For the first time in human history, all of humanity is threatened with catastrophe. That common catastrophe is climate change. Despite the horrific events in Paris of Nov. 13 and the continuing and urgent dangerous threat posed by ISIS and international terrorism, we must face the challenge of climate change as the risks it presents for humanity are existential in nature.
Like a slow-motion nuclear war, climate change advances daily, insidiously, across the human world, ongoing and intensifying as vested interests resist and governments delay. In the first decade of the new century, the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases were above the level of the worst-case scenario, which climate scientists have described.
A rise in global average temperature of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels is already in train. If present neglect of climate change mitigation continues, the increase will approach 3 degrees C. (5.4 degrees F.) by the end of the century or sooner. Subsequent heating may reach levels above 6 degrees C. (10.8 degrees F.). The world has not seen such a temperature extreme in 250 million years, since the end of the Permian period, and then after 10,000 years of volcanic activity, not merely 1,000 years of human industry. The Permian extreme resulted in a calamitous and irreversible extinction event, when 95 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species died away. If human civilization had existed then, it would certainly have been destroyed.
To prevent such an unparalleled disaster and save our human world will require unprecedented cooperation among governments and peoples. We will have to find the patience and determination to work together for at least half a century to halt and partly reverse climate change. Humanity has never before faced such a challenge.
The heads of government of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris to address climate change. This conference may be the best opportunity for years to come for countries worldwide to commit to combating this existential threat.
There is widespread domestic opposition to such commitment, however, particularly in the United States. Few leaders want to speak the truth to their citizens when a peril is so grave and the requirements for meeting it so severe. Even with the best of intentions, representatives at the climate conference may offer platitudes and distant commitments instead, without communicating the urgency of the crisis to the general public — a necessary step toward real action.
It is crucial that the Paris Climate Conference produce substantial and effective policies to mitigate climate change. Such policies will require the maximum development of all forms of carbon-free energy production — principally nuclear, solar and wind power, the complete phasing out of fossil fuels, massive reforestation, at least 50 years of international investment of multiple trillions of dollars, and a level of cooperation among nations unprecedented in scope and duration. Change on this scale will only be possible if the world public learns the unvarnished truth and understands the full extent of the challenge.
One predicted result of climate change is increased conflict within and between nations over water losses, crop failures and other climate-driven disasters. A century ago, the American psychologist William James spoke of finding a “moral equivalent of war” that might bring out the best rather than the worst in the peoples of the world, especially the young. Responding to the challenge of climate change can be a moral equivalent of war, drawing people and nations together rather than forcing them apart.
At an earlier time of approaching mortal risk, during World War II when the first nuclear weapons were under development in secret facilities across the United States, the Danish Nobel laureate physicist Niels Bohr offered the young men and women doing that work a measure of hope. “Every great and deep difficulty,” he told them, “bears in itself its own solution.” The complement of the danger of nuclear war, Bohr recognized, was the likelihood that enforcing a limit on such holocaustal weapons would privilege negotiation over warmongering, opening up the world through transparent inspections and mutual security agreements.
The hazard we face from climate change is even more dangerous and even more challenging. Its complement is strengthened cooperation toward a clean, sustainable world of far more equitably distributed resources.
We hope by signing and publicizing this manifesto to increase the chances of something real happening at the conference in Paris. It is late in the game but not yet too late.