HOW CLOSE TO EXTINCTION ARE WE REALLY? AND WHAT’S GETTING IN THE WAY OF US COLLABORATING MORE EFFECTIVELY?
If you’re someone who has your attention on the flurry of articles that have been circulating lately about:
(A) The declaring of climate change states of emergency in various cities and countries including: the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Catalonia and Switzerland;
(B) The courageous school children activists, across Europe, the US and Australia who rallied close to a million people in at least 110 countries in service to their stand that governments pay attention to the dire state of the world that they’re inheriting; and
(C) The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which is the United Nation’s body for assessing the science related to climate change’s reporting about the rate that we’re allegedly accelerating toward a potential extinction event……
……then do you ever wonder how effectively we are addressing any of what’s happening?
I know I do.
Quite a lot actually.
But not necessarily because I’m afraid that humanity is gasping its last breaths.
I feel pretty resolved at this point, that if we’re all going to die (or even if most people are going to die), that I would choose to be putting my time, attention and resources into the very same things that I’m doing right now.
But, ever since the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2017, and ever since watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary film Before the Flood, the topic has been there persistently hanging out in the back of my mind.
If you haven’t seen it, the powerful documentary, was the product of a 3 year journey where Leonardo DiCaprio (in his role as the UN Messenger of Peace for Climate) went to every corner of the globe to document the devastating impacts of climate change and questioned humanity’s ability to reverse the effects.
So given the prevalence of these topics in the discussions I’m having right now, and just how much and how often I’m seeing and hearing about the potential climate crisis, risk of global financial collapse and current political destabilisation in various countries across the globe, it seems more than a little irresponsible to ignore the fact that there is at least a possibility that humanity might be facing either a genuine near/total extinction event OR at least a more impactful event at scale than we have ever experienced before.
And that’s really gotten me thinking.
I can’t help wondering how we can collectively make sense of how far along we are with effectively addressing any of these issues and how we can optimise our efforts.
Does Anyone Know How Far We’ve Gotten on The UN Sustainable Development Goals?
Back in 2015, the UN published its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”), which were adopted by all the United Nations Member States. On the UN knowledge platform it explains how the SDGs:
“provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries — developed and developing — in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.”
And while I’m confident that there are plenty of super smart, devoted and inventive entrepreneurs, working all over the world, on the kinds of inventions and innovations that could potentially resolve some, if not all, of the major issues we’re currently facing, I’m curious:
(A) What kind of runway we’re really looking at — is it 5 years? 10 years? 50 years? 150 years?;
(B) How anyone is supposed to usefully know how far we’re getting with any of our individual or collective efforts at any given time?; and
(C) How we can be collaborating on the solutions most effectively.
It certainly doesn’t seem to be readily reported in the traditional media or visible on social media.
And, in the times that I discover data that offers any kind of countdown or progress report, there’s little to no consistency in the views that are being advocated, despite the fact that this is a global existential issue (where you’d imagine that a shared understanding is really rather crucial.
Even though the UN is expressly intended (as it states in its Charter) to be “fostering cooperation between nations in order to solve economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian international problems”, looking at the information it publishes in its SDG Tracker which presents data across all available indicators from the ‘Our World in Data database’, I find myself entirely unclear on how well that “cooperation” is going.
Any of my own attempts to interpret the official statistics from the UN and other international organisations, have been near fruitless thus far; let alone in the context of an ever shifting landscape of interrelated factors.
Let’s take SDG 13 on Climate Action as an example.
The SDG Tracker states:
“Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Affordable, scalable solutions are now available to enable countries to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies. The pace of change is quickening as more people are turning to renewable energy and a range of other measures that will reduce emissions and increase adaptation efforts…………
………………….The UN has defined 5 Targets and 8 Indicators for SDG 13. Targets specify the goals and Indicators represent the metrics by which the world aims to track whether these Targets are achieved. “
You then click a link that says, “How’s the world doing on this goal?”
