The climate giant awakes. Have we turned a corner?

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Regular readers may be a little surprised by this column. I am regularly arguing that the science shows we are inevitably approaching, or may have past, a tipping point where widespread, rolling ecological and economic crises take hold.

But there’s another critical tipping point, of a very different character – where the world’s political and business leaders turn firmly towards action. Here’s the surprise – I think we may be at this tipping point already.

Scientists have become increasingly alarmed in recent years, as climate change reality has raced ahead of the political response. They point to countless examples of accelerating feedbacks, such as the reduction in the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 and rapid Arctic melting.

While they regularly point these out to our political masters, many of them express despair at the slow response.

So on what basis do I think the global political system has started to turn?

I think we have recently seen a number of developments that, taken together, indicate a profound shift is under way. When such a shift takes hold, it will rapidly accelerate – with significant implications for campaign and business strategy in this area over the years ahead.

The most significant and encouraging shift is what Tom Friedman in his recent NYT column called the shift from Red China to Green China. The Chinese leadership has for many years been talking about the need to act on climate but has in recent months shown serious potential to lead on this issue.

The rationale for them to do so is certainly there. As they have reeled under the negative economic and social impacts of pollution, China has accepted that the growth model followed by Western capitalism cannot work for them. Will they now pursue clean energy so vigorously they will dominate this new global market? Could climate even provide the issue on which China can manifest its global leadership ambitions?

I increasingly think the answer to both questions is likely to be yes, with far reaching economic and geopolitical implications. There is a good summary of recent developments and this potential for leadership, including China’s potential to see its emissions peak by 2030 in the article “Peaking Duck” by the Centre for American Progress’ Julian L. Wong.

Another important indicator is the recognition in the US political debate that the strength of the Chinese response is an economic threat to the US. The fear is growing that the resistance to change in the US may leave that economy floundering in what will be the largest economic transformation in history. As argued by Tom Friedman in the column referred to earlier, while America is currently strong on innovation, research ultimately follows the market. Friedman pointed out that “America’s premier solar equipment maker, Applied Materials, is about to open the world’s largest privately funded solar research facility — in Xian, China.”

The goal posts are also shifting in the science. An increasing number of scientists are coming to the view that the global CO2 target should be closer to 350ppm rather than 450ppm. In recent months we’ve seen this get global credence in response to the 350.org campaign, with eminent figures like the climate economist Nicholas Stern and the IPCC Chair Pachauri coming out in personal support of the 350 target. They would both be well aware that such a target would require cuts far more dramatic than anything on the table now.  With such a goal, the task becomes the elimination of net CO2 emissions from the economy rather than their reduction.

At a deeper level, Stern also lent his considerable intellectual weight to the debate on economic growth, stating what was previously heresy – that economic growth itself must now be questioned. He recently put the case that there were probably only 20 years left for further economic growth before the earth was full.

Equally important as these scientific and political developments are shifts in the business community. While debates are raging in Western economies including in the US, Japan and Australia on climate policy, there are signs of a profound underlying shift emerging in corporate attitudes. Symbolising this in the United States is the rapid withdrawal of major companies from the US Chamber of Commerce over their lobbying against action to regulate greenhouse gases. In recent weeks, major corporates such as PG&E and Apple have resigned, Nike has quit the Board of the organisation and GE and Johnson & Johnson have both publicly distanced themselves from the Chamber’s anti-climate action lobbying efforts.

Another example was a recent initiative by Cambridge Program for Sustainability Leadership’s Corporate Leaders Group, with 500 companies signing on to the Copenhagen Communiqué which endorsed strong action on climate by the world’s governments including keeping warning below 2 degrees and urging early action. “There is nothing to be gained by delay”, the communiqué states.

Many other countries previously in the background on the global climate debate like Indonesia (which is the world’s 3rd largest net emitter due to its extensive deforestation) recently announced its intention to cut emissions by 26% by 2020 compared to Business As Usual and by 41% if they get international financial support to go further. They also believe they can turn their forests into a net carbon sink by 2030.

And of course there is a storm of grassroots campaigning erupting around the world in the lead up to Copenhagen with campaigns like 350.org and many others.

Many of you will have the correct response that these are all only words – that we are yet to see action of real substance. That’s certainly true. Words are early signs, not conclusive evidence. But I think I can smell it now, and when these things do turn, they do so remarkably quickly – as we saw when governments responded to the recent financial crisis.

Of course this does not mean we can relax and it will all be OK! The climate system is now rapidly descending into crisis and the consequences will be felt for decades even with strong action now. What it does indicate however is that we will not be the proverbial boiling frogs who just sit here passively as the system collapses around us. It is only early signs of the turn, but it gives us an indication of what’s coming.

So we mustn’t back off, not even a little bit, with the pressure being applied to the system to encourage change. But we should perhaps reconsider tactics.

