10/17/2009 12:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Value Change For Survival: 2020 or Bust

Opening Speech, Bioneers Conference
San Rafael, California
October 16, 2009

When the world's national governments come together in December in Copenhagen to fashion a global climate treaty, the most ambitious goal even mentioned is to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Even if the governments agree and then succeed in hitting that target, the global average temperature will be at - or well on its way to 4 degrees Celsius, or about 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

What does 4 degrees Celsius look like?

Author Mark Lynas tried to answer that question in his book Six Degrees. He pored over tens of thousands of scientific papers that used advanced computer modeling, as well as studies of the fossil and geologic records - because it has all happened before.

After a talk about his book, Lynas overheard an audience member apologizing for dragging a companion to so depressing a lecture. "Depressing?" wondered Lynas. The thought had not occurred to him. Yes, he knew the impacts he presents are terrifying. "But," he wrote, "they are also, in the main, still avoidable. Getting depressed about the situation now is like sitting inert in your living room and watching the kitchen catch fire and then getting more and more miserable as the fire spreads throughout the house - rather than grabbing an extinguisher and dousing the flames."

Consider some of what Lynas found. Happy Halloween.

Once upon a time by mid-century, when it's hotter by 4 degrees Celsius, Earth is becoming unrecognizable. With seas three to four feet higher and rising faster, parts of low-lying coastal cities worldwide are periodically under water, including Boston, New York and the emerging archipelago of islands formerly known as the United Kingdom. Capital markets have collapsed, and rebuilding cities twice or three times has given way to mass migrations. The major project in the U.S. is moving 150 million coastal city dwellers inland, but interior cities are balking at the unbearable strain of millions more climate refugees.

It's all happening too fast. Adaptation takes time - for people and species. With climate change, speed kills.

It's the savage temperatures that dominate, hotter than anything in our species' evolutionary history. The temperate Mediterranean climate has turned North African at 113 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day. Summer is the dreaded season, haunted by perennial fires and scalding heat waves.

Food production is crashing worldwide and water shortages are chronic. The 60 percent of the world's population whose crops depended on the failing Asian summer monsoon are starving and thirsting. Climate chaos has put nuclear-armed India, Pakistan and China on a hair trigger.

The thawing permafrost in Alaska, Canada and Siberia is unleashing mammoth stores of methane This greenhouse gas, 20 times more potent than CO2, will double the rate of emissions. The ecosystems that create and mediate a climate favorable to life are so radically damaged they can no longer regulate the climate.

The world is unraveling. Megadroughts. New Category 6 hurricanes called "hypercanes." Mass starvation. Cascading economic crises. Failed states. Tropical diseases migrating north. Entire populations fleeing the tropics toward the northern climates. Stretched beyond adaptation, it's a civilization in fast-forward collapse.

Anger and blame spike with climate chaos. Virulent ideologies take aim at the rich nations whose fossil-fueled industrial juggernaut caused the cataclysm, then despite their wealth, failed to deal with it in time.

But really the deal was sealed when the climate crossed the bright line of 2 degrees Celsius and self-reinforcing positive feedback loops triggered runaway climate change. By 3 degrees Celsius the Amazonian rain forest dried up and burned to ashen desert, sending the world's weather haywire. Biodiversity plummeted into freefall. As biologist E.O. Wilson had forewarned, we fell upon "The Age of Loneliness."

Three degrees inexorably triggered four, then five and six. At 6 degrees Celsius or 10.6 degrees Fahrenheit, Earth resembled the "Mother of All Disasters" that occurred 250 million years ago. It's known as the time when "life nearly died." Fireballs of methane dwarfing nuclear explosions engulfed hellish skies. Monsoons carrying deadly sulfuric acid annihilated most remaining vegetation and creatures living above ground. Ninety-five percent of all terrestrial and marine species went extinct. The only large terrestrial vertebrate that we know survived was Lystrosaurus, a pig-like animal that may have wandered the planet alone for a few million years. Life's diversity did regenerate to prior levels. It took 50 million years.

