In my last blog I reflected on whether the findings in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report would send sufficiently strong signals to induce meaningful, global responses to the climate crisis. This week, the Earth Commission has published a report in Nature journal, which presents more evidence of signals from Earth systems to which we should devote considerable attention. These signals indicate that humans are taking colossal risks with the future of civilization, along with everything that lives on Earth. The FT headline about the report states simply that Earth is past its safe limits for humans. It haunts me that Steve Cutts’ chilling predictions about Man might come true.
Seven of Eight System Boundaries Have Been Breached
The Earth Commission’s report, “Safe and just Earth system boundaries,” assesses several biophysical processes and systems that regulate the state of the Earth system, including climate, biosphere, land use, water, nutrient cycles and aerosol pollutants. The researchers involved have identified the limits within which those systems operate effectively, and the harm that could ensue should those limits be breached. Of the eight boundaries reviewed by researchers, seven have been pushed beyond their safe and just limit into risk zones that increasingly threaten planetary and human health. As the report says, all the systems are interconnected, such that overshooting the safe limit for one could have consequential effects for others.
Natural and Social Limits
Although focussed on science and physical processes, the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report and the Earth Commission’s report both emphasise the effect that changes in earth systems will have on society. Environmental degradation and social justice are two sides of the same coin. The Earth Commission’s report exhibits a sincere concern for justice, focusing especially on intergenerational justice for people into the scientific analysis used to assess safe limits for the planet.
Global, Systemic Transformations Are Needed
The Earth Commission’s work is the first of its kind, building on the notion of Planetary Boundaries that were proposed over a decade ago. The result of work by more than 50 scientists from around the world has been to provide compelling evidence designed to advise key actors to achieve a safe and just future. The report calls for “nothing less than a just global transformation across all earth system boundaries to ensure human well-being.” Such transformations “must be systemic across energy, food, urban and other sectors, addressing the economic, technological, political and other drivers of Earth system change, and ensure access for the poor through reductions and reallocations of resource use.”
Leaping into the Path of Transformation
The report ends by saying that the path to transformation “will not be a linear journey; it requires a leap in our understanding of how justice, economics, technology and global cooperation can be furthered in the service of a safe and just future.” Two other recent news stories might give some insight into what that leap is like.
Leaping beyond growth?
First, the EU’s Beyond Growth conference at the European Parliament was attended by 2,500 people. It was described from day one as the Woodstock of Beyond Growth for two reasons: firstly, because it felt more like a festival than a conference; and secondly, because it attracted the rock stars of the beyond growth movement, and the halls of the European Parliament rang with rowdy ovations. The conference briefing paper provides many insights into possible futures beyond growth, and the fictional newspaper from May 2033 anticipates the news in a world of transformed policy making focussed entirely on the well-being of people and planet. Of course, as some commentators suggest, the conference outcomes do not yet offer a complete vision of an alternative future. Nevertheless, they give insight into what type of leap we need to take.
Artificially Intelligent Leaps
Secondly, debates about the role of Artificial Intelligence in managing our future continue to pepper the news. Will it save us or destroy us? If we humans cannot change course, will AI step in to curb our unsustainable behaviours and what are the associated ethics. These are the key questions that are considered by the William Temple Foundation’s Ethical Futures Network.
The signals that we must stop unsustainable behaviours and practices are overwhelmingly clear, whether from natural systems, or society or from specialists in technology. The William Temple Foundation is planning to convene interested parties from diverse disciplines to consider the contribution that faith-based organisations can play in crafting viable alternatives to current unsustainable practices and details will be forthcoming. Maybe we will get 10,000 participants, in a way that is reminiscent of how Archbishop William Temple attracted a large assembly of people in 1942 when he tackled the social issues of the day. It won’t be easy, but the signals clearly mean that our only choice now is to dig in and feel the fear of the leap into the unknown… It is best that we do it together.
Lois Tarbet is is also a Trustee of the William Temple Foundation.
