By Paula Caballero
The reality of daily life is that we try to fix the problems that are staring us in the face. In many ways, the desire for short-term results defines the rhythm of both public and private life. So the idea that decisions today will define where we end up in a couple of decades is difficult to grasp, and may even appear outlandish.
Yet the unprecedented, deadly tropical cyclones in the Caribbean last week foreshadow a perilous tomorrow if we don’t tackle climate change now. We are at an historic crossroads that requires us to factor in the future. Because in a very real sense, 2050 is now.
Our decisions today will define where we end up tomorrow. The idea that unabated, incremental growth is the formula to eradicate poverty will leave us all ultimately poorer and make the pockets of desperate poverty more entrenched. Business as usual will lead to a world that is depleted, more unforgiving, more unequal.
What we do now will determine whether we are able to keep global temperature to 1.5 degrees C or well below 2 degrees C (2.7 degrees or 3.6 degrees F) above preindustrial levels; that’s the point beyond which the most severe consequences of climate change kick in. Short-sighted investments could lock in 20th century ways of doing business and policy that will make achieving this target more expensive and technologically challenging.
In addition to taking paths that emit less greenhouse gases, a 2050 is now mindset is also about protecting the natural resources and systems that will enable the people in tomorrow’s communities – especially rural ones – to make a decent living. Ill-advised decisions on how we use land and manage water could undermine food, water and energy security in the decades to come. Within the next two decades, the world will spend $90 trillion on infrastructure, transforming cities, energy systems and landscapes. We get to decide now whether we spend that $90 trillion on damaging, backward-looking more-of-the-same or shift our energy, transport agriculture and consumption to radically new pathways that can be sustained. This is the only way we can ensure that our midcentury world gives all people a shot at a dignified life while safeguarding the planet’s natural wealth.
We need to reframe how we understand development and its challenges. The global community has rightly prioritized the eradication of poverty. But unless we make the right decisions today, we may lock out development opportunities and end up perpetuating poverty, or making it worse. By 2050, 2.5 billion people are expected to move to the world’s cities. The growing global middle class will strain natural resources. Entrenched poverty will be increasingly concentrated in areas already experiencing conflict, fragility and resource degradation. Just eight years from now in 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions that lack sufficient water. Recognizing that 2050 is now means taking responsibility for avoiding conditions that will yield tomorrow’s poverty and exacerbate inequality within nations and across regions.
The drumbeat of 2050 is now must shape our thinking. We need to learn to frame our problems and solutions in terms of how they will define our world over the coming decades, not whether there will be results for a couple of years. Every cost-benefit analysis should consider long-term consequences.
Change is within reach. The investments, policies and actions we take today can ensure that the natural and built environments will provide decent lives for the world’s people – especially the poorest and most marginalized – between now and 2050, while protecting the planet’s awesome biodiversity.
Sustained, sustainable and inclusive development is only possible if we tackle climate change by making today’s decisions looking to 2050, looking to create the conditions that will safeguard and increase natural and human capital. That is how to get the growth we need.
Paula Caballero is Global Director, Climate Program of the World Resources Institute.