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Solving Climate Change Requires A New Social Contract

5 minute read
Figueres was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, is the co-founder of Global Optimism, co-host of the podcast “Outrage & Optimism” and is the co-author of the recently published book, “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis.”

The devastating threat of climate change is on our doorstep. The resources we need to decarbonise in a timely manner are more readily available than ever before. They are not yet enough, but increased government and business commitments, technology advances, trillions of dollars that are shifting toward clean technologies and an ever-growing civil society movement, together represent an historic abundance of efforts towards our shared purpose of addressing climate change at speed and at scale.

But the most important resource is still scarce. That resource is trust. Trust is the glue that will hold our collective efforts together through the extremely difficult challenges we are facing. It is hard won and easily lost. Unless we intentionally rebuild trust—in ourselves and in each other—our work to secure a liveable future for humanity will falter and ultimately fail.

First, we need to rebuild trust in ourselves: trust that we can do what is necessary within the time range determined by science. According to a recent survey of young people, more than half of them feel they are doomed, that humanity is doomed. It is no wonder they are taking to the streets, and I very much welcome this needed pressure on the system. At the same time, I ask myself if there is compelling historical evidence that we are incapable of rising to the challenges of the times. And I see that we humans have accomplished extraordinary feats.

We’ve conquered deadly diseases, expanded girls’ education, and brought millions out of poverty. We can now communicate with every corner of the world cheaply and instantly; we have dematerialized music, information, and banking. And energy from the everlasting wind and sun is channeling into power grids everywhere.

None of those advancements are finished, but what we have already achieved is remarkable and shows how ingeniously humans can come together to tackle what often seem like insurmountable goals. The current crisis of doubt, of disbelief in ourselves and our capacity to effect change is a dangerous burden that we can no longer afford to drag. Fortunately, the urgency of this moment of history is at last beginning to be met by the agency of disruption. So, as we enter this extraordinary transition, let’s welcome the messiness of change, but improve our accountability and disclosure mechanisms so that we can communicate our achievements and deepen trust in the progress we are making.

Second, we need to build trust between developing and developed nations, specifically around financing. In the run up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, it was through the careful and intentional development of trust in each other’s intentions, that countries were able to collectively agree a way forward on climate. That hard won trust now needs renewing after agreed goals for delivering finance to developing nations were not met on time. This year, the yearly $100 billion promised by 2020 must be delivered, or those fraying threads of trust will be severed.

Third, the climate commitments and pledges made by governments, companies and investors need to be turned into reality with near term action. It is entirely understandable that Vanessa Nakate responded on behalf of millions to the announcements heralded at COP26 with the words, “We don’t believe you.” Too many climate targets set have been missed. This decade must deliver emissions cuts that are 1) commensurate with a 50% reduction by 2030, and 2) protect all remaining ecosystems and actively regenerate those we have depleted.

Beyond commitments, pledges and good intentions, in 2022 we need to see proof of action, or the crisis of public trust will worsen, and accusations of greenwash will intensify, making it harder for genuine efforts to be recognised for what they are.

Corporations and investors must align their public stance on climate with their internal decisions and disclose all associated information. Those who commit to net zero and then lobby against it undermine precious public trust at a time when we need it most. I expect an increase in climate lawsuits in 2022. Ironically this will help accelerate the kind of accountability the public is demanding now and help ensure that corporations and investors keep the climate promises they make.

Finally, we must build trust between the various parts of the climate community, all of whom are working towards the same goal but with very different approaches. Adopting a binary mentality of who is right and who is wrong, only leads to mutual blame and condemnation.

This has recently come to the fore in arguments about “net zero.” There are those in the community who believe it is the way forward and are avidly pursuing it, and those who believe it is a dangerous trap and advocate against it, pushing instead for real zero. The truth is that net zero and real zero emissions both require massive, immediate emissions reductions, and both are valid.

Just like any well-functioning ecosystem, we need a great diversity of approaches. It is going to take all of us working together with honesty, compassion, and respect for each other to deliver the changes we need.

Trust is one of the most precious and powerful human capacities. Without it all efforts fail, with it we can build the future.

This essay is part of a series on concrete goals the world should aim for in 2022 in order to put us on track to avert climate change-related disaster. Read the rest here

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