In search of the missing link on climate

Joaquin Patinir's painting 'Charon crossing the Styx' modified in a WWF campaign in 2019 to alert on the climate emergency. (Credit: WWF Spain/Museo del Prado campaign)

Is there something wrong with climate information, as sometimes put forth? Is it about the way our brains work? Or is it the limitations of our political systems and the inertia of decades-long investments into energy and production systems?

When it comes to climate and biodiversity, there is a missing link between facts, information, and action in the face of a crisis of unknown proportions that we now face. Although available information and political commitment have made genuine progress over the last years, why have they not yet triggered the decisive change in climate action?

Hope and despair. The facts are all on the table. On one hand, the scientific consensus is that we are consciously heading towards a planetary crash putting most of humanity in danger with at least 3 to 4 C global heating level in the twenty-first century combined with an ongoing mass extinction of species and ecosystems.

On the other hand, producers and consumers are still pressing against all odds on the accelerator pedal - opting for ever-heavier SUVs, low-cost air travel, disposable products, and unsustainable diets. On their side, states are more often than not displaying their reluctance at exercising the much expected long-term stewardship required to travel towards a safer and more sustainable world, with delaying tactics that amount to a high-risk gamble.

Like in a game of snakes and ladders, many of us are constantly jumping from hope to despair to again hope and despair. On the positive side, for example, Alok Sharma, UK’s minister in charge of preparing the next Cop26 in November wants to convince all countries to phase out coal for good and scrap fuel-consuming vehicles by the next decade, which would have a killer effect on the demand for oil. And last autumn indeed brought high hopes, with countries representing more than 60 per cent of carbon emissions committing to a net zero target by mid-century.

But recent weeks brought despair again when the UN released their latest partial assessment of national commitments to decarbonisation. For all the talks about curbing emissions by half by 2030 to limit global heating at 1.5 C, the expected achievement based on the information provided by states is no more than a 0.5 per cent reduction of emissions by 2030 compared to 2010, instead of the -45 per cent required. Peak emissions would only be reached just before 2030 and not now - burying the Paris agreement target and aggravating the trend towards a runaway climate breakdown.

And as of today, countries like the US, China, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are still pursuing policies that lead the world to at least 4 C warming, condemning whole regions in the tropics to become uninhabitable and laying the ground for untold suffering.

The upside, the downside, and toxic (mis)information. Narratives count enormously, and over the past decade, a lot of introspection has led to genuine shifts in information and discourse.

Acknowledging that long-term doom and gloom is fundamentally unsuccessful at mobilising humanity into action - and rather comforts people in wanting to enjoy what they have today - many have chosen to concentrate on two main information streams.

Firstly, that the climate emergency is now not later - with a multitude of scientific observations and daily witnessing making the case. Secondly, that there is light at the end of the tunnel: with narratives describing improvements, positive examples and solutions to inspire motivation, empowerment and action. Whether one believes in ‘green growth’ or in ‘degrowth’, people increasingly have in mind real-life models and innovations they can relate to and project into the future, time allowing. They start to see what a society rid of fossil fuels, more energy-efficient and practising agro-ecology could look like and the multiple benefits coming with it.

But time is precisely the problem, and close by comes inequality. It is the downside that cannot be brushed aside. The ticking clock does not inspire much trust in the ability of markets and states to reform themselves fast, and populations are increasingly aware of the inequalities of fate that will unroll in the coming decades, whether geographic or social. The Bangladeshi family whose water is getting salty because of rising sea levels and the winemaker in the South of France who worries about the heat are both acutely aware of what is coming. The impacts of climate change and the radical transformation needed will bring along tremendous reallocation of resources in our world over a short period of time and may create explosive political conditions. As events unfold, demand for equity, solidarity and justice between generations and between social groups will likely shake all economic, social and political institutions and lead to disruptions and new equilibriums.

With its normally conservative approach, science has been prudent on scenarios and may have underestimated the rhythm of change. And even the most thorough decarbonisation pathways that respect the Paris agreement count significantly on carbon capture technology that either does not yet exist or hasn’t delivered its promise. Hazardous geo-engineering plans are increasingly being considered in certain circles as an inevitable solution, a worrying signal indicating the possibility of a second high risk gamble on top of the first.

Beyond upsides and downsides, there is also a “fake side”, made of disinformation and aggressivity. On Monday the Swedish Royal Academy of Science published a high quality discussion paper in advance of the first Nobel Prize Summit that will take place in April. Focusing on what can be achieved in this decade to put the world on a path to a more sustainable, more prosperous future for all of humanity, it raises concerns about the “toxic environment” created by social media reports. Segmentation of publics, extreme polarisation of views, and targeted attacks tend to jeopardise international cooperation and the ability of democracies to take long-term decisions, it says. The paper questions the role of social media and their potential to support effectively the transformation rather than undermining it:

‘The emerging picture is that social media have become a global catalyst for social change by facilitating shifts on scales ranging from individual attitudes to broad social norms and institutions. It remains unclear, however, whether this new “invisible hand” will move the world on more sustainable and just pathways. Can the global, fast moving capacity for information sharing and knowledge generation through social media help lead us towards a just world where future generations thrive within the limits of our planet’s capacity?’

How social media play their role, their moderation, what science-based information they bring forward and how they contribute to break silos rather than create them can be particularly instrumental.

Beyond information, the need for social innovation. It is often stated that within the realm of life, humanity has a unique capacity to cooperate on a large scale to reach a shared vision of what the future can look like. In the case of climate and more broadly the ecological crisis, the fine balance between coming to terms with reality and imagining such a desirable future probably holds the key to faster mobilisation and more decisive action.

While information and social media hold an important piece of the puzzle, and politics, finance, technology and other social innovations will in the end be critical to connect the dots and hasten the ‘biosphere stewardship’ and prosperity foreseen. As Carl Folke concludes in the Swedish Academy paper:

‘Successful social innovations are recognised by their capacity to radically shift broad social institutions (economies, political philosophies, laws, practices, and cultural beliefs) that provide structure to social life.’

In such a period of high stakes, uncertainty, and turmoil ahead in which cooperation between humans and with nature can make the difference, it may be that something more profound is building beneath the surface and will redefine the way we see society. Could it be a new Renaissance, to end on a positive note?