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How time is the ultimate climate solution

Remember, all marathons are timed. Will you get in the race?



Pumpkin spice everything, leaves turning color, and a fraught run-up to COP26 are all signs of fall and the soon-to-be end of another year riddled by a global pandemic. Many of us yearn for travel and respite from the new normal of staycations amidst the confluence of daily disasters we face — dangerous air quality from raging wildfires, severe storms such as Henri and Ida, and the ever-present threat of COVID-19’s latest variant.

Many of my colleagues had their "moment of climate clarity" when they realized the severity of the climate crisis during their vacations. When we are “on break,” we can contemplate our existence in the context of our changing climate because of our disposable income but more so, our disposable time to be outdoors, escape our daily realities and be present.

The bookends of a trip gently force us to use our time wisely. We optimize travel routes, judiciously research recommendations and prioritize activities as the possibility of not being able to return to a destination quietly reminds us of our mortality.

Well, if we’re vacationing on earth, our time as visitors has run out.

It’s already run out for climate refugees — as many as 216 million projected by 2050 — who have been displaced by rising tides and social tipping points.

It’s already run out for our youth who are increasingly climate nihilists due to our inaction as leaders in the corporations and governments that have politicked around the crisis for decades.

It’s already run out for the essential workers, on whom we displaced our grocery runs and supply chain pressures as we shifted to remote work.

What we can and must do is to make everything timebound.

Whether it’s dangerous air quality as a result of wildfires, or extreme heat threatening the livelihood of 32 million essential outdoor workers, BIPOC communities often already at higher risk to respiratory illness from decades of redlining and environmental injustice use their bodies and labor to shield us from the compounding harms of global warming, the pandemic and institutionalized racism.

As with every realization of privilege, the point is not to create crippling guilt. By all means, take a vacation safely. Everyone needs to rest, recuperate and reflect to show up better for each other at work, in our organizations and our communities.

However, remember that urgency you feel when you’re on holiday. We need that bias for action to do everything we possibly can in the fight against climate change before the clock runs out.

Rather than add to the doomsday headlines that feed into the alarmism of our time, I’d like to offer a solution. One that is simple, but hard.

What we can and must do is to make everything timebound. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that a hotter future is certain, but the level of irreparable damage is still within our control if we act now and with a critical understanding of how much time we have. From assessing over 14,000 studies and with 195 governments’ endorsement, the scientific conclusion is clear: We have nine years and a couple months left to ensure we limit our degree of warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. (A half-degree difference may seem insignificant, but has huge repercussions, including tens of millions more being exposed to life-threatening climate-related disasters.)

Here’s how we leverage time as a climate solution with key stakeholder groups:

For governments

We must demand that every single government pledge — whether to generate 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 or increase non-fossil fuels as part of their energy portfolio by 2030 — includes quarterly goals. While the Paris Climate Agreement helped countries commit to national emissions reductions in 2015, these targets were supposed to start out as a floor, and then be upgraded. However, many targets have been missed, incompletely reported or otherwise not achieved.

The upcoming COP26 summit is poised to accelerate action towards these targets, but we should not have to wait six years to reassess our goals and, worse, realize we’ve missed them. Every day counts and nearer-term objectives will enable much-needed accountability.

For institutions

Harvard University has finally divested from fossil fuel investments — the country’s largest academic endowment, clocking in at $41.9 billion. This decision is a result of the tireless work of the student body, Harvard Forward, and off-campus climate activists for nearly a decade. During Climate Week, Boston University and the $8.2 billion MacArthur Foundation followed Harvard’s lead in announcing plans to divest. However, these announcements come at a time when renewables have hit cost parity compared to the cheapest coal plants.

Imagine if Harvard had made this decision in 2013, when it pledged never to divest. How many more institutions would have followed, spurring cleantech innovation, a faster transition to renewables and earlier mainstream adoption of ESG investing? Institutions need to set progressive deadlines for immediate action, rather than wait for a break-even moment.

For corporations

In 2019, the Business Roundtable refreshed its statement of purpose for a corporation to serve all stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders. This update underwhelmingly resulted in business as usual given that there were no time-bound goals. While the shift "promotes long-termism" — which means the planet, ecosystem benefits and stakeholder outcomes are prioritized over profit alone — the overall movement lacks any temporal definition.

In similar fashion, many net-zero pledges operate on 2030 timeframes that allow for vague commitments in the crucial interim for corporations to step up. Without science-based criteria that include timeframes for goal-setting, phases and reporting, corporate pledges err on the side of greenwashing over any meaningful climate action. As advocacy groups such as ClimateVoice demand, the time is now for corporations to go "all in" on climate policy and business practices.

For cities

Many municipalities have fallen short of their Climate Action Plan (CAP) goals. The culprits? A mix of bureaucratic inertia, analysis rather than action and time spans that bred momentum loss, often against a backdrop of continued population growth. Many of these well-meaning CAPs disintegrated into the foray of political campaigns and shiny piecemeal programs not predicated on science-based targets with distinct timeframes. However, increased community engagement around climate action, the technological advancements for green mobility and smart cities, and the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill make cities well poised to be effective and urgent actors in our climate progress.

With Indigenous communities

The centuries of intergenerational knowledge passed down from Indigenous and First Nation elders are time capsules of environmental stewardship that must be included in our climate strategies. We need to respect their parallel scientific method embedded in the thousands of years of observation and field experimentation that preserves biodiversity and holds ecosystems in their delicate balance.

In Canada, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais tribes, like many other Central Coast nations that developed harvesting techniques founded in respect for and reciprocity with the ocean, were forced out of decision-making bodies regulating fishing management. In fact, the Canadian government banned the use of their sustainable harvesting methods, resulting in the deterioration of their marine ecosystem and a regional livelihood. In recognition of this exclusion and erasure of Indigenous knowledge, the scientific community has more recently been piloting research methodology that translates qualitative stories into quantitative data to bolster environmental management strategies, from the Amazon to the Americas.

With you

Climate change is overwhelming to the point that climate grief and anxiety are a mental health concern of growing discussion — of course, depending on your level of privilege. One sure-fire way to deal with these struggles is to channel your anxiety into action. Your individual choices do matter and will create a ripple impact, and there are effective frameworks to help you map out your unique contribution to the solution.

Whatever you can achieve individually, commit to it with a deadline. Importantly, this rigor around time should be managed to avoid burnout. Part of knowing how much time everything takes means also accounting time for self-care, rest and balance for the marathon we are running.

Remember, all marathons are timed. Will you get in the race?

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