Part 1 — Necessity: The need for a #GreatTransition


This story is part of a climate policy discussion paper titled “The next 30 years: The #GreatTransition to #NetZero<2050”. Overall, the paper consists of three parts (this story is Part 1 — Necessity):

Part 1 — Necessity: The need for a #GreatTransition. This part explains why we must change and argues that it is our ethical duty, especially towards 21st century-born generations.

Part 2 — Opportunity: A stroke of fate in the middle of a perfect storm. This part describes how we can change and shows how a #GreatTransition would be technically and economically feasible.

Part 3 — Possibility: Making the #GreatTransition happen. This part anticipates when we will change and clarifies that we must be willing to fight for it and win the ideological struggle that is currently ongoing.

Introduction: The end of an era

Since the World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1990, when the first IPCC assessment report was published, the annual volume of global greenhouse gas emissions has consistently increased, contrary to the repeated warnings from climate scientists and the environmental movement[1]. About 30 years later, it is apparent that a unique opportunity for a smooth transition to a carbon neutral global economy has been irredeemably squandered[2]. The human civilization is thus finding itself in a prolonged state of an existential climate emergency, which is characterized by a dual challenge:

a) While major polluting countries are faced with the task of rapidly and deeply decarbonizing their maturing economies,

b) emerging economies are making up leeway with an economic growth that is largely based on a legacy of fossil-fuel energy infrastructure.

Unless these challenges can be successfully addressed over the next few decades, the current carbon emissions pathway continues to be headed towards a devastating global mean temperature increase of ~4 degrees C above preindustrial levels by 2100 (see figure 2, based on SSP3 “Regional Rivalry — A Rocky Road”[3] as the socioeconomic pathway that currently appears most probable). At the current business-as-usual trajectory, about a million plant and animal species are threatened by extinction[4]. By the end of the century, most of the tropics and subtropics are going to become too hot for human habitation, with changing temperature and rainfall patterns severely impairing the productivity of large agricultural zones.[5] By 2050, more than a billion people could face severe water shortages[6]. Taking the existence of cascading feedback loops[7] into account, the actual temperature increase seen in SSP3 is likely to be even faster and higher than anticipated, precluding the continuity of human civilization as we know it. This dire outlook for the current business-as-usual pathway, which Hans Joachim Schellnhuber describes as an act of “collective suicide”[8], needs to be kept in mind in order to fully “appreciate” the cynicism of the claim made by the Competitive Enterprise Institute that affordable [fossil fuel-based] energy would make “people safer and economies more resilient”[9]. In reality, the poorest and most vulnerable populations are going to be hit the hardest by the consequences of burning fossil fuels.

socioeconomic pathways for CO2 emissions and global mean temperature increases[10]

In parallel to the climate emergency, we are witnessing the global rise of an authoritarian radical nationalism. This has brought a group of individuals into political power who recklessly ignore the current state of climate science by either denying the man-made nature of the climate crisis or by trivializing its catastrophic potential[11]. They are the first to fall into the “adaptation trap” — a vicious cycle based on the delay and neglect of mitigating climate action, followed by a disproportionate allocation of resources into short-sighted and fossil-energy-fueled adaptation measures, only to be confronted with even higher adaptation costs in the future. They utterly fail to comprehend the necessity for urgent climate action just at a time in human history, when the need for responsible, visionary leadership and international cooperation has never been greater. It is for this reason that humanity’s fight against the climate crisis is at the same time an ideological struggle over political influence against a rising radical nationalism[12]. Perhaps not surprisingly, this development is coinciding with the dawn of a new era of “post-truth” politics[13]: a political culture where irrational appeal to emotion has superseded fact-based, rational deliberation, while factual misinformation continues to be widely circulated via social media[14]. It is also marking the decline of an era which has been dominated by the doctrine of unconstrained global economic growth since the end of the Cold War. While it is true that the average living standards for a significant part of the human population could be lifted substantially during this period, increasing levels of inequality also left large parts of the population behind, many of which have become disillusioned with the promise of globalization and frustrated with the established social and political order. Moreover, the business-as-usual trajectory exposes the share of fossil-fuel-driven economic growth as a transient and extremely costly phenomenon, which is possible only by the accumulation of an ecological debt that future generations won’t be able to repay (most of the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is expected to remain for many centuries). It is therefore not surprising when Joseph Stigliz proclaims that “neoliberalism will literally bring an end to our civilization” [15] or when billionaire Marc Benioff declares that “capitalism, as we know it, is dead[16]”, while pleading for a billionaire’s tax. The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges even goes so far as to proclaim that we are living in an age of “radical evil”[17], in reference to a term coined by Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt. And in such a critical moment, of all things, numerous signs are pointing at an increasing risk of a crippling (as well as distracting) global economic recession in the near future[18]. However, as I attempt to show in the second part of this paper (Opportunity), this “perfect storm” coinciding with a zero-to-negative interest rate environment and trillions of USD of underutilized liquidity offers humanity an unprecedented window of opportunity to turn the tides.

