At the end of Al Gore’s recent climate change film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, he calls for the audience to fight [for climate action] like your world depends on it. I appreciate the encouragement, and the film was beautifully crafted, but the fight is ill-defined. Despite decades of political struggle and mass demonstrations, the climate movement has overlooked the necessary task of clearly defining what it means to actually “win.” We have substituted comfort for clarity, and it could cost us the world if we don’t change course.
Truth to Power skillfully winds its way through global climate disaster stories, dances through the struggles of herding cat-like nations towards signing the relatively weak but important Paris Climate Agreement, then dumps you by the curb of Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the U.S. from it. Ten years into my own environmentalism, I have seen that this kind of bad news can disappoint veteran climate advocates, and believe it may well cause new activists and skeptics alike to declare “game over” without having properly defined what the “game” is! The global community generally agrees that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions with some urgency, but how will we know if and when the climate fight is won? To answer this question, we need to know what victory really means.
The widely acclaimed Paris Climate Agreement made a valiant attempt at clarifying our collective climate goals, but it introduces more questions than it answers. In order to attain the broadest level of participation, it carefully avoided specificity. It declares a non-binding intention to keep warming “well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C.” But when exactly is pre-industrial? 1700’s? 1800’s? And is 1.5-2° C even a worthwhile goal? Renowned climatologist James Hansen’s research suggests that 1° C is a more appropriate target. And when negotiating commitments to reach these poorly justified targets, politicians often ask scientists to develop models that achieve those targets with 50% or 66% probability of success, but why not press for near 100%? (I certainly would not want to fly in an airplane rated with a “66% chance of not crashing.”) Furthermore, virtually all plans to “win” at climate change do so by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere using technologies untested at scale. Should we bet on such “carbon sequestration” or rely on the more grounded options carefully examined in Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown? The answers to these questions lay the groundwork for getting to the really tough part: who pays for it? There is more than enough money in the world to make a profound dent in the climate crisis, but it is not being sufficiently deployed for lack of “return on investment.” Is this how we want civilization to end? I certainly don’t, but what can we do about it?
My answer is simple and challenging: (1.) Clarify the questions above, then (2.) use those answers to set uncompromising CO2 emissions/sequestration goals for local, regional, and international governments and institutions, and (3.) if/when cultural, economic, and technological barriers prevent the accomplishment of those goals, highlight and track where reality falls short of the goals (i.e. “mind the gap”). Finally, (4.) support local and global collaboration to creatively address the list of gap challenges.
Al Gore has spent much of his life educating and activating tens of thousands of climate advocates, myself included. The Paris Climate Agreement spurred millions around the globe to seriously consider how their cities, states, nations, and businesses could take climate action to the next level. An Inconvenient Sequel beautifully tells these stories and so much more, setting the stage for the climate movement to grapple with the potent questions that will define the lives of generations to come. Once we define victory, we can pursue it relentlessly, marching forward with the effectiveness and purpose that our descendants deserve.