“It is important to understand that humans have never lived here on Earth at above 300 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere.” On May 18 this is how Paul Hawken began his talk at Marlborough House.
On one side of the 12–meter cherry mahogany bubinga table sat the Secretary General, Her Excellency The Right Honourable The Baroness Patricia Scotland of Asthal, QC PC, the 6th Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations. To her left were Mary Robinson, the seventh, and first female, President of Ireland (1990–97) and the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997- 2002); Anote Tong, President of Kiribati, a country of some hundred thousand citizens, which is disappearing under the sea; His Excellency High Commissioner Jitoko Tikolevu of Fiji, 2017 next chair of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP-23); Johns Kharika of UNCDD, and their Excellencies, the representatives of the 52 member nations of the Commonwealth.
To her right sat our team of advisors from Cloudburst Foundation, Drawdown Project, Regenesis, eCO2, Buckminster Fuller Institute, Project NOAH, and Global Ecovillage Network, along with invited guests Marcello Palazzi of B Lab Europe, Permaculture Magazine editor Maddy Harland, coral reef scientist Tom Goreau, Gregory Stone of Conservation International, scientists from Greenwich and Southhampton universities, and actor Colin Salmon, among others.
Between the departure of Mary Robinson and the arrival of HRH the Prince of Wales, the Baroness asked us to take the chair to her left, giving us a strange feeling, not unlike being asked to sit between Kirk and Sulu on the Command Deck of USS Enterprise as a Romulan Warbird uncloaks on the viewer.
Hawken methodically wove his spell. He showed an IPCC chart of atmospheric carbon going back 400,000 years and the associated warming and cooling. “It is important to understand that humans have never lived here on Earth at above 300 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere,” he urged.
His voice is soft and high pitched, but he speaks from experience, and he reaches his audience at a deeper level than words express.
He runs through an introduction to his research team and the scope of their work over the past few years. The task of Project Drawdown was not to create new data but to look at the hundred most promising solutions to climate change and rank them, based on cost, readiness, impact and scalability. The results were just published April 18 by Penguin as Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. It is already a New York Times bestseller and at this writing is sold out on Amazon-UK.
He explains that there was no “one size fits all” solution. Small island states would have different needs and opportunities than large countries like Australia, India and Canada. The ability to reforest, grow marine kelp farms, or to produce rice and other crops more ecologically would be different from place to place.
One problem is how the subject has been framed, he says. We speak of this as a gargantuan challenge, an existential threat, something that must be combatted as an unprecedented evil. It may be all those things, but looking at it that way evokes a response that may not be what is needed. People hide.
“Instead, let us think of this as an opportunity.” He went into what has been called “marine permaculture,” the seeding of kelp forests. “We are talking about trophic cascades, with phytoplanckton, zooplankton, algae, kelp products, up into the higher orders of fish that regenerate in weeks to months, providing protein, reversing eutrophication. The oceans are a tremendous source of regeneration.”
He moves along to slides of renewable energy, building materials and cattle management practices that cut methane. “This is what solutions look like. Some are very large. Some are very small. They are all important.”
“Some things surprised us,” he said. Food waste has a tremendous impact. The food sector, from how it is produced to how it is consumed matters more than energy, or buildings, or any other sector. He describes how he, as a much younger man, spent time in a Japanese Buddhist monastery. He was given one small bowl of rice per day. He soon learned to not waste a single grain.
Much of global warming can be traced directly to family planning. “When a girl is allowed to become a woman on her terms she has an average of 2 children, which is very different than what has been happening. Educating girls, combined with family planning, may be the number one solution to global warming.”
“I don’t know about you, but all I hear is solar this, solar that and literally, no one had done the math.”
Is it possible to reverse global warming? Yes. Hawken continued, “The returns from the solutions are far greater than the costs of the problems. Our focus on the problem has not allowed us to see this. People have focused on the problem, and the solutions seem to make no economic sense when you monetize them, they only add to the problem. When we look at the data, the opposite is true. The net savings from the solutions are in the trillions. There is money to be made there.”
“What are the costs? We are seeing social unrest, we are seeing poverty, income inequality and the effect that has on social cohesion.”
What changes do these proposed solutions bring? “Increasing food supply, increasing knowledge, increasing education, increasing equality, increasing health outcomes, increasing productivity.”
