A year and a half before President John F. Kennedy delivered the Commencement Address to American University in 1963 the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought humanity to the brinkof nuclear war. J.F.K. acknowledged that the possibility of a lasting peace was still a distant dream, but he made his remarks. J.F.K. rejected war’s inevitableness as a “dangerous and defeatist belief” and argued against the notion that “mankind has been doomed” or is “gripped by forces that we cannot control”. He offered a global challenge and powerfully declared:
“Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can do as much as he wants. Human beings can solve any problem related to human destiny. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable—and we believe they can do it again.”
That inspiring call to action remains prescient today, but in a different context and a different conflict—our battle against climate change to create a cleaner, safer and healthier planet for future generations. We are at the edge of disaster again and must act quickly to prevent it from becoming a war.
Sixty years ago my father, a former president of the World Wildlife Fund, identified the destruction humankind was causing to the planet. Many wondered if my senses of urgency were misplaced a decade later when I spoke publicly about the environment. This view has changed over the years, but it has not been as fast as the need for urgency.
As a father, I feel proud that my sons recognize this threat. My elder son William launched the Earthshot Prize to encourage change and repair the planet over the next ten year. He identified and invested in the technologies that could make a difference. Harry, my younger brother, has passionately emphasized the effects of climate change, particularly in relation to Africa. He also committed his charity to be net zero.
Globally, declining numbers are denying humankind’s involvement in climate change. Yet, too many pessimists still assert our inability to stop and possibly reverse the damage done to our planet by forces beyond our control.
Science tells us that these forces can be controlled. Only if we choose to act. Humankind has proven capable of solving seemingly impossible problems, whether it was putting a man in space or developing a vaccine against COVID-19. If we want to preserve and preserve the planet we call home, I believe we can and must do so again.
There is every reason for us to believe that 2021 is a turning point. C.O.P. reached agreements. 26 in November represented a useful and important step forward. International recognition of the climate crisis was again evident. Leaders displayed political courage and were open to being held accountable for their actions. As it should, the focus was on the consequences of inaction for our children, grandchildren, and future generations.
Yet, we know that appearances are not always the truth. Similar commitments were made at previous international gatherings. But, we know that the daily grind distracts us and leads to missed targets and loss of hope. We cannot afford to lose momentum this time. 2021 cannot be another false dawn. We cannot ignore the fact that climate change and biodiversity loss have already impacted the lives of millions of people living in extremely vulnerable areas of the world and made their homes increasingly uninhabitable.
I have witnessed firsthand the negative effects of false dawns. I was in Jordan for the Baptism of Jesus in November. As I stood at the site, I could see the declining water levels in one of the world’s most water-poor nations. Egypt will host the next C.O.P. I was informed about the devastating effects of climate change on water supply and agriculture in Egypt’s Nile Delta, which is now one of the most fragile ecosystems on Earth. Later that month, I traveled to Barbados to listen to people’s fears about rising sea levels, and the threat they pose to their country.
These are only a few of the many challenges that face us. The most recent I.P.C.C. The most recent I.P.C.C. report concluded that human activity has increased the global temperature at a rate unprecedented in at least 2000 years. This has led to many observed changes in weather patterns and climate extremes.
Our actions matter. This is what is clear. We know what to do. We know what we need to do. With an ever-increasing population, we must reduce carbon emissions and take action on carbon already in the atmosphere. This includes fossil fuels and coal-fired power plants. Carbon capture solutions will become more affordable if carbon is given a fair value. Nature is still our best teacher, even after billions of years of evolution. When we seek answers to how humans can live more sustainably on the planet, Nature should be our guide.
As we deal with the crisis, it is important to coordinate our national efforts. Because of the scale and extent of the threat, it is necessary to find global and regional solutions. This will require active participation from every industry sector in every country.
This effort will include a military-style campaign in order to mobilize the strength of global private sector. It will take trillions of dollars, not billions of dollars, to transform our fossil fuel-based economy into one that is truly renewable and sustainable. This level of funding, which is higher than global G.D.P. is crucial because too many countries are enslaved with increasing levels of debt and can’t afford to “go eco” without significant assistance.
What is a campaign of military style? C.O.P. 26. I explained why I believe the chance to build a sustainable world is the greatest opportunity for growth. This belief centers on three factors, each which will increase our success rate and lead to an alignment between country and industry investment roadmaps.
First, it is crucial for global industries to clearly articulate what it will be like to make this transition, and to have strategies in place to accelerate the process of bringing innovations to market.
Second, private capital must support these strategies by financing the transition efforts and building investor confidence so that financial risk is decreased.
Third, alongside the Nationally Determined Contributions promised by individual countries, the world’s leading C.E.O.s and institutional investors need clear market signals from governments—and agreed globally—to give them the confidence to invest in the long term, without the rules of the game changing.
This is the Terra Carta framework for Nature, People and Planet, created by my Sustainable Markets Initiative. It contains nearly one hundred specific actions to accelerate. Together, we work to mobilize trillions in support of the transition across ten most polluting and emitting industries, including fashion, energy, transportation, health and transport. Because of the global supply chains, industry transition will impact every country and every producer around the globe. I have no doubt that the private sector is willing to help find a way forward.
In the end, inaction will cost more than action. Younger generations have expressed frustration at the slow pace of action on this topic. Our generation places more of the financial responsibility for these failures on its shoulders and those not yet born.
There is also a moral cost to pay. As Rabbi Lord Sacks said, “It is easier understand the moral limitations on action when you believe that someone owes responsibility, that we don’t own the planet, that we are covenantally tied to those who will come following us.” If we just maintain our rights without acknowledging our responsibilities towards those who follow, then we would not be able to act morally.
This point has been reinforced during the past two years of the Covid pandemic, when over a million lives have been lost—losses that will particularly be felt at this time of year. We all have been affected by economic and health disruptions. Despite all the darkness, we have seen the good in humanity; many people and professions have put our collective well-being at the forefront. In an age of high individualism, there has been a shift from a “Me”, to a more “We”, mentality and a renewed belief in the possibility that we can all tackle the most difficult problems of our time.
In order to create a cleaner, healthier planet, we must have a similar “We”, mentality at all levels. We are looking towards 2022, which is a year of great opportunities. Recognizing our interconnectedness as global people, let’s remember that borders don’t define us in the face global threats and that none of us are safe until all of us are safe. This is the only way we can correct the imbalance between the size of the problems and how quickly solutions are being developed.
Humanity has made amazing progress in the last century, surpassing our expectations and the conditions of our planet’s environment. Anyone who has seen Earth from space knows that it is not only “one giant leap” for humanity, but also the fragility of our planet, and the delicate balance of the Universe. This should inspire us to take responsibility for the future and a sense of wonder at the present. It should not be frightening, but it should inspire us to tackle the most pressing issues of our time with the greatest sense possible of urgency. There is no pressing issue at this time than putting Nature, people, and our fragile planet at the core of how we live, work, and do business in order to create the best future for humanity.
The time is now. Our children and grandchildren will judge our actions. Let us be the generation who can. And Does. We have no time to lose as we begin a new year.