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After the Climate Breakthrough: What Do We Do Now?
Alan AtKisson, 7 Feb 07

Many people in our line of work* are feeling a bit giddy these days. Some, myself included, are talking in terms of a "sea change," "tipping point," "the wave is breaking" and the like. There is a kind of electricity in the air, a sense that many things previously considered impossibly difficult and infeasible are now just around the political-and-economic corner. As one friend put it, "For years I have felt like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it roll down again. For the first time, the boulder seems not only to be staying on top, but even to be rolling down the other side."

And the reason for all this optimism? Climate change has hit the big time.

The fact that climate change is now a central focus of the world's attention, from Hollywood to Davos, and that even US President George W. Bush was forced to acknowledge it in his 2007 State of the Union Address, changes the climate for sustainability work in general. The recent release of the new IPCC report only solidified a growing feeling that "now is finally the time." More and more decision-makers -- whether they decide households or national economies -- are now actively looking for the solutions that many of us have been promoting for years.

But a number of my professional friends are not celebrating this sudden emergence of climate change onto the world stage and even the big screen. Instead, they express a wide range of emotions, from puzzlement about what to do next (now that major world leaders and institutions have gotten in the game, some of the early thought-leaders will effectively be pushed to the margins), to a kind of sadness that has always been there under the surface but which, in the press of the fight, rarely could be expressed. The latter is all too easy to explain: being proven "right" about an issue that threatens an impoverished and dangerous future for both our children our ecosystems alike is hardly reason for jubilation.

As one prominent colleague working on renewable energy noted to me privately, "People actually ask me if I'm happy now that climate change is finally getting all this attention. Of course I'm not happy; I'm grieving! I just want to weep! I want to tell them, 'Why didn't you listen to us ten years ago?'"

In November I gave a speech on climate change to Japanese business leaders in which I described a kind of "triple punch" that had changed the political and media playing field for good: Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth," and the "Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change."

Since then, I've noticed that several other folks in this line of work were all independently saying exactly the same thing. On Swedish television the other night, a news report on climate actually cut between experts in mid-sentence, to illustrate that they were practically uttering the same words about the same three milestones. Here is my version of those words:

First, Hurricane Katrina woke the world up to the fact the dangers of global warming are real. The flooding of New Orleans showed us what those dangers look like in visceral terms. Regardless of whether global warming can be specifically implicated -- and it never can be in the case of any specific event, even one like Katrina, which involved a small-ish hurricane growing to monster size over weirdly warm waters, and then destroying much of a major US city -- it is clear that things like Katrina are what we can expect to happen more and more, especially if nothing is done. Katrina helped make climate change "an undeniable fact."

Then came "An Inconvenient Truth," Al's Gore's astonishingly successful documentary film, which made the science of climate change accessible to nearly everyone. Gore assembled all the graphs and the history and the scientific explanations into a convenient package that could be absorbed in one sitting. Some criticized the film's animated sequences of a forlorn, homeless polar bear swimming in search of vanishing sea ice (and probably drowning) as alarmist; but it turns out that even this was just a representation of verifiable scientific facts, and the US government is moving polar bears toward the endangered species list for precisely this reason.

Finally, when the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern, made a report to the government of the United Kingdom on the economics of climate change -- noting dramatically that failure to act now would likely result in a major global depression -- the last major chink in the wall of denial crumbled. Sir Nicholas was, by all reports, one of the most popular attractions at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year. His speech there made Page 1, above the fold, of the International Herald Tribune.

These three events were enough to push climate change, which was gaining political momentum for hundreds of other smaller reasons, over some kind of hump. Since then two more events have added to this feeling of a downhill race to action: the release of a statement by the previously secret "National Climate Action Partnership," a group of corporate CEOs who are publicly calling for a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide in the United States; and the release in Paris of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, which should "remove the question mark" (as UNEP's director Achim Steiner put it) on whether global warming is happening, and whether humans are causing it.

So ... now what?

"We are Winning," wrote science-fiction-author-turned-green-design-guru Bruce Sterling in a recent post to his "Viridian" list-serve. Sterling created the "Viridian Movement" (viridian means "a cool shade of green") eight years ago. His goal was to recruit people, and especially designers of all kinds, to get serious about addressing the climate threat. He had planned for his movement to "expire" by 2012, partly because if serious change in product design, energy policy, and the like wasn't happening to address global warming by then, it wouldn't matter anyway: the world would be doomed.

