Climate change: time to stop, think and do!

Published by

Annette Gerritsen

Published on

31 October 2018

This article has been cross-posted from PlosBlogs.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued on 8 October 2018 makes for uncomfortable reading and presents the starkest warning yet that unless global carbon dioxide emissions are cut by about a half within 12 years, we face catastrophic consequences. Written by 133 authors from 40 countries and based on 6,000 peer-reviewed research papers, the 700 page report is clear that temperature increases of 1.5°C and 2°C above pre-industrial times would dramatically affect the environment. It is also clear that every fraction of a degree of warming makes a huge difference. The arguments for restricting global warming to 1.5°C  compared to 2°C  are irrefutable. As the World Resource Institute infographic shows, rising to 2°C would lead to the loss of 99 per cent of coral reefs (versus 70-90% decline at 1.5°C ); the disappearance of Arctic ice, with rising sea levels of 10 cm inundating many coastal communities causing loss of habitat for many species including insects,  plants, and vertebrates; and more damaging and extreme weather due to climate change.

Looking forward: new carbon emission targets

Report authors calculate that COemissions need to be reduced by 45% (on 2010 levels) by 2030 and be at “net zero” by 2050. Achieving these targets means investing £1.8 trillion a year (the global gross domestic product [GDP] is estimated at about US $87.5 trillion in 2018 so about 1.2% of global GDP would need to be allocated in the next 12 years). As examples, much faster than previously anticipated, we need to switch to electric vehicles and renewable energy while closing coal-fired power stations – a major challenge especially as global emissions increased by ~2 per cent last year (31.2 gigatons – 70% of global energy demand growth was met by oil, natural gas and coal.) Furthermore, we need to accelerate carbon dioxide removal – planting more forests and investigating in technologies that can remove COfrom the atmosphere.  To put things in perspective, the world spends ~US $13.6 trillion annually on war compared to ~US $6.8 billion (0.99%)  on peace activities.

Bolder action required: the SDG targets in light of the IPCC report

The 12 year time limit set for reducing carbon emissions is in line with meeting the UN- 2030 Global Goals or SDGs (Figure 1). SDG 13 – Climate Action – has five targets ranging from  strengthening ‘resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries’ to ‘mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources.’

Figure 1. The UN-2030 Sustainable Development Goals

While the current Climate Action targets and indicators appear strategically sound, they fall short in terms of the necessary enabling actions now required to address the magnitude, complexity and  urgency expressed in the 700 page IPPC report. The findings have been given even more urgency in a follow-up article (Climate report understates threat) drafted by three leading scientists (Mario Molina, ‘who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his work on depletion of the ozone layer’; Veerabhadran Ramanathan, ‘a 2018 TANG laureate, and distinguished professor of climate sciences at the University of California, San Diego’; and Durwood J. Zaelke, ‘founder and president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development in Washington, DC and Paris). Their collective concern is that the latest climate report actually understates the threat  posed to the world: “To put it bluntly,” say the authors, “there is a significant risk of self-reinforcing climate feedback loops pushing the planet into chaos beyond human control.” This is especially alarming in light of a recent study, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, showing that the window to prevent runaway climate change and a “hot house” super-heated  planet is closing much faster than previously understood. They echo conclusions reached by UN Secretary General António Guterres, who reminded world leaders last month that climate change is the defining issue of our time“We face an existential threat. Climate change is moving faster than we are.… If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences….”

What next? It’s ‘time to stop and think’

Living in strange times we are also experiencing the escalation of other global disruptions undermining civilisation and the world order – growth of repressive regimes, nationalism, trade tensions, armed conflicts, forced migration, democracy decline, vested interests, and populism…alongside climate change. It may now be time to consider the steps we need to take to restore order out of increasing chaos created largely by disinformation, distrust of the status quo and a disconnect between policy makers and civil society as well as a lack of commitment to the shared values and common actions espoused for the UN- 2030 SDGs, in particular the aspiration ‘to build peaceful, more inclusive and just societies.’

William Joy, an American computer scientist, may have said it best: “If we could agree, as a species, what we wanted, where we are headed, and why, then we would make our future much less dangerous – then we might understand what we can and should relinquish.” Along similar lines, Marco Lambertini,director general of WWF International, highlighting the loss of vertebrate species by half in less than two human generations, reminded us to “stop and think” and take on board “a unity around a common cause” and to make every effort to pull together “in a bold and coordinated effort.”

In his view, leadership has to change – especially “Heads of state need to start thinking globally; businesses and consumers need to stop behaving as if we live in a limitless world.” As the authors of the paper, Climate report understates threat, assert

Changing course will take leadership, such as we have seen in the United States from Governor Brown and the cities and states in his coalition, and from key heads of state such as China’s President Xi and India’s Prime Minister Modi, as well as France’s President Macron. These three leaders have the potential to provide Churchillian leadership to stabilize the world’s climate, starting by rallying the G20 countries responsible for 80 percent of the problem. They’ll need to speed up, and scale up, to succeed.”

A new approach: The One Health Movement

The WWF International Director-General’s call for “unity around a common cause” echoes  the holistic mission and approach of the One Health MovementOne Health has been defined as ‘a collaborative, multi-sectoral, and trans-disciplinary approach—working at the local, regional, national, and global levels—with the goal of achieving optimal health and well-being outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.’ 

