Changemakers for the future

Cynthia Scharf, Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Cynthia Scharf, Senior Strategy Director of Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G).

‘A question we hear all the time: should human beings be doing this?’

I worked for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on his climate change team for several years. I entered that profession through humanitarian aid, previously working at the UN on emergency relief to places affected by war, but also an increasing number of disasters caused by extreme weather events. I spent years writing dozens of speeches, articles and all kinds of things about climate change for the Secretary-General. But it remained primarily an intellectual exercise for me, until one cold day in February, when I was walking to the train from my house. There was no one out on the streets and it was very quiet. The sky was a steel-grey. All of a sudden, a flock of geese started flying overhead, honking as they passed. I’ll never forget that sound: it was haunting, almost like a lament. I’ll never know why, but I just stopped in my tracks.  I thought: future generations – maybe my future grandchildren – may never hear this sound; these birds, and so many other species, may not be here in a few decades.. My eyes started tearing up. It was then that I finally was struck by the real significance of our work – the work all of us are doing on climate change. Millions of people have already lost the natural world they once knew, along with their livelihoods, their homes, their hopes for the future. These people are not statistics; each person has her/his own story of loss as our climate further unravels – the loss of lives, deep cultural traditions – things I can only imagine sitting here in NY.. That was the first time it really sunk in emotionally – the grieving, the enormity of loss. I’m ashamed to say that, because I’d been working on climate change for years before that, writing about ominous scientific reports  and what the world needed to do. But it wasn’t until I heard that flock of geese that my heart welled up and I began to really appreciate the emotional and spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis. Since then, I’ve never approached these issues the same way.

Solar radiation modification

When we started Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G), we definitely sensed there was considerable anxiety and some reluctance to talk about the issues we were discussing: emerging technologies that can literally – deliberately – alter the climate. I’m primarily talking about technologies that reflect sunlight back into space and could thus lower the global temperature. The colloquial term is “solar geoengineering”; we use the IPCC’s  term, “solar radiation modification.” When you first hear about this idea, you think: we’re going to do what? Put aerosols into the sky to cool the planet? I thought: that’s crazy.. Many others also had that reaction, which is perfectly normal.

Our view at C2G is that while this is a really hard, scary topic, it’s better that we develop effective international guard rails and guidelines around these technologies now, should they ever be fully developed, than to one day in the future find out someone’s already planning to use them. We’re talking about the risk of putting our head in the sand, ignoring the fact that some of the world’s scientists are discussing and researching these techniques. Admittedly it’s a small number and not exactly mainstream climate science at this stage. But each year that global action on climate change remains woefully insufficient, there is greater interest in emerging technologies that would intentionally alter the climate. But who would make the decision to use them, based on what authority and legitimacy, and using what evidence? Are these discussions transparent and inclusive? Are the communities suffering the most from climate change part of these discussions? How would climate equity be addressed? In short, whose hand would control the global thermostat? Some people wonder, if we’re talking about using something like solar radiation modification, does that mean we’re giving up on the Paris Agreement? Absolutely NOT! The essential first priority has to be reducing global emissions to zero, and then to net negative, plus strengthening adaptation. There’s no getting around that. These techniques are not a substitute. At best, some scientists say they might be a supplement to prevent some immediate climate risks while the world transitions to a clean energy economy. But there is no free lunch. Every option we now face entails serious risks. Our current pathway – even with the pledges at Glasgow – will mean overshooting the 1.5C goal. Living in a 2-3C world would be catastrophic any way you look at it. Potentially using solar radiation modification – especially without any effective international governance – could open a Pandora’s box and involve profound risks, both known and unknown, on many levels – environmental, geopolitical and ethical. There is no risk-free option.

