As policymakers and activists from around the world convene for Climate Week in New York City, Lynn Scarlett explains why we need bolder commitments—but why it’s in the devilish details of action where progress happens.
Being a longtime advocate for climate action sometimes feels like being Cassandra of Greek myth—cursed to see the future but never to be believed.
This is perhaps the most daunting aspect of climate change. We know the dire impacts. We know what we need to do to avoid global catastrophe. But we have fallen far short of taking actions at the required scale.
One wonders what Cassandra would have thought had she been present for the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, knowing that this unprecedented international commitment would be followed by four more years of rising emissions, temperatures and sea levels.
Still, I don’t despair for the future. I don’t feel like Cassandra—the voices of climate action are, now, being heard more broadly. We could be on the cusp of an unprecedented opportunity for courageous climate action.
A New Moment of Awareness
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 1.5 Degrees report last October, the public reaction was alarm—and that’s promising. Suddenly the message took hold—broadly and with resonance—as people saw what the Cassandras had long seen.
This year brings two more reports from the IPCC—a report on land use and climate was released in August, and another focused on the ocean and cryosphere will come later this month. These reports don't contain good news either, even if they aren't inspiring the quite the same shock as the 1.5 degree target report. But they are worth paying attention to, because the particular troubles they raise can point us toward particular solutions.
It is likely that the August lands report will further emphasize what we already know—that humanity’s extensive use of the earth’s lands is a major driver of climate change. In fact, the land-use sector is currently responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as soil degradation, deforestation and biodiversity loss.
But that also means that changing our actions can benefit the planet’s future. The way communities, landowners, and companies utilize, protect, and develop land and nature is central to that endeavor. Research led by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) shows that natural climate solutions— strategies for protecting, restoring and managing lands to reduce emissions and enhance carbon storage—could, in concept, deliver more than a third of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep warming levels below 2 degrees Celsius.
Land-based solutions capture little attention or funding, at least for now, but with more investment they can be a powerful complement to the continuing transition to clean energy. Nature and technology together provide most of the tools we need to limit climate change. The question is whether we have the courage to use them—and use them soon.
Courage Means Ambition—and Ambition Means Details
What do I mean by courage? Yes, it is courageous when nations establish and escalate emissions reduction commitments, or when companies work toward 100 percent clean energy sourcing or zero-deforestation supply chains.
Such commitments are positive, critical steps; I am heartened to see more of them. But real climate courage isn’t just about lofty announcements—it’s found deep in the weeds of execution. It requires ambition, but also the devilish details—of how, when, where, and who—to transform these declarations into concrete actions.
Consider: we know that we have to accelerate the transition to clean energy—but we also have to think about how we make that transition, and where we put that new infrastructure. Smarter siting is needed not only to protect natural lands from conversion—thus sequestering more carbon naturally and protecting biodiversity—but also to eliminate some of the financial risks that hinder clean energy expansion.
Thus, we need policies, planning, and incentives that drive developers and investors toward smart siting for energy infrastructure—that’s how we attract institutional-level investment in clean energy, site it well and ensure that natural lands are protected. This is just what the U.S. state of Nevada has done—through a “mining the sun” focus, the state is facilitating siting of solar energy on degraded mine land sites. If we look at the global scale, we have enough degraded lands available for siting to meet the world’s clean energy goals 17 times over.
Likewise, it’s not enough to simply “protect forests.” Much of the world’s intact forest land is managed by indigenous communities, many of whom are leaders in sustainable, low-carbon development—and yet many of them have no or tenuous rights to these lands. So countries need to ensure that indigenous peoples secure their land rights and tenure.
We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time in understanding a new climate reality. What once would have been bold pledges are now almost commonplace. But we still fall way short on advancing the mechanisms by which to meet such pledges—governance, financial policy, incentive and tax structures, and land tenure, to name a few.
Such processes seldom capture the public eye, but they are hard, courageous work—the kind that’s required if we’re to convert courage into tangible climate action.
“An Epic Drama”
I started down this path thinking about courage and mythical figures like Cassandra after hearing author David Wallace-Wells speak recently to an audience of committed conservationists.
Humanity’s current struggle with climate change, David said, “is an epic drama, the kind we used to see only in mythology or theology, but we’re living it in real time, and as the protagonists—because the future climate of the planet will be written by what we do.”
We are the protagonists. The only thing preventing us from tackling climate change is our slowness to act commensurately with the scale of the challenges.
Oddly, this is a heartening thought—because we still have choices. And it makes me think of another term for protagonist: hero.
This moment is invigorating: students are walking out of schools; indigenous leaders are claiming their rightful place at international negotiations; states like New York and cities from Nairobi to Brasilia are establishing mitigation plans more detailed and ambitious than any national government. Now it’s time for more national and international heroes, too.
Those who step forward to do the hard work of this journey face uncertainty—about the consequences of their actions, intended and unintended; about whether the rest of the world will follow their example; about just which devilish details of action will really deliver big results; and about just what sort of impacts we will experience even in a best-case-scenario.
That’s why it requires courage. But the alternative is not a viable option.