Twenty-five years ago this month, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended.
For me, as for most Germans, the wall through my home country was as much a fact of life as sunrise and sunset. The speed of the revolutionary change in eastern Europe caught most of us completely off guard. The governments of East Germany and neighbouring countries seemed to be rock-solid just weeks before they got toppled, one after another.
When I think about the level of denial among heads of state about the coming change in 1989, I can’t help but see a similarity today among some western leaders in the context of climate action. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments about how the oilsands, source of one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet, will make Canada an energy superpower of the 21st century reminds me of remarks by the former head of the East German government, Erich Honecker, who in January 1989 suggested the wall would remain for another 50 or 100 years.
In 1989, there were indicators that many leaders failed to see. Communist countries were at the edge of bankruptcy, hundreds of thousands of people were rallying for democracy in the streets of Leipzig, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika changed the political power dynamics in the Soviet Union.
Today, there are many indicators for mounting pressure to address the climate crisis. We have crossed the threshold of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere for the first time in at least 800,000 years (up from about 275 in preindustrial times). The last time the level of this greenhouse gas was 400 p.p.m., temperatures on our planet were several degrees higher and sea levels many metres higher.
With ice melting, sea levels rising, oceans acidifying, many forests dying and extreme weather events such as storms, floods and droughts becoming more frequent already at 400 p.p.m. and just about one degree C of warming, it has now become increasingly clear that dangerous climate impacts are already underway.
In 2009, renowned climate scientist James Hansen and colleagues published a paper in Nature arguing for 350 p.p.m. as a more realistic long-term threshold for a relatively stable climate without a significant risk of disrupting human civilization as we know it. Shockingly, we managed to increase carbon dioxide from 350 to 400 p.p.m. in the same short time span that has passed since the Berlin Wall collapsed, 25 years ago.
At this point, only far-reaching immediate climate action will allow us to stabilize the climate and it appears that we are finally starting to accept this difficult reality. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York. Opposition against the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines, coal mines and fracking is growing in many parts of the world. And this month, the two biggest carbon polluters on the planet, the U.S. and China, announced a significant climate deal.
The U.S. has agreed to cut its emissions to 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. China has agreed to cap its emissions by no later than 2030 and to increase its use of energy from zero-emission sources to 20 per cent by the same year. The European Union has already endorsed a binding 40 per cent (compared to 1990 levels) greenhouse-gas emissions reduction target by 2030.
Together, the U.S., China and the European Union are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. If other countries follow their example, we have a real shot at a meaningful climate agreement in Paris in 2015, stopping the growth of global emissions in a few years and entering a period of global emissions reductions shortly thereafter.
The latest summary report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that we have little time left to save a liveable climate. It also showed that the renewable energy and energy efficiency alternatives to wean ourselves off carbon pollution are affordable and ready to be deployed. The price for solar and wind energy is now falling faster than the carbon dioxide concentration is rising. Investment is shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, creating more jobs and reducing pollution of soil, water and air.
It looks increasingly possible that we will see economic and political tipping points for real climate action unfold in the coming months, even when some of our leaders have trouble believing it. They are just like Honecker, who didn’t see the collapse of the Berlin Wall coming, almost to the very last minute.
To make it happen, we have to fight for climate action with the same passion that people fought with for democracy 25 years ago.
Jens Wieting is a forest and climate campaigner for Sierra Club B.C.