Phew - it's been a dizzying quintuple-whammy of news over the past month - even for those of us hardened by reading, or writing or filming big news. Not one or two, but five major events and reports about the climate and biodiversity crises appeared in that time - and doubtless a wide array of opinion pieces and unsung articles that I didn't catch. But there was good news, hopeful news in there.
First, there was that much-reported warning by 11,000+ world scientists of a climate emergency on November 5, which identified six core areas for urgent climate action. [Yes, I did co-author it, and yes, 11,996 scientists have now co-signed it (postscript - by July, 2020, 13,593 scientists from 156 countries.)]
Then, the World Meteorological Organization reported on Nov 25 that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases were surging to record levels. The next day, the UN Environment Program released a bleak report on the gravity of our climate crisis through spiraling emissons. The day after that, a paper in the top journal Nature by some of the planet's most respected global change scientists reported that nine (50%) of the recognized earth-system tipping points are now “active".... which means that things are now going to start to get very much less predictable, and very much more difficult.
And the day after that, November 28, 2019, the European Parliament declared a continent-wide climate emergency.
I've been working on climate change science for over 20 years, and on the biodiversity extinction crisis for more than 25 (well, really since 1977, when I was 16). But this past month has felt like a visceral vortex which shook me out. It's felt a bit like one of those old, badly-in-need-of-repair clothes dryers which thumps its way across your floor, lurching and careening, and only gives you an exhausting headache.
Have you had periods of ecological grief? Well, I am very familiar with multiple episodes. I can at least say "moments" rather than "periods" of such grief, having experienced brief spells of shock, horror, angst, and unstoppable tears since my teens. Luckily, I have DNA that's about as cheerful as is possible to be, even in tough times. This doesn't always endear me to people who like to sleep late and wallow in melancholy. But I am thanking my lucky stars for my DNA. It's not always easy to work on biodiversity and climate change in these times. My friends in this field struggle with the intense emotional and psychic burden - and for good reason.
But the European Parliament's move to declare a climate emergency across its territories was rightly hailed as a historic breakthrough. After all, the EU has 28 member states, 4.5 million square kilometers, and over 513 million residents. I was absolutely thrilled. But the move was also described - some might say dismissed - by the media as "symbolic." Was it really?
No, no, no. This is far more than a symbolic move. And I'm not being a polyanna about this. A climate emergency declaration nails Europe's multiple flags to the hard mast of practical, urgent, accelerated intention. Mandate, policy, planning, and management. Monitoring. Evaluation. Scaling up and down. It commits Europe to scales of action which anyone watching Brussels bureaucracy might have forgotten were possible.
What does the declaration of a climate emergency actually mean for Europe, and for those of us still to follow? How do we achieve carbon-neutral economies and lifestyles over the next thirty years, and get more than halfway there in the next ten? How do we get to where we want to be - where we know we must be - from here?
In South Africa in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was part of a small team of specialists in climate science, disaster risk reduction, and institutional strategy. Gina Ziervogel, Guy Midgley, Arthur Chapman, Ailsa Holloway and I held climate change preparedness workshops for provincial and local government planners. They were fascinating exercises, and quite a long time ago, so we were all - trainers and trainees - a little naive.
But one of the important lessons we all learned through these interactions was that change in governments is deeply constrained - more than in most other organizations - by the sheer mundane architecture of bureaucracy. In most government departments in most cities, states and provinces, and countries, things are still done in a business-as-usual way: planning horizons, budget cycles, discretionary and contingency funds, public funds compliance and procurement. That's all the spirit-sapping, tedious, anal stuff that drives most people (including me) out of government. Obvious, right? - that governments are slow and sluggish to rise to a challenge because of bureaucracy? Yes, now it is. But far more interested in strategy than operations, I had until then failed to realize the fatal constraints on rapid and necessary change placed by the day-to-day "architecture of governance."
And therein lies both the problem, and the solution.
Until governments acknowledge an overarching need or urgency, such as the European Union did 12 days ago, their planners, policymakers, and managers will remain utterly crippled by these restrictive, mundane, business-as-usual practices. It's like Godzilla vs Monster Zero, where people run ineffectively through the streets as they usually do, while the strange alien monsters incinerate the city. (If you feel like a bizarre reminder of what special effects were like in 1966: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjKgnHPnIJ0.)
This declaration by the EU will cut through everything - from goals and visions to the minutiae of planning horizons, budgetary cycles, and discretionary fund allocations. This is a big deal. A Marshall-type plan is needed, like the World War Zero initiative announced two weeks ago by John Kerry, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others. And other countries and continents - and cities and towns, counties, states and provinces - must follow.
And how do they follow? Well, our "scientists' warning" paper in BioScience identified six core areas where we need rapid, transformative change in all levels – from our own minds and our households, to our global atmosphere. And each of us reading this can help enable at least some of these, by talking to our city councils, our families, our farmers' co-ops, by making changes in our own buying and spending patterns.
1. ENERGY TRANSITIONS AND CONSERVATION – using and demanding renewable energy, reducing waste, living lightly.
2. NATURE RESTORATION & PROTECTION – supporting action to safeguard wetlands, forests, oceans, lakes, peatlands, grasslands and practicing carbon- and biodiversity-friendly land uses.
3. OUR FOOD SYSTEMS – supporting locally grown, regenerative agriculture and healthy soils - not pesticide-laden stuff imported from halfway around the world. Eating very little meat and dairy.
4. STABILIZATION OF OUR POPULATION – getting it down to around 3 billion as soon as possible over the next two centuries – with education and support, and without coercion, racism, bigotry or fear. Having that conversation with our friends, families, colleagues.
5. ECONOMIC REFORM – imagining and creating a local (and global) economy where people and the planet actually matter - in which economic activities restore, rather than rip up nature, and which honor workers, family and communities as the engines of economic activity and human and social wellbeing.
6. SHORT-LIVED POLLUTANTS IN THE ATMOSPHERE – taking care and demanding action to reduce carbon soot, methane and other pollutants which drastically accelerate global heating. Diesel cars, dairy and meat all produce lots of these. And global heating unleashes major stores in the permafrost and soil, which are already being unleashed, and which we need to limit.
What I'm doing is making appointments with my local policymakers to help them find ways to transition as rapidly as possible on these issues - and you can too. From our own mindsets and households, to city councilors and mayors to county commissioners, governor's policy teams, and congressional representatives. There's a lot of important, urgent work to do. We can do it.
Links to the Quintuple Whammy reports and events mentioned above:
And see also: https://ipbes.net/media-watch for a smattering news-feed of other essential reading.