The danger of irreversibility. This is the big message from Monday’s new IPCC report. We’re reaching irreversible tipping points that will lead to drastic changes in ecosystems with devastating effects for all life on this planet. This report is yet another wake up call and it is finally time for a different response.
For some time now, many of us focused on solutions to the climate crisis have worked on the basis that if we keep going in the right direction: away from fossil fuels, away from industrial agriculture, away from mindless consumption and decisively towards clean energy, regenerative farming and a circular economy we’d be able to pull back from some of the dangers in front of us.
But the damages are coming much quicker than we thought. The curve of impacts is increasing exponentially, taking us dangerously near irreversible shifts in ecosystems. We have not yet matched that curve with equivalent speed and scale in all the solutions we need. As a result we have been walking ourselves into unknown territory, not really knowing what the effects will be on any living being on the planet.
It’s important to give space to the deep fear that this understanding evokes. The complete disruption of our hydrological cycle, for example, which is bringing ravaging fires and destructive floods, has also given rise to extraordinary grief – for the loss of human and non-human lives, as well as the loss of livelihoods and infrastructure. It’s becoming clear that our built environment may not be fit for purpose for the future we are now entering.
Naturally these feelings of fear and grief get channeled into anger: outrage that we have allowed ourselves to get into this mess, or, instead, numbness and apathy. But we cannot stay there. We have a responsibility now to find the inner strength to pull through. The IPCC is clear: significant and decisive reductions in emissions would limit climate change. We must achieve this.
My mind goes to the races I’ve been watching at the Olympics, where athletes are able to pull up – from within themselves – such extraordinary strength and endurance at pivotal moments so that they can cross the finish line in record time.
Most of us have not been answering the call from science in this way. We’ve not been accessing the hidden inner strength, courage and endurance we need to do what is necessary. We’ve been assuming that changing business as usual will be enough. Now we know it is not.
This unique moment in history is all about breaking boundaries. We know we have already broken, or are about to break, many of the planetary boundaries that keep us safe.
In light of the stark warning from the IPCC this week – and indeed from nature herself – the correct response must be to break through the mental boundaries that are now preventing us from doing what is necessary: exponentially scaling all solutions, and stopping emissions from entering our atmosphere.
We talked about this need to break through the mental boundaries holding us back at length on Outrage + Optimism with special guest, Michael E. Mann, and set out what we should expect to see in the lead up to COP26 in Glasgow and beyond as a consequence:
This mental breakthrough is imperative. Look at Simone Biles (top photograph) – one of the most celebrated athletes of all time. At this year’s Olympics it wasn’t more muscle power that she needed in order to compete: she needed to overcome a mental block – known to gymnasts as the twisties. Ms Biles temporarily withdrew, she went to the gym and trained to get her mental orientation back.
Being spooked by this IPCC report, or by the relentless stories of disastrous real time impacts is absolutely understandable, but we cannot allow ourselves to get stuck in the twisties. It’s critical that we train our minds now so that we can orient ourselves to land in relative safety: to deliver the emissions cuts and unleash positive systemic tipping points in the solutions that are already beginning to emerge.
We are going to have to pull out, from deep within ourselves, extraordinary strength and endurance now. We have to go far beyond what we think we can achieve, at speed.
By Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)