To preserve the promise of civilization, we must start anew.
Twenty years ago, the world agreed that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions needs to be reversed as quickly as possible, or dangerous and potentially irreversible degradation of the global climate system would begin in about twenty years.
Those twenty years have passed, and now the world must mobilize to eliminate global warming pollution and defend humanity against the dangerous climate change that is now happening.
The existing global framework to address the threat of global warming — governmental, academic, scientific, economic, societal — is two decades old. The world’s top climate scientists drove the formation, in 1988, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations. Following the first IPCC climate change assessment report in 1990, representatives of the planet’s governments gathered in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to establish a framework convention for addressing climate change — called, naturally enough, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That framework, ratified by all the world’s governments, including the United States, has guided civilization’s collective effort to address the threat of greenhouse emissions to the present day. As expressed in the UNFCCC:
The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.
Despite their best efforts, those committed to achieving the objectives of the convention failed. The 1990 First Assessment Report correctly warned that “irreversible change in the climate” could come by 2000. Permafrost melt, sea level rise, species extinction, glacial retreat and disappearance, and other systemic impacts have transformed our planet for the worse. The degraded climate is now causing the decline of ecosystems, degradation of food production, and economic instability around the globe. Left unchecked, global warming is increasingly likely to solve the emissions problem through the collapse of industrial civilization.
So what can be done?
The necessary elements for defending civilization in a more dangerous, rapidly changing world all exist. Insurance companies are reconfiguring their policies as seas rise and disasters increase. Hedge funds are developing new financial instruments to handle the effects of climate instability. City planners are examining the security of transit and utility systems. Military officials are drawing up new war scenarios. Scientists and entrepreneurs are inventing, refining, and deploying technologies to sustainably power civilization. Activists are putting their freedom on the line to challenge the forces of inaction. But these efforts are haphazard and uncoordinated. They are insufficient to ensure that the human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are realized on our polluted planet.
The missing piece, often described euphemistically as “political will,” involves a complete rethinking of the threat of global warming. Most Americans see global warming as a real problem, but one that is distant in time and space: that will only affect their children or grandchildren, one that will affect far reaches of the planet first and foremost. That misunderstanding is utterly natural, since that is the presumption of the existing framework, reinforced by the rhetoric and actions of political leaders like President Barack Obama. The greatest culpability, of course, lies in the immoral acts of powerful polluters and their allies to deny the threat entirely.
The new climate framework needs to be built on the following principles:
— Humanity is responsible for climate disasters.
— Climate change is not only a future threat but an active enemy to societal progress.
— All investments must take into account the reality of increasing uncertainty and risk as the climate system becomes more unstable.
— All existing infrastructures — physical, legal, economic, political, cultural — need to be re-examined for resilience in our changing world.
ThinkProgress Green and Climate Progress will be reporting on the efforts of this generation of humanity, and of the great democratic experiment of the United States of America, to build this new framework.