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Towards a Climate Safe Common Future

The two defining challenges of this century are climate change and poverty. Our challenge is to find a way to deal with both, at the same time.

This piece originally appeared on the World Resources Report website.

The most important challenge for today’s political leaders is to safeguard the human environment so that our species can survive on this planet. I think the following three points are particularly relevant for any leader wanting to strike a balance between the pressing needs of today and the decisions necessary to secure our long term survival.

1. Base your policies on sound scientific knowledge

In my professional and political life, I have always wanted to build on the principle learned first from my father, who had a profound influence on me. He was a medical doctor who imprinted on me the importance of having a scientific and rational basis for opinions and actions. As I became a medical doctor myself, my resolve to base my opinions and actions on the best available evidence grew even stronger. So, first of all, we need to build evidence, and strengthen the knowledge base on which we depend when making decisions.

It is so important to couple state of the art scientific knowledge with strong political commitment. Science must be translated into political action to be of relevance to society.

At the same time, we must never overlook how important it is to couple state of the art scientific knowledge with strong political commitment. Science must be translated into political action to be of relevance to society. This is true for gender equality, health policies, environmental policies and climate policy. Ideology and values play an important role when we set our goals. But when it comes to deciding on what we should do to reach them, they have to be inspired by sound scientific knowledge. And we must never forget that it is always cheaper to prevent than to cure, whether we focus on people or societies. Therefore, mitigation remains the best adaptation policy.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established 22 years ago, has provided increasingly robust scientific information on the causes, the impacts and the solutions related to climate change. They point out that the warming of the globe may reach 5-6 degrees by the end of this century if no action is taken. This would be devastating and totally unsustainable. According to the IPCC we must reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases to a fraction of what they are today by 2050 to succeed in staying below 2 degrees temperature rise.

In a fair and sustainable world, greenhouse gas emissions in all countries will tend to converge towards the same level, per capita, in the long run. This should be recognised by all country leaders, and they should start working towards it. This would show the spirit of responsibility so clearly needed in order to ensure a climate safe, common future.

2. Seek global cooperation

The challenge of climate change is not a question that can be left to the Minister of the Environment to deal with. As the most important issue facing any country, it has to be dealt with at the highest levels of government. And international cooperation is needed in order to achieve results.

Emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) contribute to climate change. The effects are not primarily local, as with other forms of pollution, but are felt globally. Emissions in Australia on the other side of the globe are just as detrimental to climate in Norway as are local emissions in Scandinavia. No issue better demonstrates the need for global cooperation than climate change.

In order to deal with the challenge of climate change, a climate agreement will need to include most countries of the world, cover all major sources of emissions of GHG, and include concrete and long term climate goals in line with the recommendations of the IPCC.

It may be challenging to translate scientific results into practical policies on the domestic scene. It is even more challenging to reach an evidence-based agreement among nearly 200 countries. Especially when the measures to be taken come with a price tag and the distribution of initial costs has to be decided upon to reach an agreement. Distributing costs is difficult, even if we know they will continue to spiral if we do not agree. But this is precisely what we must do.

3. National and global redistribution is needed

This is a classic case of market failure. There is no price, no cost involved for the individual emitter, even though emissions result in the entire human race paying the ultimate price.

Why do human beings destroy their planet by emitting unsustainable levels of GHGs? The reason is that this is a classic case of market failure. There is no price, no cost involved for the individual emitter, even though emissions result in the entire human race paying the ultimate price. What we need to do is to make pollution bad business. The key is to put a price on emissions. We need to secure cooperation between developed and developing countries on public regulation to correct this market failure.

What will have to happen first is that developed countries must demonstrate in concrete terms that low-carbon growth is possible. If the rich countries, who have filled up the atmosphere with CO2, and who are in possession of more resources than the developing countries, do not switch to a low-carbon economy, they cannot ask developing countries to do so either.

Once developed countries have demonstrated that low-carbon growth is technically feasible and economically viable, they must do what it takes to make low carbon growth the cheapest and preferred path to development for developing countries.

In the face of starvation and misery, growth and development tend to take precedence over almost all other considerations. Only when low carbon growth also comes across as the low cost way to development, can we expect poor countries to make sustainable and green choices.

The two defining challenges of this century are climate change and poverty. Our challenge is to find a way to deal with both, at the same time. We need to see rapid and broad based economic development happening alongside substantial reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases.

The financial crisis has started even former free market champions thinking about the merits of redistribution, both within countries and between countries. They realise that it is not a good idea after all to have a system where one small group gets very rich, and willing to take ever more risks, by lending more and more to the larger group which gets poorer and poorer.

We live in times when it is particularly important to avoid bad investment decisions. My best advice is: whatever you do, make sure it contributes to the sustainable, low-carbon economy we will need in order to survive and thrive on planet earth in the future. Otherwise you will be wasting your money.

Gro Harlem Brundtland is a Special Envoy on Climate Change for the UN Secretary-General and former prime minister of Norway.

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