We must all sense the urgency of humanity’s greatest challenge – Simon Gage

The inspirational Christiana Figueres has the ability to make even a profound crisis like climate change seem like the 'best challenge you had ever wanted to solve' (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
The inspirational Christiana Figueres has the ability to make even a profound crisis like climate change seem like the 'best challenge you had ever wanted to solve' (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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What we do in the next decade will likely determine the climate of the planet for the next few centuries, writes Simon Gage.

“The best crisis we’ve ever had.” These words were spoken in Edinburgh this week by the inspirational Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Figueres is credited with pushing through the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the foundation for global warming plans for every country in the world. What she meant by this surprising statement was that the ‘crisis’ of climate change will force us to re-design and re-define. We will be forced to address our relationship with the planet, how we live our daily lives and the impact that we make. This overhaul in thinking, if we act quick and smart, will lead us to a healthier world with healthier people.

Noisy smelly vehicles will be gone as we move to electric alternatives. Polluting power stations will be replaced by cleaner and often renewable technologies. Degraded and lost forests, grasslands, bogs and marine environments will be restored to help soak up carbon from the air. These changes and more will contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions and the reinstatement and preservation of a better balance with nature.

Figueres’ positive approach to the crisis of climate change, I have recently learned, is entirely characteristic of her ‘determined optimism’. She understands global warming better than most and knows the unprecedented risks the planet faces but has a way of presenting this peril back to you as if it is the best challenge you had ever wanted to solve. She, and many others, talk of the changes required as great opportunities for improvement and prosperity rather than burdens to be feared.

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Figueres was in Scotland as a guest of honour at a round-table discussion on tackling climate change set up by Edinburgh Science, the organisation I direct. Through our Edinburgh Science Festival, we have given focus to climate issues over the years and were lucky to have Figueres speak at the festival in April this year. Joining her this week was Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, alongside industry leaders, transport companies, NGOs and universities from across the country. Everyone present has a self-declared interest in taking bold and innovative steps towards addressing climate change.

The growing sense of optimism is palpable. Policymakers, enterprises and the public are recognising the challenge that climate change presents and are beginning to pave the route towards a solution. It was inspiring to hear the proposals presented during the discussion, including ambitions to restore Scotland’s bogs to act as carbon sinks, changing the way industries operate to reduce environmental impact, decarbonisation of entire regions of Scotland, reforestation of urban and rural land and possible new technologies that will produce cost effective, clean fuel and energy sources.

The Scottish Government has set world-leading targets for carbon reductions in Scotland. Progress has been good but so far, change has been easy: the decarbonisation of the electricity supply has not had much of an effect on the everyday person. The next phase of changes will include changes to how we travel, farm, use land, what we eat, how we heat our homes and manufacture goods. These changes are going to feel much more personal and challenging. Imagination will be key in creating a new way of life that suits not just the population but the environment too.

In January, I read the IPPC report summarising their research for the first time. It was without doubt the most sobering read of my life and has had a profound effect on me. In easy to understand language, the enormity of the challenge to decarbonise the lives of 7.4 billion people is laid bare, as are the likely consequences of failing. Graphs within the report depict the ever-greater greenhouse gas outputs that give headlines about ’12 years to save the planet’ more weight. To stay within the targeted 1.5C global temperature rise, we can only emit greenhouse gases at today’s rate for ten years. Beyond that, we will see a larger temperature increase which no one wants.

I have come to view the IPPC report as the document that will define the focus of human endeavour in the 21st century. It encapsulates the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, greater than any war, epidemic, financial crash or famine. We are all required to orchestrate a level of change that humanity only experiences once every few centuries. We find ourselves at a point in our history where we face perhaps the most important, make-or-break, challenge. What we do between now and 2029 will likely determine the climate of the planet for the next few centuries. I urge you to read the 2018 IPPC report – the version for policy makers is only 32 pages and for the most part is easily decipherable.

The Edinburgh Science Festival has for 15 years been providing a voice for people who have been warning of climate change. James Hansen from Nasa, credited with being the first to sound the alarm bell to the US Senate in 1988, James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia Theory, Chris Rapley from the British Antarctic Survey, David King, the former science advisor to Tony Blair, and many more have spoken passionately here. But now we feel the urgency and providing a platform is not enough anymore. Through our connections to industry, universities, government bodies and the public, we are encouraging ambitious plans and helping others make the connections they need to implement them. There is a revolution coming that will be social, economic, environmental and technological. The inventiveness of science and technology, and the willingness of this community to take on the hard problems, puts it at the heart of this revolution and we are pleased to play our part.

When Christiana Figueres spoke to us in April about what plans we had to combat global warming, she looked across the table and asked “whose permission are you waiting for. Get on with it”. We are, and I urge everyone to sense the urgency and do the same.

Simon Gage is director and CEO of Edinburgh Science