I think some of our energy should be focused for example on developing an emergency plan to fix the climate. The science clearly lays out what a stable climate looks like and it requires the elimination of net CO2 emissions from the economy within decades. Any rational analysis says this is going to require the equivalent of a war plan to achieve it. In future columns I’ll be saying a great deal more on that topic.

But for now, take a look around. The world is turning our way and while the crisis is still coming, the crisis response may not be as far behind it as we thought.

15 thoughts on “The climate giant awakes. Have we turned a corner?

  1. Thanks Paul, great post!

    One more for the mix for you – Korea. Strangely, I think, it’s often overlooked. It’s actions are very much at the leading edge – for example spending 100% of it’s GFC stimulus funds on green jobs and environmental industries. This has also helped catalyse big $s worth of private investment. A short summary is here.

    And you have to like this summary: Resources are limited, Creativity is unlimited – a sign over the front entrance to a gargantuan Korean industrial complex.

  2. James

    Good post. While I don’t quite think we are at the apex yet I do also see positive signs. The proximity to Copenhagen is having a desired effect with governments and other agencies jostling for position so to speak. I do worry that we will be presented with another Rio-like outcome though. However, being another twenty odd years down the track with stupefying amounts of research uncovering too many uneasy situation maybe, hopefully…this has to be different.

    Years ago I read a George Monbiot piece where he considered the required effort to confront Climate Change to be akin to a complete mobilisation of society towards that goal. Using the example of how societies reorder in this manner when faced with war. His point was that is was all quite possible, even the most difficult tasks. The emergency plan you speak reminds me of this.

    Thanks for your insights Paul.

  3. liz thornton

    As a campaigner for our 350.org North Shore beaches Sydney I am thrilled to have received the Chronicle! we too received more gloomy news yesterday however there was a note of optimism that if all else fails scientists in U.K. are looking to the release of basalt found in the mountainous areas which apparently contains co2 permanently as in the white cliffs of Dover.
    Do you have any of this information?

  4. Thank you Paul for further opening this issue of climate and environment concerns. It seems to me that while this is certainly talked about in all corners of the world from the kitchen table to board room tables, response happens due to reaction. Reaction because of evidence, due to concern or overdue legislation. Few doubt the need to protect or save the environment. Perhaps first and foremost we need to look at the most important environment – our own. If we stop and look at how we are operating and start taking responsibility for every action we do, nature will respond.

    If I live in disregard of myself, how do I energetically have any connectedness to the environment around me? Only by burying the truth and living in denial, consequently I have little true connectedness to the answer. Evidence of this – check out the major increases in ill health when we are supposed to be at a most “advanced” 21C time. If we don’t first recognise our separation from this fact we will continue to deny what our body is telling us, continue in defence, instead of being honest and attending our environment first. Only looking outward we see the result of our separation from who we truly are, looking within, we connect to the fullness of who we are and the paradigm shifts forever and with this energy things will change. Every single small action added together makes for big change. We can not keep walking on earths sacred land in complete disregard (most importantly of ourselves) and think she won’t produce a cleansing, even it it is a cyclone, bushfire or tsunami. So while industry is a part of the problem we are more so as nature responds to how we are energetically, (I believe).

  5. Paul

    Hi Paul – great post as usual – thought provoking and well written. One question: what commitments have the 500 companies from the Cambridge Program who signed the Copenhagen Communique made to actually reduce their greenhouse has emissions? The world desparately needs action not words or commitments.

  6. China’s one-child policy was brutal but prescient. I’m not advocating dictatorship, but they do have a ruthless was of getting things done. The so-called democracy of America is ineffectual and cannot deliver real change, so far. I am still hopeful and giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, especially considering the multiple disasters he inherited upon taking office.

    But the American public is dominated by Deniers and Ignorers. Perhaps it will be that the USA is eclipsed, marginalized and impoverished as China rises and takes the lead in true clean energy progress.

    Whatever. I for one welcome our new Green Masters – or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whichever I must submit to first!

  7. Bernard Eddy

    Dear Paul,

    I always look forward to your prescient commentary.

    The worry is, we have yet to hear any positive noises out of Canberra. The world sees us at the cutting front of climate change and we appear to be dragging our feet waiting for market forces to boost the cost of carbon AFTER the ETS is activated in 2011. Hello

    We lead the world in carbon emissions per capita 20.56 tonnes. The IPCC is saying this should be about 1 tonne for everyone on the planet. The connection is clear between climate change and worsening water problems. We lead the world down the wrong path on that too. (pending Productivity Commission Report)

    Economic rationalists; water and energy corporations have hijacked sane policy and gagged debate.

    The trick is to devise means to get this discussion into the headlines. Any ideas?

