[Contribution] Why hope matters in climate crisis

By Yoo Hee-dong

“Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it.” This is the message imparted by a Berber monarch in North Africa to his generals in "Wisdom of the Sands," a posthumous novel by the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, best known for writing "The Little Prince." The monarch’s sharp admonition serves as a warning to the generals who were trapped in their attempts to predict the future by dwelling on history and causal relationships. I believe this quote also fittingly encapsulates the essence of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR 6) cycle of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which spanned from 2015 to July 2023.

To comprehend the connection between the IPCC and the quote from the novel by the world-renowned writer, it is essential to first gain an understanding of the IPCC itself. The IPCC is an international organization tasked with conducting scientific assessments on climate change. It periodically releases comprehensive reports on climate change, following a five- or seven-year assessment cycle. These reports represent a global consensus on climate change, unanimously agreed upon, line-by-line, by the organization’s 195 member countries worldwide. In the context of South Korea’s involvement, the Korea Meteorological Administration has served as a focal point within the IPCC since its 11th Session in 1995. As a focal point agency, the KMA has been overseeing the Korean government’s activities within the IPCC.

To date, the IPCC’s reports have served as comprehensive references for all matters related to climate change. They have been a fundamental source of evidence for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and have played a pivotal role in forging global consensus on key agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015. Notably, the IPCC’s Synthesis Report of the AR 6, led by South Korea’s first IPCC Chair, Lee Hoe-sung, encapsulates the core findings of the IPCC’s sixth assessment cycle. It garnered significant attention due to its intended use as input data for the first global stocktake process, which begins this year — an assessment of global responses to the climate crisis. The world awaited this report to see how the IPCC assessed global efforts to achieve the goals set by the Paris Agreement. As past IPCC reports have often highlighted dystopian scenarios resulting from severe climate change, there were widespread expectations that the AR 6 Synthesis Report would similarly emphasize the grim consequences of climate change and issue stark warnings about its serious impacts.

However, the released report defied people’s expectations. While it sounded a dire warning about the climate crisis, it also emphasized that there is still hope and opportunity for the future. The report called upon developed nations to fulfill their responsibilities and urged developing countries to develop climate-friendly technologies. Simultaneously, it suggested that responses to the climate crisis and economic growth, often seen as incompatible, could coexist harmoniously, indicating that climate action could be an opportunity for industrial development. Furthermore, the report provided adaptation and mitigation measures across various sectors, including industry, energy, policy and international cooperation. It also assessed the feasibility of these measures. Moreover, it underscored the importance of participation in climate action by nations, governments and civil society. Such collective efforts could lead to the creation of a climate-resilient society, allowing us to restore the planet to its state before the onset of the climate crisis.

Let’s revisit the "Wisdom of the Sands," a novel by Saint-Exupery. In this novel, the writer portrays the journey of a monarch who learns to become a benevolent ruler through conversations with individuals of various backgrounds, including poets, sculptors, generals and courtiers. Through these dialogues, the monarch arrives at the profound realization that a leader’s task is to construct a utopian “fortress” (or citadelle) by adjusting people’s opinions and encouraging their voluntary participation. Isn’t this concept akin to the “hope and opportunity” presented in the IPCC’s report? It stresses that the future is not predetermined but is instead something we can shape. Rather than succumbing to the fear of a dystopian future due to the climate crisis, we should construct our future by engaging in climate action in our respective roles and our ways.

The term of IPCC Chair Lee concluded in July during the 59th IPCC Session. I want to extend my heartfelt appreciation for his hard work and unwavering dedication. He successfully guided the completion of the sixth assessment cycle of the IPCC, which is regarded as one of the toughest and most demanding cycles in the organization’s history, as it was closely intertwined with the Paris Agreement and the new climate framework. Moreover, I hope that the message of hope and encouragement, drawn from the IPCC’s scientific assessments led by Lee, will resonate with people around the world, enabling us to collectively shape a more optimistic future.

Yoo Hee-dong is the administrator of the Korea Meteorological Administration. -- Ed.

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