“Hopefully there will be a realisation that we are at a stage where all our economic valuation processes do not work, when one of the variables is human extinction.”
With these words, Dr Youssef Nassef, Director, Adaptation, UNFCCC, and my guest today on Inside Ideas, perfectly sums up the precarious predicament humanity currently finds itself in. But are we listening? Report after report by the international scientific community shows the dire straits people and planet are in. Scientists have now set the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight – pushing humanity closer to the brink of catastrophe than ever before. The seminal IPCCC report in 2019 said ‘far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ would be needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The warnings have been endless in recent times. And the pandemic has made matters even worse. Progress on the Global Goals is now going backwards, while hunger levels, and poverty levels, are rising rapidly.
The prognosis is not good – and the response has not been much better.
Perhaps the reality has become too much for people to deal with. Is the world switching off from the big problems? The psychological phenomenon of psychic numbing refers to a state where empathy decreases as the number of victims to a disaster increases. What people are not waking up to though, is that they are the potential victim in this unfolding disaster. Their kids, families, and the future generations of their families are the potential victims. The message that the challenges of climate change are personal to all of us is not getting through.
To remedy this, good communication is urgently needed to cut the gordian knot that is blinding people from the truth. Scary headlines and reports can, and are, being ignored. The challenge now is to find creative and impactful ways to overcome this, to connect with people on the issues that matter to all of us. One way Indigenous populations have been able to do this is through seventh generation stewardship, a concept that ‘urges the current generation of humans to live and work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future’. Personalising responsibility must become second nature.
Learning from indigenous populations to build a resilient future is one aspect of the Resilient Frontiers (RF) initiative, which sets out eight cross cutting pathways that can lead people and planet to a transformed world. One where humanity lives in harmony with nature, while harnessing the power of innovative technologies – in an equitable way – to achieve the sustainable and thriving world which, despite all the challenges that persist, is still within our collective reach. Dr Youssef Nassef heads up the RF initiative and talks more about it on today’s show.
Pandemic pause for thought
Could the pandemic, which has had such horrendous consequences for so many, in time offer up one positive legacy? Could it become synonymous as the moment in history when there was a global reset in human perceptions? When behaviours and actions were truly transformed?
“The era we’re living in, this Covd-era has brought to fore a lot of interesting things. You’re confronted with phenomenon that’s fraught with uncertainty, you don’t know when it will end, whether new variants will come and how dangerous they will be, and it’s a bit similar to the climate change narratives,” said Dr Nassef. “It reminds you of that question of the frog being thrown in the boiling water. When it’s thrown in the boiling water it jumps out immediately – this is what happened with Covid19, despite the uncertainties, you see the impact right away and immediately the investments come in, everyone is researching how to respond to it, people are wearing masks.”
Dr Nassef continued: “Now climate change is a longer term problem which means that in terms of the perception of any human being on the street, today looks very similar to yesterday and very similar to tomorrow, there’s no exponential increase in perception of the problem and that’s why cognitive biases kick in: the bystander effect.”
To change perceptions Dr Nassef says we need to ‘transfer that passion that we’ve seen in responding to Covid to longer term problems that could be equally or even more impactful to our lives’.
And he sees trends at an international level that can help accelerate the impact of a changed response.
“The international negotiations processes; the advances in science and the signal to the private sector; the R&D that has gone into renewables and other key areas, are all positive developments. All of this has led to the transformations we’re seeing now. There has been a system of incentives and disincentives from increased awareness and political commitment to solving the climate change problem which emerged from the processes of international negotiation. That is leading to the direction we are on now with new technologies, with new opportunities and eventually a net zero objective that we have to reach in order to address the problem of climate change.”
While the problems may be stacking up, the solutions to overcome them, and to move humanity beyond these challenges – towards a better and more desirable future for all, are also stacking up. We just have to wake-up to the immediate need to implement them now, and at scale. How we do that, and what solutions we should prioritise is the focus of Dr Nassef’s work, and I am delighted to have him on the show to talk about these century-defining, and humanity-defining, issues.
Dr Youssef Nassef started the work on adaptation to climate change in the United Nations system, and has led the adaptation workstreams under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change since their inception. He possesses 30 years of experience in diplomacy and international environmental policy, and is a seconded diplomat from the Egyptian Foreign Service.
While assuming progressively higher levels of leadership at the UNFCCC, he led UNFCCC support for a number of ongoing initiatives on adaptation. These include the inception and support for NAPAs and NAPs; the Nairobi Work Programme – an international knowledge hub for impacts, vulnerability and adaptation; and the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. He recently created the Resilience Frontiers initiative which applies foresight for attaining post-2030 resilience.
Dr Nassef regularly contributes his vision, insights and thought leadership to international conferences on resilience and adaptation to climate change and their nexus with sustainable development, often focusing on developing countries.
He also holds a Doctoral degree in International Technology Policy and Management and a Master’s degree in International Environmental Policy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, as well as a Master’s degree in Middle East Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Physics from the American University in Cairo.