People engaged in the climate debate are often bewildered by society’s lack of response. How can we ignore such overwhelming evidence of an existential threat to social and economic stability?
Given human history, we should never have expected anything else. Humans have a consistent tendency that when change is uncomfortable we delay action until a threat becomes a crisis. The scale of the threat or the existence of powerful evidence makes little difference.
There are countless examples – personal health issues, a business’ declining success, or global financial and credit risks. Historically, though, World War II remains the best analogy.
The evidence of the threat posed by Hitler was overwhelming and the case for action crystal clear. However, many were still deeply resistant to acting. Only when the threat became overwhelming – until it was accepted as an imminent crisis – was Britain triggered into action. When it was, Winston Churchill led the critical shift in thinking, arguing that no matter how uncomfortable, expensive or challenging to the status quo, sometimes you just have to do what is necessary. Not your best, or what you can afford, or what’s “realistic” – but what is necessary. In his case, that was going to war and assuming victory was possible.
And so began one of the fastest and most dramatic economic mobilisations and industrial transformations in history. As a result, something that was rationally bordering on the impossible was achieved.
I would argue we are approaching a point where this same cycle will play out on climate change – and we will get to the transformational action stage.
Perhaps surprisingly given the global implications of what’s at stake, a good indicator of this is the council of Darebin, in Melbourne, where I am addressing a Climate Emergency conference this week.
Why is this an indicator? When we look back at history, like WWII, we tend to simplify cause and effect. We say it was the invasion of Poland, the arrival of Churchill, etc, that triggered the change. In reality complex systems like human society move in a distributed way, reaching a critical mass or tipping point at a time that is hard to predict and sometimes even hard to identify afterwards.
Comparing WWII to climate change, we should first acknowledge that once again, the issue is not the evidence of the threat. That is clear and accepted – in fact with hindsight it will be seen as blindingly obvious.
What is relatively new is that scientists and experts are increasingly acknowledging that nothing less than a massive global mobilisation on a WWII scale is required to address the catastrophic risks posed.
Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and a senior advisor to Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union recently argued that “Climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”
All around us examples of what these consequences might be are increasingly tangible. Whether it be wild fires in northern Sweden, refugee crises, extreme ice melt in the Arctic, submerged airports in Japan or severe droughts, people are feeling climate change live.
My key argument is that this process – identified threats, resistance and avoidance, stronger and stronger evidence, acceptance of crisis and then dramatic response – is pretty much how these things always unfold. And so it will most likely be on climate change.
Many argue we need a Churchill to lead us, that only a strong leader can take charge in a crisis and show us the way forward. Or maybe we need a climate “Pearl Harbour” – a major single event. This is not how systems usually change, but especially not in a globalised and connected world. Yes, we need leadership and across all sections of society. But the “Churchills” emerge from a context and the context shift we need is to accept we have a crisis. Critically, this acceptance is a distributed social phenomenon, not a technical question of science or evidence.
This brings me back to Darebin in Melbourne. This local council looked rationally at what the science told them – that we face a crisis and the only logical response is to declare a climate emergency. And so they did. In consultation with their community, they then developed the Darebin Climate Emergency Plan.
Why is this significant? Because this is how systems change. Ideas take hold and spread. Darebin has since been followed in the US with a small but growing list of elected bodies in regions and cities also declaring a climate emergency. First came Montgomery County, Maryland , since joined by Richmond, Berkeley and Los Angeles in California, and Hoboken, New Jersey. This is not emerging spontaneously, but through active organising by groups dedicated to the task like The Climate Mobilisation.
Yes, it’s frustrating that these things take time. Therefore, knowing we can still “win” is key. Towards this end I co-wrote nearly 10 years ago a journal paper, The One Degree War Plan, with Professor Jorgen Randers, showing how achieving 1 degree of warming was surprisingly realistic with a WWII style mobilisation. Recently along the same lines, The Climate Mobilisation developed a “Victory Plan” to show what a WWII style economic mobilisation across the USA could look like.
So on the surface, Darebin Council inviting a group of experts like myself to suburban Melbourne to discuss what a climate emergency means might not seem much. But it is a crucial part of a process whereby we first normalise the idea that we face an existential crisis. Next we will come to accept that the only rational response is a WWII-like economic mobilisation to eliminate global net carbon dioxide emissions within a decade or so.
Find this hard to imagine? It is. But as we learnt from Churchill in 1940, when we shift our thinking to “what is necessary”, what we can achieve is quite extraordinary. Or as Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”
Paul Gilding is a Fellow at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.