Prince Charles: Act Now on Global Climate Change

As the world edged into financial crisis, there were repeated warnings that we were headed for disaster. In the end, disaster struck. In many ways, the challenge of climate change has a similar feel, and the alarm bells are ringing just as loudly. But while it was possible to bail out the banks and to stimulate economic recovery with trillions of dollars of public finance, it will not be possible to bail out the climate—unless we act now.

Yet even when the basic science of climate change has been accepted by almost all scientists, many others still seem to think that it is unfounded, and that the world has more important questions to address. Reducing poverty, increasing food production, combating terrorism, and sustaining economic recovery are seen as more deserving of our attention. But this is a false choice, for climate change is not an alternative priority to all of these; it is in fact a "risk multiplier," a factor that will undermine our ability to achieve any of these things.

For example, ending poverty so that every person has the opportunity to lead a good life is already a hugely challenging ambition, and rapid climate change will make it more so. Several studies have set out how climatic change will threaten economic development, especially in the most vulnerable and poorest countries. This will, in turn, damage programs to reduce poverty.

Food security is already at risk because of soil erosion and the volatility of oil and gas prices that sustain industrial farming, while demand is rising because of population growth and changing diets. Climate change will exacerbate this squeeze. According to a United Nations Environment Program projection, agricultural productivity could drop by up to 50 percent in many developing countries by 2080—not least because of changed patterns of rainfall.

These environmental stresses are likely to heighten social tensions. If in the future it becomes clear that the world's big polluters knew but did little or nothing about these problems, a whole new generation of resentment might be born.

With this in mind, it seems to me that we need to adopt a new approach. Surely the starting point must be to see the world as it really is, and perhaps to accept that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nature and not the other way around. Nature is, after all, the capital that underpins capitalism. The world's tropical rainforests provide a powerful case in point.

These incredible ecosystems harbor more than half the earth's terrestrial biodiversity, on which, whether we like it or not, human survival depends. They generate rainfall; they are home to many of the world's indigenous peoples; and they help meet the needs of hundreds of millions of other people. They also hold vast quantities of carbon. But they are being cleared and burned at a rate of about 6 million hectares per year. In addition to hastening a mass extinction of species—many of which could hold the answer to the treatment of human diseases as well as the key to new technologies based on mimicking Nature's genius—this is causing massive greenhouse-gas emissions, accounting for about a fifth of the total.

This is precisely why my Rainforests Project has expended so much effort during these last two years to help facilitate a consensus on increasing international cooperation to cut deforestation. Back in April, I was able to host a meeting of world leaders at St. James's Palace in London, in the margins of the G20 summit, where it was agreed to establish a new informal working group to look at how rates of deforestation could be slowed as rapidly as possible. The group came back with recommendations just a few weeks ago, and it is enormously heartening to see the degree of partnership that has developed between countries, environmental groups, and companies that are determined to work together toward implementing the proposals for dealing with the underlying economic root causes of deforestation.

Through providing countries with financial rewards for their positive performance in cutting deforestation (or for not starting it in the first place), we would make it possible for rainforest nations to implement strategies for sustainable development more quickly and without having to rely so heavily on the kind of economic activities that cause deforestation. By using—in addition to public-sector finance—innovative, long-term investment instruments, perhaps facilitated by the multilateral development banks, we could restore vast areas of already degraded land to increase food output. At the same time, money would be available for new health and education programs, as well as genuinely integrated rural-development models. In return, the world would sustain the vital ecosystem services upon which we all rely for our economic, physical, and spiritual survival.

The idea that the world should pay in some way for the essential utility services provided by the rainforests (after all, we already pay for our water, gas, and electricity) is not a new one. But there does, at last, appear to be agreement that this is one way we can quickly begin to reduce emissions and, thus, buy urgently needed time in the battle against catastrophic climate change. Through a constructive process, countries have been able to find a mutually agreeable approach that I hope, in the months ahead, will lead to the kind of international cooperation that could make a decisive difference.

While initiatives like this will need to be a part of the solution, they are not, I believe, the whole answer. In some ways the climate challenge is not first and foremost due to an absence of sound policy ideas or technology, but more a crisis of perception. As we have become progressively more separate from Nature, and more reliant on technological inventiveness to solve our problems, we have become less able to see our predicament for what it really is—namely as being utterly out of balance, having lost any sense of harmony with the earth's natural rhythms, cycles, and finite systems. The fact that we generally regard economics as being separate from Nature is just one, albeit quite fundamental, sign of this imbalance.

Forging a reconnection with Nature and reintegrating our societies and economies with her capacities is, as far as I can see, the real challenge to which we must rise. The Copenhagen summit will, I hope, contribute to a shift at this deeper level, as well as set out the plan for transition to a low-carbon economy based on official targets, policies, and technologies. As things stand, the world is not short of all these—what it does lack, however, is a mindset fit for the situation we face.

While time may not be on our side, our ability to cooperate and innovate to find solutions appears to be with us still. We have in the past faced huge challenges and prevailed. This time the challenge seems greater than ever before, but I hope with all my heart that in Copenhagen we will be able to exploit these very human attributes to the full. It is the very least we can do for future generations.