Despite being the most powerful generations ever, we are failing to secure our shared future. "On current paths, we face global average temperatures by the end of this century that have not existed on Earth for tens of millions of years. Decades of growth, development and poverty reduction could be sharply reversed by this warming and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, would be forced to move, with associated risks of serious conflict. The reasons for this disruption and dislocation could not then be turned off" (Prof. Nicholas Stern, FT 5.10.15).
Our decisions today will have longer-term consequences than ever before yet we still develop solutions in isolation which fail to tackle interlinked challenges. We also seem unable to agree on a hierarchy of threats as every crisis has its own lobby. And we are failing to progress from agreeing goals to deciding how to actually implement these in faced of powerful vested interests profiting from the status quo.
Faced with lesser threats, past empires and civilizations collapsed. But never before has this threat of collapse been global. On a ruined planet there can be no development or justice, peace or security, functioning economies, markets or states. Can we mature into responsible global citizens fast enough and stop living at the expense of our children and all future generations of life? If so, there is hope, for the transition to a low-carbon economy offers decades of innovation, investment, work and poverty reduction across the world.
Exemplary Policy Solutions
The required policy incentives for a speedy global sustainability revolution have been assembled in the WFC Global Policy Action Plan. This growing database links key challenges with exemplary policy solutions, e.g.
The lack of environmental literacy education for decision-makers and the public (Exemplary policy solution: Maryland's Environmental Literacy Standards Act, 2011).
The increasing lack of trust in democratic institutions, seen as subservient to wealthy oligarchies (Solution: Icelandic National Broadcasting Service requirement to provide equal opportunities for candidates to present their policies on TV).
The exaggerated importance of GDP in guiding government decision-making at the expense of natural and social capital (Solution: Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Act, 2008, based on good governance, sustainable development, cultural preservation and environmental health).
The lack of political representation of the interests of future generations (Solution: Ombudsperson for Fundamental Rights Act, Hungary, 2007).
The lack of legal sanctions for acts causing irreversible damage to the natural environment (Exemplary judgement: Philippine Supreme Court, Minors Oposa v. Secretary DENR, 1993, ruling to protect public forest land).
The failure to re-direct military spending to advancing environmental, food and water security (Solutions: New Zealand's Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987, Mongolia's Nuclear-Weapon-Free Status law 2000, Austria's Constitutional nuclear ban, 1999).
The need to promote a culture of peace and non-violence (Solution: Argentina's National Program for the Voluntary Surrender of Firearms, 2006)
The need to speed up the use of renewable energies - which are wasted when not used - and end fossil fuel subsidies (Solutions: Denmark's "Our Future Energy Plan" 2011, Germany's EEG Feed-In-Tariffs Act 2000, Indonesia's Presidential Decree No. 9/ 2002).
The need for eco-intelligent design and production to build circular and regenerative economies (Solutions: San Francisco's Zero Waste Program 2002, Japan's Energy Conservation Law, Section 6, 1998).
The lack of affordable healthy food and water (Solutions: Belo Horizonte, Food Security Program, Brazil, 1993, which effectively eliminated hunger at a cost of just 2% of the city budget, Tunisia Water Users' Associations Rules, 1999).
Outdated tax policies, taxing what is good - work - instead of what is bad - pollution, resource depletion and speculation (Solution: British Columbia's Carbon Tax 2008).
Ensuring that our savings and investments do not harm present or future generations (Solution: Norway's State Pension Fund Ethical Guidelines 2004).
Narrow business mandates which discourage social and environmental entrepreneurship (Solution: Maryland Benefit Corporation Act 2010).
These and other proven policy solutions are described in detail on www.futurepolicy.org
We do not require technological breakthroughs to move ahead. On the contrary, such breakthroughs will be the result of policy innovations. Good laws are the pre-conditions for right action. But such laws are blocked by the profiteers of the current order, who know very well that their externalizing of production costs would then be classified as theft. They fund climate change deniers because, as the Wall Street Journal admitted "if anthropogenic climate change is a reality, then that would be a huge problem only government could deal with" (3.8.15).
