21 April 2017

A three-track strategy for climate mitigation

by Graeme Taylor

The challenge

In his analysis of the Paris Agreement on mitigating climate change, The Guardian’s George Monbiot said: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” On one hand the outcome was better than predicted as Article 2 states that parties to the agreement will hold global average temperature increases “to well below 2°C” and “pursue efforts” to limit this to 1.5°C.

The "carbon law" for the 2-degree target, from “A roadmap for rapid decarbonization”, Rockström, Gaffney, Rogelj, Meinshausen, Nakicenovic and Schellnhuber, Science 355: 1269-1271, 24 March 2017

On the other hand these goals are only aspirational and current (voluntary) climate mitigation commitments are too limited and too slow to prevent catastrophic outcomes. There is an enormous (and currently unbridgeable) lag between the pace of political, economic and technological change and the rapid (non-negotiable) rate of climate change.

To ensure safe outcomes the global economy will have to be rapidly restructured. This will require a massive response similar in scale and urgency to the Allied effort in World War II. However, at this time strong international action is a distant dream.

Most experts assume that even under the most optimistic scenarios aggregate emissions will increase until mid-century, pushing global temperatures far past international goals. The hope is that this overshoot will be corrected over time with as yet undeveloped technologies for carbon capture and storage.

These scenarios also assume that during the period of overshoot most human and natural systems will be able to adapt to changing conditions. Critics argue that these assumptions are dangerously wrong: many critical thresholds are being and will be passed with irreversible, catastrophic consequences such as the loss of much of the cryosphere and ocean acidification.

In addition the Paris negotiations were constrained by the need to work within existing political and economic frameworks. At the diplomatic level strong initiatives are resisted by institutional inertia, opposed by vested interests, and hobbled by the fragmented nature of global governance. Because governments with differing priorities and interests tend to agree on the lowest common denominators, to date commitments have supported reactive, incremental and partial responses: e.g. prioritising voluntary adaptation and technological solutions over mandatory prevention and systemic change.

For these reasons existing strategies are unlikely to produce the radical transformations required to rapidly end carbon pollution: for example no comprehensive plans exist for making the transition to a sustainable global system.

An opposite approach is required: one that starts by determining what is necessary to achieve safe outcomes and then backcasts to design and develop viable solutions. While this proactive ‘critical-safety’ approach is widely used to manage risk in complex industrial and military projects (e.g. aviation), it is not being used by governments to manage climate risk. The problem is that although it will not be possible to preserve critical ecosystems without imposing internationally enforceable limits on pollution and consumption, all attempts to introduce enforceable limits are strongly resisted by both the world’s economic institutions (designed to support constant growth), and by the fiercely independent political institutions of the nation state system.

As a consequence the fundamental challenge facing climate mitigation efforts  is finding a way to manage the conflict between the need to work within existing institutional frameworks and the reality that they are not (and may be incapable of) acting quickly enough to prevent catastrophic outcomes. It will only be possible to resolve this dichotomy with holistic, integrative methods. This paper proposes using a multi-track approach in which three different but complementary strategic campaigns work in parallel to accelerate systemic transformation.

A three track strategy

An effective strategy must address both short and long term goals: the need to greatly intensify current climate mitigation efforts within the next 5-10 years to avoid passing irreversible environmental tipping points, while simultaneously catalysing the structural changes required to produce a safe, stable climate by mid-century.

Track 1: A strategic campaign to strengthen climate mitigation

The first track will work within official institutions to intensify climate mitigation efforts. It will argue that a proactive, critical-safety, whole-systems approach is needed to ensure safe outcomes and reframe climate change as an immediate existential threat requiring an international emergency response.

Although creating a safe, stable climate will ultimately require systemic redesign, the Track 1 goals are more immediate: to build political and institutional support for emergency measures to stop and reverse dangerous global warming (e.g. geoengineering), and for actions that facilitate the transformation to a sustainable system (e.g. introducing carbon taxes and accelerating R&D into non-polluting processes for producing energy and goods).

Climate mitigation efforts will be accelerated through (1) redefining climate change as an urgent international security risk (rather than as a primarily environmental problem); (2) clarifying the requirements for a safe global climate; (3) identifying the technologies and actions required to prevent dangerous climate change; (4) progressively building scientific and political support for these interventions; and (5) developing national and international alliances that both encourage and pressure decision-makers at all levels to take emergency global action.

Track 2: A strategic campaign to win the ideological debate

Humanity’s major challenges are not technological but social. For this reason the second track will clarify the need for transformational change: why creating a safe, sustainable future is both necessary and desirable. It will focus on subjective issues of ethics and meaning, and explore ways to reframe dysfunctional values and perspectives in ways that support conflict resolution and sustainable solutions. Its practical task will be to develop positive narratives that clearly and simply explain why it is necessary, feasible and desirable to create a safe, sustainable future. Its purpose will be to build support and inspire action.

