Climate Change and the True Wealth of Nature and Prosperity

By: Marc A. Ross, founder and executive director, Rock the Earth

The world we live in today will not be the world we hand off to future generations.

Despite this fact, supported by thousands of scientific studies examining the impact of climate change and the plague of pollution, many of our world leaders continue to ignore the truth and persistently place shortsighted self-interest and economic wealth above the wealth and prosperity of a planet teeming with a biodiverse and sustainable ecosystem.

Will that sentiment prevail -- even after we have mastered the science to understand the implications of our fossil-fuel driven economies -- when our world leaders gather yet again for climate change negotiations in Paris later this year?

We've been here before: more than 20 years of talks from Rio to Copenhagen to Paris. And while immense progress has been made at these gatherings, we still lack an ironclad international treaty with teeth to tackle climate change and stop toxic pollution. No doubt that's because some nations would rather kick the can down the road rather than contend with the difficult political and socioeconomic challenges of making the right decision today. But we won't preserve the world we live in today -- already a shade of its former self because of the triumph of self-interest over the wealth of nature -- if this attitude prevails.

The cost of failing to slow (or reverse) climate change, or reduce pollution, is beyond economic. The cost is preserving the sanctity of life. Furthermore, the true wealth of our nation is built from our economy, people, and environment. If we squander these things, the nation withers because its people, water, food, and land is poisoned.

Yet, we continue to spew carbon emissions and cancer-causing pollution. Because decarbonization remains more of an idea instead of a reality, our planet is heating up and teetering toward ruin. According to the United Nations World Meteorological Organization, 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

The vast majority of the scientific community predicts that our oceans and seas will one day wreak havoc on coastal cities from San Francisco to New York City to Barcelona. Definitively, species are already being erased and humans are creating their own geological epoch rather than natural forces. Frighteningly, we don't even entirely understand what all of this will mean or ultimately lead to.

Yet there are those in positions wielding incredible influence who still, despite the evidence, deny climate change, who believe that our destructive environmental impact is nothing more than hocus pocus: a quasi-religious, fanatical belief in something that is unreal.

Unfortunately, this manipulation of reality and science has leaked into the public consciousness and infected the minds of world leaders, some of whom will take part in the Paris negotiations. Some may disagree with climate science. But how can their values, morals, and ethics ignore the diseases and cancers spawned by our carbon and chemical intensive economies? Seven million people died in 2012 because of air pollution, according to the non-partisan, non-political, international World Health Organization.

The facts are clear. But the facts, apparently, are not reaching everyone.

Will truth guide the Paris negotiations? Maybe. Evidently, however, the facts did not prevail in previous negotiations or we would have strong international laws in place.

So the question remains: Why have we failed to enact a binding international treaty on mitigating climate change and environmental protection? Some believe it is because of the continual emphasis of top-down treaty drafting: that being, a select few draft laws that everyone must follow regardless of their individual circumstances.

These same experts call for a bottom-up approach instead in which each country, and even cities, creates a plan that serves their needs and the needs of the environment. I, however, have my doubts with this piecemeal approach. One country's pledge or even a multi-country pact to cut carbon emissions will not make a significant difference; that approach will also delay the imminent action that must be taken today.

In addition, we must consider human nature, particularly economic self-interest and political self-preservation. No doubt if one country undergoes economic upheaval, their leaders will immediately cast aside an economically harmful pact. Ultimately, climate mitigation will never be attained when countries place their own interests ahead of the needs of the many, the world community, and the voiceless -- the wide variety of non-human life on Earth.

However that sentiment, the wealth of the few over the wealth and prosperity of our world has been the underlying, invisible hand that keeps ripping to pieces the possibility of forming substantial international environmental laws. We all know that is the elephant in the room. But very few will publicly admit it.

But in Paris, we have another opportunity -- albeit one of a rapidly dwindling number -- to protect the true wealth of our nations and our world. We must agree to an international law that enables us as a global community to realistically transition to a sustainable world economy. And despite what the naysayers and climate deniers may believe, we can align economic and environmental interests for the wealth and prosperity of everyone. However that may require our world leaders in Paris to ask and answer tough questions about how we define value and wealth in our world and within our nations.

So perhaps our world leaders should focus less on the obvious (the science) and focus more on developing an ethical and moral framework with legal ramifications that is premised on protecting the collective wealth and prosperity of our planet and all of our nations. From that, all else can follow, like hammering out emissions targets and mitigation strategies that are governed by law.

This framework, an international convention for example, would legally protect humanity and nature. All nations must adhere to it and it will be premised on preserving the sanctity of life, as well as striking an ethical balance among the seemingly conflicting desires of economic interests and environmental protection.

In Paris, we need an ironclad, worldwide treaty on climate change premised on weaning ourselves from our addiction to carbon and pollution. That much is certain.

But we also need principles and values that cannot be violated by any nation because they are inalienable: that being, true value and wealth arises from the health and prosperity of all life on this planet. In Paris, if we fall short again with declaring stringent emission reductions, perhaps we can at least work toward developing a new international convention that respects and protects all life and the ecosystems that support it.

From that foundation, we can begin building the laws and regulations that will preserve this covenant with our world and uphold our redefined values of true wealth and prosperity. Unlike the groundbreaking Stockholm Declaration, this will be hard law, but based on the declaration's ideal that we have a "fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being."

We must establish a new contract with nature, so that we all profit.