During these times I learned to accept facts, and I also learned to always know the way out. Humanity has all the capabilities needed to get out of the situation we are in with a growing population precipitating into densely populated urban coasts, on a warming planet with rising sea levels, diminishing water and food security, and a growing energy usage based on unsustainable sources. We just need to want to get out.
The hardest decisions for me alone in the mountains were the few times when I had to realize that changing weather conditions had brought a lot of new snow, increased the danger of avalanches, or covered all rocks with thick layers of ice, which made it impossible to continue on my path. I had to find the shortest, and sometimes extremely tedious way out. It is hard to give up on a goal. Or to change a lifestyle.
The fifth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of our common knowledge on climate change has a cogent message: The planet is on its path to a much warmer state.1 And this state may not be very convenient for us. Are there signs that we will make the necessary changes in how we are in the world to mitigate climate change to any discernible amount? I am afraid, not too many.
It is embarrassing to find out that at the Nineteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in November in Warsaw, Poland, 132 of the poorer countries in the world had to stage a walk out from a session discussing responsibility for the damage caused by climate change in these countries.2 We are not very serious about changing our lifestyle or taking responsibility for the damage we are doing to the developing world.
In my teaching, I often take an approach similar to a doctor’s approach to a patient in a first consultation: I look at the observations and describe what they tell us about the state of the planet and the trends. For those looking for sustainability, Earth observations are what lab measurements are for the doctor who is concerned about the health of a patient. To visualize the extent of the change we are seeing in the “patient” Earth, I combine the temperature changes during the last 11,000 years with those likely for this century and I tell students that I am frightened when I see how far Earth is likely to move out of the “normal.”3 See Figure 1. Students often thank me for the clarifying lectures.
Recently, a student wrote to me, “The question I have been asking myself following your presentation is, what am I to do?” Then she confronted me with an obvious, though surprising question: “What would you like to tell your twenty year old self?”
Of course, I have been thinking a lot about what “we” could do, but I never looked at it from this angle: What would I tell my twenty year old self? It is a very important question, going far beyond me, saying that the party we have been having in the developed world for the last 50 plus years is coming to an end and the twenty-year old ones of today will have to do the cleaning up.
What would I have told my twenty year old self had I been that age in 1930 in Germany? Studying the critical newspapers, books, poems, paintings, and other documents of the 1920-30s, I find it was all there, but most of the twenty year olds of that time did not listen (and in fact those who persuasively described what was coming mostly paid with their lives for it).
Which of the thoughts older and wiser people shared with my younger self helped me to find my way at the age of twenty living in post-war Germany and Europe? At that time, “The Limits of Growth” was published by the Club of Rome (actually exactly when I was twenty), and this book, despite many issues, made one thing clear to me: we are living on a finite planet.
“Redefined sustainable development is ‘development that meets our needs while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends.’”
Later, the data collected by paleo scientists, Earth observations documenting the rapid changes of the planet’s surface, and the words by James Lovelock and other insightful thinkers convinced me that the planet is in a precarious dynamic equilibrium and even small causes can lead to dramatic changes in dynamics, climate and sea level. Those who were not afraid of facts and complexities were the ones who impacted me most and got me engaged.
If I were twenty today, what would help me if I heard it from the older ones? “We are on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg! Go find the life- boats!” Or something more like, “We are about to hit the iceberg and here is what we need to do to avoid it.” The one thing I always wanted to hear is the truth, the facts, the options, the answers to the “What if…” questions.
“An economy that increases ‘wealth’ by burning fossil fuels and destroying Earth’s life-support systems is like a doctor who practices medicine by killing the patient.”
Here are some thoughts I would pass on to my twenty year old self: Hope for a way out is in the fact that humanity is looking for a better future. The Millennium Development Goals are one of the visible signs of the search for a way out. And now, the world leadership is discussing a replacement of the Millennium Development Goals with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A recent article proposed six SDGs I am sure we all can agree to.4 The article also redefined sustainable development as “development that meets our needs while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends.”
The authors illustrate sustainable development by a picture of the planet symbolizing the life- support system, humanity inside of it, and in the center of humanity they place economy symbolized by coins. See Figure 2. The moment I saw this sketch, I thought of a doctor whose sole goal is coins. It wouldn’t be a doctor to whom I would want to entrust my life. An economy that increases “wealth” by burning fossil fuels and destroying Earth’s life-support systems is like a doctor who practices medicine by killing the patient.
We need a paradigm shift to an economy for humanity, an economy that meets our needs while safeguarding Earth’s life-support systems. In this new economy that comprises all our interactions with Earth’s life-support system, scientists are the doctors who keep us informed about the health of the life-support system, and Earth observations provide the lab results urgently needed for early detection of any deviation from a healthy state.
This is what I would like to tell my twenty year old self, and my older self as well: go, and fight for the paradigm shift to an economy for humanity, without which humanity has little chance to persist much longer. Go, and do not rest before this transition is accomplished.
1 Stoker et al. (eds.), 2013. Climate Change 2013 – The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Summary for Policymakers; http://www.climate2013.org/images/uploads/ WGI_AR5_SPM_brochure.pdf
2 “Poor countries walk out of U.N. climate talks as compensation row rumbles on,” by John Vidal, The Guardian, 20 November 2013; http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/nov/20/ climate-talks-walk-out-compensation-un-warsaw
3 Marcott, S. A. et al., 2013. A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperature for the Past 11,300 Years. Science, 339, 1198-1201.
4 Griggs, D. et al., 2013. Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Nature, 495, 305-307.