Path to and beyond COP26 : why it’s important and what needs to happen Pt III

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Time to change the economic system

We are in a critical climate moment. As discussed in parts I and II of this post we know that we need transformative change. We know we need all actors to play a pivotal role. We know that we need to prioritize knowledge and voices of Indigenous peoples and traditional groups, who have a deep and inherent connection to the earth. We also know that we need political buy-in and multilateral commitments for a crisis that knows no geographical boundaries. Most of all, we know that we need wholesale systemic change – social, political, and economic. Let’s discuss that last point.

As Naomi Klein puts it in her book ‘On Fire’, “debates about climate action remain trapped in a paradigm that equates quality of life with personal prosperity and wealth accumulation.” We know, however, (and by we, I am referring to not just you and I, but politicians from all ideological perspectives, as well as economists and academics) that this perverse view of economics is no longer attainable, sustainable nor desirable. As the number of rich shrink, while simultaneously growing their wealth by billions, the vast mass of people living in poverty snowballs. The current global economic system exploits the planet and its resources for the benefit of very few, while those most disadvantaged will be the worst impacted by climate change.

Klein argues that in this respect “there is much to learn from Indigenous-led movements” like Buen Vivir, which she describes as a “focus on the right to a good life as opposed to the more-and-more life of ever-escalating consumption and planned obsolescence.”

Phasing out coal, moving away from extractive policies including fossil fuels and biofuels, moving towards a needs-based approach to resource consumption, towards renewables with an emphasis on community-based and small-scale renewable energy transitions will need to be part of the solution. Moving away from fossil fuels is the bare minimum, but it is not the magic bullet to save the planet from destruction. We need to do more. It is not good enough to replace one form of large-scale extraction (fossil fuels) with another just because it is the easier option the lesser of two evils. Non-fossil fuel extraction and exploitation also has negative, irreversible impacts on the planet’s carrying capacity, if not in the short term, in generations to come. Deforestation one major extractive activity but there are others. So effective solutions start with transforming the global economic model.

Major key adjustments need to be made to the global economic system, and national economies and development policies can begin to immediately reflect a wholescale commitment to striving for rapid and radical emissions reductions, and aiming for Net Zero by 2030. The UN says that countries will have to commit to at least 45 percent emissions reductions by 2030 if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Climate Council of Australia argues that this will need to be more like a 75 percent reduction by 2030, with Net Zero by 2035 based on current risk assessments. However, a new assessment conducted by Breakthrough, the National Centre for Climate Restoration argues that there is no carbon budget for 2030 as we are already overdrawn and that based on past emissions we are already on track to reach 1.5 degrees by 2030. Net Zero by 2050 is too late, yet loose ‘targets’ made by countries like Australia are locking us into climate catastrophe.

Released in a briefing paper earlier this year, Breakthrough argues that we will need to reach Net Zero by 2030 to keep warming below 2 degrees, a fact that has been argued by many climate scientists and advocates including Greta Thunberg. It states, “The world needs to be at zero emissions by 2030 for the 2°C target, based on three assumptions: 1. Mitigation expenditure no more than 3% of GDP; 2. No geoengineering; 3. Climate sensitivity is not low (Lamontagne et al, 2019. Nature Climate Change, 9:290–294).”

Whatever the commitment, to reach Net Zero we need a complete transformation of the global economic system. The CSIRO says, “Reaching Net Zero will require a fundamental reimagining of everything we do. It will require a new energy system, new modes of transport, new fuels, new materials, new modes of financing investments, new ways for industry sectors to interact and new ways of living on a scale – and at a pace we have never come close to achieving before.” But it’s not enough to assume that we can technologically innovate our way out of this. We also need a reimagining of society to transform the way, scale and speed at which we consume. To quote journalist Sarah O’Connor,

“To this new world, let’s not go back to a past that wasn’t working anyway !”

The global capitalist system that rewards competition and the exploitation of nature for the accumulation of individual wealth can no longer be logically and ethically argued as best system for an economy bounded by social injustices and planetary restraints.

In the near future, greater, more radical changes to the global economic system will need to be made. There are many proposals that policymakers and economists can consider, for example: degrowth, the social and solidarity economy, regenerative economy, and a circular society (which not only incorporates a circular economy, but also social and environmental factors including knowledge that impinge just outcomes).

It may be that no one single alternative model will be appropriate to transition markets to Net Zero, instead, key elements of the various significant models can be incorporated into one cohesive response that can be tailored to different contexts, so as not to reinforce the economic growth approach, but to level global equity, respond to fundamental needs and eliminate extreme poverty. With the last factor, it is instrumental to evaluate multidimensional poverty (environmental, wellbeing, social cohesion, health, education, sanitation, etc), not just economic poverty.

The path to Net Zero is not a linear one. It involves all actors – civil, governmental, business and organisations -and it requires rapid, radical systemic change to transform society, industry and politics in a just manner.

Regenerating and Restoring the planet goes beyond Earth Day. Here’s how we can do it

Our world is broken in many ways, compounded by climate change and biodiversity loss. Human impacts have had a profound effect on the changes in nature.

Humans have led to a broken world. It’s time to for us restore the earth! For today, Earth Day 2021, that is the theme.

The global pandemic highlights the urgency of environmental action at every level of society. Restoring the earth doesn’t just mean relying on government action, it’s  a reminder that we all have to come together and contribute to a brighter future – one of hope.

‘Sustainability’ is no longer enough. ‘Sustainable development’ hasn’t worked. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s look at other approaches that can reconcile our society with the planet that sustains us. We have the opportunity to turn away business-as-usual, challenge the staus quo and regenerate and renew the earth.