Ahead of the Big One series of events planned for the weekend of the 24th April by over 200 organisations around citizens’ participation and climate emergency, William Temple Trustee Lois Tarbet reflects on EF Schumacher’s big and beautiful advice for gaining insight into the prospects for climate change following the IPCC’s most recent report.
Climate ticking time-bomb
On 20 March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final instalment of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). AR6, developed with hundreds of scientists over a period of eight years, represents the most comprehensive and authoritative assessment of climate science. The media has extracted headlines from AR6 telling of irreversible changes to the planet, a ticking climate time-bomb, inevitable catastrophic impacts from climate change and a final warning for drastic action to be taken now or never. There are also more hopeful messages about the mix of strategies and systemwide transformations that could help to limit global warming, albeit that a quantum leap will be needed for those strategies to succeed.
Climate status and stock-take
Summaries of the 1000+ page AR6 are offered by the World Resources Institute, the Guardian, Carbon Brief and others. They report that temperatures have risen faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over the last 2,000 years, that global surface temperatures are now 1.1C higher than during the preindustrial era and that observed increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by GHG emissions from human activities. With high or very high confidence, AR6 authors report that, amongst other things, climate change has caused irreversible losses and mass mortality events in ecosystems and species on land and at sea.
The outlook in AR6 is grim. However, it also sets out how net zero CO2 and GHG emissions can be achieved through strong reductions across all sectors. We can choose to make it less grim and there are multiple strategies that could be used, but will we? History suggests not. In its’ 2018 report, the IPCC warned that in order to limit warming to 1.50C, GHG emissions would have to be halved by 2030 compared with 2010. However, the IEA reports that carbon emissions rose last year by just under 1%.
When I attended my first climate conference in 2009 in Copenhagen, the media reported that climate scientists were “screaming from the rooftops” to be heard. Over a decade later, a Nasa climate scientist, weeping with frustration, begged the public to believe that scientists are not exaggerating when they say we stand to lose everything. Although progress has been made, we still appear to procrastinate – why?
Are the signals from AR6 not dire enough to prompt action – or are they too extreme to be believed? Is talk of 1 or 2 degrees of warming at variance with the scale of the damage such seemingly small temperature increases will cause? Are decision-makers too far away from sinking small island states to feel their peril? Are humans hard-wired to ignore accumulating evidence or are human institutions incapable of understanding signals from natural systems? Are we locked into the existing economic and societal paradigm? Are we focussing too much on solutions rather than insights?
AR6 might generate feelings of hopelessness in some. But this must be balanced against the plethora of proposed solutions offered by scientists, economists, religious leaders, technicians, lawyers and politicians. From geoengineering and circular economics to calls for behavioural and cultural change there is a cornucopia of ideas to unlock climate action. But all are dogged by varying degrees of uncertainty as to whether they, alone or in concert, will achieve the desired outcomes and this can hamper their uptake or testing.
Many solutions are developed with a view to seeking objective answers, proof and results. However, in Small Is Beautiful, EF Schumacher warned against over-reliance on solutions and on allowing cleverness to displace wisdom. Wisdom he says “demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful…” Science and technology must exercise the wisdom to limit itself like nature, which knows where and when to stop – nature is self-balancing, self-adjusting and self-cleansing.
While the noise of proposed climate solutions, reports, agreements and political wranglings reverberates, the earth (as Thomas Berry says) is silently keeping an accurate record of our climate folly in its rocks, systems, stores and sinks. Wisdom says Schumacher is to be found not in noise, but in the stillness inside ourselves, from which insights beyond our reasoning powers emerge. Schumacher asks whether we need more than a simple act of insight to realise that infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility or whether we need numbers, trends, feedback loops, masses of facts and computer results to tell us that time is short.
AR6 is full of humbling and terrifying facts, knowledge, numbers and proposals which will hopefully inform future climate-positive policy, scientific, economic, technological and cultural decisions. However, if they are to stand on Schumacher’s shoulders, those decisions must not be based on cleverness alone, but also on the “beyond reason” insights of wisdom borne from stillness.