British scientist gives best human rights talk of the year

This is not about just incremental change. This is about doing things differently, about whole system change, and sometimes it’s about doing less things. And this applies to all of us, whatever sphere of influence we have.”


This video makes us ask: where do we go from here? And – what’s holding us back?

Below are some themes that we’re developing for future pieces in City Atlas, based on the accelerating discussion among experts across fields.

While every global political discussion now includes climate change as a leading issue, and the Paris COP21 talks are coming at the end of next month, governments have not committed to solving the problem – nor may governments alone be capable, because it takes an entire cultural change to solve climate change at the source. It involves all of us, beginning to talk about it openly with each other.

The current commitments from nations do not achieve the emission cuts necessary for stabilizing warming at a level scientists believe society can tolerate, the 2°C limit. Current commitments equate to a likelihood of 3.5°C of warming.

Here in New York State, Governor Cuomo has taken a great step in signing on to a global 2°C commitment for regions and local governments.

As quoted in the New York Times (10/8/15), Governor Cuomo said “Climate change is an issue of society’s sustainability. To deny that climate change is real is to defy reason…denial is not a survival strategy.”

And yet New York State is simultaneously moving to modernize LaGuardia Airport (NYT, 7/28/15); air travel is a high emissions sector that likely does not fit into the 2°C limit. Substitutes need to be found, and lifestyles adjusted, because every part of the economy, and everything we do, needs to fit into the 2°C limit. Climate scientists are now among the signers of a petition to reduce academic air travel.

Broader adoption of the same document Governor Cuomo signed, by New York’s cultural leaders, by universities, and by corporations – which can cut high emitting activities like business trips – would be a step that could move us much closer to a realistic solution.

It’s already clear that no New York-based business or institution will prosper in a 3°C world; we need to slow the planetary changes that are underway. We are also dependent on a global response, so our actions must seem fair to the world in order to win the cooperation that will achieve our goals.

Rapid decarbonization is necessary to stabilize both emissions and the economy.

As Bows-Larkin points out, to reach the 2°C target takes a much bigger commitment from the people and politicians of high emitting countries, with the US among them; and within countries, a bigger commitment from those with high emissions, who have the most ability to change behavior and provide the crucial first steps towards rapid decarbonization.

In parallel to Bows-Larkin’s statements, but outside of the climate research community, the financial world is fully aware of the implications to the economy of a failure to decarbonize, and of tipping points where the economic landscape is abruptly shocked by sudden disinvestment of fossil fuel assets and reaction to the catastrophic risk portfolio of coastal property.

Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England (Britain’s central bank), spelled out the perspective of financial experts in a speech to Lloyd’s of London on September 29, the conclusion of which is excerpted below:

Our societies face a series of profound environmental and social challenges.

The combination of the weight of scientific evidence and the dynamics of the financial system suggest that, in the fullness of time, climate change will threaten financial resilience and longer-term prosperity.

While there is still time to act, the window of opportunity is finite and shrinking. 31

When Carney’s words are matched to Bows-Larkin’s estimation of the need for rapid decarbonization, it reveals how the path to financial stability comes from national, regional and individual action to curb emissions. The world financial system will hit tipping points well in advance of the full effect of climate impacts (the loss of coastlines, diminished agriculture), and turmoil in the financial markets may only destabilize the global response to climate further.

Future outcomes brighten quickly if we begin to decarbonize immediately.

Enormous benefits come from fast action, and future outcomes brighten quickly as our collective emissions drop. But this means that public dialogue and understanding are key, and an open conversation is a place to start. By making visible your own steps to move to a low carbon lifestyle, you can provide trusted peer-to-peer leadership in change. Political engagement on climate is another lever for change at the policy level.

To fix what Bows-Larkin says is going wrong, experiment with the Global Calculator (and talk to your friends).

A much more basic iPhone app from Climate Interactive provides a pocket-size display of the importance of early action:

Climate Pathways App Introduction from Climate Interactive on Vimeo.


For many of the steps necessary for the 2°C target (flying less, consuming less), people need ‘social permission.’ It’s very hard for people to change on their own without the collective recognition of a common goal; once that is found in a circle of friends (or in policies at work), each person can arrive at the level of change they can manage, and some areas will be easier than others for different people. The most important thing is to begin, and to have each person move towards a decarbonization plan as far as they can, as fast as they can, given their circumstances – because the payoffs are immediate.

Why does it matter what you say to your friends? A year-long research project from the UK found that simply ‘getting more people talking to each other’ is among the first steps to pursue with the public. Here’s a fascinating description of how opinions and new social norms can rapidly spread. For success, we want to normalize mitigation that avoids climate change, not normalize the impacts of climate change.

And impacts are more transparent now. Climate Central has been mapping projections of sea level, with comparisons along the US coastline, and animations of cities under 2°C and 4°C scenarios.

A successful drop in our demand for energy means building fewer new machines that burn fossil fuels.

Dropping our demand for energy now gives us time to switch over to alternate technologies without a continuing boost in emissions. Fossil-fuel powered cars, trucks, planes, building furnaces, and power plants last from years to decades, and by 2018 building new ones may soon carry us past our carbon budget, because they will run for years after they are built. This analysis, from a paper by Steven Davis (UC Irvine) and Robert Socolow (Princeton) is explained in a short video.

Equity is not altruism; we need the cooperation of everyone, and so the carbon budget should be shared fairly.








And it’s the advanced nations that need to change the most rapidly.

[Post updated with new Climate Central links, 11/11/15.]