As the 2015 Global Climate Summit Nears, Never Doubt the Power of the People

“We are counting on you,” a small child says at the end of a short video about the Global Climate Summit, which will take place in Paris (November 30 – December 11, 2015). There is no doubt that unless we act quickly the great acceleration of anthropogenic changes will end life on the planet, as we know it. That’s the bad news, but there is good news too. Great transformations are still possible – if, and it is a big if – the global leaders act in the best interests of the people and the planet.


And, if they do not? Then they will be knowingly endangering the lives of this and future generations of children, and people should hold them accountable for crimes against humanity. This is a bold statement, but it is supported by extensive open source documentation on Earth System research and by online accounts of global initiatives to counter the anthropogenic changes that are occurring to the planet. For example:

The 2009 ICSU Online Global Visioning Consultation on the Grand Challenges Confronting People and the Planet

In August 2009, the International Council for Science (ICSU) organized an online Global Visioning Consultation, which had 1,016 registered users in 85 countries, and during which 323 position statements were presented and questions were posed. The purpose of the Visioning was the identification of the Grand Challenges for Earth System Science for Global Sustainability. I participated in the Visioning Consultation and collected and analyzed all of the documentation posted on-line.

In the 2009 Online Global Visioning the renowned epidemiologist, A.L. McMichael wrote:

Modern societies and their governments, typically view the natural work in essentially mechanistic fashion – imagining that piecemeal technical solutions can be found for specific aspects of environmental disruption or depletion. Systems thinking and analysis, including an understanding of ecological processes, has not been part of our schooling, culture and world-view. We are thus failing to grasp the potential seriousness of exponential change functions, synergistic stressors, natural limits, critical thresholds and surprises. Obstacles to achieving such change include the familiar difficulties in “re-educating’ existing adult generations, failure of imagination, resistance from those with vested interests in prevailing views/models (including conservative religious and schooling authorities), and the difficulties and diffidences that afflict scientists in their potential public role as communicators and educators. Governments’ (electoral) preoccupation with balancing the budget rather than the biosphere is a natural consequence of the above – and therefore a further major impediment.

McMichael then asked a critical question: How can the world community achieve a shared, new understanding of the complex, interactive and non-linear nature of the Earth system, against the prevailing, misleading and policy-impeding assumption of a mechanistic ‘Newtonian’ world, amenable to reductionist technical fixes applied in incremental fashion?”

This question is an iteration of the grandest of the grand challenges that we face, and it was of great concern the following year when the 2009 Online Global Visioning became the basis for the 2010 ICSU and ISSC Re-Visioning Forum on the Grand Challenges, at UNESCO in Paris, in which I participated.

The 2010 ICSU and ISSC Re-Visioning Open Forum on the Grand Challenges, UNESCO in Paris

At the June 22, 2010 joint sponsored ICSU – ISSC Forum of the world’s most renowned scientists there was general agreement that: 1) global environmental change is outpacing the response; 2) our current path is unsustainable; and 3) immediate action must be taken to change the global impact of people on Earth System functions.

The scientists also agreed that while dangerous changes are taking place over time, abrupt changes are the most dangerous. “Catastrophe” is the word most often used for such events, but at the Paris Re-Visioning Forum “cataclysm” and “cataclysmic” were the descriptors used to describe the potential of an unprecedented global disaster. In the written documentation provided in preparation for the Paris Forum the ICSU-ISSC leadership wrote:

We know enough to state with a high degree of scientific confidence that without action to mitigate the drivers of dangerous global change and enhance societal resilience, humanity has reached a point in history at which changes in climate, hydrological cycles, food systems, sea level, biodiversity, ecosystem services and other factors will undermine development prospects and cause significant human suffering associated with hunger, disease, migration, and poverty.

In Paris there was recognition of the urgent need for researchers in the geophysical and biophysical sciences to join forces with and mobilize researchers in the social sciences. To anticipate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and increased agricultural use of land on global and regional climate and on Earth’s biological, geochemical, and hydrological systems Earth scientists must also anticipate the impact of present and future human enterprise on the planet. Here’s the question in the Grand Challenges document that confounded the scientists who participated in the 2009 Re-Visioning Consultation:

How can timely actions be undertaken at unprecedented and multiple geographical and geopolitical scales, where the nature and scale of the issues involved means that the actors have widely differing – and – disconnected values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interest and power?