This is what six degrees of separation looks like. Terrifying. As Mark Lynas wrote, "If we had wanted to destroy as much of life on Earth as possible, there would have been no better way of doing it than to dig up and burn as much fossil hydrocarbons as we possibly could."

Time to grab for the fire extinguishers.

The daunting global imperative is to arrest the temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius or face the certainty of runaway climate destabilization. If we're really lucky, we may have the next ten years to make a dramatic shift.

But make no mistake: the 2 degrees Celsius we've virtually assured is plenty bad enough, and we're buying time to adapt to a radically altered world.

In August in Brazil, something remarkable happened. The State of the World Forum convened a historic gathering of Brazilian and U.S. leaders to launch a global Climate Leadership Campaign. Its goal is 80 percent CO2 reductions by 2020, not 2050. We can do it with existing technologies without using nuclear energy or biofuels, as advanced by Lester Brown, the esteemed environmental policy analyst. Amory Lovins and many other blue-chip experts agree: We can do it with state-of-the-shelf technologies and wise policies.

State of the World Forum President Jim Garrison reports that an unprecedented mobilization is taking hold in Brazil. Joining the campaign are three federal ministries, three of the largest states, cities including Rio de Janeiro, industrial federations and several national associations. The Brazilian media giant Globo TV, the world's 4th largest media company, has initiated an ongoing nationwide prime-time ad campaign to make climate leadership a presidential election issue in 2010, stop the deforestation of the Amazon, and educate and mobilize the Brazilian public.

Fueled by Brazil's breakthrough leadership, the State of the World Forum is organizing the 2020 Climate Leadership campaign worldwide. One strategy is a Fund to develop Rapid Response Teams, eco-SWAT teams that can immediately support cities, states and nations with the plans and practical means to meet the goal.

Bioneers is participating in the campaign and its U.S. launch in Washington D.C. in February 2010. We all need to build a global movement to put solutions into action.

It's 2020 or Bust. Can we do it?

On the technological plane, yes we can. Energy efficiency improvements alone can reduce emissions by as much as 50 percent by 2030 with no net cost. Solar energy is about to become price-competitive with coal, despite fossil subsidies. Numerous game-changing technological breakthroughs are almost ready for prime time, including biomimicry innovations.

But the problem is it's not fundamentally a technological problem. As David Orr points out, climate change represents the biggest political failure in the history of civilization. It's a crisis of governance and leadership.

Can we rapidly realign our policies, politics and economy at a large enough scale to stabilize the climate?

One sterling energy success story is California. As the world's sixth largest economy, the Golden State instituted a succession of policy innovations such that it now emits about half as much carbon per dollar of economic activity as the rest of the country. It's first among the states in promoting energy efficiency. The result is savings of $56 billion for customers, while obviating the need for 24 new large-scale power plants. The gains are so impressive that its rules have been adopted by other states and into federal standards. Next came building codes, which several other nations have adopted.

California also generates considerably more electricity from renewables. It registers more clean energy patents than any other state and attracts about 60 percent of all U.S. clean tech venture capital.

California is now issuing the first-ever tailpipe regulation of CO2 and greenhouse gases, in tandem with other states and Canadian provinces.

California is proving that a lower-carbon, more energy-efficient economy is supportive of the economy.

According to George Soros, "There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy." There are plenty of livelihoods and profits to be had, including the labor-intensive enterprise of rebuilding our decrepit infrastructures. Financial investment in solar and wind creates 50 percent more jobs than the same amount in coal, and generates four times as many jobs as the equivalent in the oil industry. The current market for the restoration of ecosystems and the built environment is already at $2 trillion, with a potential market of $100 trillion.

Big business seems ready to act. Of the $250 billion global investors spent on new power capacity in 2008, for the first time the majority went to renewables. The world's biggest global investors, who collectively manage over $13 trillion in assets, recently called for "long, loud and legal signals from governments."

China aims to become the green energy global superpower. The Pentagon has embraced climate change as a top national and global security issue. Its outsized budget could radically advance clean energy security and market competitiveness.

