by Lowell Bliss
I accepted it as a given when the Kansas Leadership Center listed as one of its five underlying principles about leadership: Your purpose must be clear. “People have to care,” they say. “You have to care enough to do something different. Without a clear sense of purpose, nothing is going to change" (KLC Handbook, 9). Shortly thereafter, when I encountered Simon Sinek’s TedTalk, I immediately understood what he meant when he said that such people or organizations like Apple, Martin Luther King or the Wright Brothers all “start with Why.” Sinek said, “By ‘why,’ I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? . . . The inspired leaders and the inspired organizations—regardless of their size, regardless of their industry—all think, act and communicate from the inside out.”
That’s one of the reasons why I have found our climate targets to be so problematic. When I have stood before an audience with a copy of The Paris Climate Agreement in my hand, and declared “Our purpose is “to prevent an average global temperature warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels,” I feel even my own consciousness scrunching up to say, “Huh?” UN Secretary-General António Guterres took a giant leap forward in clarifying our climate purpose when in September of 2019 he wrote every single head-of-state and challenged them to pursue “Climate Neutrality by 2050.” Wow, just four words. That’s even shorter than John F. Kennedy’s challenge before Congress in 1961: the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Nonetheless, anyone in Kennedy’s audience could go outside and look at the moon. They might know of its distance there and back (477,710 miles.) The nature of the challenge is crystal clear. In September of 1961, at a packed football stadium at Rice University, Kennedy was additionally able to drill down into the inspirational “Why?”:
“Carbon Neutrality by 2050” might be a clearer purpose than temperature preventions, but that doesn’t make it clear. Do you know for certain what “climate neutrality” means? And why is the year 2050 significant? And, equally important, what in the statement, as a rallying cry, should make you care? I appreciate Secretary-General Guterres’s challenge, and I do adopt it as my own, but I also recognize that it may take more than just its four words to make our purpose clear. And so, I undertook an exercise:
Our Climate Purpose Must Be Clear:
“Carbon Neutrality by 2050”
But what does that mean?
Before I took up this explanatory challenge, I gave myself another one. I borrowed from a popular urban legend from the 1980s that goes like this: the CEO of Sony one day walked into a meeting of his engineers. He pulled out a small block of wood and placed it dramatically on the table among them. “Design for me,” he told them, “a tape player of superior sound quality that is no larger than this block of wood.” The result was the first Sony Walkman. For me, I was determined to fit everything I wanted to say on a single half sheet of paper, the size of what we used to use for church bulletin inserts. If you read it out loud, it clocks in at a two-and-a-half minute “elevator speech,” which should be okay so long as you and your listener are both travelling up to the top floor. After choosing a suitably evocative photo, here’s what I came up with for my half-pager:
Simply, that the nations of the world would live
in balance with how God has created
our common home.
When God created his oceans, vegetation, and rocks, he gave them capacity to absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at an astounding rate of 9.5-11Gt of CO2 per year. That’s drawing out of the sky the equivalent weight of one billion African elephants every year. We call these carbon sinks.
We want to live in balance with how God created the world. We want to honor what our Creator God had in mind when he designed natural processes like his carbon sinks. What carbon neutrality simply means is that the total amount of CO2 that our human activities (like the burning of fossil fuels) puts up into the atmosphere would not exceed at least 9.5Gt in any given year, the amount that God designed his carbon sinks to handle. “Net zero” is another term for carbon neutrality:
9.5Gt emitted (minus) 9.5Gt sunk = 0
neutrality, balance, honoring God’s mechanisms
In 2019, the nations of the world emitted, not 9.5Gt of CO2, but rather 36.81Gt. It was another “carbon positive” year and that meant a further thickening of our atmosphere with these gas molecules which re-radiate heat back to Earth instead of letting it escape into space. We were once again out of balance, and the accumulated effect of extra heat energy resulted in many devastating disasters in 2019, such as bush fires, floods, and droughts.
But what’s so special about the year 2050? If we can decrease CO2 emissions by 7.6 percent each year until a carbon neutral year of 2050, then the atmosphere will not be as thick with greenhouse gases as it could be. It will still be different than what our lifetimes, indeed our civilization, has ever known, and indeed many good people will suffer, but at least not as badly as what we would if average global temperatures were to rise over “1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.”
So you see, “carbon neutrality by 2050” is the same thing as talking about the old 1.5ºC target, but in a way that is easier to understand and more directly under our control (“7.6% decrease a year, folks!”). Plus, with a bit more reflection, “carbon neutrality by 2050” ties us to some of our greatest values: we want to honor God by living in balance with how he created our common home.