Risky Business:   Finding the Right Button to Push on Climate Change, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jul

Monkey on Ice

The second they stopped caring for each other is when they sealed their fate.  Courtney Praski

Anger, confusion, and a willingness to engage in bullying to get one’s way; these are all results of the current hot house climate we find ourselves in.  Diane Kalen-Sukra

Chad could put a solar panel on every roof in the country and yet become a barren desert due to the irresponsible environmental policies of distant foreigners.  Yuval Noah Harari

To save all we must risk all.  Friedrich von Schiller

All choices are fraught with peril, but inaction is the most perilous of all.  Frewin Jones

I’m spending much of this long holiday weekend sitting in front of both a computer and a fan running at full speed.  Though the most severe heat promised over the next two months has not yet come here, this current, muggy iteration is energy-sapping enough.

A quick indulgence of my Weather Channel obsession gives some indication of where we in New York might soon be headed.  From Japan to Western Europe and from India to Australia, devastating heat waves have brought much of life to a standstill.   In Anchorage, Alaska temperatures this week climbed to record levels evoking images of far-away Florida more than of the nearby Arctic.  And in Greenland, so much ice has melted that residents are now assessing the economic opportunities of selling sand to fortify the coastlines of other climate-impacted communities.

And it is not only the heat, but the storms that inevitably follow in its wake.  Already in this summer season we have followed Hurricane Barbara off the Pacific coast of Mexico. And while the Atlantic is relatively quiet so far, forecasters have predicted at least a dozen “named” storms for late summer and fall, with perhaps as many as four of these causing significant damage to places like Haiti and Puerto Rico which have only barely recovered from the destruction of last year’s hurricane season.

As temperatures and sea levels rise, as storms form more frequently and violently, the external risks to “communities of life,” human and other, become more apparent.   What is less obvious, perhaps, is the internal dimensions of risk, finding and acting on the fortitude and courage to match the severity of a deteriorating physical environment with what could only be called a fierce response, a fierceness that is not unlike how parents respond to a gravely sick child, or how neighbors respond to a catastrophic fire or flood.

This is not quite the same as the “panic” recently called for by youth activist Greta Thunberg.  Panic short-circuits a healthy and engaged relationship between our cognitive and emotional faculties.  Panic tends to freeze attention on threats in ways that undermine helpful responses.  It is an emotion well-suited to Hollywood horror films, but not as much to mobilizing the broad and determined public actions – from mass plastics removal and tree planting to ending our fossil fuel addictions – which the current “extinction rebellion” in which Greta is so prominent rightly demands of us.

Like most large institutions, the UN exists largely as a “panic-free zone.”  There is little hand-wringing here, few fiery speeches or raw emotions that might endanger diplomatic relations or resolution negotiations.   Indeed, one piece of consistent feed-back from the many young people with whom we have shared UN space over the years is the surprising lack of emotional content of most UN messaging.  What we collectively seem to be communicating, or hoping to communicate in any event, is that “we’ve got this,” that our strategies and assessments are at levels appropriate to the threats we now face.

Such messaging is not without its truth.  This past week alone, two events highlighted the strengths of UN policy response to the gravest of our current threats.   One of these was a dialogue on “special political missions” convened by Liberia as chair of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee.  As budgets for UN peacekeeping are being slashed, SPMs are touted as the “one of the most effective tools…to advance preventive diplomacy, conflict prevention and peacebuilding” in partnership with national governments and regional organizations.   For us and for many in the room, the hope is that field-based SPMs can both help keep the peace and provide another pipeline of local knowledge and perspectives on how, as one example, threats from climate change are affecting local residents in real time – the storms and flooding, the droughts and related water emergencies – threats provoking local misery and forcing displacement on a vast scale.

In a smaller UN conference room, Switzerland and the UN’s office for Disaster Risk Reduction held a session focused on a review of the 2019 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.  With remarks from UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the event underscored the need for broader, more inclusive risk assessments that utilize the best available science and promote institutional and community resilience in the places most likely to be directly affected by climate-related threats.  Most important to us was the expressed view that “risk is complex and systemic, and can no longer be addressed hazard-by-hazard.”  Such systemic risk, as underscored by Swiss Ambassador Lauber, can best (and perhaps only) be managed within multi-lateral frameworks.

But management strategies on climate alone, no matter how clever and science-based they might be, are unlikely to stem this toxic and urgent tide.  Unless we are prepared to explain to our children why “adaptation” is the best our fragile societies are now capable of, we must keep our focus on climate change mitigation, on raising both our level of urgency (not panic) and the fierceness of our individual and collective responses.   We must change more behavior (beginning with our own), fix our broken politics, plant more trees, diversify our agriculture, create opportunities for greater citizen engagement, and tell more of the truth about the distances our clever, modern societies have fallen, and how we keep contributing to the decline.

And we must insist that our leadership embraces in its pronouncements and policies more clear-eyed and action-oriented assessments of the messes we have collectively gotten ourselves into.

This coming week, as many as 2000 academics, journalists and civil society representatives will descend on the UN for the 2019 High Level Political Forum (HLPF), a time to assess levels of progress (and deficiencies) related to our 2030 Development Agenda commitments at both national and international level.  Notwithstanding the deep ecological footprint associated with conducting this assessment, it is critical that we make the best effort we can to move beyond funding requests and organizational mandates, to remind diplomats of the virtual absurdity of sustainable development in a world where seemingly-intractable conflict rages, human rights are gleefully trampled upon, and more and more societies bake to a golden brown under a relentless sun.

Put simply, we need to risk more, to care more, if we are to restore more.   Inaction, or even action that is simply not commensurate with our current challenges, will not get us to a better world by 2030, a world where guns are silent, storms are milder, the displaced have recovered their homes, and panic is no longer an option.  We have a decade left to demonstrate the fierce commitments that can forge a genuinely sustainable path linking the management of climate crisis and its (for now) still-possible mitigation.

Of all the buttons on our policy console, this is the one that now needs to be pushed.

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