“Playing God”

We’ve had informal discussions with dozens of governments, including some of the most climate-vulnerable countries. They want to learn more about these techniques,  understand their potential risks and benefits with respect to the SDGs. We also talk to CSOs, including faith-based organizations and others who influence global policymakers who might look at these issues from a climate justice perspective, for example, our conversations with a multi-faith organisation, GreenFaith, led to the creation of a report called “Playing God,” about what various faith traditions might think about geoengineering. It wrestles with a question we hear all the time: should human beings even be doing this – deliberately trying to change the climate? Sometimes people say: wow, isn’t that ‘playing God’? Humanity is already changing the climate, of course, but this is a consequence of our fossil-fuelled economy, not the aim or primary intention. GreenFaith’s report looked at the perspectives of 12 different faith traditions and how they might view the issue of solar radiation modification. Ethics, values, religious teachings and beliefs are central to this discussion. I think C2G served as a  catalyst for a really important conversation.

We’ve also started working with young climate activists.. Some people say that we owe it to future generations to develop and research these technologies because they might help reduce climate risks. Others say: absolutely not. We cannot burden future generations with the risks – known and unknown – and responsibilities entailed in these technologies. C2G is strictly impartial– this is key for our work.. We’re not saying these techniques should be used – and we’re also not saying they should be banned. What we’re saying is: you need to learn more, have an inclusive conversation and make up your own mind. Young people, they’re deeply interested because they know that the future looks pretty bleak from the climate perspective. This is about their future.

Hopes for the future

If I had 10 minutes to speak at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, I’d have said: everyone, close your eyes. Think of a natural place that is close to your heart. It could be a pond or a stream that you fished in as a child, an ocean, a forest. Stay with that feeling for 30 seconds, and then imagine if it were gone, lost forever because of the climate emergency we’re facing right now. Then open your eyes and tell the person next to you what you are going to do – right here in this hall, at this conference – to try to prevent that. If we don’t start from this place in our hearts, we are never going to come anywhere close to meeting the climate challenge.

I’d also have said, adhering to the 1.5C goal requires a vastly greater effort, especially by the developed countries, to reduce and remove emissions. However, we also need a sober, candid conversation about how the world will manage the risks if we overshoot this goal, as we are still on track to do, despite new pledges made at this COP. Talking about the latter does not excuse delays on the former. New approaches to the climate emergency are being developed, and they lack effective, comprehensive governance. These approaches would entail risks, as does overshooting the 1.5 goal. This is a difficult conversation, but it is safer and wiser for all countries to start this governance discussion now than to be totally unprepared should we confront a new type of crisis in how the world responds to climate change.

People always ask me: do you have hope? Hope is something that I take seriously. My husband and I named our daughter Hope to honor his family who were refugees from war-torn Europe and managed to build a new life in the U.S. But for me, when talking about climate change, the real question is not about hope, but about courage. My generation has thus far failed to find the courage to do what scientists have been telling us we need to do for the last 30 years: drastically reduce emissions and transform the global economy to be environmentally sustainable.  

Some scientists are now exploring new techniques to deliberately change the climate, because scientists say we are in a situation where time is running out to transform our societies in a safer, sustainable direction. We need the courage to undertake this transformation starting today. The world’s wealthiest countries must take the lead, and stop delaying radical action, and heed the call for climate equity. We need the courage to have a very sober, honest, globally inclusive conversation about how we are going to limit risks from this planetary emergency, and how we are going to make decisions on emerging, climate-altering techniques that, if used, would affect every country on Earth, though not necessarily equally. The stakes could not be higher.

Cynthia Scharf is Senior Strategy Director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G). The views expressed here are solely her own, and not necessarily those of C2G.

Ms. Scharf previously served as the head of strategic communications and speechwriter on climate change for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from 2009-2016. 

Prior to her work on climate change, Ms. Scharf worked in the field of humanitarian relief, both at the U.N. and with several international non-governmental organizations, including in the Balkans, Africa and Russia.

C2G catalyses discussions with policymakers worldwide about how to govern emerging technologies to alter the climate. The IKEA Foundation is funding C2G to help policymakers make responsible and ethical choices on how to mitigate and adapt to climate change, because we are committed to fighting for a liveable planet that can sustain the many people who depend on it.