.”

More than two decades ago, scientists calculated that nuclear war could throw so much debris and smoke into the air that it would block life-giving sunlight from our atmosphere, causing a “nuclear winter.” Their eloquent warnings here in Oslo helped galvanize the world’s resolve to halt the nuclear arms race.

Now science is warning us that if we do not quickly reduce the global warming pollution that is trapping so much of the heat our planet normally radiates back out of the atmosphere, we are in danger of creating a permanent “carbon summer.”

As the American poet Robert Frost wrote, ” Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice.” Either, he notes, “would suffice.”

But this does not need to happen.

But neither need be our fate. It is time to make peace with the planet.

We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war. These prior struggles for survival were won when leaders found words at the 11th hour that released a mighty surge of courage, hope and readiness to sacrifice for a protracted and mortal challenge.

These were not comforting and misleading assurances that the threat was not real or imminent; that it would affect others but not ourselves; that ordinary life might be lived even in the presence of extraordinary threat; thatProvidence could be trusted to do for us what we would not do for ourselves.

No, these were calls to come to the defense of the common future. They were calls upon the courage, generosity and strength of entire peoples, citizens of every class and condition who were ready to stand against the threat once asked to do so. Our enemies in those times calculated that free people would not rise to the challenge; they were, of course, catastrophically wrong.

Now comes the threat of climate crisis – a threat that is real, rising, imminent, and universal. Once again, it is the 11th hour. The penalties for ignoring this challenge are immense and growing, and at some near point would be unsustainable and unrecoverable. For now we still have the power to choose our fate, and the remaining question is only this: Have we the will to act vigorously and in time, or will we remain imprisoned by a dangerous illusion?

Mahatma Gandhi awakened the largest democracy on earth and forged a shared resolve with what he called “Satyagraha” – or “truth force.”

In every land, the truth – once known – has the power to set us free.

Truth also has the power to unite us and bridge the distance between “me” and “we,” creating the basis for common effort and shared responsibility.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We need to go far, quickly.

We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action. At the same time, we must ensure that in mobilizing globally, we do not invite the establishment of ideological conformity and a new lock-step “ism.”

That means adopting principles, values, laws, and treaties that release creativity and initiative at every level of society in multifold responses originating concurrently and spontaneously.

This new consciousness requires expanding the possibilities inherent in all humanity. The innovators who will devise a new way to harness the sun’s energy for pennies or invent an engine that’s carbon negative may live in Lagos or Mumbai or Montevideo. We must ensure that entrepreneurs and inventors everywhere on the globe have the chance to change the world.

When we unite for a moral purpose that is manifestly good and true, the spiritual energy unleashed can transform us. The generation that defeated fascism throughout the world in the 1940s found, in rising to meet their awesome challenge, that they had gained the moral authority and long-term vision to launch the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and a new level of global cooperation and foresight that unified Europe and facilitated the emergence of democracy and prosperity in Germany, Japan, Italy and much of the world. One of their visionary leaders said, “It is time we steered by the stars and not by the lights of every passing ship.”

In Gore’s view, we can rise to this challenge.

We too can find our greatest opportunity in rising to solve the climate crisis. In the Kanji characters used in both Chinese and Japanese, “crisis” is written with two symbols, the first meaning “danger,” the second “opportunity.” By facing and removing the danger of the climate crisis, we have the opportunity to gain the moral authority and vision to vastly increase our own capacity to solve other crises that have been too long ignored.

We must understand the connections between the climate crisis and the afflictions of poverty, hunger, HIV-Aids and other pandemics. As these problems are linked, so too must be their solutions. We must begin by making the common rescue of the global environment the central organizing principle of the world community.

Fifteen years ago, I made that case at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. Ten years ago, I presented it in Kyoto. This week, I will urge the delegates in Bali to adopt a bold mandate for a treaty that establishes a universal global cap on emissions and uses the market in emissions trading to efficiently allocate resources to the most effective opportunities for speedy reductions.

This treaty should be ratified and brought into effect everywhere in the world by the beginning of 2010 – two years sooner than presently contemplated. The pace of our response must be accelerated to match the accelerating pace of the crisis itself.

