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Of Venomous Toads and Precious Jewels -- Farewell 2017!

Sweet are the uses of adversity; Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head. -- As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 1

When Shakespeare’s Duke in As You Like It is deposed and forced into exile by his wicked brother, losing everything and living rough in the woods, he fears all is lost. But he soon sees unexpected blessings. So too do we in the year now ending.

A Dreadful Year

The year we are leaving has been disastrous … Literally ...

  • The strongest and wettest hurricanes in recorded history raked across Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, causing damage that could top $200 billion, and leaving much of Puerto Rico without power for months.

  • Record-setting wildfires scorched land from Chile to Canada, and from California to Georgia in the United States, and much of southern Europe. Peat bogs, normally covered with ice and permafrost, caught fire in Greenland.

  • Record-setting floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal killed hundreds of people and sickened thousands more.

  • Arctic sea ice shrank to its third-smallest extent in the modern record, and ice in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska – a key area for Arctic Ocean access – sank to a record low.

  • After three years of devastating bleaching events, scientists confirmed that half the Great Barrier Reef is already lost, and without action the remaining half will be lost in 30 years.

  • We learned that air pollution is causing 9 million premature deaths each year, more than six times the total number of deaths from HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.


The year was important in terms of new scientific knowledge, almost all of it pointing towards a grim future. My colleague Kelly Levin notes new insights from scientists in 2017, ranging from clearer links between human emissions and extreme weather, the highest levels of carbon pollution (403 ppm) in 800,000 years, and the potentially disastrous cross-over in the role of tropical forests from sink to source of greenhouse gas emissions.

... and Politically

The U.S. administration abdicated its global leadership role on climate change, choosing not only not to lead, but to actively seek to undermine progress on climate action. President Donald Trump announced that the United States will pull out of the Paris Agreement, making the United States the only country on earth to have no plan to address climate change. The Trump administration weakened restrictions on emissions from power plants and vehicles, downgraded climate change in its assessment of U.S. national security threats, diminished the role of science in federal decision-making, and cut the size of federally protected land.

An Inspiring Response

This year’s adversity appears to have inspired a game-changing response. Two years on from the Paris deal, there is stronger evidence of action than expected, with no major evidence that countries are losing steam in implementing their national climate commitments. The world’s two largest countries are showing great seriousness. China, already the number one investor in renewable energy, announced another $360 billion investment through 2020 and the launching in 2018 of the world’s largest carbon market, covering China’s entire power sector. Strong new policies led to a decline in air pollution in 2017 in many of China’s cities, although there remains a huge challenge ahead. India’s ambitious program to increase solar energy twenty-fold to 100 gigawatts 2016-2022 is ahead of schedule and the government announced in November that only electric automobiles will be sold in India by 2030, joining France, the UK and Norway in setting targets to phase out the internal combustion engine. While the U.S. administration was encouraging the expansion of coal, Canada and the UK led a new alliance to Power Past Coal that already has more than 50 countries, states and institutions signed up to eliminate coal.

New players have also stepped up on climate action. Uganda is streamlining the inclusion of mitigation and adaptation policies into its planning; Vietnam has identified 68 priority tasks to implement their NDC; and Fiji is creating regional networks in the Pacific to assist in knowledge sharing and NDC implementation. The Marshall Islands announced plans for carbon neutrality. The NDC Partnership, a new alliance of 66 high ambition countries and 13 international institutions, is sharing best practice, providing support and mobilizing finance to accelerate action.

In the United States, cities, states and businesses have been taking up the slack left by the federal government’s rollbacks. Under the leadership of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown, the America’s Pledge initiative highlighted over 2,500 states, cities and businesses -- accounting for over half of the U.S. GDP and equivalent to the world’s third largest economy (after the U.S. and China) — that remain committed to the Paris Agreement. At the annual climate change negotiations in Bonn in November, the U.S. pavilion was bigger and livelier than ever, entirely led by the private sector and subnational governments. “We’re Still In” was the phrase on thousands of lips and badges. Never has there been such determined action in the U.S. against climate change.

The Gathering Momentum

This remarkable subnational and corporate response in the United States is part of a global trend. More than 7,000 cities have now made commitments to the Global Covenant of Mayors. And more than 340 major corporations have now committed to Science Based Targets, vowing to decarbonize their supply chains at a rate consistent with what science requires, and in a manner that is transparent for all to see. This is motivated not by legal requirement, but because they believe (rightly) that this is in their long-term interests.

This is part of an intellectual revolution that has seen a massive shift in academic (and practical) understanding from the old-fashioned notion that “climate action and economic growth are trade-offs” through “climate action and economic growth can be consistent” to “smart climate action will raise growth and investment, and create jobs!” The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has been a leader in this revolution, together with analytical work all over the world. This year’s OECD Report Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth, prepared as an input to the German-led G20 summit, provided further important evidence for this conclusion.

Particularly significant was the way the financial sector in 2017 deepened its understanding of environmental risks and better appreciated the opportunities presented by low-carbon investment. As evidence has mounted that a sustainable investment strategy yields not lower returns, as had been the common view, but to higher returns, portfolios are gradually being reshaped. Asset holders are demanding greater transparency in reporting of climate risks and carbon reporting. And the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosure, which issued its final report in June, laid out recommendations on how. Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund – the biggest in the world -- announced it would cease investing in fossil fuels, all the more remarkable given it was built on North Sea oil. Shareholders succeeded in requiring ExxonMobil to disclose climate-related issues. Royal Dutch Shell became, in November, the first oil and gas major to announce emissions targets throughout its value chain. And in December, the World Bank announced at the One Planet Summit in France that it will not finance upstream oil and gas, starting in 2019.

Count It. Change It. Scale It!

Closer to home, World Resources Institute celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2017. Over these three and a half decades, we’ve been privileged to support many of the biggest movements in sustainable development, from early Congressional hearings on climate science and economics, the creation of the Global Environment Facility, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

In 2017 our Board and Management set out a new strategy for the coming five years. At its heart is a recognition that, given the challenges we face, incremental change is no longer enough. Systemic change is needed across all major spheres of economic life. We know that our cities, landscapes and energy production and consumption systems can be redesigned to allow rising prosperity within environmental limits. But despite evidence that such transformations are possible and economically attractive, they are not happening at anything close to the pace required. Political, financial and psychological inertia, vested interests and physical lock-in of outdated infrastructure remain major barriers to progress, suggesting that a more disruptive approach is needed. A successful strategy will require a much greater focus on how to catalyze these system-wide transformations, and an understanding of how positive tipping points can be crossed and self-reinforcing change can be created. This will require non-incremental shifts in policy and behavior, creative political, social and corporate partnerships, and needs to be understood in the context of “movements” rather than mere policy shifts. This understanding will drive our activities moving forward. And we are encouraged that developments in 2017 indicate that positive tipping points may be closer that we thought.

At this turning of the year, I am struck by how blessed we are to work with such superb colleagues and wonderful partners. Nobody can be effective in isolation. There are no silver bullets in our line of business. Scaling impact is a team enterprise. We look forward to even greater partnership as we seize the challenges of 2018.

Happy New Year!

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