Applying the principle of Judo to close humanity’s social aspiration gap in the 21st century

As the previous chapter has shown, the 21st century is defined by an immense social aspiration gap between an ideal trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions towards a relatively stable planetary habitat for human civilization on the one hand and the current trajectory towards a civilizational catastrophe on the other. In an ideal world, the international community will eventually manage to limit the mean global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels C by the end of this century[19]. A critical milestone on the pathway towards this scenario represents the reduction of global annual greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 (#NetZero<2050), followed by the maximization of net negative carbon emissions thereafter (#NetNegative2100). Indeed, given the urgency and magnitude of the climate crisis, #NetZero<2050 must currently be considered humanity’s most important collective outcome target. With the conclusion of the first 30 years since 1990 by 2020, we can imagine the beginning of another 30 year countdown from 2020 until 2050. During this time, the success of our personal, professional and political activities, as well as of the behaviors of organizations, corporations, cities and countries[20], will need to be measured by the direct and indirect net contributions to #NetZero<2050. To this end, perhaps the most important thing every potential change agent can do is to join the climate movement and urge decision makers, asset owners, influencers and policy makers within their sphere of influence to support #NetZero<2050. In addition (especially in the absence of effective climate policies), every agent with a greenhouse gas emissions footprint can and should voluntarily strive for climate neutrality as soon as possible, simply by combining measures to reduce and avoid greenhouse gas emissions with the practice of offsetting residual emissions to the extent budgetary constraints permit. Some households, organizations, cities and countries have the potential to reach net zero (or even net negative) emissions well before 2050, allowing others with more limited resources to go through longer-term transition processes.

However, it is obvious that voluntary efforts — while they are immensely helpful to begin with — won’t suffice to close the social aspiration gap of the 21st century and achieve #NetZero<2050. Instead, a more fundamental and comprehensive “Great Transition” (which can be broken down into multiple #GreatTransitions at regional and national levels) has to take place within the next few decades. The concept of a “Great Transition” has originally been coined by Raskin et al (2002)[21] who defined the term in a rather broad sense by referring to an optimistic set of future scenarios based on the emergence of a “new sustainability paradigm”. This new paradigm manifested a response to an enduring need for a deep ideological and paradigmatic shift of fundamental assumptions, e.g. with regard to: the primary purpose and architecture of our economic and political systems, the roles and responsibilities of the state, the nature of happiness and private property, the fundamental rights of young and future generations, and the modernization of education systems in light of the challenges of the 21st century. However, as important and desirable as such a “deep shift” would be, we need to recognize that a radical re-engineering of currently existing financial, economic and political systems across the globe will require immeasurable amounts of time and of social change energy — resources which for now need to be focused on #NetZero<2050, at least for as long as the climate emergency persists. Therefore, in the interest of time and in order to increase the probability for success, I suggest that we temporarily define the concept of a #GreatTransition in a narrower and more pragmatic sense: as a decades- long civilizational project that combines natural climate solutions[22] with a rapid and deep decarbonization of the global economy[23]. Based on this understanding, we can apply Judo — the „principle of gentleness“ — to the Status Quo, by using systemic climate policies to re-direct the forces of financial and corporate self-interest towards #NetZero<2050 as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, thereby significantly modifying (rather than fundamentally re-engineering) the architecture of existing financial, economic and political systems [24]. Because Judo teaches that “one should go, not against, but with, the opponent’s force, and yet maintain one’s proper position so as not lose one’s balance.” (Kenji Tomiki 1956[25]), it is nevertheless essential that the #GreatTransition is firmly rooted in the humanistic values of a 21st century enlightenment: true autonomy, universal empathy, and qualitative progress[26].

“The principle of gentleness teaches that one should go, not against, but with, the opponent’s force, and yet maintain one’s proper position so as not lose one’s balance.”

