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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


December 2007

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Editorial - Turning the Corner

At the end of this month, I conclude 15 years of serving as an Environment executive editor and move into the ranks of active contributing editors. So I puzzled over the topic of this final editorial for some weeks, until the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee resolved it for me. I received many eloquent notes from the authors, review editors, and coordinators of the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.1 They expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate, appreciation for leadership and fellowship, and the importance of the award.

Both the IPCC and Al Gore are remarkable social innovations. Al Gore is the most successful connector of environmental science to public understanding since Rachel Carson, who also told an “inconvenient truth” about the poorly recognized danger of pesticides. Much less well known, the IPCC has advanced science and policy by expanding the international capacity for climate science and bringing science authors and government representatives together. Created almost 20 years ago by the United Nations to provide balanced, objective policy advice on climate change, it has just completed its Fourth Assessment Report through the independent volunteer efforts of approximately 2,000 scientist-authors and reviewers (.025 percent Nobel laureates?) from 100 countries—engaged in an open, intensely peer-reviewed process of synthesizing current scientific knowledge.

In 2005, Anthony Leiserowitz, Thomas Parris, and I wrote of the process of accelerating collective action, of the long period of slow diffusion of ideas and intermittent action and then the seemingly sudden acceleration of such action captured in phrases such as “turning the corner” or “tipping points.” These accelerations, we wrote, “often derive from at least four conditions: public values and attitudes, vivid imagery (focusing events), ready institutions and organizations, and available solutions.”2 In the 18 months since the release of An Inconvenient Truth and the first reports of the Fourth Assessment, major changes are becoming evident in these four conditions.

As far as public attitudes are concerned, a U.S. study led by Anthony Leiserowitz found that 62 percent of Americans now believe that global warming is an urgent threat requiring immediate and drastic action and that 48 percent now believe that global warming is already or soon will be dangerous.3 This was a 20 percentage-point increase since the question was last asked in 2004.

There has been an enormous increase in vivid imagery to capture the public’s attention. These include intense summer heat, drought, and wildfires; heavy rainfall, floods, category 5 hurricanes; and, dramatically, accelerated glacier-melting, loss of Arctic ice, and endangered polar bears. What distinguishes these events, many of which occurred in previous years, is that they are now being linked to global warming after appearing in An Inconvenient Truth. And just as Rachel Carson caught the world’s attention with her stark portrayal of the dangers of pesticides encapsulated in a metaphorical Silent Spring, who can forget Gore’s clip of Florida disappearing into the Atlantic?

In the United States, a popular movement is emerging for whom global warming is a central issue. It ranges from Gore’s top-down media-oriented Alliance for Climate Protection, to Bill McKibben’s grassroots Web-based movement that organized 1,400 local demonstrations in all 50 states last April (no fuel-burning buses to Washington). There is also an emerging three-point platform for the United States: emissions cuts of 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, a moratorium on new coal-fired plants, and extensive job creation in new energy-efficient and renewable industry.

All these organizations offer solutions. But as we turn the corner on accelerated action, we, the United States and the world, have not even begun the initial Kyoto-mandated decline in greenhouse gas emissions—which remains a truly grand challenge of sustainable development.

—Robert W. Kates

1. Disclosure: Kates served as a review editor of the Fourth Assessment Report and has participated in each of the assessments to date, as have other Environment editors.
2. R. W. Kates, A. A. Leiserowitz, and T. M. Parris, “Accelerating Sustainable Development” Environment, 47 no. 5, (June 2005), editorial.
3. A. A. Leiserowitz, American Opinion on Global Warming: Summary,

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