But now Sterling is seriously considering ending his Movement early. "We Viridians have beaten that clock," he wrote in January. "There is no need to wait for distant 2012 to declare victory in our war to make green trendy and to create 'irresistible demand for a global atmosphere upgrade.' Green will never get any trendier than it is this year. The atmosphere upgrade is on the way. That process won't be pretty, but it's going to happen."

After cataloguing the many ways in which "We are Winning," Sterling notes that in this situation, "There are two choices. You can attempt to seize control, or you can get out of the way." With climate change engagement now essentially "everywhere" (even though it is not technically everywhere yet), and becoming the new normal, promoting the issue is no longer the place to be avant garde. His advice to activists under his second scenario ("get out of the way") is to take private pleasure in the victory and "vanish into the woodwork."

That's probably good advice for the prophets and Paul Reveres of this movement: they deserve a nap after years of sleepless nights, hollering for people to wake up.

As for Sterling's first scenario, "seizing control" is neither an option nor desirable -- even if he is just talking about seizing control of the agenda, with his usual dramatic flair. The climate change agenda is now exactly where many of us were trying to put it: into the machinery of political and economic decision-making. Those of who play in that arena can perhaps have some influence; but we certainly cannot control the agenda. Nobody can. Our planet's fate will now be determined by the sloppy process we call democracy, as national parliaments and boards of directors and international assemblies and city councils step up their deliberations about what to do. Now that climate change has secured a privileged position on the agenda of human affairs, nobody will ever have full control.

That's a very good thing, of course. One can at least hope, and these days even assume, that the deliberations of decision-makers will increasingly be informed by the latest research on what is actually happening. But the game of "what do we do now?" is a game of selection and prioritization among a wide range of options. Framing and making such decisions is the role of leadership, and even in the least democratic contexts, leaders do not have full control. Nature has firmly established that when it comes to defining the agenda, she has the last word.

That leaves another, tougher option as the only way forward for most of us who have dedicated careers to the vision of a more sustainable world: rolling up our sleeves, and working on scaling up implementation. Leadership and deliberative decision-making are best served by accurate analyses, clear proposals, good examples, case studies. We have many of these at the ready. Our collective storehouse of tried-and-tested ideas, prototypes and working models will be enormously useful in the next few years. But the world is likely to burn through these with astonishing rapidity, and ask for more, better, and faster. The most important thing that professionals in sustainability will have to offer in the future is not ready-made solutions, but an ability to improvise, adapt, innovate, and dream up still more visionary-yet-feasible ideas about how to transform a global civilization or rescue ecosystems in trouble. This is going to require even more exertion, more creativity, more risk; celebrating victory and going home is not an option.

Of course, while he seems to celebrating victory, prophet Sterling (who, with tongue resolutely in cheek, calls himself the "Pope-Emperor of the Viridian Movement") appears to be actually doing the opposite; and he certainly isn't "going home." Instead, he has put himself on the firing line where his wild creativity can serve a wildly acute need: this previously comfortable Texan is now living in Belgrade, and seeking to make a contribution to a better future for Serbia. If that's not a commitment to sustainable development, I don't know what is.

Here's the summary: In the next few years, people who have been working on sustainability, especially where it touches the climate-and-energy nexus, are going to be seriously tested -- not by resistance to their ideas, but by the ever-increasing demand for them.

* The phrase "our line of work" refers to people working in a professional capacity on the issues of sustainable development, or in training to do such work.

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Thanks for the thought provoking post, and I agree with you that 'we' need to ramp up our efforts.

I'd like to suggest that it is not only necessary to ramp up our efforts, it is vital. This is a different game we are playing here; now that we have made touchdown at one end, there's nothing stopping us from picking up the ball and running back to the other end.

It is by doing so we emphasise our message, and make sure that as many people as possible see it or hear it, some for the first time, and many for the first time *again* - which is when they will (hopefully) join the dots themselves and realise, oh shit.

I fear that mass media is playing with this issue as if it were a fad. I get the sense that they know it's not, that it's serious, but we have to give them the stories they need, the language they need so that they can metamorphise this 'thing', this 'fad', into something that can innoculate the lives of their readers. And if enough readers make the transition, then that would be a real tipping point.