It was this critical question that became the foundation of the Planet Under Pressure Conference of world scientists that was held in London in March 2012 as the precursor to the United Nations Climate Summit in Brazil later that year which became known as Rio+20.

The March 2012 Planet Under Pressure Conference in London

More than 3,000 of the world’s most renowned scientists participated in the Planet Under Pressure Conference, which was a precursor to the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. It was a pivotal moment. There was a sense of purpose: to sway negotiators at Rio+20 to act. In London there was also a sense of urgency and many hoped The State of the Planet Declaration, crafted by Lidia Brito and Mark Stafford-Smith to represent the views of Earth System scientists from around the world, would be taken into consideration by the political power brokers in Rio. In the Declaration the scientists state:

Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of Earth System as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources; these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale. Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action. We must show leadership at all levels … we urge the world to grasp this moment and make history.

In their endorsement of The State of the Planet Declaration, the Board of Patrons of the Planet Under Pressure Conference wrote:

The human species is degrading the environment at all spatial scales, from the local to global. … The survival of our societies, our civilizations and our cultures are dependent on a stable climate, natural resources and ecosystem services. We have become a force of nature, but individually we continue to be vulnerable. Business-as-usual is not an option. The time for action is now. … There is no time to lose.

Delegates agreed that humanity is facing faster change and more risk. In response there was also general agreement that we must “re-learn together”, “create a new philosophy of life”, and “shift our paradigm”. The clarion call at the conference was for a revolution of mind and spirit, a rethinking of our ways of being in and of the world, which would require fundamental changes in the way we live.

The June 2012 Earth Summit, Rio +20

At the Planet Under Pressure Conference the world’s scientists urged the world to grasp this moment and make history, which is exactly what the political power brokers at the Earth Summit, Rio +20 did. They grasped the world and choked the life out of it.

“This is Rio Minus 20,” Kumi Naidoo, the South African scholar and human rights activist sent out to the world via Twitter, “which fails on equity, fails on ecology, fails on economy #rio+20 #earthsummit text longest suicide note in history”.

Based on the evidence of an in-depth discourse analysis of a leaked draft of Rio+20’s The Future We Want: Our Common Vision, it is possible to state that the final version of the document was scrubbed clean of any action items in response to climate change or to the ecological destruction of the planet. The U.S systematically deleted language added by the G77 that addressed the impending catastrophe.

In the final document there is no evidence of the extraordinary battle of words for the future of the world that had taken place. Like a peaceful grassy knoll there are no signs of the mass grave hidden underneath. David Naussbaum, WWWF-UK explained:

What they did was take all the “bracketed” issues out of the text altogether. Text gets bracketed when it’s controversial – and here in Rio, it’s proved to be controversial when it’s been ambitious and looking to change the status quo. And so the controversies have been addressed through compromise and capitulation in varying measure. The result is a weak text, lacking in much ambition in terms of clear actions and dates, and it doesn’t measure up to the vision we have of a safe world for both people and nature.

Neither the 2009 Online Global Visioning Consultation, or the 2010 Visioning Open Forum at UNESCO in Paris, or the 2012 Planet Under Pressure Conference in London had any impact on the U.S. power brokers who dictated the text of the final “agreement” that was produced at the Earth Summit in Rio. The Future We Want: Our Common Vision was exactly what the powerful climate change deniers in the U.S. wanted. It was their common vision that the document reflected and not the common vision the world’s scientists, and not the people of the U.S., or people in the global community for whom the impact of climate change was/is already devastating.

It is of critical importance that the people of the U.S. are informed about the travesty that is taking place. That is why we must focus on actionable knowledge.

If we know — as the power brokers undoubtedly do — that maladaptive human activity is creating the conditions for a step change in the climate of the planet, then we should act. It’s a no brainer. We should act before the ecological damage becomes cataclysmic, before there is nothing left for our kids to inherit except the inhospitable wastelands – the legacy of hollow men whose only concern is their own wealth and self-aggrandizement.

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