From 1980 to 1989, we collected and analyzed more than 3,000 published studies on climate change. Having received formal training in liberal arts, political science, and law, we were poorly prepared but nonetheless taught ourselves the arcane language of climate science and how to separate the wheat from the chaff in complicated studies and reports.
At the end of that decade, we wrote a book that sifted all this assembled scientific literature and synthesized it into a statement that any reasonably bright 15-year-old could read and understand. That book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do, still stands up pretty well after 25 years. Many of the unknowns that existed then are known today. Many uncertainties with interpretations suspected but not confirmed have been resolved. Still, new knowledge has brought new questions and, in time, we will discover still more answers. Science never sleeps.
One of the more controversial chapters in that 1990 book was called "Runaway" It described a possible scenario in which positive feedbacks cascaded so quickly that Earth's usual recovery mechanisms would not have time to adjust. In an exceptionally bad run of luck, we could lose the friendly atmosphere that sustains higher life forms and instead be shrouded in thick clouds of carbon dioxide and methane, something akin to the atmosphere of Venus. Today there are a growing number of scientists who think that is where we are headed - that Earth will no longer be able to support large mammals such as ourselves, and we could experience our own mass extinction by as early as 2030.
These kinds of doomsday scenarios are not certainties, and may even be improbable, but they are not impossible, given what we are observing in the natural world today and from what we understand of geophysics. We are in an accelerating pace of change, and unless we can radically shift both the pace and direction, it will not end well.
In 1965, an advisory committee warned Lyndon B. Johnson that the greenhouse effect was a matter of "real concern." With estimated recoverable fossil fuel reserves sufficient to triple atmospheric carbon dioxide, the panel wrote, "Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment." Emissions by the year 2000 could be sufficient to cause "measurable and perhaps marked" climate change, the panel concluded.
Since then, every U.S. President has been warned by the best scientists in the world that the problem is serious and getting rapidly worse. Previous to Barack Obama, no U.S. president except Jimmy Carter had done anything to even slow the problem, and Carter demonstrated what Obama already knows - that it is a political liability even to try.
Someone who foresaw this dilemma early and found himself in a position to do something about it was Maurice Strong, the first Director of the United Nations Environmental Program. He, more than any single individual, was responsible for establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Convention on Biological Diversity to bring together science and diplomacy.
It was a strange life's trajectory that took him there. A child of the Canadian prairies who suffered through the Great Depression, he went on to become a self-made oil millionaire and then a key player in energy and utility businesses. He became the first chairman of Petro-Canada and later chairman of Ontario Hydro. Then Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson appointed him to start the Canadian International Development Agency and he began a lifelong interest in the problems of the poor.
In 1971, Strong commissioned a report on the state of the planet, Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, co-authored by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos. The report summarized the findings of 152 leading experts from 58 countries. It spurred the first UN Conference on Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. Strong's report was the world's first "state of the environment" warning.
Maurice was Secretary-General of that 1972 Stockholm summit and later the Rio Sustainable Development Summit in 1992, It was his view that better knowledge would lead to wise and timely action by all the nations of the world working in concert. He was Founding Executive Director of the UN Environment Program and not a believer in summits as an end in themselves. Rather than setting up his UNEP shop in Paris or New York, he established a global headquarters on what was then a coffee farm at the outskirts of Nairobi. In 1999 he took on the task of trying to restore the viability of the University for Peace, headquartered in Costa Rica
Maurice Strong died at the age of 86 in November 27, 2015 in Ottawa, just as delegates were arriving to Paris for the UN climate meeting. Had his health and longevity permitted, he would have been there too.
Despite the poorly informed quality of the climate discussion in the United States, science has already reached a consensus. It took thousands of scientists many decades to reach it, something, by the way, that has never occurred before. Exxon, the Koch brothers, Saudi Arabia, and others have almost unlimited money to spend buying political favors and sowing doubt. Through spending billions of dollars each year — many, many times the amounts that are usually spent on political campaigns — these oil and coal interests have produced a generation of politicians with wacko views of science. It is no accident that in the United States, until recently the world's leading carbon polluter, the key Congressional committees charged with addressing climate change have been disbanded, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under attack for regulating carbon, and President Obama has been formally informed, by legislative resolution, that any UN climate agreement forwarded to the Senate will be Dead On Arrival.
Against this backdrop we have the Paris Agreement, which changes everything. How did it come into being? What does it mean for the economies of industrial nations? What are its chances of Senate ratification, or funding of its programs? What will be its effects on the stock market, on jobs, and on future elections?
After spending the last 6 years reporting on the run-up to the Paris conference, actually being there for this historic moment was much more exciting than we anticipated. Right up until the last it could have gone either way. We could have seen another Copenhagen. Instead, we saw a genuine breakthrough. Indeed, we are at threshold of a monumental, civilization-bending paradigm shift.
In heralding the adoption of the agreement, President Barack Obama said:
[T]his agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is firmly committed to a low-carbon future. And that has the potential to unleash investment and innovation in clean energy at a scale we have never seen before. The targets we've set are bold. And by empowering businesses, scientists, engineers, workers, and the private sector - investors - to work together, this agreement represents the best chance we've had to save the one planet that we've got.
So I believe this moment can be a turning point for the world. We've shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge. It won't be easy. Progress won't always come quick. We cannot be complacent. While our generation will see some of the benefits of building a clean energy economy - jobs created and money saved - we may not live to see the full realization of our achievement. But that's okay. What matters is that today we can be more confident that this planet is going to be in better shape for the next generation. And that's what I care about. I imagine taking my grandkids, if I'm lucky enough to have some, to the park someday, and holding their hands, and hearing their laughter, and watching a quiet sunset, all the while knowing that our work today prevented an alternate future that could have been grim; that our work, here and now, gave future generations cleaner air, and cleaner water, and a more sustainable planet. And what could be more important than that?
Today, thanks to strong, principled, American leadership, that's the world that we'll leave to our children - a world that is safer and more secure, more prosperous, and more free. And that is our most important mission in our short time here on this Earth.
While we may not have a crystal ball, we have now been following and reporting this issue for 35 years. Over the past 7 days we have compiled a new book, which is now available on Kindle and for the remainder of the year can be downloaded for $1.99. The Kindle app is available for free for almost any smart phone or digital device.
This book is our diary of the past year, as we watched the quickening pace of negotiations that led, ultimately, to the adoption of the final text in Paris. Regular readers will recognize many of the chapters because they were posted here beginning this past February, but there are many new chapters added to lend the story its power and immediacy.
Dropping the royal "we" for a moment, I know that I carry my own biases into this reporting, borne of more than three decades watching politicians and diplomats fiddle while Earth burned. I come not from the world of journalism or academic science, but from a world of permaculture, solar power experiments, and ecovillages; a world that is unknown to most people. My expertise lies in appropriate technology, biophysical economics, and ecological restoration. Because of this, I offer a different point of view than what our readers can easily find in other books in this subject. I write with an opinionated style that some may find difficult to accept, even offensive, but I speak with a passion borne of conviction. I hope this book helps deepen your understanding of a complex issue. It is an issue that will affect you very profoundly in coming years whether you choose to believe it or not.
Merry Christmas to one and all, and to each a festive holiday season. And when the New Year comes, our real work can begin. That is soon enough. Light a candle, raise a toast, and may we have peace on Earth, all good will to all our relations.