Governments from around the world gathered in Morocco over the last two days to discuss how to increase ambition on climate change action. Countries responsible for 90% of the world’s CO2 emissions have submitted their reduction plans in advance of the Paris climate meeting later this year, and their collective efforts still add up to a whole lot of climate change – well over the 2° C limit world leaders set for themselves. As ministers were discussing long-term goals and review periods to ensure the Paris agreement doesn’t lock in low ambition for the long-term, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they fully, deeply realized the implications of what they were doing.
Rolling Stone’s recent interview with President Obama underscores the importance of what it means to truly experience the ramifications of climate change. By that I mean to have the “oh, shit” moment described in the article – the kind of moment that hits you over the head like a sledgehammer. A moment that makes you forever remember where you were when you experienced it, like remembering where you were on 9/11.
Jeff Goodell: “Al Gore once told me that he thinks that everyone who cares deeply about climate change has had what he called an “oh, shit” moment when they realized what’s at stake. What was your “oh, shit” moment?”
President Obama: “Well, I did grow up in Hawaii. And the way that you grow up in Hawaii is probably surprisingly similar to the way some folks grew up here in the Arctic Circle. There are traditions that are very close to the land — in Hawaii, the water — and you have an intimate awareness of how fragile ecosystems can be. There are coral reefs in Hawaii that, when I was growing up, were lush and full of fish, that now, if you go back, are not.
And so I don’t think that there was a eureka moment. In my early speeches in 2007-2008, we were already talking about this and making it a prominent issue. What’s happened during my presidency is each time I get a scientific report, I’m made aware that we have less time than we thought, that this is happening faster than we thought. And what that does for me is to say that we have to ring the alarm louder, faster.”
Reading this, I have to admit my first reaction was, “Aha, that explains it, he never had the ‘oh shit’ moment.” Being aware that ecosystems are fragile is one thing; understanding that climate change is not simply an environmental problem but the defining challenge of his generation is something else entirely. Perhaps I am being unfair. President Obama has taken extraordinary measures to lower US CO2 emissions, especially considering the congressional hand he was dealt.
But it’s nowhere near enough, and I can’t help wonder what more he might have done if he’d experienced a life-changing moment. Would he still have allowed the massive expansion of leases for new coal production on federal land? Would he have given Shell leave to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea? Might he have killed the Keystone XL pipeline years ago? In other words, would he have abandoned his “all of the above” energy strategy in favor of one that leads us more quickly to a 100% renewable energy future?
We’ll never know, nor will we know how many other government leaders realize that their climate policies – the actions they take to curtail their nations’ greenhouse gas emissions – will be the single most important yardstick for how they will be judged by history.
I remember my own such moment, and how it changed my life. It was the summer of 1988, and I was a proud new mother. One day after work my husband turned to me and said “I’m afraid the world’s not going to be a very nice place when our girl grows up.” He had just received a detailed scientific briefing on climate change and was visibly shaken. I’d known about the issue for some time as I had majored in environmental studies in college. But when he told me about the emerging scientific consensus that we were heading for much deeper trouble than anyone had realized, I burst into tears. Like every new mother I had sworn on everything I held holy that I would keep my child safe. And I was devastated when I realized what that promise would mean in a warming world.
But that realization also made me determined to do whatever I could to defy the odds. And even though the odds have only worsened in the meantime, I remain hopeful.
The latest global energy scenario produced by Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council provides a roadmap for safeguarding our children’s future. And guess what? Their forecasts over the last 15 years have been shown in an independent analysis to have been the most reliable – the ones to have most accurately predicted what eventually came to pass – when compared with the more conservative projections of the International Energy Agency, the US Energy Information Administration, Bloomberg New Energy Finance and many others. We have gone much faster than most analysts had predicted, and we can go much faster still.
Now that my kids have grown up, and the impacts of climate change are being seen all over the world, I can barely imagine the changes they will experience in their lifetimes. Hopefully one of those changes will be the total transition to a world fueled by clean, renewable energy.
As World Bank President Jim Kim said recently, “My son will live through a 2, 3 or maybe even 4 degree Celsius warming. We cannot keep apologizing to our children for our lack of action. We must change course now.” Let’s hope that each and every government leader experiences that defining moment, when they decide to do whatever it takes to protect our children’s future.
Press link for more: Kelly Rigg | huffingtonpost.com