Because climate change is not one issue but the result of an entire way of living, it requires a comprehensive re-design of our civilization.

We need what Buckminster Fuller called for in 1961: a World Design Science Decade. The design would align with what Janine Benyus calls Life's Principles. Nature runs on currentsunlight. Nature banks on diversity. Nature rewards cooperation. Nature builds from the bottom up. Nature recycles everything. Life creates conditions conducive to life.

Design goals include a far greater localization of our basic needs, from local distributed energy to more localized foodsheds and bioregional watershed management.

So what stands in the way?

When NASA's chief climatologist James Hansen first testified before Congress in 1988 as the Paul Revere of global warming, his goal was to provoke a national response. He did, but it came mainly from Exxon and the oil, coal and gas industries, which waged the most expensive disinformation campaign in history. It was a catastrophic success. Vested interests will continue to promote "inertiatives" to delay real change.

At the same time, as we witness the biggest bank robbery in history - by the banks - the notorious revolving door between big business and government has morphed into the interlocking directorate of a corporate state.

In the words of reporter Matt Taibbi, "The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d'etat...: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations."
The next giant bubble rising from the swamp of Wall Street-on-Washington is the cap-and-trade carbon offsets market that will rapidly hit $1 trillion. Taibbi observes that the pending regulation virtually written by Wall Street is "a ground-breaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an 'environmental plan.'... Cap-and-trade is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues." If enacted, this model would strip the government of public revenues essential for financing a genuine transition to renewables, and, worse, it would delay dramatic carbon reductions.

Now that our government owns a large portion of several big distressed banks, the compelling question is: Why not re-structure them as public banks that fund clean technology, infrastructure and transportation? Professor Gerald Epstein of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, proposes a "Green Bank of America" and "Green Citi Bank." That would be a real pubic option.

Inherent in our current bind is also the paradox of scale. Although a colossal transformation needs to occur, huge centralized systems concentrate the risk of catastrophic failure, while further concentrating wealth and power. These systems are too big not to fail.

Resilience comes from having many smaller-scale decentralized systems. Distributed energy systems provide much greater efficiency as well as security. The leading model is Denmark where by 2005 distributed networks generated half the country's electricity and cut carbon emissions by nearly half from 1990 levels.

Local systems can also operate as publicly owned nonprofit utilities that provide revenues and jobs for cities and states, with rates up to 30% cheaper. Instead of corporate mega-grids, we can build a decentralized, local energy economy for about the same costs.

What else can we do?

Turn education into action. Climate leadership by our schools and universities is already mobilizing clean energy initiatives and green development in their institutions and communities. Project-based learning enables students, teachers and institutions to solve problems while studying them.

Create a green Civilian Conservation Corps national service program.

De-subsidize fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Publicly fund elections.

Give nature legal rights. Ecuador last year created the first national constitution to give legal rights to nature and ecosystems and empower people to defend them. The governments of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia may follow suit, creating a rights-of-nature corridor in Latin America. Assisting this breakthrough have been our colleagues: Tom Linzey's Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Lynne and Bill Twist's Pachamama Alliance and Randy Hayes of Rainforest Action Network.

At a meeting of global spiritual leaders, recalls Chief Oren Lyons of the Iroquois Six Nations, a Japanese elder distilled the essence of the crisis we face to four words: value change for survival.

Encoded in the deep empirical knowledge of First Peoples for how to live on Earth in a lasting way is a deeper set of values sometimes called "The Original Instructions." They teach us how to be a human being.

Take only what you need, and give back as much as you take.
Take responsibility for sustaining the web of life.
Because all life is connected and related, respect your relatives and each other.
Pursue peace through justice in a process that never ends.
Be grateful.
Enjoy life.

If we respect these instructions, says the Iroquois Law of the Seed, life will go on and on in cycles of continuous creation.

It's a value change for survival. By restoring the web of life, we will restore ourselves and provide a legacy for future generations.

It's a revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart. At last, we can become fully human. At last, we get to come home.

This is our dream. Dreaming the future can create the future.

2020 or Bust.