And it takes you to a page that speaks about:
- The numbers of Deaths and Injuries from Natural Disasters, National Disaster Risk Management and Local Disaster Risk Management.
- Integration of climate change into national policies — which measures the number of countries signed on to multilateral agreements on climate change, but currently does not reflect the levels of operationalisation or implementation of climate mitigation and adaptation action.
- Education on climate change — which is about improving education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning (and currently states, “We are currently not aware of data for this indicator. You can notify us of available data for this indicator via our feedback form.”)
- Capacity-building for climate change — which relates to the number of countries that have communicated the strengthening of institutional, systemic and individual capacity-building to implement adaptation, mitigation and technology transfer, and development actions (and also currently states, “We are currently not aware of data for this indicator. You can notify us of available data for this indicator via our feedback form.”)
None of that strikes me as particularly helpful when it comes to determining how soon and how rapidly we need to be preparing, as the World Bank warned in 2018, for over 100 million internally displaced people due to the effects of climate change.
When Will The Effects Realistically Reach Our Door?
And while millions of people in the warmer equatorial regions experiencing malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war, might not seem like anything new to those of us sitting in our city high-rises, our coastal and suburban homes, or enjoying our rural lands right now, at some point, as hundreds of millions are displaced and are looking for new homes for their families, at some point, the effects of climate change will inevitably reach our door.
So how soon can we anticipate experiencing disruptions to our basic functioning? The kind of disruptions that this time can not fail to affect affluent nations. How soon can we anticipate power going down, no water coming out of the tap, increasingly intense physical altercations for space or resources or the need to be depending on our communities, neighbours and friends for food and warmth?
If we’re talking 5–10 years, then quite frankly, these seem like relevant questions and issues to be having closer attention on. After all, who knows if we’ll even still be around in 2030, or whether humanity will already have plunged over the proverbial precipice by then.
The next place my attention went in looking at what could shed some light on these questions, was the IPCC report. After all, the IPCC are the United Nations body for assessing the science, so surely we can rely on that for accurate information.
In an article by Matthew Nisbet PhD in October 2018, entitled: “The IPCC Report is a Wake Up Call for Scholars, Advocates, and Philanthropists” it was stated:
“When the UN followed the Paris meetings by asking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to evaluate the goals set out by the agreement, the same experts worried that scientists risked their credibility if they were to paint an overly rosy picture of what it would take to achieve the agreed upon targets.
Yet the IPCC report released this week is the exact opposite of sugar coating, revealing instead that the temperature targets established by the 2015 UN Paris treaty are tragically more aspirational than realistic.
For countries to achieve the 1.5C goal, concludes IPCC scientists, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would need to be cut 50% by 2030 and entirely by 2050.
In 2017, CO2 emissions worldwide rose by nearly 2 percent and are on track to rise again this year. At this rate, estimate IPCC scientists, the world will pass the 1.5C threshold sometime around 2040, risking trillions of dollars more in damages and millions more lives lost from climate change impacts.
News coverage of the IPCC report has been nothing less than dystopian, warning of a runaway monster. “We have 12 years to limit catastrophe, UN warns,” was the headline at The Guardian. “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say,” echoed the Washington Post.”
So, as you can see, even since 2015 when the UN’s SDGs were published, the landscape has been rapidly changing, and our runway for getting things under control seems to be dwindling.
In the Atlantic on 23 November 2018, entitled: A Grave Climate Warning, Buried on Black Friday
“(T)he National Climate Assessment — which is endorsed by NASA, noaa, the Department of Defense, and 10 other federal scientific agencies — contradicts nearly every position taken on the issue by President Donald Trump. Where the president has insisted that fighting global warming will harm the economy, the report responds: Climate change, if left unchecked, could eventually cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and kill thousands of Americans to boot. Where the president has said that the climate will “probably” “change back,” the report replies: Many consequences of climate change will last for millennia, and some (such as the extinction of plant and animal species) will be permanent.