Worldchanging is very valuable - it provides the stories we need for a bright green future.


Posted by: Christopher on 7 Feb 07

What now? Move on to peak-oil and pandemic flu (other pan-threats). Move on to complementary currencies (maybe THE one pan-solution).

Posted by: lugon on 7 Feb 07

The long-time workers in the trenches may very well be over-run by the stampede for the bandwagon. A few may continue but crisis thinking, the addict's habitual mode of thought, will make for a whole mess of expensive and meaningless actions supposedly to stave off climate change.

At least that's my pessimistic view.

My optimistic view is that we will gather the political will and machinery to do what Cuba seems to have done after they lost Russian oil in the early 1990s. You can see a DVD on what that was (local agriculture, bicycles and innovative public transport, urban gardens, edging into renewables - kinda like the things we were trying to establish in the 1970s here in Boston) at

Of course, I have my own hobbyhorse, small scale solar. US forces are giving away solar/dynamo radios in Afghanistan. They are manufactured in China but probably can't charge AA or D batteries, only the hard-wired battery inside the radio case. If these solar/dynamo radios could also be battery chargers, we would be building a low voltage DC electrical network where little or no electricity existed before. Such a manual and solar powered network would provide added resilience in the US or Europe, too, in case of disaster. It's a very small change that I wish others could see and help make happen.

Posted by: gmoke on 7 Feb 07

This is a good post, Alan, thanks. You've hit a number of important points.

I find myself thinking this month about Dana Meadows, who passed away 6 years ago (!) in February. Her last "Global Citizen" column, published on February 2, 2001, was titled "Polar Bears and Three-Year-Olds on Thin Ice." The last words of that prescient column went like this:

"We are not helpless and there's nothing wrong with us, except the strange belief that we are helpless and there's something wrong with us. All we need to do, for the bear and ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls."

Thanks to the news, the movies, and the science, a lot of minds are newly turning to sustainability and climate solutions. We in "our line of work" have a special responsibility now to bring their hearts and souls along, too.

Posted by: Ted on 7 Feb 07

"Such a manual and solar powered network would provide added resilience in the US or Europe, too, in case of disaster."

Riffing on that:

A year or two back, the "$600 solar home" project recieved a brief flurry of attention. Briefly put, it was a solar electric system which could capture and store just enough juice to provide some basic ameneties to an off-the-grid.

I'd like to see this productized as an emergency home power system. Something you could buy at Costco for (say) $1,000, or that developers could offer in new homes.

It would provide enough power to run your refrigerator, charge your cell phone, radio, and flashlight batteries, and keep a few lights running.

Think of it as a foot in the door for wide distribution of home solar.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 7 Feb 07

What should we do next? Keep answering the question for people "What should I do next?"

Whether your audience is politicians or homemakers, there's lifetime employment answering that question.

Posted by: Jeffrey Rusch on 7 Feb 07

Unfortunately, it is unreasonable to expect mankind to cut their greenhouse emissions so much, so fast, that we avoid runaway global warming and abrupt climate change.

Soon, a warming earth will start emitting more greenhouse gas than humans, making any cuts we make futile.

Instead of prescribing an unreasonable and futile cut in human greenhouse gas emissions, I suggest we remove it from the environment after it has been emitted. This may sound too good to be true, but nature already removes about half of the CO2 mankind emits each year (although that will reduce 30% by 2030).

I suggest we improve nature's ability to soak up CO2 and CH4 using biosequestration. It is a technically feasible and cost efficient solution.

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 7 Feb 07

Brad; I read this as a suggestion to increase our replanting of trees and other plants. Do you mean something different?

If this is your suggestion, it's certainly a sound one. I wonder now about fast-growing biomass, particularly bamboo, and if it is as assertive at soaking up CO2 as it is about growing.

To my eyes, though, in parallel with this effort, the overconsumption which has driven us towards massive deforestation and the sprawling of our cities atop prior biomes will have to be curbed.

My sense is that none of these solutions as isolated strategies are likely to meet much success; so a next step becomes finding design patterns which interlace with one-another. The suggestion of proactive planting is one such pattern. The re-centering of sprawl around compact centers is another (my interests lie in this direction). There are many more. They seem all to be related. Identifying the options and charting their interrelations, thus, seems like the work ahead. An exciting one, to be sure.

