We are in a challenge unique in history, unprecedented, to bring a global scale, environmental threat under control. And unfortunately for the reasons that I ticked off earlier, the eight extraordinary features of this challenge, this is one of the toughest challenges that humanity has faced as a peacetime challenge. So we have our work cut out for us.
Some people are pessimistic, are cynical, believe that the vested interests will win, that the short-sightedness is inevitable, that politics can’t agree on anything much less something as complicated as this. Or that it’s humanity’s fate to have to suffer massive climate derangement cause we don’t pay attention and we don’t take care of ourselves. I think we need not believe any of that kind of pessimism or cynicism. And we do need to take heart, again, as students of history in the fact that good things happen. Big changes do take place. Social movements can be successful in creating very large-scale, indeed global, very positive change. And this is really the topic that I’d like to explore with you in this final chapter.
How we can help to bring about large-scale social change, that is the change to help make the world safe, to respect the planetary boundaries, to achieve sustainable development, generally and specifically to honor the 2-degree Celsius limit as a limit of safety, a guardrail for the world environment? To do that the basic lesson of social change is that not only are governments needed at the table, businesses needed at the table, academics, scientists, experts needed at the table, we as global citizens are also needed at the table.
Large-scale social change occurs ultimately through large-scale social movements. It’s the public, it’s civil society that raises its voice and says, we need to be heard because it’s our safety, it’s our children’s safety, it’s the safety of future generations that we care about that need respect and need attention now. These social movements often start with small groups of very dedicated, committed and very brave people, but they do tap into a moral spirit widely shared. They tap into a knowledge base that can be demonstrated and proved and by being based on fact as well as based on ethical values, widely shared, they can turn into very large-scale social change.
I think about some of the most important of these movements in the last couple of centuries. Think about the fight about ending slavery. Slavery was pervasive. It was the norm at the end of the 18th Century. A small group of committed activists in Britain at what was becoming the height of the British Empire, said, this is morally wrong, abominable. We need to end the…first the trafficking and then the presence of slavery in the British Empire. It may seem obvious to us, how could anybody defend slavery, but slavery was strongly defended within England itself, of course with the huge slave industry and in other parts of the world. But Wilberforce and Clarkson and others persisted over the course of decades. And quite astoundingly and wonderfully the moral case became the dominant social reality and then the political reality. And slavery was ended in the British empire in 1833. It took a war in the United States to end slavery. Step by step slavery was seen as the abomination that it was.
And by the end of the 19th Century in most places, but still not in every place today, slavery was eliminated. But this is an example of how a moral principle can finally turn into a political inevitability. Ending colonial rule was seen as something impossible to achieve when Gandhi began his campaign in India in the early 20th Century. And by the end of the century it was again, a near inevitability. Not complete, not total by any means, but the mindset, the ideas about what is right and wrong about one people politically dominating another had changed fundamentally in the course of the 20th Century.
The civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement similarly required the bravery and genius of a Martin Luther King, Jr. and a Nelson Mandela, but those ideas became widespread ideas. And when one looks at social attitudes today in places that were virulently racist a generation or two generations ago, social attitudes also do change over time.
And now we’re in a battle for women’s rights, for the freedom of sexual orientation, new social mores that come through brave people saying, this is right, this is our moral stake in this, this is something which society more generally needs to embrace. And I think the evidence is that these magnificent and large-scale social changes, starting with very brave, small groups of people but through persistence finally spreading through society can fundamentally change the direction of the world as a whole.
In the last 14 years I’ve been very privileged to be a part of what many of you are also part of and that is the fight to end extreme poverty. The idea that extreme poverty is an anachronism, absolutely needs through directed efforts brought to a close of human history is an idea that was adopted by world leaders at the beginning of the new millennium in the Millennium Development Goals. They have not ended extreme poverty by any means but they have played their role and extreme poverty is coming down as a proportion of the world’s population and in the new phase that will follow the Millennium Development Goals, it’s within reach for governments to say, we can end extreme poverty. The idea is there, the progress is there, the momentum is there and the moral commitment is increasingly taking hold around the world.
Climate change and sustainable development more generally is another case where we need a worldwide reorientation of what we do, how we live, and the morals with which we live. And it was interesting and not just interesting, I would say notable and very important that when the world leaders came together on the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, as I described earlier, at the Rio+20 summit in June, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. At that point, they looked at the Millennium Development Goals and said, that is social action that’s working, we have treaties, we have law, we have negotiations but they’re not working as they need to, we need to look at the lessons of the Millennium Development Goals. In other words, we need to bring society to the table of sustainable development.
And in the outcome document of Rio+20, the conferees made a very valuable contribution and I want to read it. You see it here on the screen. We recognize that the development of goals could also be useful for pursuing focused and coherent action on sustainable development.
These goals should address and incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and their inter-linkages. By that they mean, economic, social and environmental. We’ll also underscore that STGs should be action oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities.
