Tipping Points – A View on Global Climate Policy

DFID India

(c) Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures. “Meenakshi Dewan, 20, brings something very special to her home in Orissa, India”

All around us, change is always happening, even when it’s hard to notice. But from my office, a couple of miles from the US Supreme Court building, some moments seem to produce bigger change than others. This is both an illusion – big moments almost always reflect months or years of smaller change – but it’s also true – tipping points matter and can spread change at a broader scale.

In the just transition away from fossil fuels and destructive use of our forest and food systems, 2015 is one of those moments that could trigger a sea change. Here are a few data points that feel significant:

  • Public Debate Is Shifting: Climate scientists would be the first to tell you that they only tell part of the climate story. This year, a broader moral conversation is growing, led by religious leaders, like Pope Francis – who in June released a beautiful ‘encyclical’ on our relationship with Earth. The Pope’s teaching has received the most attention, but it is part of a larger chorus including a major Rabbinical Letter on climate change, strong endorsements from leaders like HH Dalai Lama and the Greek Patriarch, and an upcoming contribution from key Muslim teachers. This shift comes at a crucial time as the United States enters another election cycle – one where climate must finally take its place as a top tier issue.
  • Governments Are Feeling the Heat: For several years, 2015 has loomed as a key moment for action. The question was whether governments would take it seriously. So far, they are. For the first time, nearly all countries are preparing national targets to tackle climate change. At the time of writing, countries responsible for 60% of global emissions have submitted new goals to the UN. The rest will come ahead of the important negotiations in Paris in December. Discussions are now shifting to how to address the inevitable gap between the sum of these national targets and the pollution cuts needed to stay below 1.5/2°C of planetary warming. In many ways, this will be the huge elephant in the room in Paris.
  • Energy and Food Systems Are Moving Ahead: While climate talks continue, change is coming where it matters most. Thanks to plummeting prices for solar and wind energy, dirty coal and oil are already losing their market share. For example, in the first quarter of 2015, renewables accounted for 75% of new electricity supply in the US. Coal? Zero percent. Meanwhile climate impacts on our global food systems are leading multinational companies to pledge to eliminate deforestation – the largest source of climate pollution in our food system – from their supply chains. The Paris talks offer a chance for companies to join forces with governments to make “deforestation-free” agricultural products a reality.

These changes are real and I’m encouraged.  At the same time, 2015 has been a year with scary reminders of why we need to get the most out of 2015 and keep pushing for the next set of positive tipping points:

Chroma s1 1

“Chroma S1 1” – Artist John Sabraw uses paint made from the toxic runoff in streams located near abandoned coal mines in his abstract paintings. Image courtesy of the artist.

  • Oceans: Earth’s oceans are heating up in dangerous ways, driven partly by the natural El Nino cycle, but also by global warming. Stronger tropical storms are hitting the Pacific and the third (1998, 2010, 2015) global coral bleaching event has begun, impacting 15,000 square kilometers of reefs.
  • Forests: The forests and tundra in the northern latitudes, especially in the Arctic, are ablaze in record numbers. Only half-way through the fire season, records are already falling in the United States and Canada. With first responders pushed to dangerous limits, most fires are left to burn uncontrolled.
  • Warmest Year on Record: 2014 was the warmest year globally in recorded human history, and 2015 appears poised to break that new record. We can expect another record or near record year for the disintegrating Arctic sea ice with impacts to the communities and creatures of the North as well as likely impacts on winter weather later in the year.

So in this year of extremes, I am trying to take refuge in equanimity – allowing the scary moments to come and to generate samvega, which Ven. Bikku Bodhi reminds us can be a source of energy and strength.  But also to gratefully feel the refreshing joy of reading the Pope’s encyclical or seeing earnest government officials trying to squeeze as much as possible from the negotiation sessions ahead of Paris.

As important as it is, 2015 will not solve our problems (at its best) nor doom us (at its worst). But it is full of moments of great impact, where we can live fully in this exciting time of great change.

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