When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters – one represents danger and one represents opportunity.
-John F. Kennedy
Thoughtful members of every society on earth are looking to Copenhagen for a way to avoid a global crisis that imperils all seven billion of the planet’s people. These concerned global citizens come from every walk of life and religion in both developing and underdeveloped countries, from societies that range from modern to traditional, industrial to agrarian, religious to secular, and from communities that face the threat of extinction from rising oceans to those most vulnerable to shrinking food and water supplies due to drought and disappearing glaciers.
Where We Are
Tuvalu, as many are now aware, is the first island nation that will likely become uninhabitable by humans. It has more than 11,000 people destined to drown like rats on a sinking ship unless the rest of the world takes note and responds with wisdom and compassion. Tuvalu is only one of 11 island nations that face imminent destruction from the effects of global climate change. It is merely the “canary in the coal mine,” which, by singing an alert about the high concentrations of deadly gases, is warning all of us who share Planet Earth of its potential destruction as our common home.
Let’s put the climate change issue in perspective. Irrefutable science informs us that the “tipping point” for climate destruction is upon us. We are either almost at (within ten years), already at, or now past the point at which we cannot slow greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avert climate change on such a massive scale that the vast majority of human society is in jeopardy. That means that billions of people will lose their lives or have them so badly disrupted that survivors’ quality of life will be worse than life at the depths of the medieval Dark Ages. This is not a prediction of what might happen, but an accurate portrayal of what will happen unless human society moves aggressively now to reduce total emissions of CO2 (and other harmful greenhouse gases like methane) below their current level of approximately 395 parts per million.
To understand the severity of the threat, we need to understand the tipping point. In the context of climate change, it means simply this: that point at which the negative feedback loop from natural systems accelerates the release of greenhouse gases beyond a survivable limit even without any further injection of harmful greenhouse gases by human activity. This can be understood as an “environmental runaway.” It is the point beyond which humans have done so much damage to the global ecology that even if all human emissions of greenhouse gases instantly stopped, the planet would continue to heat and warm to intolerable temperatures.
Think about it. We are either at or past the point of no return in climate change when our conversations will no longer primarily be about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but about trying to find ways to restore or reconstruct planetary weather systems to make the planet inhabitable through the young science of geoengineering.
How does such a tipping point occur? It starts with the warming of the land and the warming of the oceans. The warming of the land is most destructive in the vast tracts of the northern hemisphere known as the permafrost region. As the name implies, it is called “permafrost” because it is made up of dead vegetation from prior eons that has been frozen for tens of thousands of years, and we assumed it would be permanently frozen. We never realized until recently the destructive effect of the torrent of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane that have been unleashed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Those gases have built up global temperatures to the point where the permafrost is melting. The result: the release of vast quantities of methane previously trapped in the frozen wastelands that, upon initial release, are up to 60 times more destructive to the environment than CO2.
Those methane releases in turn further accelerate rising temperatures around the world, speeding up the melting of our glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet and the frozen expanses of the Arctic region. All those glaciers and frozen ice masses used to act like giant mirrors that reflected sunlight back into space, so that heat was deflected. Without those ice masses, the sunlight strikes water or land, is absorbed and further heats the planet – which in turn further melts the permafrost in an ever downward climate death spiral known as the negative feedback loop. Once we reach the tipping point, human intervention with the tools currently at our disposal will be powerless to stop the negative feedback loop even if humans ceased emitting all CO2. It will be too late. Only dramatic advances in geoengineering will hold any hope.
The oceans’ warming and their absorption of carbon, accelerated by the negative feedback loop, kills off the coral reefs, which are the basis of the global food chain and which help to filter both air and sea. The warming is already causing off-gassing of harmful greenhouse gases that have been trapped under the ocean by a combination of pressure and temperature since the volcanic era 60 million years ago. At that time, the surface temperatures of the planet would not have sustained human life as we know it. During that era, the ocean became the largest depository of CO2 and other harmful gases and has retained them ever since.
