At The Crossroads

“At The Crossroads – Leadership in the Age of Climate Change“ by Jouni Keronen and Mari Pantsar is a very timely book that offers a deep dive into the history and the causes of climate change and the available options to combat it at this late hour. The two Finish authors bring their lifelong experiences to bear, both as thinkers and as practitioners. In clear and simple language, they succeed in weaving together a compelling and solid narrative as they unpack and explain the scientific, historical, technological, economic and social aspects of manmade climate change.  

A central element of the book is that humans, who depend on a somewhat stable climate for their survival, health, safety and progress, have in recent decades become a geophysical force. We have overstepped natural boundaries by dumping billions of emissions into the atmosphere. Our wasteful lifestyles poison soil and water and destroy natural habitats, causing climate disasters and destruction of the natural environment.  

The authors pointedly probe the question what kind and what size of climate-related disasters will have to occur before the massive change efforts that are required to avoid the worst outcomes will be mobilized. Solutions for decarbonizing critical economic sectors are available. Environmental threats such as ozone depletion, urban pollution and acid rain have successfully been dealt with in the past. Effective carbon carbon pricing in particular would greatly accelerate the many efforts already under way. 

The authors explain why policy makers and societies have failed so far and lay out the case for immediate systemic and massive actions. As the latest IPCC report has shown, the window of opportunity to avert dangerous warming is closing. We are at a crossroads and our actions today will decide about humanity’s future. There are three possible future scenarios, depending on the actions we take now: 

The worst case is a hot house earth with much human suffering and chaos if we continue to postpone massive actions; a healthy and prosperous future can be achieved if we immediately start to employ systemic solutions such as effective carbon pricing; lastly, carrying forward incremental changes only will lead to a disorderly transition where governments eventually will be forced to take bold actions – the “ ban economy”. 

“At The Crossroads”, which is available free of charge, has great educational value. It is to be hoped that policymakers, business leaders, educators and laypeople will read it and absorb its message, as climate leadership has to be everybody’s concern. 

The book also provokes reflections. Here are my two cents’ worth:  

  1. My own generation, the baby boomers, have failed. We saw the writing on the wall but we did not take sufficient action. We found it convenient to ignore or postpone changes. We have built an enormous liability for our children and it is now our duty to correct our mistakes and to change course at the personal level and through the influence we still have. 
  1. Business and investors have at last started to take climate threats seriously. Decarbonization and circular material flows are becoming strategic guideposts for market success. But it is near-term action rather than long-term goal setting that needs to move center stage now. Decarbonizing the assets that were created in the past is one challenge. Moving ahead, however, we also need to ensure that we no longer build or maintain liabilities for the future, but instead mobilize investments that lead us to a carbon-neutral economy.  
  1. Policymakers need to wake up and understand the costs of inaction. Pretending that we can subsidize our way into the future without changing values and valuations will not work. It is time to be honest and to explain why systemic solutions – especially effective carbon pricing – are needed, to change the framework conditions in favor of decarbonization. Policymakers should not be allowed to hide behind cowardly and cynical arguments, such as that more ambitious actions would disadvantage the poorer segments of society. The opposite is true. The poor will suffer most from climate impacts. It is irresponsible not to protect society and the poor in particular. Moreover, the richest segments of societies have the biggest environmental footprint. If social concerns were truly the reason for postponing climate action, then clearly these concerns could easily be addressed as part of the transformation agenda.  
  1. Humanity as a whole needs to re-establish a healthy relationship with the natural environment. We all have a role to play and we all can make a contribution through our behavior. The choices we make on an individual level – how we travel, what we consume and how we invest – will be critical to change values and valuations. The book drives this message home. 
  1. We need to rediscover international cooperation. The United Nations itself can only do what big powers allow it to do. Paris was a success because of smart French diplomacy, European Union advocacy and, above all, the willingness by China and the United States to cooperate through the United Nations. The European Union has recently made great strides in laying the foundations for tackling the climate challenge through its expansion of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) and the willingness to link it with trade. Winning over other major powers to join a climate club that sets a minimum carbon price and phases out destructive subsidies for fossil fuels is one way to go. But rich countries have depleted most of the available carbon budget and therefore also have a responsibility to support developing countries in this transition. The promise made in Paris to provide climate finance to developing countries needs to be honored and more needs to be done. And maybe, just maybe, one day – hopefully soon – outdated foreign policy and power concepts will give way to planetary stewardship and climate politics based on the simple recognition that humanity has only one planet and that the real enemy is us.