Impressions from the Global Climate Action Summit
We usually don’t think much about the difference between linear and exponential functions unless they fall within the realm of our work. More over it’s hard for us to grasp exponential change. It doesn’t come naturally. If we want to combat climate change though, we need to. That was the message at the Global Climate Action Summit, an event hosted by California’s governor Jerry Brown: if the world’s greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2020, and we manage to cut emissions in half every 10 years after that, which is an exponential change, we have a 60% chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. It was a uniform and sobering rallying cry. We will still need to deal with significant sea-level rise, record breaking storms and the spread of disease-carrying insects for a long time to come, but we might avoid a breakdown of the systems needed to sustain human life for the young people of today.
And just a few days ago, this urgency expressed in San Francisco was topped by the latest report from scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We have much less time than previously thought to stop run-away climate chaos.
It’s beyond scary and overwhelming and it’s hard to now how to handle it all: these news, the images of climate change happening right now, the prognosis, the possibility of humanity not turning the corner in time and trashing this glorious living planet, the only one we know on which self-aware life has evolved.
The climate summit was an incredible opportunity to put an ear to the heartbeat of the part of humanity that cares and cares deeply. It felt like I was watching as well as swimming in, a primordial mud in which the next stage of humanity’s growth and consciousness was emerging in the wiggles of disagreements, the bubbles and puffs of ideas, the splash of clashing backgrounds, the self-questioning and blaming, the fluctuations of hope and despair, the compulsion to act, to talk with each other, to find our way, to not stop.
I saw activists, blocking the entrance and demanding Governor Jerry Brown shut down the powerful and massive California oil industry. Those protesters, mostly brown and black, know what it is like to live in the shadow of a refinery.
I saw a snazzy electric racecar from the Indian Mahindra group, a huge conglomerate and a corporate leader in climate action and learned that the cosmetics company L’Oreal has reduced its carbon footprint by over 60% in only 3 years, while boosting production by close to 30%.
I saw indigenous people from all over the world pleading for a deeper understanding of our connection to the earth. A woman of one of the tribes that called San Francisco home opened the event with a haunting song, a melody that seemed entirely timeless, sprung from the very core of humanity itself, calling us to remember our place within nature.
I met public health officials, including Gina McCarthy, Obama’s head of the EPA, who scolded environmentalists for talking about saving the planet when really what we should be speaking about to everyone is human health and survival, “where climate change hits home”, she said.
I spoke with a women representing a community of farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley who almost did not come because she did not believe that any change from the top down would better the life-conditions of those who pick our fruit and vegetables and whose life-expectancy due to toxins and poor living conditions hovers around fifty years.
The, there was Jane Goodall speaking her beautiful prayer of love of all creatures as part of the main summit. And the wise woman Joanna Macy speaking at an affiliate event about how important it is to make room to grieve, to allow ourselves that kind of suffering.
I learned of the big plans the Sierra Club has along with Michael Bloomberg, ex-mayor of New York City, to go “Beyond Coal”, while a large group of philanthropists committed to a ‘down-payment” of four billion dollars over the next five years.
Apple and other big companies were speaking about establishing a circular economy by 2050, one in which nothing is wasted and everything re-used, based on nature’s own principles.
The two day whirlwind of commitments, frustrations, analysis and encouragement left with so many questions. Would the kind of efforts we heard about be enough? How many Paul Polman’s, the wise and humble CEO of Unilever, are there in the world? Will other multi-national corporations listen to him in his role as head of the international chamber of commerce? Can big CEOs and philanthropist billionaires make up for the lack of radical action from just about all governments, except some small and often island nations? Can a system based on materialism, competition and unbridled growth, ever exist in harmony with this planet?
The struggle to come to terms with climate change and mitigation is in itself a vast eco-system in which so many players have elementary roles.
Can those who protest, those who create reforms within a system, those who establish new systems and those who dream radical new visions recognize each other’s importance and inter-dependence?
This complexity in the midst of the existential uncertainty of our future is an emotional, psychological and even spiritual pressure and holding it a practice. A friend said, “it’s like getting a diagnosis of a possibly fatal disease, but on a collective level.” It made me think that many people truly come to life in that situation, clearly prioritize and appreciate, maybe like never before, the preciousness of the time we do have and our choice in the way we spend it.
Uli Nagel works as a Pilates instructor as well as project director of ener-G-save, where she is developing the Cooler Community project. She has been a climate activist with Citizen’s Climate Lobby, the Lee Greener Gateway Committee, and Living the Change Berkshires, an organization she co-founded, which has produced a number of community events bringing greater awareness to climate change.