Those gases are bubbling to the surface from various hydrates and other sub-surface repositories. The Monterey Aquarium has a project monitoring those off-gassing bubbles in the Santa Barbara Channel off the California coast. Now add in the increasing acceleration of this phenomenon from the negative feedback loop described above and you understand the enormity of the crisis human society is facing. We’re not just talking about rising sea levels, although those are a certainty. We are also talking about surface temperatures at virtually all major inhabited elevations so hot that we will not be able to maintain human civilization as we know it. This will all occur within the next 50 years unless we act now to radically change the present unsustainable climate trajectory.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions is about to expire without any new agreement to avert the horrific and accelerating environmental calamities now occurring. The nearly 200 heads of state gathering in Copenhagen must address this profound challenge.
Yvo de Boer is the top UN official dealing with the issue of climate change. He believes there should be a four-part goal for the Copenhagen meeting: (1) developed countries must set targets for making deep cuts in their emissions by 2020, (2) developing countries must agree to take measures to curb their emissions, (3) rich countries must provide financial assistance to poor countries and, (4) governance structures must be created to achieve the first three goals. Achieve these goals, he reasoned, and there will be ample time for countries to ratify a global climate change agreement by 2012 as envisioned when Kyoto was adopted.
Yvo’s approach is basically sound. We should not feel defeated as a human society if Copenhagen does not produce a legally binding agreement to limit greenhouse gases. Such a sentiment would be to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Rather, we need to set ourselves immediately to the task of ameliorating our present situation, developing a consensus around the need for urgent action, launching a progressively stronger international response to climate change and beginning to commit the funds necessary to develop geoengineering techniques that could potentially reverse the ill effects of the negative feedback loop until it becomes neutralized. We can’t accomplish all of that in Copenhagen. But we can start that process with a sense of urgency and commitment that propels human society on a course of global atmospheric reconstruction.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rightly has exhorted the national leaders in Copenhagen, “There is little time left…. The opportunity and responsibility to avoid catastrophic climate change is in your hands.”
There are already 300 million environmental refugees, including the permanently displaced citizens of Bangladesh, the other parts of the Asian sub-continent and Africa, as well as the three million from New Orleans. Flooding and storm damage, agricultural losses and spreading deserts are only the initial harbingers of a planetary climate that is now vacillating so quickly between drought and deluge that only the most unaware fail to see the environmental handwriting on the wall.
Now that a thoughtful US president and an increasingly aware international business community understand the risks of failing to address climate change, the Copenhagen summit could begin the process of turning human civilization back from the precipice of self-inflicted destruction. Our civilization’s survival is at stake, so we must begin somewhere – Copenhagen looks like that place.
But there is more …
The Bigger Opportunity
Saving Planet Earth from environmental destruction might seem like a big enough goal, and it certainly ought to be enough to motivate us all. But there is a bigger opportunity that lies within this challenge. We must literally reconstruct not just our atmosphere, but global society.
What does that mean? Human society is on its way to a full hydrogen economy. Every star in the universe operates on hydrogen fusion. All light and heat in all the galaxies is the product of hydrogen combustion. Over 75 percent of the total mass of the universe is made up of hydrogen. It is, by far, the simplest, cleanest, most abundant and safest molecule in the entire universe. It’s so abundant that humans fail to take note of it the way fish fail to take note of water. Without it, we could not exist. With it, we can satisfy our need for an inexhaustible source of energy that is abundant, cheap, safe and nonpolluting (when hydrogen is burned, the only by-product is water).
The World Business Academy has long studied and articulated the necessity of a complete global reconstruction along the lines of the post-war Marshall Plan, but larger. In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, a few weeks later, the Academy published an article calling for such an approach. The Academy is convinced that such a Marshall Plan, if done on a global scale, would not only dramatically lower terrorism, but would reduce the birth rate and the human population, increase living standards globally and raise the industrial countries to a level of affluence that few have dreamed of. At the same time, such a plan would recognize six basic human rights as the birthright of every man, woman and child in the world: (1) freedom from hunger; (2) access to adequate clean, potable water; (3) access to adequate shelter; (4) access to adequate clothing; (5) access to adequate medical care; and (6) access to adequate levels of education, regardless of gender. These are fundamental human rights. It is long past the time when every civilized government in the world committed to them. The best news is that the process of making these rights a reality will actually make all of human society richer, not poorer.
