Failing to act on climate change is robbing future generations of choices
Things could have been so different. In June 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, launching the formal international mission to bring global warming emissions under control and reduce humanity’s negative impacts on our planet.
Environmental protection was linked to the eradication of poverty and hunger by the U.N. Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and later through the Sustainable Development Goals. We talked a good game.
Our actual record is unimpressive. The world is warming ever faster. Millions of species are in decline. Ecosystems are under increasing stress.
Hundreds of millions of people still lack access to safe water, energy and food. Incredibly, the “pursuit of growth” remains the predominant worldview, and leaders continue to act as if their decisions are unrelated to these unfolding environmental crises and growing inequalities.
We have not entirely failed to act, but it has simply not been enough.
Stopping further climate change and biodiversity loss requires all hands on deck, but the Earth Summit generation failed to produce the leaders and show the resolve required to protect the well-being of generations to come.
Delayed action to reduce climate change and biodiversity loss has foreclosed options, heightened risks, and increased the urgency and cost of necessary change.
As things stand, future generations will have fewer and harsher choices, diminishing their capabilities to reach their full potential and, thus, leaving them poorer than they would have been. Failure to act, when the evidence is all around us, is not ignorance but robbery.
All of the authors of this op-ed, numbering more than a dozen, are researchers and practitioners spanning natural and social sciences and engineering. Whether we like it or not, we are among the “robbers” in this intergenerational theft because we have not been able to convince policymakers to act, and we ourselves have relied on fossil fuels, for example, through years of flying to scientific meetings. At this juncture, we feel frustration, sadness and, for some of us, even outrage at the diminished prospects for future generations.
The understanding and consensus among scientists — embodied in assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the Convention on Biological Diversity and others — is far ahead of how society currently operates. Research has demonstrated the causes, drivers and consequences of environmental degradation, resource depletion and climate change. Possible responses are many and clear.
However, while a generation’s worth of research output is important, it has been insufficient to spur effective action and transformative change.
Why has the response to an existential threat been so feeble? There are several factors. The scale and the complexity of the problem are huge, and there are immense, entrenched political and economic forces preventing our collective Titanic from steering away from disaster.
There are also unequal impacts of change, which creates both losers and winners. This spurs misdirection: Vested interest groups are blocking vigorous, farsighted action. Environmental research is at times actively contested by powerful actors — just as powerful companies and some politicians contested the need for action on (and even validity of) public health research into the cancer-causing properties of tobacco, asbestos, dioxin and more.
The IPCC’s most recent report explicitly states that “rhetoric and misinformation on climate change and the deliberate undermining of science” have downplayed the risks to the planet. Critics also have been quick to undermine scientists who are seen as activists. And some activists have been threatened or worse.
The research community can make a difference — but not if it simply does more of the same. We need more than just outstanding research. We also need strategic reorientation of outstanding research so that it supports action. Just as importantly, we need collaborations and actions that will actively resist and overturn intergenerational robbery.
Having action informed by science requires collaboration among scientists and governments, news media, businesses, civil society and others. Doing so without losing credibility in a polarized and political environment is exceedingly difficult. That must not deter us. We can communicate what we know by being good storytellers, in which the stories are evidence-driven and fact-based.
Senior researchers, including us, must make a more concerted effort to work in collaboration with young people. This requires younger people on boards and organizing committees and meetings where we are in the audience rather than on stage.
We must also work to produce compelling, credible scientific reviews of tactical importance in the struggle against climate change and environmental degradation. These should include critical analysis of policy deflection by vested interests and how to counter it; approaches for low-income nations to improve welfare, protect the environment and prosper without relying on fossil fuels or ecosystem degradation; and studies that highlight those who suffer most from climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss.
Even millions of separate individual actions have marginal impacts; therefore, collective action for systemic change is required. We appeal to everyone to assess your own skills and opportunities and determine what you can do personally, professionally and collectively. Our goal should be to ensure each generation gives to the next, rather than stealing from their future.
It is not too late. Things can still be different.
— Ashok Gadgil is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. Thomas Tomich is a professor of sustainability science and policy at the University of California at Davis. They are co-editors of the Annual Review of Environment and Resources and wrote this op-ed with 11 other scientists from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas who span a wide range of disciplines. For a full list of authors and affiliations, go to www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-environ-061322-013248.