Sustainability Blog

If Not Us, then Who? If Not Now, then When?

By Apurva Gosalia - Aug 13, 2021

Politicians, presidents – namely John F. Kennedy – and now sustainability consultants have all said variations of the aphorism in the title of this post, which originates from a rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago. It struck me as very apt when I read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest comprehensive assessment report of the physical science of climate change, which was released earlier this week.

The proverbial whois the IPCC, the world’s most authoritative international body on climate science. Since 1988, the IPCC has grown to be an essential, if not occasionally controversial, component of the response to climate change. Published every five to eight years, its reports are nonetheless instrumental in driving climate action and influencing the tenor of international agreements.

The IPCC’s latest report looks at the physical scientific basis of climate change. According to Australia’s Climate Council, “it covers humans’ influence on the climate system, extreme weather and the current and future state of our climate.”

The council goes on to explain that it took several years to write and comprises “rigorously reviewed” data generated by hundreds of scientists using “highly advanced climate models and scenarios.”

The report’s main takeaways are:

1. The scientific consensus is that the scale and pace at which humans are altering the climate system and have warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land is unprecedented in at least the past 2,000 years. Current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are higher than at any time in the past 2 million years.

2. Climate change and its impacts are accelerating, and more impacts are on the way. Temperatures and sea levels are rising, rainfall patterns are changing and extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, floods and heavy downpours, known as rain bombs, are becoming more intense and destructive, with deadly consequences. We have even seen this in the few weeks, with the floods last month in Germany and fires in Turkey. In other words, our climate is not merely changing, but the rate of change is now increasing.

3. Every fraction of a degree matters, and the report states that, “with every additional increment of global warming, changes in extremes continue to become larger.” More precisely, every additional 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming causes clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events.

4. The most important thing is reducing emissions as much and as fast as possible. All paths to avoiding truly devastating climate change involve removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere. However, only removing CO2 cannot be a substitute for efforts to first reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible.

Why is this report so important? This report’s release is a key moment in what has become the most important year for international cooperation on climate change since at least 2015 and the negotiation of the Paris Agreement. It is an essential input to international negotiations culminating at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in in Glasgow from October 31 until November 12, 2021.

As the COP26 U.K. website points out, the summit “will bring parties together to accelerate action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, ensuring that governments have the latest and most authoritative science to inform their commitments and actions.”

How can we prevent climate Armageddon? The situation is critical, but the IPCC report also says that we can still avoid a future of truly catastrophic warming. The most important climate science update for almost a decade shows there is a narrow path to avoiding climate catastrophe, but only through immediate, deep and sustained emissions reductions.

So, I ask again – if not us, then who? And if not now, then when?

The decisions we make in this decade will be the difference between a liveable future for today’s young people and a future that’s incompatible with well-functioning human societies. From now on, every choice and every fraction of a degree of avoided warming matters. The right choices will be measured in saved lives, livelihoods, species and ecosystems. The benefits of stronger action will be realized well within our lifetimes and even more so for our children and grandchildren.

As I write these last few lines, I am reminded of another quote which, contrary to the one at the beginning, indisputably originates from President Kennedy, who said in 1963: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

And let me add: What we leave behind is as equally important as how we lived.

Live long and prosper! … ah, sorry … STAY SuSTAYnable!

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