We can do this by shifting our behaviours, and changing our worldviews on our role and relationship with nature. This involves deep societal change. But in the words of Martin Luther King, “today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

Earth Day should not be just symbolic, however, it’s an opportunity to continue the conversations of change which can lead to real, practical transformation. Here some ways all levels of society can do so from individuals,  communities, industry and governments:

• Prioritise Indigenous and traditional knowledge and incorporate them in public policy and decision making.

• Look towards ideas like Buen Vivir that seek to restore the connection between people and nature, and between each other. This means moving away from a transactional society and towards collaborative living and collective socio-eco wellbeing.

• Start implementing and supporting regenerative activities like regenerative farming, agriculture, gardening, and tourism.

• Educate. Teach the next generations what can be done for the future, and instill a reciprocal planet-people mindset. Centre Indigenous and traditional approaches to resources in education.

• Move to a circular and regenerative economy, and localising that through social and solidarity economies that connect producers with consumers and provide equitable outcomes.

• Change consumption patterns with cooperation between people, governments, business, and organisations. At the most basic level this can involve tree planting; reductions in energy consumption and waste by individuals and industry, supported by effective policy; better waste management solutions incorporating new technologies.

• Support research in and harness sustainable technologies to support a circular and regenerative economy, and help support individual efforts.

• Declarations of a climate emergency coupled with effective strategies and policies to implement necessary changes.

• Celebrate and promote a ‘culture of restoration and regeneration’ through art, music and storytelling to motivate and inspire action.

Optimism, Hope and Respect in a Changing Climate

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It is no secret that the term climate change is the source of a great deal of anxiety in people of all ages these days – even more so amongst those who are starting to feel its effects. The term ‘eco-anxiety’ has been coined by psychologists to deal with this relatively new phenomenon.

Climate change is indeed having direct and indirect effects on our health, including our mental health. Many young people are facing feelings of “existential dread” about what their future holds. Despite the rise is climate pessimism, there are reasons to be (cautiously) optimistic. The Climate Reality Project discusses 9 of them here.

To ride that momentum, in this post I’d like to reframe the discussion today and talk about ‘hope’, ‘optimism’ and, most of all, ‘respect’.

Let’s start with this idea of the ‘environment’. The term can be argued as being contested. It means different things to different cultures. Unfortunately, in the West we separate human life from the natural environment, but not without consequence.

To many Indigenous cultures around the world the environment is not a separate entity, it is an all-encompassing connection to a personified ‘Mother Earth’. It demands respect. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, by personifying the natural environment, or even just seeing it as something other than an inanimate resource to exploit – a holder of rights – than we automatically begin to pay more respect to it and the richness it provides human life. After all, most people would hardly disrespect, abuse and exploit their own mother! It is a question of paying full respect to that which sustains life.

When we reframe the natural environment in such a way, it is less daunting to approach a changing climate with a sense of reality.

Nonetheless, it is easy to be pessimistic about climate change when we see the scientific data and understand the current planetary trajectory. A certain amount of fear is necessary to emphasize the urgency of the situation. The problem is, climate pessimism often leads to feelings of hopelessness, sometimes denial, and ultimately inaction. But, what happens when we start looking at things a little differently, and open our eyes to the pockets of good things that are happening globally to combat climate change – in our communities, cities, private enterprise, associations, research, policy, technology? We only have to look at the way the environment is embraced by other cultures around the world to restore some optimism in humanity.

A shift in mindset sows seeds of cautious optimism that can spur on lasting and effective climate action where we can all contribute to these pockets of good things, until climate action is no longer revolutionary, but the norm. To change our mindsets though, we need a certain dose of hope.

So, let us talk about hope for a moment. What is the opposite of hope? It is despair. Often despair leads to feelings of guilt. As Paul Goodman once said, “No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties.” Hence the rise in eco-anxiety.

I have just started reading Jonathan Porritt’s ‘Hope in Hell: a decade to confront the climate emergency’. As a mother of two children, working on climate, sustainability and wellbeing from a social and policy perspective, I need to entertain feelings of hope, otherwise what am I doing? So, the title of this book drew me in immediately. I have read too little of this book to give a review, but this focus on reality mixed with hope and optimism is the angle we all should be taking right now.

Porritt opens his book with a quote from Rebecca Solnit, fitting for climate action

“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.”

To a certain degree, the precautionary principle in international environmental law is caught up in a force of hope. Solnit continues,

“It’s the belief that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”

Rebecca Solnit

We can no longer take a gamble with decisions and behaviours, all precaution is needed. Even if we don’t know why beforehand. In fact, precaution doesn’t go far enough. But hope does. Hope inspires people to understand that what they do matters. The actions they take in their personal, professional and political lives can contribute to real transformative change.

A sustainable future needs hope in transformative change, with a dose of optimism to believe that action can lead to change. Add an understanding of reality, and respect for the natural environment. As Greta Thunberg says “Act like your house is on fire. Because it is!” Only, guard hope that not all is lost.

Much attention is paid to the inaction of policymakers to enact effective climate policies. We must not forget though, the burden of climate passivists, those who believe that someone else will take care of things. Both “shiny optimists” as Porritt calls them, and pessimists can fall into that camp. Much lasting change is achieved from the bottom. Social movements and behavioural change has achieved great things in the past century.

So, let’s guard some hope, regard good climate action in all corners of society with a healthy sense of optimism, and embrace nature not as a resource to exploit exponentially, but with full respect for way it sustains life on earth.