Heads of state should meet early next year to review what was accomplished in Bali and take personal responsibility for addressing this crisis. It is not unreasonable to ask, given the gravity of our circumstances, that these heads of state meet every three months until the treaty is completed.

We also need a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store carbon dioxide.

And most important of all, we need to put a price on carbon – with a CO2 tax that is then rebated back to the people, progressively, according to the laws of each nation, in ways that shift the burden of taxation from employment to pollution. This is by far the most effective and simplest way to accelerate solutions to this crisis.

The world needs an alliance – especially of those nations that weigh heaviest in the scales where earth is in the balance. I salute Europe and Japan for the steps they’ve taken in recent years to meet the challenge, and the new government in Australia, which has made solving the climate crisis its first priority.

But the outcome will be decisively influenced by two nations that are now failing to do enough: the United States and China. While India is also growing fast in importance, it should be absolutely clear that it is the two largest CO2 emitters – most of all, my own country – that will need to make the boldest moves, or stand accountable before history for their failure to act.

Both countries should stop using the other’s behavior as an excuse for stalemate and instead develop an agenda for mutual survival in a shared global environment.

These are the last few years of decision, but they can be the first years of a bright and hopeful future if we do what we must. No one should believe a solution will be found without effort, without cost, without change. Let us acknowledge that if we wish to redeem squandered time and speak again with moral authority, then these are the hard truths:

The way ahead is difficult. The outer boundary of what we currently believe is feasible is still far short of what we actually must do. Moreover, between here and there, across the unknown, falls the shadow.

That is just another way of saying that we have to expand the boundaries of what is possible. In the words of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, “Pathwalker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk.”

“Expanding the boundaries of what is possible” seems to me to require more than technological change. It is fundamentally about the way we see things. Having spent many years in the field of personal transformation, it is clear that this is a large part of what it is about: unless we can see a new possibility, a new goal that it is genuinely possible to strive for, we are not willing to make the effort to surpass ourselves, and to give up what is comfortable.

Finally, Gore concludes:

We have everything we need to get started, save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource.

So let us renew it, and say together: “We have a purpose. We are many. For this purpose we will rise, and we will act.”

But I’m not sure sure that we have, as yet, “everything we need to get started” save the political will. As Jared Diamond points out in Collapse, his extensive study of why societies fail, a lack of awareness, of widespread understanding, or the failure to make the right choices, can doom an entire civilization to very rapid extinction. Our challenge today is even greater than that, for it is not just the future of a single civilization that is at stake: it is the future of humanity, and quite possibly of that of a large percentage of the other life forms around us.

It seems to me that we must alter our species’ relationship to its environment, and to the web of life that supports us; and this means a deep change in the way most if not all of us see the world and see ourselves. While we are doing everything we can with technology, with public policy, and with business, we must still be committed to altering humanity itself, to expanding awareness and understanding, to moving forward with conscious evolution. For it seems to me that we need to be deeply cautious of undertaking massive changes in the world for the wrong reasons or without coming from the right set of goals and presuppositions.

It is arguable, for example, that our current misadventure in Iraq did not come about because of wanting to remove a dictator or to establish “democracy” in that region, but because every action emanated from, and was correlated with, the wrong motives, coupled with faulty information. If we are now to embark upon a crash course to lower our carbon footprint on the planet, we must understand this in terms of reducing our overall negative impacts, as a species, on our environment, and accepting our responsibility as “guardians of the planet.” This means, for example, that we are guardians of the Chinese region of the planet, and they of the American region. In reality, it is all one region. As Gore says, “We must begin by making the common rescue of the global environment the central organizing principle of the world community.”

But it also means more than this. Everywhere, today, there is an intensified struggle for resources, capital, freedom, and power. We must find a way to expand all of these, to share them equitably and use them intelligently, for the common good, and not just for the good of our own tribe or nation or cohort of the population.

This commitment to help and empower everyone is, as Gore suggests, a profound shift in our worldview. We don’t know where the best solutions will come from. What we do know is that we must shift the way all of us live if we are to coexist, all 7 or 9 or 12 billion of us, with the rest of life on this planet.

Here are the complete texts (and videos) of these speeches:

Dr. R. K. Pachauri’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Al Gore’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

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