Nobody expects the incoming Congress to take dramatic action on climate change, just as nobody was surprised that the international leaders meeting in Cancun couldn’t reach strong, binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s no wonder – reinventing our whole relationship to energy and the environment is a major challenge, with profound moral and economic implications. But despite the glacial pace of leadership at the top, there are many reasons why real global action on climate change is inevitable.
Here’s 10 trends to watch in 2011 that are driving action on climate change :
Dramatic Weather Events Make an Impression: Heatwaves, fires, storms, and floods are on the rise across the planet. While no single event can be linked directly to climate change, their overall increase is a result of a warmer, wetter climate that is destabilizing the environment worldwide. Every time another “natural” disaster strikes, it makes people painfully aware of the connection between our impact on the environment, and its impact on us.
Food Crises Threaten Global Security: Over a billion people go hungry every day, and as the climate changes, food security is being threatened worldwide. The US Academy of Sciences reports that for every 1 degree temperature rises, crop yields fall 10 percent, so we can’t increase food productivity without addressing climate change. And as Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has long argued – food shortages lead to political collapse, and ultimately failed states which threaten global security.
Impending Water Wars: What is true for food is even more true for water. We are mining groundwater, damming rivers, and polluting the oceans with oil spills, agricultural runoff and mountains of plastic trash. Wells are running dry and seafood is running out. Air pollution is increasing ocean acidity, threatening the entire marine food chain; while droughts and desertification threaten crops on land. Leading business organizations and military agencies now recognize that water is as important as oil – and today’s shortages will be tomorrow’s wars if we don’t act quickly.
Fossil Fuels are Running Out: The International Energy Agency finally admitted this year that we have passed Peak Oil. They also recognize that removing subsidies to fossil fuels could improve the economy and reduce emissions at the same time. Global carbon markets are the most viable mechanism for shifting from fossil fuels to renewables – so it’s really only a matter of time before they’re enacted.
Rising Political Power of “Developing Nations”: Rising giants like BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – along with hundreds of smaller nations – argue convincingly that while industrialized western nations caused climate change, they’re now asking others to pay for it. Much of the discussion in Cancun was around setting up proper funding mechanisms to help reverse decades of wealth transfer from southern to northern economies. Climate change is a global challenge, and in a multi-polar world, it will be a major driver of international political dialogue.
Saving Forests Saves Money: Forests are the planet’s lungs and there’s increasing recognition that it’s far more cost-effective to repair forests than replace them. No geo-engineering scheme can restore balance to the climate as fast and as well as reforestation. But this requires global cooperation because northern greenhouse gas emissions are best offset by repairing tropical rain forests.
The Benefits of a Clean Economy: In a recent post I argued that the green economy is unstoppable because it’s making our lives better in countless ways. The benefits of smarter buildings, cleaner cars, and healthier cities have nothing to do with climate change – they’re just better ways to do things. But all of them will drive international markets in clean energy, and that will do wonders to break our addiction to the fossil fuels causing climate change.
Faith Traditions Support Stewardship: Faith traditions of all denominations are increasingly supporting a message of creation care and stewardship. A whole host of Christian, Jewish, Interfaith, and Evangelical organizations agree that climate change will hit the world’s poor the hardest, and that we have a moral duty to respond. In the latest Wikileak, the Dalai Lama says climate change is a greater threat to Tibet than China. As the human cost of environmental damage grows, international outcry from religious organizations will continue to drive political change.
Younger Generations Demand Action: Another huge force driving international opinion on climate change are the youth. Younger generations feel rightly shafted for being handed a damaged planet, and increasingly frustrated at the political incompetence of their elders. Organizations like 350.org are tapping this power to create an international movement directly targeting political leaders. Their numbers are sure to grow as the impacts of climate change hit home.
Change Trickles Up, Not Down: We can’t count on trickle-down politics to create change, because politicians are much better followers than leaders. The real action on climate change is happening in cities, companies, and communities around the world. In his book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken describes the millions of organizations around the world fighting for life and health in all its forms. Together they act like white blood cells in the world’s immune system, driving change up the political ladder. ICLEI the organization of local governments for sustainability now has over 1200 members representing nearly half a billion people. Just before Cancun, mayors from over 135 major cities from Paris to Buenos Aires signed an accord to report and reduce their emissions. And California – the world’s 8th largest economy – just implemented the nation’s largest cap-and-trade plan. National and international markets, commitments, and investments in fighting climate change are only a matter of time.
These factors will drive global action on climate change whether leaders like it or not. But the sad truth is it often takes brutal wars, bloody protests, or horrible disasters to make major social progress. The true test this time will be how much human suffering and environmental damage can we avoid by acting sooner rather than later.
As I’ve written before, the crisis of climate change presents us with three critical opportunities:
–A moral opportunity to help those in need and change what’s wrong with our current systems.
–An economic opportunity to invest in the winning technologies of the future.
–A political opportunity to form new international commitments that will strengthen all nations.
Now, if we could just agree on that, we might be getting somewhere.
Andy Mannle is a writer and consultant dedicated to exploring sustainable policy, innovations, and solutions. He is the Education Director for West Coast Green, and an adviser to New Leaf America, UrbanGreen, Adam Capital and others.