The report………represents cumulative decades of work from more than 300 authors. Since 2015, scientists from across the U.S. government, state universities, and businesses have read thousands of studies, summarizing and collating them into this document. By law, a National Climate Assessment like this must be published every four years.
The report is blunt: Climate change is happening now, and humans are causing it. “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities,” declares its first sentence. “The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid.”
………….It warns that if humans wish to avoid 3.6 degrees of warming, they must dramatically cut this kind of pollution by 2040. On the other hand, if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise, then the Earth could warm by as much as 9 degrees by 2100.
And looking at the paper on “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” by Dr Jem Bendell, a full Professor of Sustainability Leadership, in July 2018, it says,
“The politically permissible scientific consensus is that we need to stay beneath 2 degrees warming of global ambient temperatures, to avoid dangerous and uncontrollable levels of climate change, with impacts such as mass starvation, disease, flooding, storm destruction, forced migration and war.
That figure was agreed by governments that were dealing with many domestic and international pressures from vested interests, particularly corporations. It is therefore not a figure that many scientists would advise, given that many ecosystems will be lost and many risks created if we approach 2 degrees global ambient warming (Wadhams, 2018).
The IPCC agreed in 2013 that if the world does not keep further anthropogenic emissions below a total of 800 billion tonnes of carbon we are not likely to keep average temperatures below 2 degrees of global averaged warming. That left about 270 billion tonnes of carbon to burn (Pidcock, 2013). Total global emissions remain at around 11 billion tonnes of carbon per year (which is 37 billion tonnes of CO2). Those calculations appear worrying but give the impression we have at least a decade to change. It takes significant time to change economic systems so if we are not already on the path to dramatic reductions it is unlikely we will keep within the carbon limit.
With an increase of carbon emissions of 2% in 2017, the decoupling of economic activity from emissions is not yet making a net dent in global emissions (Canadell et al, 2017). So, we are not on the path to prevent going over 2 degrees warming through emissions reductions. In any case the IPCC estimate of a carbon budget was controversial with many scientists who estimated that existing CO2 in the atmosphere should already produce global ambient temperature rises over 5°C and so there is no carbon budget — it has already been overspent (Wasdell, 2015).”
- The IPCC claims for countries to achieve the 1.5C goal, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would need to be cut 50% by 2030 and entirely by 2050 and the Guardian headline says, “We have 12 years to limit catastrophe, UN warns.”;
- The National Climate Assessment says if we wish to avoid 3.6 degrees of warming, we must dramatically cut this kind of pollution by 2040; and
- Bendell claims our carbon budget is already overspent and concludes, “ Recent research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress.”
Clearly there are conflicting views on how serious a threat we’re actually facing, and how close to it we currently are.
So then which is true?
Worth noting is that Bendell’s paper, which concluded that climate-induced collapse is now inevitable, was recently rejected by anonymous reviewers of an academic journal, saying the paper was not suitable for publication. One of the comments from the reviewers questioned the emotional impact that the paper might have on readers.
Professor Bendell explains in his response to the Editor, that the response may reflect:
“the self-defeating hierarchical attitude towards society that many of us have in both academia and sustainability, where we censure our own exploration of a topic due to what we consider should or should not be communicated. There is both scholarship and experience on the impact of communicating about disaster, and I discuss that in the paper.”
Who knows, maybe it’s better that this information isn’t widely available or understood. Maybe the limited distribution of clear data will support humanity in avoiding a tsunami of existential panic. Or, as Bendell asserts, perhaps it could trigger widespread transformative reflection which could be supported.
Either way, it seems important, if we’re to effectively address the magnitude of the challenges we face, that at the very least, the inventors and innovators who are working on the issues themselves (along with the investors who are funding them), have visibility on how far we’ve come, how far we’ve got to go and who it makes sense for them to be collaborating with, in service to collectively optimising our efforts.