    Your readers are on the ball – now for the rest of the country!

    regards,
    Bernard Eddy
    Australian Water Network

  8. Hi Paul,

    Thanks a second time for bringing the global campaigning side of policy into your assessment, and in particular our work at 350.org.

    From the start of 350.org, I’ve always taken heart in Paul Hawken’s thesis in Blessed Unrest of the unrecognized movement around environment and social justice. Public engagement worldwide has more than enough power to shift this debate – the key is making that power seen and felt collectively as a social movement. Because it’s baseline science, and because it’s a scientific data point and not a social value in itself, the 350 ppm target turns out to be a pretty effective movement symbol. We can fill it with our own piece of the demand for a safe climate, and though there are surely disagreements on how we get there, making our power felt collectively requires some hook for the human imagination to link us all together.

    I’m now confident we’ll succeed in achieving that recognition on the 24th of October, with Liz Thornton above, and over 1,800 organizers in 141 countries (and growing). The degree to which we’ll succeed, we’ll find out on the night of the 24th, and in the weeks to follow leading into Copenhagen. But these kind of shared moments are what will make all of our work add up to more than the sum of its parts, and give civil society the focused strength to play its part in the global ‘tip’.

    Warm regards,
    Jeremy Osborn
    Berlin, Germany

  9. Danielle

    Thanks Paul, I look forward to every piece you write. Just finished reading “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy a disturbing and intense fictional book detailing the end of human civilization to Global Warming. Although fictional, it does not lie too far from our foreseeable futures if we continue blindly on the path of “progress” and economic growth. The information you and your references provide is giving people hope and hence the will to keep up the flight.

    Many thanks,
    Danielle

  10. Sarah-jane Potts

    Hi Paul,
    I like your article…my thoughts have been of a similar ilk over the past few weeks, that there has been a tangilbe shift in some places where it counts.
    At the same time, the ‘skeptics’ are still going hard and it seems that the general public is more confused than ever by skilful articles like this one:

    http://www.climatechangefraud.com/behind-the-science/5323-a-cherry-pickers-guide-to-temperature-trends-down-flateven-up

    I would really love to see someone like yourself directly address the persuasive arguements presented here…I find myself unable to, although I personally have no doubt that our current practices on all levels are having a devastating effect on the planetary life-support systems by whos grace we live.
    Sarah-jane Potts
    Sydney

  11. Jennifer

    Ref. Sarah thanks for the cherry picking overview.

    Interestingly, there is further room for manouver to “shake” the data, by taking it from WHERE you want e.g. primarily from within city precincts but leave out the too hard to get to sites, like Siberia. In addition the Kyoto measurement of emissions excludes the uptake of GHGs (C02, Ch4, H20 and N20) by all old forests, and other vegetation (grass , bush, weeds, crops, some aided by soil/ plant companion micro organisms, fungus, algae and bacteria, and earthworms etc.) These elements are consequently sequestered in the timber/soil… and eventually recycled. This system provides Oxygen to the atmosphere.

    The whole emissions measurement scene is ridiculous… especially for us in the Southern Hemisphere!

    4.4% of the apparent C02 emissions comes from the southern hemisphere, which holds 7% of the land mass. Thus 97% of these emissions comes from the Northern Hemisphere containing 93% of the land! New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are not big emitters

    Reality: The Norrthern hemisphere holds the most humans. All the issues surrounding global warming are driven by us humans motivated by greed for, or the maintenance of, status, wealth, and power. Globally, we humans cause the damage to the planet and we disrupt the natural cycles and systems.

    Many thanks Paul : We can learn from China, who will likely provide the most intelligent actions and outcomes.

  12. Jennifer

    Ref. Sarah thanks for the cherry picking overview.

    Interestingly, there is further room for manouver to “shake” the data, by taking it from WHERE you want e.g. primarily from within city precincts but leave out the too hard to get to sites, like Siberia. In addition the Kyoto measurement of emissions excludes the uptake of GHGs (C02, Ch4, H20 and N20) by all old forests, and other vegetation (grass , bush, weeds, crops, some aided by soil/ plant companion micro organisms, fungus, algae and bacteria, and earthworms etc.) These elements are consequently sequestered in the timber/soil… and eventually recycled. This system provides Oxygen to the atmosphere.

    The whole emissions measurement scene is ridiculous… especially for us in the Southern Hemisphere!

    4.4% of the apparent C02 emissions comes from the southern hemisphere, which holds 7% of the land mass. Thus 97% of these emissions comes from the Northern Hemisphere containing 93% of the land! New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are not big emitters

    Reality: The Northern hemisphere holds the most humans. All the issues surrounding global warming are driven by us humans motivated by greed for, or the maintenance of, status, wealth, and power. Globally, we humans cause the damage to the planet and we disrupt the natural cycles and systems.

    Many thanks Paul : We can learn from China, who will likely provide the most intelligent actions and outcomes.

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