Fundamental to the One Health mission is its emphasis on moving from the current view of conceptualising ‘the world as a place made especially for humans and a place without limits’ to embrace a new paradigm – a new worldview that ensures ‘our needs as human beings are compatible with an outer world and the needs of our ecosystem.’ The movement’s values, principles and practices are being recognised by proponents (public, private, civil society) across the globe not only in tackling pandemics and threats like antimicrobial resistance (AMR) but also, as the World Bank Group asserts in its report, operational framework for strengthening human, animal, and environmental public health systems at their interface. Examples include pollution, climate change, food insecurity, and more. The IPCC findings underscore the criticality of this mind shift and the urgency to tackle root causes such as vested interests and overconsumption (e.g., energy, water, raw materials) that undermine global sustainability.

In young people we trust: the promise of Generation Z

To translate aspirations into reality the engagement of the young generation as members of civil society is particularly vital. Generation Z (Gen Z) – born mid 1990s to early 21st century- will become the largest consumer group in the US and Europe by 2020, making up 40% of all the population. They are different in their worldview and their role within it from previous generations – demonstrating a global outlook, “me” to “we” orientation, concern for the planet, using capital to make the world a better place and recognising the need to balance technology with face-to-face communication.

With over 1.8 billion young people who belong to the Gen Z cohort globally – now considered by some as ‘the face of the planet’, they will no doubt have a strong global voice in 2020 and beyond! To help make their voices heard – supporting ‘the fixers’ so-to-speak – and their resolve ‘to make the world work better’ should encourage them to take a lead in progressing the One Health paradigm shift mentioned earlier –   transcending divisive politics and ‘putting their money into funds that generate a positive social impact’ – especially ecological re-balancing. Nations with high youth unemployment  are tasked to make structural changes – mainly in creating employment opportunities, including entrepreneurial initiatives (climate change related), career counselling, flexible education, and emphasising personal well-being. Finding solutions will require close collaboration between government, employers and civil society. Mitigating the risks associated in creating a sense of disillusionment while dissuading others from joining antidemocratic forces that may thwart opportunities for a meaningful life must become a societal priority in both rich and poor nations.

Communicating the facts: a common language for action

In a revealing commentary, ‘Let’s stop kidding ourselves about politics,’ writer Daniel Finkelstein cites a US study that concludes “People are motivated to deny problems and the scientific evidence supporting the existence of the problems when they are averse to the solution.” He gives a number of recent examples from Republican and Democrat responses to evidence on rising global temperatures, confirmation of a conservative justice, and Brexit to mention several. The problem with giving people the facts ‘in the changes we think they ought to make,’ he posits, is that we assume most “think forward, when in fact we think backwards…In reality, we often look at the solution, see whether we like it, and then work backwards to decide if there is really a problem in the first place’ – explaining ‘the growing appeal of fake news which gives people the solutions they are comfortable with.”

His key point is that “if you want others to accept the truth about the world we live in, we can’t start by denying the truth about how they think.” Perhaps the only thing we can do – and that is the main aim of Survival – is to engage with all who have a different point of view, present evidence, listen to each other’s arguments and try to build consensus around  solutions on which most might agree, such as the need to address climate change. Being open to lifelong learning regardless of  age or stage in life is the key requisite for making the world safer – especially if we heed the wise words of former UNESCO director general Irene Bokova at her inaugural address , calling for

“a new humanism that reconciles the global and the local , and teaches us anew how to build the world and that aspires to peace, democracy, justice and human rights…rooted in ethics and in social and economic responsibility…extending assistance to the most vulnerable…to face our greatest common challenges, particularly respect for the environment.”

The IPCC report findings and global actions that must follow might be a good place to apply this thinking – especially as the health and well-being of us all depends on our commitment to save the planet. As the late astronomer Professor Carl Sagan said eloquently in his book The Pale Blue Dot,“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all its vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

Maybe now really is the ‘Time to stop, think and do!’



George Lueddeke, PhD is author of Survival: One Health, One Planet, One Future (Routledge) released on 18 October 2018.

About the new publication Survival: One Health, One Planet, One Future

It is essentially because of the dangers posed to the world by socioeconomic, environmental, geopolitical and potentially technological forces that I decided to write this book. In my research, I came across a passage in economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith’s book, The Age of Uncertainty, that struck a particular note with me given the times we are experiencing: ‘A nuclear war does not defend a country and it does not defend a system …not even the most accomplished ideologue will be able to tell the difference between the ashes of capitalism and the ashes of communism.’

While 193 countries agreed the SDGs in 2015 and 195 endorsed the Paris climate agreement  in December 2015 (surprisingly the US withdrew from the accord  in June 2017 – which could take four years to complete), it is breathtaking how members of the UN Security Council continue to frustrate UN resolutions which could address many of the issues faced globally especially given hard evidence– subverting the needs and will of those who have most to lose. Adopting shared values that underpin the UN 2030 Agenda – especially values of equality, democracy, tolerance and respect to bridge division between people and bind nations together could not be more urgent.

With a Foreword by Professor David Heymann MD, the book builds on two previous books on medical education and global population health and well-being and seeks to address two of our greatest social problems: changing the way we relate to each other and to the planet and confronting  how we use technology for the benefit of both humankind and the planet. Covering a wide range of issues, the book provides a  point of convergence in Chapter 12 outlining Ten Propositions for Global Sustainability, which cut across all sectors and are meant for decision-making bodies – in particular the 193 national governments at the United Nations  General Assembly that endorsed the SDGs in 2015 and the 15 members of the UN Security Council.

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