The green sector technology that will be required to rapidly make the transition from fossil fuels to the hydrogen economy will require developing a plethora of transitional tools and fuels. This is the “bigger opportunity” that lies ahead. Solving the climate crisis, as the Copenhagen meeting is attempting to do, would provide the tools to make a new Global Reconstruction Program possible.
Last September, Paul Kagame, the distinguished president of the Republic of Rwanda, delivered a stirring conclusion to the UN General Assembly when he posed the question: “How can we grow our economies and spread prosperity to more of the world’s citizens, and not degrade our oceans, rivers and the air we breathe?” He proposed that all nations with annual per capita CO2 emissions below a specified threshold should be invited to join a CO2 trading system, enabling Rwanda to monetize its lower CO2 emissions by pairing with a country or company that has emissions that are too high.
Such a system would be far superior to foreign aid as a tool for empowering developing countries – and it would enlist them in the task of using the most efficient, least polluting technologies as they become industrialized. For example, Rwanda’s annual CO2 emissions are just 0.4 tons per capita, versus about 10 tons in the UK and about 20 tons in the United States. That leaves a lot for Rwanda to use in bargaining to secure development capital to make the six basic human rights a reality for its citizens.
The bigger opportunity is that the industrialized nations that catalyze a new Marshall Plan will appropriately help their citizens achieve at least a ten-fold increase in wealth. The original Marshall Plan, which sounded like a foreign aid program commissioned out of generosity, created a similar increase in prosperity in the United States while converting Germany, and ultimately Japan, from foe to lasting friend. The new Global Redevelopment Program would use the necessity of combating climate change to drive global development as an act of mutual intelligence.
Since 1986, when the World Business Academy was first conceived, to the present day, the Academy has often observed that there has never been a problem that human society couldn’t solve with its existing technology and resources if it had the political will to do so. The same is true of climate change.
Solving our energy and climate change crises while guaranteeing every person’s six fundamental human rights will enrich all societies and people in the process. We do not live in a “zero sum” world. We live in a world where solving global problems yields greater wealth both for advanced societies and the most primitive. Proof of this lies in the fact that the US debt-to-GDP ratio in 1946 was 122 percent – an astounding figure by today’s standards. Yet, by funding the Marshall Plan, that ratio plummeted to less than 10 percent and the whole world benefited. Americans enjoyed the increased standard of living that came with providing housing, hospitals, roads, sewers, transportation systems and schools to the vanquished foe, which in turn unleashed the greatest era of prosperity in human history. What started as an act of generosity became the wind that lifted the United States to extraordinary heights of prosperity.
Similarly, today, a rising global economic tide could eradicate the pockets of intense poverty that incubate and nurture terrorism. As the French observed long ago, men with full bellies seldom make revolution.
The choice is clear. The environmental, economic and social costs of continuing our current unsustainable trajectory will lead to death and destruction. Global reconstruction done properly will lead to an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. The choice is ours. That’s what lies beyond Copenhagen.
We have all the resources and technology necessary to solve every challenge facing human society. All that is lacking is the collective human will to choose life over death, prosperity over poverty, peace over terrorism and joy over suffering. Which really leaves the questions the Academy most likes to pose: If not us, who? If not now, when?
About the Author:
Rinaldo Brutoco is a well-known futurist and the founding president of the World Business Academy, a nonprofit think tank launched in 1987 with the mission to educate and inspire the business community to take responsibility for the whole of planetary society. He is a frequent public speaker and a prolific author on renewable energy, climate change and sustainable business strategies. He is the co-author of “Freedom from Mid-East Oil” (2007), a leading book on energy and climate change, and “Profiles in Power” (1997) a college textbook on nuclear power and the dawn of the solar age.