On a whim, I looked about for any leads on biosequestration. (This for anyone like myself for whom this came as a blinding flash of the obvious.)

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 8 Feb 07

'Next' is still far away at the horizon. As an example, when the EU set a goal to reduce CO2 emissions from cars from way to much to still to much, earlier this week, car manufacturers responded angry and are threatning to take their business elsewhere if the EU sticks to this new rule. If they had said 'it will be difficult but it needs to be done' I could agree with you that we're entering a turning point. Awareness grows for shure, nut that doesn't make people/companies willing to accept changes if those result in short-term economic consequences. Now eneryone knows, everyone has to act and take their share of responsibility, there is your nearest 'next'.

Posted by: Max on 8 Feb 07

"$600 solar home" is another steppingstone to full renewable power. I bought the materials for a 60 watt one window PV for a little less than that five years or so ago (but have yet to wire the panel, charge controller, and battery together).

Biosequestration is also necessary, especially biosequestration that doubles as permaculture for, as has been stated, we have to do all these things in concert, in the complex system the world already is. We need to build virtuous circles as we approach zero emissions and begin to live ecologically.

Posted by: gmoke on 8 Feb 07

By responding to the following question, perhaps you and your colleagues can assist me and my generation of elders to understand what behavior changes might be expected of us so that a good enough future can be established for our children.

What do you suppose billions of fertile young people, who are expected to be capable of reproducing in mid-century, will be doing with their sexual instincts and drives other than what human beings have been doing during the past several thousand years? Please take a moment to explain what you expect will occur that results in the fully anticipated stabilization of population numbers of the human species on Earth in the year 2050, given the fully anticipated young age distribution of a global population of 9+/- billion people at that time.



Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on 9 Feb 07

> ideas about how to ... rescue ecosystems in trouble.

I want to recommend some reading on this line, because this is what separates the "environmentalist" from the ecologist --- really.

The whole area, much as it's needed, is so new that it's going to take decades of careful data collection to even know if what we did over the past decades is making a difference.

And most little 'restoration' or 'conservation' projects have no baseline study to point to, against which to measure change.

The top-down academic and field science work is still disjunct from the bottom-up work of people just trying to keep some topsoil in place and the invasive annuals from taking over forty acres at a time.

There's hope and ideas. But as the 'environmentalists' come to the edge of the asphalt and start demanding quick decisive restoration work, they're going to be awfully surprised by what's really known, and not known, about how it all fits together.

Yes, the old Whole Earth Catalog had it right: 'We can't put it together -- it is together' and also 'We are as gods, we may as well get good at it'. Paraphrasing, of course. Who remembers those years clearly, any more.

Read some of this stuff and look at the struggles to fill the gaps between ecology the science and restoration the art.

And the next time you meet an environmentalist, check them out; you may find you can convince them to give up the certainty and study ecology.

Posted by: Hank Roberts on 12 Feb 07

The idea of the songwriter, John Mayer, may not be sufficient. It may not be adaptive or even make good sense to be found “waiting for the world to change.�

On the other hand we could surely benefit from looking carefully at the words and actions of one of our greatest leaders. And, yes, it pleases me so that he is one of my generation of elders. He is not like most of us, however, the ones who have fallen into fatuous complacency, mortgaged our children’s future to promote our patently unsustainable lifestyles et cetera. This great human being understands the value and signiticance of cultural change when that becomes necessary. He is a 1990 Nobel Laureate and his name is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

Not so long ago he called for a shift…......for cultural change. The words he used to describe the needed behavior change among the people he represented were GLASNOST and PERESTROIKA.

Perhaps a shift in human behaviors among those in today’s predominant culture has at least something to do with the kinds of change proclaimed by Mr. Gorbachev. At least to me, this great man called for changes in human behavior that he realized were maladaptive and destructive of the community he served. For people to choose to ex-change unsustainable behaviors for ones that are sustainable would plainly and transparently lead to greater adaptability and survivability of the human community, I suppose.

I would like to invoke now the words of another great person and, also, and outstanding scientist by the name of Dr. Russell Hopfenberg. “GIVEN THE PSYCHOLOGICAL, SOCIAL, BIOLOGICAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS THAT OUR ‘INCREASE CULTURE’ HAS PRODUCED, IT SEEMS A CULTURAL SHIFT WOULD AMELIORATE THESE CONDITIONS.�

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on 19 Feb 07



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