It is etched in my mind. In 2009, I stood by the departure gate at Copenhagen airport on my way back home, with deep sadness about a climate change deal that wasn’t. Then I saw them – the large photo ads with the aged faces of all the world leaders staring at me from the year 2020 pleading forgiveness: “I’m sorry. We could have stopped catastrophic climate change. We didn’t.” Part of the tcktcktck campaign, it was a poignant reminder of the bureaucratic paralysis that failed to deliver the needed global cuts in CO2.

Fast forward to today:

  • The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for July 2015 was the highest for July in 136-years. (Data provided by Bob Corell, from several sources, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, NASA and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts, ECMWF).
  • According to the, EIA fossil fuel-generated CO2 emissions by 2040 will represent a 45% increase from 2010
  • A new report from European Space Agency’s Earth Explorer CryoSat mission confirms the findings which suggest “that the globe’s ice sheets will contribute far more to sea-level rise than current projection shows”.

Nevertheless, change is in the air. With the upcoming launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we seem to have finally recognized that sustainability is the operating system of our shared Earth. If the operating system crashes, all the “programmes” that depend on it – economic, social, political and other systems – will crash with it. It’s all connected.

Comprised of 17 universal goals to be achieved by 2030, every single sector in the world – nation states, local cities, businesses and others – has now had its marching orders towards sustainable action. Goal 13 of the SDGs deals with climate change: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

The timing of SDG13 is flawless. While scientific facts were not enough in the past to nudge us into radical action, the moral authority of Pope Francis should trigger a mood-switch. Because when he calls for a “radical new financial and economic system to avoid human inequality and ecological devastation”, he is directing our attention to the clear choice of paths we now face: breakdown or breakthrough.

For us to consciously manage a breakthrough scenario in relation to climate change action, in every decision we face, we must be ready to challenge ourselves with the deeper questions. Professor Jem Bendell, author of the book Healing Capitalism, explains that one of these questions is, “How do we design our economic activities in a way that generates wider ecological well-being without carbon emissions?”

Buckminster Fuller hints at one possible answer: “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” For example, could we align, as the eminent climatologist Bob Corell recently suggested to me, behind a massive “global energy transition strategy that addresses the implications of our fossil fuel locked-ins?” This will partly require:

  1. Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels – the IMF calculates that in 2015 these represented 6.5% of global GDP, equivalent to $5.3 trillion or $10 million a minute; greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments .
  1. Investors and companies should immediately begin redirecting the $1.5 trillion projected invested into fossil-fuel generation towards renewable energy and energy-efficiency infrastructure
  1. Putting a price on carbon globally and fairly through a carbon tax, preferably through the World Trade Organization. Even “big oil” is in favour of a carbon tax!

We have everything we need to reimagine a new economic model that respects humanity and our precious biosphere. Goal 13 asks us to confront the real choices of breakdown vs breakthrough head-on. By embracing a beginner’s mind in our daily lives, we can accept that while we may not have all the answers, by stepping into the unknown, new areas of collaboration, innovation and ways of sustainable consumption and behaviour will emerge to answer the deeper questions.

And while I will never forget the disillusion I felt in Copenhagen, I now see it as a reminder that each day I will confront choices that are, at the end, up to me.

Have you read?
10 steps to remove carbon from the global economy
5 reasons why climate change may be worse than we think

Author: Georgie Benardete, Co-Founder, Orchard Mile

Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: A Brazilian crosses the muddy bottom of the Rio Negro, a major tributary to the Amazon river, in the city of Manaus, October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Euzivaldo Queiroz/A Critica