If the world’s most reputable astronomers at our most prestigious scientific institutions announced tomorrow that an enormous meteor was on a collision course with Planet Earth and that the impact would kill tens of millions of people, cause the mass extinction of at least one-fourth of the species on the planet and dislodge enough debris into the atmosphere to alter the climate for centuries to come, it would trigger an overwhelming public outcry for immediate action. Nations would join forces to destroy the comet before it reached Earth, and urgent steps would be taken to prepare communities, in the unthinkable event that these efforts failed.
Ironically, this is precisely the threat we face today from climate change. Our best scientists have confirmed that we are changing the climate, that rising global temperatures, which are already causing enormous damage, will in a matter of decades devastate life as we know it—storms, drought, floods, famine, tens of millions of deaths, an explosion in the number of “climate refugees” and the obliteration of 25% of the planet’s animal and plant species.
The public is increasingly aware of the problem but a recent global public opinion poll by the Pew Research Center found that only about half of those surveyed believe climate change is a major threat. Governments are clearly not reducing greenhouse gases fast enough to prevent the disaster nor are they committing adequate funding to help those most vulnerable, particularly poor and marginalized communities in developing countries, to adapt.
Global civil society has generally failed to ramp up pressure on governments for climate change action. This is not to say that civil society organisations are unengaged. I don’t know of a single chief executive of a large development, humanitarian, rights-based, or environmental ICSOs that would reject the notion that climate change is a critical issue that requires urgent responses. And, indeed, virtually all of the organisations they lead are actively involved in climate change work of one kind or another. Nevertheless, with some notable exceptions, the ICSOs have failed to develop responses to climate change that are commensurate with the scale of the threat it poses to society, to the poor, and ultimately to the achievement of the ICSOs’ own organizational objectives and missions.
There are a number of reasons for this failure. First, I think many in the community have assumed incorrectly that climate change is just one of a number of global challenges, rather than an overarching, existential challenge that will overwhelm their efforts to address the other challenges they care deeply about (e.g. increasing inequality, suppression of human rights, gender inequality, etc.). I think this partly reflects the fact that the the huge scale of the problem makes it seem almost an abstraction, less tangible than the traditional challenges ICSOs confront.
Or some may appreciate the overarching importance of climate change, but underestimate how urgently we need to respond to it, with the assumption that we can wait until the impacts become more serious. But there are no credible options to reverse global warming, we won’t experience the full impact of the existing greenhouse gas emissions until many decades after their release into the atmosphere, and we are very rapidly approaching the point where we will be locked-in to devastating warming from previous emissions.
In the light of the urgency and magnitude of the threat, ICSOs must find ways to dramatically scale-up their investment of time, attention and resources to address climate change. Many ICSOs have already taken the important first step of analyzing the impact global warming will have on their organizational mission. Those that haven’t should do so as a matter of priority. Any thorough analysis will almost certainly highlight that even organizational missions that seem relatively removed from the global warming threat will be deeply affected by it.
ICSOs should also establish a dedicated group/centre/hub of well-qualified staff to further elaborate global warming’s impact on the work of the organisation, provide technical support to teams involved in projects and programmes, educate, collect and develop tools to support programmatic work and develop policy positions in support of climate change advocacy.
ICSOs that implement projects and programmes should also consider ways to mainstream climate change within their programmes. This need not require significant additional funding and it should not be a “one size fits all” approach, as clearly the impact of climate change will vary depending upon the regional and country contexts in which an ICSO operates.
Finally, ICSOs should greatly scale-up their public advocacy on the climate change threat. They should do this individually, focusing on the threat climate change poses to their particular organizational mission, as well as collectively by supporting wider public campaigns to mitigate climate change, such as advocacy linked to the UN-sponsored climate change negotiations, fossil fuel divestment campaigns and support for the transition away from a fossil fuels-based economy, as well as funding to help poor and marginalized communities adapt to the changing climate.
ICSOs have global-reach, expertise and enormous credibility. It is time for them to play a leading role in moving the world towards decisive climate action.