We are in that sense part of a new social movement. The public is coming to the table, the sustainable development goals of which one headline goal will be a safe global climate, gives us the opportunity to help create a worldwide public understanding and public demand for climate safety and for the other features of sustainable development. It’s in that context that the DDPP, the Deep Decarbonization Pathway Project arose, because Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in the aftermath of Rio+20, we need a global network of problem-solving. And he created the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the SDSN.
And I’m very privileged to be the director of that. He created that network in order to bring together scientists, engineers, business leaders and civil society leaders, precisely for the kind of problem-solving in which we’re engaged. And the DDPP is a great flagship of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It’s an example of civil society, in this case experts from around the world, largely from academia and from other knowledge-based institutions, coming to the fore and saying, here is how this particular problem of deep decarbonization can be solved.
And we’ve learned a lot that we’ve been emphasizing through these lectures, through the DDPP process. We’ve learned a lot about problem-solving itself because we’ve had to solve the problem of how to make our process work, which is not an easy…easy process by any means to actually find these pathways in a constructive manner that can help the world move towards a meaningful climate agreement.
We’ve identified in the SDSN and in the DDPP some of the strategies for success in achieving big social goals. The first part of success is set goals. This I think is absolutely fundamental, because without the goal we have no direction. With a goal, stay below the 2-degrees Celsius in order to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system, we have goal. We have something we can hold onto. And as President John F. Kennedy said about setting goals, “By defining our goal more clearly, by helping it seem more manageable and less remote we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.” So not only do we need goals but we have to define the goals more clearly, make them seem more manageable as we hope the DDPP process is doing. And specifically to make the goals seem more manageable we have to identify pathways o achieving those goals.
What we have called backcasting. Look at 2050, where we need to be and ask, how are we going to get there from where we are today in 2014? We need R&D roadmaps, a point that we’ve emphasized to overcome existing hurdles. We’re going to need to demonstrate successes of some of these technologies. We’re going to need to build momentum of civil society.
And then rapid scale up, mass public education and of course, deepening the political and the institutional framework by reaching meaningful agreements in COP21 and similar kinds of frameworks in other areas. It’s obviously a huge undertaking, but sustainable development defines the most important agenda of our generation. Earlier generations faced their specific challenges, ours is the challenge of a very crowded planet, pressing against planetary boundaries, threatening survival itself of millions of species, the well-being, the survival of humanity itself. And so we must take on this challenge.
And we must take heart from the success of earlier vast social change actions as I’ve noted. It may see awfully hard to accomplish this. Some of the technological challenges seem absolutely daunting. Can you really take the core of the world energy system and within 25 or 30 years change it to a low carbon energy system? The answer, the evidence says, is yes, if we really work at it. If we direct our attention and direct our technological change in the needed area.
As I’ve said, I was inspired in my youth by the moon shot. By President John F. Kennedy standing in Congress and saying early in 1961 that he recommends that the United States accept the challenge of putting a man safely to the moon and bringing him back safely to earth by the end of the decade. And what’s absolutely interesting about that among so many other things is that when President Kennedy made that call to action, there was no plan to do it. He wasn’t referring to the accepted engineering reports that said exactly what the blueprint is. It took NASA more than a year to come up with the, the basic ideas and then it took brainstorming and problem-solving and heroics and brilliant engineering, a lot of resources and a major sustained commitment through the entire process. In 1962, in talking about this attempt to go to the moon, President Kennedy said something that I believe resonates today in the spirit of the challenge that we face in climate change and in all of this deep systems transformation and technological change that we’re going to need to undertake, he was talking to a public that was asking, is this too hard, can we do it? And President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon.” We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win, and the others too. And I can tell you as he spoke at Rice University in a vast open stadium that day, the applause were phenomenal, because the public rallied to this.
They said, this is, this is something we can do. This is a challenge we are willing to accept. Fundamentally we need the world around the table. We need the experts. We need the engineers. We need the governments. And we need us as civil society. And we need to do this at a time that is extraordinarily difficult, because we’re talking about climate change at a time where we’re also facing a lot of war, a lot of conflict, a lot of battles that are not only devastating in and of themselves but taking up the energy, taking up our attention, turning us away from what really counts for our long-term survival.
And so fundamentally we are going to have to find a way to cooperate on what is important, find a way to turn away from the violence and the war and find a way to cooperate peacefully for decades to come. And as I close the course I want to close one more time with President Kennedy who pursued peace in 1963 and very much with a vision that by doing so we could turn to science and to the arts and to cooperation and to public health and to other goals. And he faced a big challenge then. The world was deeply divided then as it is now. And he had to urge Americans and the world about the capacity to cooperate.
So I want to close with my favorite lines of President Kennedy about cooperation itself, but you’ll see that they really resonate when it comes to our specific challenges, fifty years later. President Kennedy said, “So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures and we are all mortal.” Thank you for being in the class. I look forward to being together with you in the next semester.