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Turning at the Crossroads of Humanity

"Maybe Sultan al-Jaber - the United Arab Emirates oil chief executive and president of the COP28 climate summit - will pull a rabbit out of the hat and surprise us all as the Gorbachev or F.W. de Klerk of the oil industry: the one who sees when time’s up, that the only viable leadership role is to wind the whole rotten mess down to enable a more stable, ethical future."


Founding CEO and advisor to Stable Planet Alliance, Phoebe Barnard, PhD coauthored this piece with University of Hawai'i atmospheric scientist Charles 'Chip' Fletcher, PhD. It was first published by The Messenger on 12 Dec 2023 as COP28 went into its last long negotiation halls. But we didn't really expect al-Jaber to pull the rabbit out of the hat, unless perhaps (as one dark-witted friend of Stable Planet Alliance observed) as the head of the pack of foxes that eats it.


The ongoing United Nation’s annual climate summit, known as COP28, falls at the crossroads of humanity. Still, many don’t yet see it.


The year’s news was dominated by climate disasters and wars — two abysmal and often closely related subjects. Will we all, and our leaders, simply accept accelerating dysfunction and decline? Or will we use our still-considerable agency to change ourselves and our systems?


By now, we all know the facts. Global carbon emissions rose by over 1% in 2023 — after increases in the previous two years. The global mean temperature for 2023 is the highest on record. We can expect more records in 2024 as the impacts from the current El Niño weather pattern continue. 


But don’t become jaded by records and headlines. Each broken record spells tangible peril for our continued civilization. This is not controversial. Events are overtaking us.


What does this mean for society? The prognosis is bleak.


This year, 7.3 billion people were exposed for 10 days or more to temperatures heavily influenced by global heating, and nearly one-third of humanity faced deadly heat waves. We saw a nine-fold increase in large North American wildfires and record-setting megadroughts, the Antarctic ice sheet losing nearly 75% more ice in the last decade than the previous one. Extinctions are likely to worsen by two-fold to five-fold in coming decades — fraying the tapestry of this exquisite planet, snuffing out genetic diversity that evolved over hundreds of millions of years and weakening ecosystems to their breaking point.


So, this is the year to change — dramatically. Emissions must decline in 2024, and fast.


Even as we confront the destabilizing reality of leaving our children a damaged world, representatives of every nation are in Dubai at COP28 arguing over language to “phase out” or “phase down” fossil fuels.


Limiting catastrophe needs well-scheduled, rapid combinations of actions and strategies. The most urgent is phasing out fossil fuels quickly and justly. Their long lifespan in the atmosphere also means we must remove what’s already there — CO2 and the more potent methane. 


The clean-energy revolution has momentum. Ambitious goals are being set. The annual United Nations climate summits have been central to this success.


Yet, growth in our numbers and appetites, and our still-entitled mindsets, drives ecological overshoot that undermines these gains. Energy consumption keeps increasing, and we still add 68 million to 89 million net new humans to the planet each year. This growth paradox puts us into a dangerous climate purgatory.


Countries and companies take modest steps on climate change, while simultaneously making choices that undermine them. Governments plan to produce 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would limit heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.


Climate purgatory has brought us fast to a brick wall. This crossroads changes everything. If we wish to retain a civilization, we cannot avoid transformative action. The first step in Dubai is agreeing to a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels.


MaybeSultan Ahmed al-Jaber —the United Arab Emirates oil chief executive and president of the COP28 climate summit — will pull a rabbit out of the hat and surprise us all as the Gorbachev or F.W. de Klerk of the oil industry; the one who sees when time’s up, that the only viable leadership role is to wind the whole rotten mess down to enable a more stable, ethical future.


A rapidly heating globe, escalating natural disasters, a fraying natural world, are the palpable, interlinked symptoms of a deeper malaise, rooted in centuries of unsustainable exploitation. As we grapple with spiraling instability, our choices are stark — but also a huge opportunity.

To avert the impending dystopia of so many imagined Hollywood screens, we have no choice but to abandon our extractive economies and entitled mindsets of domination and arrogance. This means engaging in conversations — from local to global — on the kinds of society we want from now on and how to get there.


These times call upon us all to be the best kind of people that we can be. There is ample evidence to the contrary. We’ll need to change our relationship with nature and learn deeply from the successes of Indigenous people and other practices enshrining the intrinsic rights and patterns of nature. The shift requires not incremental policy changes but a cultural metamorphosis with sustainability and humility at the core. We clearly have a lot of disastrous mistakes to learn from, and little time left. Let us start.


As the world invests in a post-fossil fuel future, we must remember that technology can’t absolve us. With luck and focused attention to solutions, it can play a supportive part in the firefighting — to draw down CO2and methane. But much more will come from vast-scale ecosystem restoration, dramatic reductions in emissions and shifts in our systems of thinking and doing.


Our very survival requires a profound reassessment. It demands that we prioritize the future of all life, including that of our children. It requires a civilization and economy built around regenerating our planet and climate, repairing our societies and curbing our impact.

Our planet is not just a lifeboat in the cosmic sea. It is the life-support system for humanity and millions of other species. We are its custodians. We can rise to this existential challenge on almost an impossibly short timescale — and transform our society into one that can navigate the future.


Or, we can remain lulled by shreds of normalcy until we all feel the blast of war and inferno.


The choice is ours. But we must make it this year.

 

Charles “Chip” Fletcher, Ph.D., is interim dean at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. He is the director of the Climate Resilience Collaborative and the former chairperson of the Honolulu Climate Change Commission. He is the author of “Climate Change: What the Science Tells Us, 2nd Edition,” a textbook on climate change published by Wiley.


Phoebe Barnard, Ph.D., is founding CEO of Stable Planet Alliance; cofounder and lead of the Global Restoration Collaborative, a bold initiative to accelerate, align, upscale and upskill ecosystem and climate restoration initiatives through youth, women and indigenous co-leadership; and global campaign director of the Global Evergreening Alliance. She is coauthor and lead author of five of the 'World Scientists' Warning' papers, including World Scientists' Warnings into Action: Local to Global. She is affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics, as well as a research associate at the African Climate and Development Initiative and the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town.

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