Triumph, Despair, and Renewed Hope on the Path to System Change
By Kai Chan [~1660 words]
The room erupted in applause. Past 3AM there in Paris, it felt thunderous in my ears. A huge wave of relief flooded over me as I took in the jubilant but exhausted faces of representatives of 132 nations looking up at me from behind their microphones in the United Nations theater. We had done it! After four days of negotiations about the IPBES Global Assessment, starting in the early morning and ending after midnight, we had completed the negotiations.
And we had accomplished something I had scarcely allowed myself to hope for. Something that dozens of other international environmental and climate assessments had not done. These other assessments, including several through the IPCC, had concluded that urgent action was needed, but had suggested that the biodiversity or climate crises separately could be solved through sector-specific changes (rather than change in broader societal systems). To avoid dangerous climate change, they concluded, we must produce low-carbon energy, slow deforestation, and practice sustainable agriculture. Yes, absolutely—but could we really do all that without directly targeting our consumption and broader societal systems?
Our IPBES analysis asked how might humanity achieve sustainable futures—broadly considered—and it offered a starkly different conclusion. For the first time, we assessed all of the available scenarios and models regarding the challenge of not only avoiding dangerous climate change, but also stopping biodiversity loss, feeding humanity, maintaining freshwater for people and nature, and providing the resources needed for a growing human population. How could humanity do it all? And in this expansive analysis—as opposed to the more restricted ones done previously—it was clear that only substantial system-change could achieve all of those objectives. Otherwise solutions to one objective—climate, food, water, energy, biodiversity, etc.—had to come at the expense of others.
The success was not only that we completed that three-year analysis, but that 132 of the world’s nations approved our report and so put their names behind our conclusion: only transformative change could achieve sustainable pathways for humanity. That is, sustainable futures require structural changes that alter how systems operate, what we seek, and even how we understand the problem.
When I stumbled back to my hotel room that night, I was on Cloud Nine.
And that feeling lasted about a month.
It persisted through the flurry of media attention we received, including dozens of interviews I did myself. The world was taking notice! The momentum was tangible. Journalist after journalist inquired, first asking about the million species at risk of extinction. But now the problem demanded a solution: almost every one asked what we could do about it. The solutions were almost never the centre of the articles, and often they were relegated to a paragraph at the end, but every one buoyed me. The truth was prevailing.
My optimism was further fuelled by decisions that were made referencing our Assessment and the need for transformative change. French President Emmanuel Macron launched an international biodiversity charter. The Welsh government scrapped the £1.4bn M4 Motorway Extension. Around the world, activists and broader citizens agitated for the declaration of a climate emergency, including a New Zealand father of five who made international news for camping out in front of Parliament, specifically referencing the “United Nations Biodiversity Report”. Sure, most of the actions were band-aid solutions rather than system-changing ones, and lots of the references to our report were to justify actions already planned, but there were so many of them!
The pinnacle of my optimism came when I was invited to speak to a standing committee of the Canadian House of Commons, just as my US colleagues were invited to a parallel but much more acrimonious hearing at the US Congress. Up to that point, I had been talking to the media, but here was my chance to talk to the earnest Canadians who made laws, to deliver invited guidance to those who could directly implement some of the most important changes needed. I delivered my remarks earnestly and passionately, and braced myself for questions. What of the bold changes we called for would they want to discuss?
None. Turns out I wasn’t there for discussion, or to generate new ideas for real solutions.
The (governing) Liberal lead leaned in, as soon as questions were invited. He was bursting to speak. My heart fluttered with anticipation. What do you think of the Trudeau government’s recent budgetary announcement of over a billion dollars for new conservation? he inquired.
Oh! Of course. There was only one right answer to this question: The new announcement helps fill a crucial gap in the conservation landscape in Canada. I responded (approximately). But it addresses only some of the direct drivers of biodiversity loss in Canada, and our report demonstrates clearly that we must also address the underlying drivers of environmental degradation.
As I answered other questions, my mind busily started putting the pieces together. The (opposition) Conservatives asked questions that appeared to make the governing Liberals look bad, while seeking to parry the insinuation of the Liberals that the former Conservative government under Stephen Harper had ignored these issues for a decade.
The pieces thudded into place, though, when the Liberal lead who asked the first question approached me after. He congratulated me on the report, and told me that he would send me the link to the video of my testimony, so that I might use it for my own purposes. We love having you experts in here, he told me, So we can also use the video clips for our own purposes.
Thunk. My mind’s eye re-played the clip of my answer to the MP’s question: The new announcement helps fill a crucial gap in the conservation landscape in Canada. Cut. No ‘but’.
What I had naively interpreted as a genuine opportunity to contemplate what real legal and policy change might look like was nothing of the sort. It was political theatre, but a theatre of the absurd, with Greta Thunberg’s disembodied face looming above it all, declaring, How dare you! The world burns, and you continue to play your political games.
That one memorable moment encapsulates dozens if not hundreds of similar experiences. There are thousands of good people working within governments all around the world. And the work they are doing is crucial. But, almost without exception, the system resists real change. Rather, it perpetuates itself, until outside forces necessitate the kind of transformation that would never come from within.
“By its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo,” reads the IPBES Global Assessment’s Summary for Policymakers (p.16). And those vested interests include many government officials and agencies who seek simply not to rock the boat.
I’m done with trying not to splash. My forays in the science-policy world have made two things abundantly clear: 1, If we want to achieve the world envisioned in the Rio+20 process and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it’s going to take transformative change, “A fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values” (IPBES 2019 p.16). And 2, those who want transformative change had better be ready to fight for it, because governments and businesses won’t initiate or sustain this on their own.
That might sound like reason for pessimism, but I don’t feel that at all, for three reasons. First, it’s not surprising. We didn’t really imagine that governments were simply going to start implementing a transformative-change agenda based on an international report. I barely let myself hope that they would even acknowledge that system-change was needed.
Second, most governments can’t get too far in front of their own people, engineering massive changes they weren’t elected to implement. This had to be a problem for the people.
Third, we’re ready for change. There has never before been such global concern for a better future for all than there has been over the past few years, with millions marching and protesting the climate and ecological crises.
When my own hope wanes, I transport myself to the climate march of fall 2019. I let the energy of hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens chanting and marching together wash over me. Although COVID may have disbanded such in-person gatherings temporarily, the folks who marched are still yearning for change. The climate and ecological crisis is more compelling than ever, as western North America scorches under an oppressive heat dome, a tornado touches down in Barrie, Ontario, and floods kill over a hundred people in Germany and Belgium. We just need to harness the latent but tremendous energy strategically to effect the changes we now know are needed for that better future. We can bring to bear the best available understanding of how social change happens, turn technology to our advantage, and use this platform to both enable and simultaneously study interventions for system-change.
It’s lonely—and sometimes counterproductive—to push for change in one small part of this global system. Let’s band together these fragmented efforts into one coalition for the whole smorgasbord of changes needed for a fairer, more equitable world in harmony with nature. Let’s lend meaningful support to the correction of systemic inequities, even if our own focus is on preventing extinction or maintaining freshwater through changes in supply chains—and vice versa. We have been divided and (nearly) conquered. On this small planet, solutions can’t be wholly separate, lest each undermine the other. Only by synchronizing and mutually boosting our efforts can we achieve the leverage we need to change global systems.
Those small-planet heroes who will seize the reins when no one else will, they—you—are CoSphere. I’ve done my part to bring awareness of the problem in science-policy circles. Now my work is to enable you.
Led by Kai of the CoSphere team.