Climate change is ultimately the byproduct of a dysfunctional system and the same values, interests and institutions that cause the problem are neither willing nor able to solve it. The dominant global world view and political economy with its focus on endless growth, the consumer worldview, and the fragmented nature of global governance present almost insuperable obstacles to climate mitigation.

The key is to reframe climate change in both security and ethical terms. Our strongest argument against the selfish, short-sighted values of consumerism is that we have a responsibility to our children to leave them a healthy, sustainable planet.

Driving our unsustainable global economy is an unethical culture. We will not be able to create a sustainable system without changing the culture from one based on the exploitation of nature and other humans to one based on respect and mutual benefit. The consumer culture creates false needs for power, status and wealth (‘greeds’) instead of satisfying real needs for health, community and meaning. Because consuming cannot satisfy social and spiritual needs, people will never feel that they have enough.

Social movements like the struggles for democracy, against slavery, or for women’s rights required, demanded and created structural changes. Climate mitigation requires even deeper structural change, and to be successful it must have the moral force and dynamism of a social movement. This is happening: environmental organisations have already organized the largest global demonstrations in history.

Track 3: A strategic campaign to accelerate systemic change

The focus of the third track is on accelerating the structural changes needed to prevent the catastrophic collapse of nature and society. A whole-system paradigm shift is required to transform our exploitative, self-destructive consumer society into a caring, sustainable conserver society.

This approach will primarily work at the level of civil society to accelerate and empower structural transformation. It will focus on supporting the evolution of an environmentally and socially sustainable global system: e.g. by defining the requirements for a sustainable system; identifying transformational technologies, social structures, and memes; aligning forces working to empower change; and developing a common strategic framework.

We are now in a period of evolutionary change. On one hand the industrial system is no longer environmentally sustainable, which means that it must either evolve into a sustainable system or collapse. On the other hand, a new ecological paradigm has begun to emerge with the potential to organize a sustainable planetary civilization. (Since societal systems are organized by world-views, the core requirement of a sustainable system is an ecologically relevant world-view that recognizes the interdependence of all life on earth, and the need of all life for health and wholeness.)

A precondition for an evolutionary shift is the creation of mutually supportive functional synergies. Track 3 will accelerate structural transformation through helping the emerging social and technological elements of the new sustainable system come together through a process of collaboration, convergence and confluence. The development of a constructive holistic alternative to our destructive global system will support the rapid evolution of a new type of sustainable system.

Our species already has the knowledge and technology to create a clean, lean and equitable economy capable of operating within our planet’s carrying capacity. The most critical risks are well known and credible solutions have been proposed.  Decisive interventions could prevent catastrophic environmental, economic and social collapses and accelerate the transformation to a sustainable world system. But because vested interests will resist efforts to regulate and ration the consumption of essential goods and services, major structural changes are unlikely to take place until the current system loses its ability to manage worsening global crises.

Because our global system is environmentally and socially unsustainable, environmental, economic and political crises are likely to intensify over the coming decades. These worsening crises will expose the ideological and structural failings of existing institutions and increase demands for alternative approaches. Political tipping points will develop that will lead either to systemic transformation or collapse.

On the positive side three forces are growing and converging to support change: awareness that greatest security threats we face are worsening environmental problems; opposition to widening economic and political inequality; and calls (from Pope Francis and other leaders) for a more ethical global system. Understanding that environmental, economic and social problems are interconnected is the key to change.

It will be possible to create a sustainable world if the current global system is restructured to:
  • Regulate and restrict resource use to ensure that the economy operates within sustainable environmental and social parameters.  Ensure that all humans, species and ecosystems can access essential resources (those needed to maintain health and wholeness). 
  • Create an ethical, caring culture that recognizes the interdependence of individuals, society and nature; that focuses on meeting real needs rather than false greeds; that values quality over quantity, and health and happiness over wealth and status.  
Of course clarifying the major systemic problems and solutions is only the first step. We then have to determine how we can implement the necessary changes. This will require:
  • Vision: a positive, ethical narrative and vision that a peaceful, sustainable world is both necessary and possible.
  • Strategy: a clear strategy for global transformation.
  • Leadership: support for the vision and strategy from a coalition of credible leaders representing a wide spectrum of cultures, institutions, and political and religious views.
  • Empowerment: transformational media, social and technological tools designed to inform, catalyze and empower constructive change.
  • Organization: aligning the forces supporting sustainable outcomes, and facilitating the self-organization of a synergistic “super-campaign” pursued at all levels of our interdependent global system.
It will be an enormous challenge to create a sustainable world, but one our species must and can accomplish. The future is not fate—it is our choice.
A longer (referenced) version of this article is available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1946756716673640

Graeme Taylor may be contacted at: graeme@bestfutures.org