At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos last month I participated in sessions and idea forums to learn and exchange ideas about the profound political, economic, social and technological forces transforming our lives and activities that, per the United Nations, threaten irreversible and abrupt environmental change.
The most compelling framework for understanding the extent of human impact is found in environmental scientist Johan Rockstrom’s Nine Planetary Boundaries. Thomas Friedman led a persuasive session with Al Gore and Johan Rockstrom at the Annual Meeting last year. This year, Gore moderated a powerful session entitled “Decoding Climate Signals” featuring Rockstrom, and I later had the opportunity to again speak with Rockstrom, both in between sessions and at dinner. Rockstrom, who should be known as RockStarstrom, distills and delivers a clear understanding of nine essential earth-system processes, the capacity of the earth to sustain human impact, and the need for humanity to become an active steward of all planetary boundaries.
One of Rockstrom’s nine planetary boundaries is climate change. Gore recently tweeted that of 2,258 peer-reviewed articles on climate change, only one denies man-made global warming. In his last State of the Union Address, President Obama stated, “climate change is a fact”, and “we have to act with more urgency” to reduce our total carbon pollution. The consequences of a failure to address climate change range from the creation of an inhospitable planet incapable of supporting humanity and society as we know it, to an increase in extreme weather events (coastal flooding, heat waves, droughts, longer and more damaging wildfire seasons) and the spread of insect-borne diseases. It is well documented that the cost of inaction far exceeds the cost of action.
So why, in spite of the efforts of grass roots activists, organizations and scientists are we in a state of climate complacency? In part, it is because we believe that a challenge of this scale requires global intergovernmental policy changes, and those changes will likely be thwarted by special interest lobbyists. However, there is another, more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed: how we know, value and perceive risk to our natural world.
The U.N. estimates there are 7.2 billion humans on this planet today, with the 50 percent living in urban centers only expected to grow. A large proportion of our youth is abstracted from and does not have an intimate knowledge of our natural world and its role in our existence. It is one thing to visit a farm or take a hike in the woods, and an altogether different experience growing up knowing your family’s livelihood and rhythm depends on the natural world. How can we effectively raise our next generation to know about our natural world and understand the fragile relationship between humans and our natural environment? How do we change the narrative in our democracies so the majority of constituents clamor for sustainable environmental policies? We explored these questions during a 20-person WEF Work Studio session with Gore and Lord Stern (President of the British Academy and chief author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change). After our brainstorming group of 5 individuals explored ways to best achieve short and long term goals to end climate complacency, I presented our group’s ideas and conclusions. Not surprisingly, making high-quality environmental education as fundamental as traditional K-12 core curriculum worldwide ranked at the top of our long-term goals list.
Ten Strands’ work encouraging adoption of a rich, non-partisan environmental education curriculum (California’s Education and the Environment Initiative) that can both satisfy core requirements as well as serve as a fundamental stand-alone program is essential. As we raise our next generation with a robust understanding and appreciation of our natural world and resources, they will know that complacency is not an option.