The time for policy reform is short, because the coming climate refugees - estimated at between 25 million and 1 billion - will make many countries ungovernable. As US Secretary of State said recently in Alaska, "If you think migration is a challenge in Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there is an absence of water, an absence of food or one tribe fighting another for mere survival" (31.8.15). Already "extremism" and climate threats are interlinked. Syria was destabilized by 1.5 million migrants from rural areas fleeing a three-year draught after 2007.
Even the Governor of the Bank of England now warns of "falling living standards" and the "impact on property, migration, stability and security" if climate change is not tackled. Another linked threat, highlighted in a Pentagon/ NSA study (The Guardian 14.6.13), is eco-terrorism. If thousands of young privileged Westerners are so desperate to escape the emptiness of their lives that they travel to Syria to join ISIS, how many more will, if called by a charismatic leader, be prepared to dedicate themselves to the Biblical call to "destroy those who have caused destruction on the earth" (Revelation 11:18)?
Laws of nature
Ultimately, the laws of nature will rule. We cannot negotiate with melting glaciers and spreading deserts. But currently many human laws allow the destruction of the earth. For how long can we expect those will inherit the consequences to accept this state of affairs? The former UNSG Kofi Annan, chair of the Elders group of former world leaders, recently warned that "climate change would leave the living envying the dead" and called for "people... taking the lead" (22.7.15). IEA Director Fatih Birol warns that "climate change threatens all our lives" and "we cannot be saved" without transforming the energy sector (8.9.15). How long before fossil fuel plants and their directors face the fury of their victims? To quote the US PR guru Frank Mankiewicz: "The environmentalists are going to have to be like the mob in the square in Romania (who ended the Ceaușescu dictatorship) before they prevail".
The unavoidable transition will be more radical and costly than current scenarios envisage but it is without alternative if we want to preserve civilization. "Even doubling our current annual rates of decarbonization globally every year till 2050 would still lead to +6C°" (PWC Nov. 2012). Government scenarios avoid this conclusion only by including unproven and highly unlikely technological breakthroughs: "We would need to grow crops that suck CO2 from the air, then burn them to generate electricity and store the resulting gases so there is less CO2 in the atmosphere overall" - all on a massive scale (FT, 10.9.15).
Trust and money
The failure of political leaders to confront corporate oligarchies and protect our health and future is causing a collapse of citizens' trust, with dangerous consequences in other areas. Thus, in a Pew Research poll in June 2015, 58% of Germans rejected a military response if Russia attacked another NATO member. Similar opinion shifts are reported in other W. European countries. Again, this is not occurring in isolation but triggered by the refugee crisis. East Europeans see their national identities threatened again while West Europeans are shocked that - having been generously assisted to overcome tyranny - East Europeans have so little sympathy for victims of other tyrannies.
Without the trust of their people, democratic governments are powerless. The most urgent task today is therefore to re-build that trust. This requires visible steps to convince voters that elected politicians are not in the pockets of wealthy funders. For example, whatever the claimed economic benefits of the planned EU-US trade agreement (TTIP), it would be advisable to put it on hold, as it has become a potent symbol of the trust gap between Europeans and their governments.
This growing distrust is increasingly directed against competitive globalization, and fueled by statements from e.g. the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne that, to survive economically, the British now have to work as hard as the Chinese! The purpose of this eternal rat-race is increasingly unclear, while its costs are mounting.
The financial sector is even more mistrusted than governments. Money is widely seen as created in mysterious ways and flowing towards to the already wealthy. Due to subsidized fossil fuels, the urgent energy transition is not profitable enough to meet the expectations of the financial sector.
It is therefore urgent that new, debt-free money is created by central banks to speed up this transition. If they can create trillions to protect the financial system, they can clearly create the lesser (but still substantial amounts) required to save civilization, e.g. by buying and holding long-term interest-free climate bonds issued by the UN Green Climate Fund. This new money would be used to fund renewable energy systems, smart grids, etc. in Africa and elsewhere, as well as a massive reforestation program on the Rwandan model. As the new money would trigger new production of goods and services, it would not cause inflation.
Such a program would not only reduce CO2 emissions. Even more importantly in the short-term, it would immediately create large numbers of new jobs, and thus reduce the number of climate refugees desperate to reach Europe. A win-win-win program indeed!