“The goal is very doable. But I want to emphasize that the Commonwealth has a key role. The UN is very limited in what it can do because of how it is structured.”
The Commonwealth’s 2012 charter was the model for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “Right down to the choice of colours,” the Secretary General reminds us. Before that the UN had a lame set of Millennium Goals based upon a premise of endless, unsustainable growth on a finite world. Not much different than Donald Trump’s budget numbers. The pivot the Commonwealth will be bringing to COP-23 in November is Regenerative Design. That is why the right side of the room is seated here.
In David McConville’s presentation is an exponential curve. Call it what you will — human population; greenhouse gases; ocean plastic; wealth inequality. It is unsustainable. Then he shows the reverse — a logarithmic curve. The Fibonacci sequence — a snail shell, a nautilus, seeds in a sunflower, fruitlets of a pineapple, flowering of artichoke, an uncurling fern, a pine cone, and the family tree of honeybees. It is recursive, fractal, the K-sere stage in ecosystems.
After short presentations from Anote Tong, Jitoko Tikolevu, Mary Robinson, Mohamed Amersi, Janine Benyus, Ben Haggard, John Elkington and Paul Polman (CEO of Unilever) and a brief intervention from the Prince of Wales, there is time to go around the table. It is clear that many of those whose jobs involve attending official functions and trolling for development grants and who have little interest in, or even cynicism towards, climate change are deeply moved. His Excellency the High Commissioner from Tonga, Sione Sonanta Tupou, provides such an example. The Secretary General later confided that in all his years at this table Mr. Tupou had never spoken. Today he rose to say these words, with tears in his eyes: “I came here with an empty cup. I leave with it overflowing.”
Others came up to the Secretary General. The small island nations were always skeptical because they felt betrayed by the UN process. Now they felt hope. One of the High Commissioners told her, “Forgive me for being such an idiot. We are behind you 100 percent.” She said many present had experienced a “Road to Damascus” moment.
Behind us, across St. James Park, the closest building at our back is 10 Downing Street. We can hear the clip clop of the Royal Horse Guards and the whistle as they wheel into their stables. This room is part of the town house constructed by Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough in 1711. The architect was Sir Christopher Wren.
Descendants of the Marlboroughs occupied the house until 1817 when it returned to the Crown, where has been the London residence of five Dukes and Duchesses, three dowager Queens, three Princes of Wales, the future Kings Edward VII, George V, and Edward VIII, and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who was crowned King of the Belgians in the adjoining foyer in 1831. The same foyer, the Blenheim Saloon, served the wedding banquet for the marriage of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.
All of this means very little if the Atlantic reclaims London or Earth’s atmosphere becomes unbreathable. The guardians of the old order seem to have gotten that. If knowledge is power, then the reverse is also true. Those at the center of concentrated power are cursed with knowledge they would rather not have.
In 1959 Queen Elizabeth placed Marlborough House at the disposal of the Commonwealth. With the advent of Brexit and Trump, its strategic importance has emerged. Today’s Commonwealth is a third of the world’s population, 20 percent of Earth’s landmass, 40 percent of its forests and 17 percent of global purchasing power parity, about $10 trillion. These nations share a common language, similar legal and administrative structures (including somewhat astonishing and far-reaching improvements to the civil and criminal codes crafted by the Secretary General that are still below the radar), and fundamental values such as commitment to democracy and good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law, equal rights, and faith in economic and social development.
Given this background, one has to ask, in what way, exactly, is the Commonwealth any better positioned than the UN to do something about climate change?
Staring around at the trappings of empire — Louis Laguerre’s murals of the Battle of Blenheim (1704), Queen-Empress Alexandra’s gilded oak overmantles, the plaster busts of George V and Queen Mary, the tables that served Edward’s Derby Day dinners for members of the Jockey Club — the incongruity overwhelms our senses. And yet, there she is, at our right elbow, the dark-skinned 12th child of a Dominican mother and Antiguan father, the indefatigable Patricia Scotland, rollerblading through the halls of power.
We can do this, she says. We must. Over a late supper in the basement of a restaurant past closing hours she says, “My mum told me every person is given a gift from God. Each gift is different. You need to find it and hone it and that is how you will have a good life.”
If the climate crisis can be seen as a gift from God, maybe there is something, and some people now, that we can start to work with, to tease out the best thing to do for this fragile, rapidly changing world.