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Red Sky at Morning at Twenty: A Reflection

Originally published in 2004, Gus Speth’s Red Sky at Morning warned the approach being taken to address global climate change was doomed to failure. In this essay, Speth reflects on the continued relevance of the book twenty years later.

James Gustave Speth—

Twenty years after publication of my Red Sky at Morning, it would be perverse to find pleasure in saying I was right. Despite the book’s good reception in the New York Times, The Economist, and elsewhere, its warnings in 2004 that we were on the wrong track in addressing the climate threat have gone largely unheeded. We find ourselves today on the cusp of a ruined planet. Of course, I cannot say my proposals would have done the trick, but I do believe they offered alternatives that would have greatly helped, and could still.

A bit of background here will provide context. In 1980 I was chair of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality. That was the year that climate change moved from science into the public policy arena, with Carter calling it a major concern for the future in an important address that year. This foresight was confirmed twelve years later when an international climate treaty was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio di Janeiro in 1992. Over the next decade my concern grew that the international community had in fact adopted a flawed, weak approach to climate change and other major global environmental threats. That concern was the origin of Red Sky at Morning two years later.

The overarching conclusion of Red Sky was that issues like climate change “are inherently difficult: powerful underlying forces drive deterioration and require complex and far-reaching responses, while the inherently weak political base for international action is typically overrun by economic opposition and protection of sovereignty. Meanwhile, the response that the international community has mounted has been flawed: the root causes [of climate change and other threats] have not been addressed seriously, weak multilateral institutions have been created, consensus-based negotiating procedures have ensured mostly toothless treaties, and the economic and political context in which treaties must be prepared and implemented has been largely ignored.” 

In the Preface to the book, I wrote that “the current system of international efforts to help the environment simply isn’t working. The design makes sure it won’t work, and the statistics keep getting worse.”

A particular focus of my critique was the climate treaty process, in which the international community had invested so much. I pointed out back then that “the climate convention is not protecting climate” and was unlikely to do much in the future. Fast forward twenty years to today, the conference of the parties to the climate convention (COP) has now met 28 times, the most recent annual meeting in Dubai attracting over 80,000 participants. Unfortunately, the size of its crowds bears no resemblance to the COPs’ actual accomplishments. The climate treaty COPs have not been a complete waste of time, but they have surely wasted a lot of time, decades of it.

I suppose Red Sky could have stopped there, but I felt obligated to write a second half of the book on what I thought should be done. I pointed out that there were ample models of successful international regulation and issue management to draw from, and an attractive proposal for a World Environment Organization was making the rounds in world capitals.  Such rebooting of the treaty process was only one of the “8-Fold Way” that Red Sky recommended. 

Many of the efforts I urged in the 8-Fold Way, such as better addressing poverty and deprivation, have now been incorporated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately, meeting the SDGs is an uphill struggle, but there is recognition that they must be companions in a successful effort to address climate change. 

The last of the eight initiatives I urged—“the most fundamental transition of all”—was the compelling need for a transition in values and consciousness. I quoted the remarkable Earth Charter which says it well: “We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. . . . Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living.”

As I think about the twenty years that have passed since Red Sky and the tragic climate and other costs of neglect, I do join the many who sometimes get discouraged. From such desperate moments I try to rescue the ground for hope—not hopium but plausible hope. In this search, I have concluded that two major developments frame our situation, one negative and one positive. 

On the negative side, I fear that what we are up against is more powerful than I first imagined.1 America’s mounting problems, both environmental and social, stem not from episodic failures or oversights but stem instead from core flaws in our system of political economy. Its prominent, driving features include ramping up GDP, growing corporate profits, focusing investments on high financial returns (rather than social and environmental returns), keeping labor markets slack, promoting runaway consumerism, sustaining great bastions of corporate political and economic power, and projecting overwhelming military strength abroad. This complex is reinforced by dominant cultural values that remain severely materialistic, anthropocentric, and individualistic. We cannot kid ourselves. Sustained progress on climate, social justice and other issues requires deep, transformative change. The civil rights leader, Yale’s William Barber, has said it bluntly: “Transformation is what we need.” 

On the positive side, these past twenty years have seen a flourishing of creative efforts take up Reverend Barber’s challenge and explore futures that involve transformation in our economic and political system. Doubts about the current order are increasing, and calls for transformative change grow louder. I love the climate protest banner: “System change, not climate change.”  Recognizing that such deep change will take time, efforts there have been complemented by the pursuit of near-term avenues for progress. Let me briefly share some of them that give me hope. There is, first off, a rebirth of protest in America. Activism is increasing, including labor and climate activism and activism among the young, the marginalized, and the victims. Aversion to “socialist” ideas is fading, at least for young people. Economic democracy is in the air. Recent affirmations of government action, like the Inflation Reduction Act, challenge the hold of market fundamentalism. The conventional wisdom that markets are good and government bad seems on the way out. 

Meanwhile, the public, the media, and progressive politicians are now alert to the rising menace of climate change. The climate threat is underscoring the imperative of a strong, effective government of, by, and for the people. Many now see the truth that addressing climate change will require big government. Stalemate at the federal level is countered at least partially by impressive initiatives by some states and localities. Indeed, the greatest things happening in America today are at the local level where initiatives are bringing the future into the present. The threat to democracy is recognized, and the fight for a democratic future is joined. And more and more people are seeing the root of the problem in our misguided value system. They are searching for new values and new lives to go with them. We often find our faith communities at the forefront of these efforts.

So, I say all is not lost. It is not over yet. I believe the positive currents driving toward transformative change will strengthen in the future. But the possibility progressives must face is that this strengthening will be too modest and too slow to head off a series of genuine catastrophes. This possibility of “too little, too late” underscores the imperative for progressives to leave behind their issue silos, to come together, and to forge a mighty political force, both for immediate action and for deep, transformative change. We need a fusion of forces, a movement of movements. That would be new and could make all the difference. 

  1. I wrote about this in my two books with Yale Press after Red Sky—The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability and America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. ↩︎

James Gustave Speth, known as Gus, has served in many capacities, including as Dean of the Yale School of the Environment from 1999 to 2009 and before that as Administrator of the UN Development Program, the senior-most UN official under the Secretary-General at that time. He was also a founder and staff member of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute and served as chair of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality. He is the author or editor of eight books, including three with the Press, sometimes referred to as the American Crisis trilogy.

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