The Day the World Stood Still

During the 2018 United Nations Climate Change negotiations (the COP24), co-chairs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented the latest scientific findings about what would happen if the world warms by 1.5ºC on average above pre-industrial levels. It was a special plenary session, meaning every nation was represented, as well as every international agency, and as many observers as could fit.

What happened in that room was powerful, unique and worth remembering.

Usually, the plenary session is a constant buzz of chatter and activity.

  • Individual nations and multinational negotiating groups speak for roughly 3 minutes each.
  • Facilitators chairing the meeting generally manage the list of speakers, but also sometimes add critical insights about the substance of the negotiations or try to steer the room toward consensus.
  • People constantly come and go, and everyone is busy typing or talking to someone next to them.
  • The stakes are high, and everyone has a job to do, and a vast constituency outside the room which they represent.

In the Special Plenary on the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC, there was a deep and prolonged silence and virtually no one milled around or walked out.

If you haven’t been in one of these negotiations, it is hard to express how unusual that was. In my experience, it was totally unprecedented. It almost felt like New York’s Grand Central Station had, in a matter of minutes, been converted into a temple where everyone stopped rushing around and sat down to meditate.

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Thousands of people whose job is to negotiate a global strategy for solving climate change sat silent and awe-struck, as they listened to harrowing details of what will happen (what is already happening) to vital ecosystems, watersheds and weather patterns, and to specific regions around the world.

  • Most of these people would have already read the Summary for Policy-Makers and significant additional details of the report.
  • The most worrying headlines had been circling the world for weeks.
  • And yet, the room was overtaken by an awed and solemn silence.

This stunned silence was not, I think, from surprise or astonishment. It seemed, rather, a solemn recognition, by the diplomats, scientists, economists, and advocates gathered in that room, that this was a shared mission, that it could very well elude our best efforts at collaborative innovation, and that — above all — failure is not an option.

The report was mandated by the Paris Agreement, in order to determine whether 1.5ºC is a more scientifically appropriate measure of ”dangerous interference”, which the 1992 treaty requires we work together to avoid. It is clear from the findings of the report that warming beyond 1.5ºC is too dangerous, costly, and complicated to allow for the kind of prosperity we aspire to.

Failure in our collective response is not an option.

The silence in that room seemed to be a response to the transcendent meaning of the moment, hearing in the scientific findings what Rachel Carson said during a 1962 commencement address:

You must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny.

Now nearly halfway through 2019, 70 percent of the way from the Paris Agreement to the critical 2020 climate negotiations, that grave and sobering responsibility requires rapid acceleration of coordinated efforts to:

  1. Deliver affordable clean energy to all people, in all economic conditions, in all regions.
  2. Mainstream climate-smart finance, with new, interactive metrics, blended sourcing, and decentralizing instruments.
  3. Spread regenerative practices through large and small farming, industry and enterprise.
  4. Accelerate adaptation, so communities, economies, institutions, and nations can avoid cost and build resilient prosperity.
  5. Align policies at local, national and international levels with the 1.5ºC upper limit for global heating.

The action response to that moment of solemn recognition is to work together, with all deliberate speed, to meet the moment, empower each other, decentralize power and influence, innovate at record pace, and include more people than ever in big, future-building decisions. We must align better, and go faster.

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