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Last chance? Be warned and inspired to take risks

by Nicholas Stern, Claude Henry and Johan Rockström

All that we take for granted faces existential threat. Most people still struggle to accept that we must all live very differently and do so rapidly in order to ensure our very survival on this planet.

But there are flag bearers for new sustainable thinking and living. Here we headline the inspiring lessons from some.

Nicholas Stern, Claude Henry and Johan Rockström
They are brought together in a new book Standing up for a Sustainable World: Voices of Change. It is edited by three of the world’s leading analysts in sustainability and the climate emergency. Here they highlight the personal lessons that all leaders can learn from the stories.

The world has on some key dimensions made extraordinary progress since the end of World War II. Output per head has quadrupled. Poverty, in terms of incomes, has been dramatically reduced. Life expectancy has increased by around 30 years.

However, the extraordinary growth has come at colossal envi ronmental cost. So the world is now in a deeply dangerous position with a very narrow window for action.

Our biodiversity has been brutally damaged. Our oceans have been fundamentally altered and marine life is in great danger. Our forests have been ravaged. Our air and water have been profoundly polluted. And our climate is gravely threatened in ways that could cause immense harm to lives and livelihoods across the world, lasting for centuries.

Our last chance to save the planet as we know it

Time is short. If we fail to act decisively in this decade, the damage to our climate, oceans and biodiversity is likely to be irreversible. This is our last chance to save the planet as we know it.

Here we highlight those who have not only understood those threats but become witness to them. They have confronted them, often at great costs to themselves.

The forces against them are systemic. The individuals or organisations they have to take on are powerful, and often ruthless and malevolent. The most celebrated pronouncement in economics – Adam Smith on the “invisible hand” in 1776 - today sounds desperately outdated. He wrote that by ‘pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it’.

Pursuit of profit and power, not respect for nature

Instead of a competitive market where providers meet consumers’ demands, we have at the core of the economy a nexus of dominant firms. Private oligopolistic companies in Western countries. Or state-owned and state-controlled in China. Or cronyist corporates in Russia, Iran and other developing countries. They pursue their own goals of profit and power.

They do this mostly indifferent to the welfare of the people, particularly inimical to their health and the environment within which they live. They feed the exorbitant financial returns expected by shareholders, or by any sort of people in control. They do it by systematically destroying the natural capital – biodiversity, air, water, soil, climate – without which life on earth is doomed to collapse.

Our book brings together inspirational stories and experiences. It is about, and by, those who have seen ways forward to a much better development path for human well-being, security and dignity. They show how we can raise living standards and fight poverty across the world at the same time as creating a much safer and more attractive environment.

Old think is weakening, but not enough yet

Their momentum is building. The old polluting forces are somewhat weakening. But our future is in the balance. We share their voices, vision and hope in order to help to tilt the balance their way.

The evidence on the scale and urgency of the threats is overwhelming. There should be no doubt that we are facing global systems challenges across multiple dimensions that are crucial to our well-being.

There is a flood of scientific warnings illustrated in the following examples.

Scary data

The 2019 Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas published by the Water Resources Institute identifies 17 countries which are home to a quarter of the world’s population. They face ‘extremely high water stress which will be close to day zero conditions when the taps run dry’.

India and Pakistan are among them. Countries and regions like the Yellow River basin depend on dwindling Himalayan or Andean glaciers for their water. They are on the edge, as are the south west United States, Mexico and Central America, as well as countries around the Mediterranean Sea.

This severe water predicament is closely connected to global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 compared 1.5°C and 2°C increases in global mean temperature above pre-industrial levels. It highlighted that the proportion of the global population exposed to severe heat at least once every five years is more than 2.5 times greater. Also, that the proportion of vertebrate and plant species that lose at least half of their bioclimatic range is double.

There is strong evidence that exceeding 2°C will result in large biomes on earth collapsing, such as coral reefs and tropical forests. Going even beyond implies that ‘warming could activate important tipping elements, raising the temperature further to activate other tipping elements in a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures’.

Why we must all contemplate the unbearable

This describes a road to unbearable conditions of life on Earth: “In the absence of migration, one third of the global population is projected to experience a mean annual temperature greater than 29°C. This is currently found in only 0.8% of the Earth’s land surface, mostly concentrated in the Sahara.”

Giant redwoods in Sequoia National Park, California, are already having enough.

They were supposed to live for another 500 to 1,000 years. The combination of drought stress, fire damage and overall warming have made them vulnerable for the first time as far back as we can know to bark beetles infestations. “That’s not how giant sequoias die,” laments Dr Christy Brigham, chief biologist of Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks.

A stern health warning was recently formulated by the 2019 Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: “A business-as-usual trajectory will result in a fundamentally altered world. The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change.”

DEFENDERS

They are community leaders and organizers of mass protests or of campaigns unveiling pollution, land grabs, deforestation. They are rangers, farmers, teachers, artists. They face land invaders, loggers, poachers, dam builders, mining operators, drug traffickers, corrupt public authorities, death squads.

Defenders live in and around the Amazon, Congo or Southeast Asia forests; in East and Central African savannahs; in various Indian states; in the islands of the Coral Triangle across the Philippines and Indonesia; in Central American villages; in the plains of Dakota, USA; in Queensland, Australia, and so on.

Every year they are murdered by the hundreds. Nevertheless, their numbers are growing. The Guardian newspaper, and in particular Jonathan Watts, who popularised the name Defenders, regularly publishes information about them.