A new category for impact oriented investing/philanthropy: transition investing/philanthropy

With a cumulative capital demand well in excess of 110 trn USD by 2050[27], the #GreatTransition constitutes a gigantic global “transition investing” market, which significantly overlaps with and expands current purpose-driven investing market segments (i.e. sustainable investing, impact investing, green bonds, etc). By contributing to #NetZero<2050, transition investments collectively not only generate a positive environmental impact that is critical to the continuity of human civilization, they also generate a profound social impact by improving the living conditions for young and future generations, who right now must be considered among the most disadvantaged and neglected target groups. The same applies in the philanthropic realm for activities that directly (e.g. through land conservation[28]) or indirectly (e.g. through systems changing advocacy and climate activism[29]) contribute to #NetZero<2050, thereby defining a new category of “transition philanthropy”. Moreover, helping emerging countries decarbonize their growth in order to become resilient and climate-neutral economies by 2050 has become one of the highest development cooperation priorities in the 21st century. In order to allow emerging economies to leapfrog and cut short fossil fuel-driven phases of economic growth and to secure their support for the #GreatTransition, it will be necessary to deploy massive volumes of public transition funding beyond currently existing development cooperation budgets. Due to the causal interconnectedness of the climate emergency with multiple other 21st century challenges, transition investing and transition philanthropy activities can be expected to generate numerous positive secondary order effects in terms of preserved biodiversity and natural heritage, increased social and economic stability, prevented humanitarian crises and reduced armed conflicts.

In general, purpose-driven investing and philanthropic giving activities tend to be wider in scope than needed for the #GreatTransition: They include impact areas with ethically desirable outcomes but rather marginal (sometimes even negative) contributions to #NetZero<2050, such as climate change adaptation, health, education, social inclusion, employment, culture, or non-greenhouse gas pollution prevention and remediation, for example. This does not necessarily mean that these types of projects are less worth pursuing. Sometimes synergies or indirect contributions are possible, e.g. by upgrading infrastructure so that it becomes more resilient and climate neutral at the same time, by strengthening rational public discourse and science education, or by promoting climate action inspiring arts and culture. Independently from these synergies there are valid normative reasons in favor of maintaining on-going purpose-driven investing and philanthropic activities, such as an ethical imperative to help people (and animals) in need, or welfare gains that can be expected from strengthening the resilience of vulnerable populations, for example. In general, every life improved and every relief from suffering matters. However, it is also the case that almost all ends other than #NetZero<2050 would be overshadowed by an incalculably high social opportunity cost, should we allow human civilization to fall. By failing to adequately respond to the climate emergency with all the resources we can ethically justify to mobilize until the state of emergency is resolved, we risk the displacement of up to a billion human beings by 2050[30] in addition to the loss of our greatest natural and cultural heritage sites[31] as well as countless losses of human lives to armed conflicts, heat strokes, floods and water/food shortages, eclipsing any amount of welfare we could ever hope to gain in the short-term. In light of the comparative magnitude and urgency of the climate emergency it must be considered a categorical imperative that we seriously reassess present and future resource allocations in a similar manner as representatives of 21st century-born generations would reasonably want us to do. This means that going forward, we will need to carefully balance the normative demands of today’s societal challenges (especially with regard to universal human rights, humanitarian relief and poverty alleviation) with the normative demands of 21st century born generations. In any case, philanthropists and foundations can easily decide to join and support the climate movement and to voluntary offset any significant carbon emissions related to their grant giving activities (“climate neutral philanthropy”).

[1] In an opinion piece that is perhaps representative for his generation, Tim Flannery describes his 20 years of climate activism as a “colossal failure”.










[11] While these leaders and their followers tend to obsess about deterring and villainizing migrants and refugees, they fail to recognize that it is actually their own trivialization of climate science that is eventually leading to the ecological degradation, resource scarcity and armed conflicts which are forcing families to leave their home countries in desperation.








[19] In an inspiring essay, Bill McKibben describes a compelling vision of what this world might look like in 2050, and what it could take us to get there.




[23] As humanity makes progress towards #NetZero<2050, more fundamental ideological shifts may be expected as a by-product of a changed practical reality, so that the #GreatTransition in its narrower sense could eventually pave the way for a #GreatTransition in its original, broader sense.

[24] An important advantage of the “Judo” approach is the relative ease with which climate-concerned conservatives can be convinced to support #NetZero<2050, especially in combination with a more effective framing that emphasizes our common interest in a cleaner, safer and healthier world for our children.











Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Research Report #11 — Frost Curls

Playing the Blame Game; Let’s Talk Texas’ Grid Failure


Full Frontal Assault vs. Back Door Attacks on the Environment

The Future of Climate: Oceans in an Era of Climate Change

Ocean Services: A Summary

Finding the roots of Albertan identity to envision new possible futures

We Need To Help Water Protectors Stop Line 3!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Young-jin Choi

Young-jin Choi

More from Medium

No More Empty Words — Earthjustice

A majorly expanded, greener and free public transport system, or more climate catastrophe: which…

3 Policies That Would Solve Climate Change

How to prevent a Climate Emergency?