Other Roadblocks to Collaboration: Competition & The Absence of Useful Metrics
One thing that has both surprised and encouraged me in the course of this inquiry, in the conversations I’ve been having with numerous individuals who are in the know and who are connected to the World Economic Forum, is that there’s no shortage of public/private funding available to address these issues.
There are reportedly billions (if not trillions) of dollars that have been pledged by both private and public institutions, wealthy families, foundations and grantors, that are squarely pointed toward the UN’s SDGs.
And yet, collaboration doesn’t seem to be happening all that effectively.
From what I’ve observed, there are two main issues that seem to be coalescing that are counter-productive to collaboration:
1. A distinct lack of visibility across goals and initiatives; and (inextricably connected to that)
2. The inventive and innovative minds and companies, are being pitted against each other for those resources, in a competitive and rivalrous dynamic.
Which seems odd, no?
In a world and a context where we want to know who is getting to the solution the fastest and how best we can help them actualize the best solution, surely you’d want it to be easy for people to discover how they can best support the achievement of the collective goals? Transparency makes sense.
And yet, in a competitive dynamic, you have every reason to hide your progress from your competition.
In a world and a context where it makes far more sense for funding to be put toward the attainment of the goal itself, then incentivising a collaborative approach of working together toward the shared goal seems to be an obviously beneficial strategy.
And yet in a competitive dynamic, where there is an innate mentality of scarcity of resource, it’s you against the other for the ability to keep doing what you’re doing. Which means, if they have a piece of the puzzle and you have a piece of the puzzle, it’s you OR them.
And then there’s the question of useful metrics.
If we’re not necessarily focussing on the usual bottom line stuff, because the point isn’t to get the greatest financial return, or equivalent monetary ROI on the capital, or to have a lucrative exit event in 5 years, then what are we looking at? How are the funders supposed to know where it makes the most sense to funnel the resources, what funding makes sense in what order of priority and what does good collaboration even look like, so they can effectively reward it?
I’m sorry to all those who may feel consider this article a little morbid or depressing.
I didn’t intend for it to be this way, I was simply aiming to articulate a broad picture of the context of our times, and it just came out like this.
But I’m also really glad that it did.
Because, while it may be uncomfortable, there’s no pretending that we can’t:
- See the shortcomings of our media reporting;
- Recognise the constantly shifting nature of the climate change landscape;
- Experience how painfully and poorly observable the data is;
- Taste the conflicting timelines and perspectives across the UN and academia;
- Recognise the underlying roadblocks and challenges to collaboration;
- See the competitive dynamics at play; and
- Notice the inadequacy of useful metrics for social impact investors.
That awareness is valuable in and of itself.
It also provides us with an opportunity to accept that we might feel afraid, feel through the discomfort, experience empathy for each other in those feelings and then act with greater focus and resolve in spite of those feelings.
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I’m no longer afraid at the prospect that humanity is gasping its last breaths.
Why? Because I’ve felt through the fear that it could all end in 5–10 years. I’ve imagined losing it all, in devastating detail — my family, my friends, my community, my home and my planet. I cried the deepest and most gut-wrenching cry I have ever cried, as the space was held with presence, empathy and reverence by another human being who had lived through much the same experience. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and yet, I’m still here.
And, as I said earlier, I feel pretty resolved at this point, that if we’re all going to die (or even if most people are going to die), that I would choose to be putting my time, attention and resources into the very same things that I’m doing right now.
And so by facing the discomfort of all this unknown, we can potentially navigate our way clear of the dangers of avoidance, denial and delusion and actually step up and face the reality of the times that we now find ourselves in with a grounded sense of realism and responsibility.
And so with all that said, from a space of feeling like we’ve established some sufficient level of shared reality now, I look forward to engaging in useful further discourse about how we can realistically address all of this in our day to day lives, and where we go from here.