LITIGANTS

They are active in many places – Australia, Colombia, China, European Union, India, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, Uganda, United States. They appeal in the courts of justice to show that public authorities are failing - both themselves and the generations to come - by neglecting the common natural capital, the climate in particular, or even by acting as accomplices of rogue firms or gangs responsible for far-reaching damages.

Some are rather young, as befits front-line victims of the disasters that loom. In the US, 21 students aged 11 to 22 from 10 different states are suing the federal government over immediate and future damages due to climate change denial or negligence.

Likewise, a group of 25 young people in Colombia filed a suit against the state for failing to stop deforestation in the Amazon basin: the Supreme Court then ruled in their favour. And in 2017, the then nine-year-old Ridhima Pandey challenged the federal government in India’s Supreme Court.

A claim that has been brought against New Zealand’s government illustrates the potential for Māori communities, in their capacity as traditional guardians of the natural environment, to bring claims against governments for failing to properly tackle environmental issues. Their action resonates far beyond New Zealand’s frontiers.

COMING GENERATIONS ON THE FRONT LINE

Another student, Greta Thunberg from Sweden, at age 15 started a different type of action, not in courts but in schools. What is the point of children going to school if they have no future? What is the point of them learning sciences if people in positions of responsibility refuse to listen to scientists?

Millions of students have taken part on Fridays. Hence the name of their movement Fridays For Future (FFF) in school strikes for the climate throughout 130 countries. The FFF leaders in several countries – Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, Nigeria, Uganda – often find inspiration and support from a remarkable organization, 350.org, founded by William “Bill” McKibben.

Students graduating from ‘elite’ universities used to take plush jobs with bright futures in prosperous firms. For many of them that is no longer the case. They seek compatibility between professional prospects and deeply felt ecological concerns to the point of making firms anxious about their capacity for recruiting the best candidates. For certain employers - particularly those with activities that are fundamentally detrimental to the environment and to the climate in particular - that capacity to compete for talent is seriously dented.

ENTREPRENEURS

They pioneer ways of producing, storing and consuming energy without killing life on earth and damaging the climate.

They devise and disseminate new materials to save resources. They grow and produce safe food without wiping out biological diversity and polluting to death bodies of water and the soil itself. They profitably manage forests and ocean resources without exhausting them. They renovate cities to make them more resilient, more efficient, less destructive and more hospitable.

Of particular significance is the role that visionary and determined social entrepreneurs, local and regional leaders can play in bringing their communities forward on paths for ecological and economic transition.

INVESTORS

Aware of the climate risks, investors rebalance their portfolios away from high carbon footprints (e.g. coal, oil, cement) towards assets positively associated with the transition to a decarbonised economy (e.g. renewable energy providers, producers of efficient materials).

Pioneers such as the Wallace Global Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have kickstarted this movement for responsible investors. Since 2014 it has gained strong momentum.

Major financial management companies, like BlackRock and Allianz, have made strong climate commitments. So too have major banks, such as HSBC and Standard Chartered. We will, of course, find out about delivery.

Increasingly, investors are recognising that it is the dirty activities of the last century that are risky and in decline, and that it is the clean investments of the twenty-first century that are likely to prosper.

When an investor has rebalanced her portfolio in this way, she is motivated to support those public policies that enhance the value of her new investments – for example, stricter carbon pricing policies. In this sense, private interests and natural capital-friendly public policies might come to converge.

So-called green bonds, and other instruments for financing transition-oriented activities, are emitted and traded under various forms. Their scope is fast growing, particularly in China and in the European Union. Their healthy development is conditional on the formulation and implementation of appropriate public policies and regulations. But their existence and expansion help drive such policies.

COMMUNICATORS

Effective communicators are vital in order to amplify and disseminate the messages from policy-makers and from scientists. All the more so as such messages are not easy to convey and as time is short.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to explain and convince a majority to approve his policies, however unfamiliar these looked initially. Explaining how to shift to a more sustainable development path is no less vital than explaining how to exit from the Great Depression. It requires the same qualities of coherence, clarity and conviction.

In L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, Livre III (1856), Alexis de Tocqueville shows how in the second half of the eighteenth century mushrooming new visions and actions converged to overthrow a 1,000-year-old French Ancien Régime. This generated a new order, despite seemingly insuperable obstacles. These days we observe a similar pattern with the still fragile perspective of another, potentially broader revolution. Time, however, is severely constrained.

There are many truly outstanding people ‘standing up for a sustainable planet’ that are not included in the actors’ accounts. Indeed many, such as David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, have been ‘standing up’ for longer than any of the editors, authors or actors featured in our book. But at the same time they inspired and encouraged others to do the same, whether through high-profile documentary narration or community initiatives like the Jane Goodall Institute’s TACARE and Roots & Shoots programmes.

We showcase a multitude of individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the protection of our planet. But there are numerous others responsible for pioneering work across the globe that have paved the way for following generations of environmentalists like Davi Kopenawa, Wangari Maathai and Chandi Prasad Bhatt. They are outstanding examples.

Claude Henry is a physicist turned economist who is currently Professor of Sustainable Development at Sciences Po in Paris and Columbia University.

Johan Rockström is joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Lord Nicholas Stern is IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.

Visit Standing up for a Sustainable World: Voices of Change for their full analysis with the specific, inspiring examples.

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