The climate action lens is shifting. As world leaders gather for the start of COP 28 tomorrow, their challenge will be to advance national commitments, manage trade-offs, and capture value within what is at risk of becoming a pernicious political and economic environment.
The opportunities we could unlock today are massive. While these opportunities transcend climate change, it is in the results of our actions on climate change where the greatest impacts of either success or failure are realized since climate change touches every part of our natural, social, and economic systems. Our ability to capture these opportunities is enabled by systems-wide revolutions that have accelerated and taken hold over these past two decades.
A Second Renaissance
In their 2017 book Age of Discovery, Oxford University professors Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna argue that the revolutions we're experiencing today match those that enabled the unprecedented age of discovery and disruption during the Renaissance. The authors considered this period “an eruption in genius” in which “exceptional achievements in European art, science and philosophy …. set Europe on a course towards the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment in the centuries that followed.” With detailed research and convincing analysis, they believe that “we are in the midst of another such eruption, in scale and scope far surpassing (the first).” The convergence of forces today is creating the conditions for a second Renaissance moment.
The Digital Revolution has made information more accessible and transparent on everything from GHG emissions to asset vulnerabilities, increased and widened the scope of research collaborations, democratized the sharing of ideas, and created new avenues for the flow of capital. The Migration Revolution, which has resulted in a transformative shift from rural to urban dwelling, drives efficient use of resources and infrastructure, knowledge creation, and multicultural social interactions resulting in greater diversity of thought. And The Health Revolution is driving unprecedented scientific breakthroughs, achieving a dramatic drop in infant and child mortality worldwide, and fostering wellbeing in an increasing number of citizens globally.
A new Renaissance that “sparks genius and upends social order” is good news for achieving the IPCC’s solution framework for a climate resilient, sustainable world, which “involves fundamental changes to underlying values, worldviews, ideologies, social structures, political and economic systems, and power relationships.” But realizing the potential is far from certain.
The Policy Imperative
In a day of thought-provoking discussions last month, Sir Graham Watson, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the University of Toronto and former Member of the European Parliament highlighted the imperative for public policy as an outcome of citizens’ collective action, without which, he said, we’ll achieve nothing. Herein lies the challenge: According to Sir Graham, politics is the mechanism to control the balance of societal powers wielded by wealth, big business, and media. And for Goldin and Kutarna, political leadership, along with public education and social media, will create the awareness citizens need to combat the complacency with which we approach climate change. But the effectiveness of this political system is at risk.
According to a 2022 Democracy Report by V-Dem, which monitors the state of democracy globally, “Liberal democracies peaked in 2012 with 42 countries and are now down to the lowest levels in over 25 years – 34 nations home to only 13% of the world population.” The data is especially troubling against research that autocratic regimes lag significantly on climate action and that political polarization represents a “Division of society into ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ camps whose members hold negative views of and distrust the other group. The Swedish based thinktank's research indicates that “When such camps align with mutually exclusive identities and interests, it undermines social cohesion and political stability…(and) democracy is typically dismantled.”
Yet, democracy is the political technology that can enable society to “avoid the worst of the disintegration that Renaissance Europe endured,” Goldin and Kutarna write. Liberalism is the recognition and protection of certain individual inalienable rights that secure our independence and privacy beyond the reach of government. Under a liberal democracy, government can only secure these rights, not redefine or abridge them.
It is the combination of the two that we must protect as an enabling foundation for climate action.
The Way Forward
More than ever before, forums to engage citizens of all ages, representing all demographics, can convene discussions on climate solutions proposals with climate experts and policymakers. Outcomes of these discussions, and the data and contextual information underpinning them, can be openly accessible to everyone else. And everyone can leverage these open platforms to ask the uncomfortable questions and challenge current norms that no longer seem to align with societal values.
One of the most important of these norms is the gender divide. Addressing this divide has become an increasing priority for leaders since the UN Development Program’s 2011 report on the potential for climate finance to help transform traditional gender roles and reduce inequalities. The report noted that “failing to incorporate women and men’s diverse needs and perspectives into climate change responses will further disadvantage women and decrease policies’ efficiency and effectiveness.”
The legacy of the first Renaissance is a patriarchal genius. For us to flourish in the second, leaders must do more to ensure equal representation of voices in negotiations and decision-making. In an interview with filmmaker Greta Gerwig in Time Magazine’s July 24, 2023 edition, she points out a reference to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Barbie movie. Barbie creator Ruth Handler’s hand touches Barbie’s hand on, says Gerwig, “the same trajectory and angle as the Sistine Chapel”.
The foundational premise of Barbie was what Time called the portrayal of inevitable chaos that ensues when Barbie (and by extension the girls she influenced) ventures into the real world from her “idyllic matriarchy”. This spotlight into a societal construct resonated: The movie became the highest grossing film directed by a woman in US box office history. Throughout the ages, art reflects societal norms back to us in a way that can challenge our perceptions and inspire change. The long term impacts of this renaissance, unlike the first one (as far as we know), should - and are likely to be - driven by both women and men.
Freedom is an imperative to achieving our multidimensional climate ambition. Gerwig and Margot Robbie, who played Barbie, told Time that realizing their vision required a high degree of trust from Mattel. Five hundred years prior, Michelangelo insisted on the same from Pope Julius II when he painted the Sistine Chapel. “Then and now,” Goldin and Kutarna tell us, “autonomy is a key ingredient in most feats of genius.”
Once a forum primarily for policy makers with minimal input from private citizens, the more recent climate change conferences have created space for both. That, alongside today’s convergence of forces, primes COP 28 for action.
We'd love to hear from you. Find us in the Blue Zone or in New York during COP 28.
Susan McGeachie is Co-founder and Managing Partner at Global Climate Finance Accelerator, which convenes partnerships across business, finance, and government on strategies, policies, procedures, and tools to align capital with net-zero commitments and ambition with the vision to achieve a climate-resilient and equitable economy.