How old will you be in 2050? I will be 63. I don’t yet know what the world will look like in the year 2050, but I do know how my world looked back in 1987, so let me begin there. I was born in a farming town in the Midwest of America, in a state called Iowa, where there are three pigs for every person, and where watching the corn grow is every bit as much a past-time as watching the baseball. When I was six, my father’s home-grown business went bankrupt and my parents decided we would move to Britain, where the job prospects were better. At the time I objected to the move but in hindsight I can see that it was the right decision, as it has given me opportunities that I would never have dreamed of in Iowa.
From a young age, I had always wanted to design computer games; but when, at the age of 17, I had the good fortune to visit the Tibetan Himalayas, I began to question my life’s direction. There, in the middle of three remote huts, was the power source for their entire village: a black sooty kettle sat at the focus of a set of battered old parabolic mirrors. I lowered my hand into the space between the mirrors and the kettle, and "ouch!" I had to remove it quickly to avoid getting burned. I was shocked into wondering why, with all of the technology available to us, we in the West are unable to power our lives sustainably, and yet these people with such primitive device can obtain all of the energy they need without emitting a single gram of carbon dioxide.
What if we were reducing future generation’s equality, or freedom to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? Whenever we visited a place, my mother always ensured that we left it in the same or a better condition than when we found it, but I wasn’t certain whether as a species we were following that rule any more. I decided to spend my life working on the challenging, exciting and ambitious task of tackling climate change and its effects. I put my application to read computer science at University in the recycling bin, and applied to do climate physics.
Five years on, and I have just been accepted to do a PhD in climate physics at Oxford University, where I recently had the privilege of witnessing a key development in climate science firsthand. My supervisor Myles Allen, and the rest of his team, found that nature has set us a carbon budget to live within over the coming few centuries: we can only burn 0.75 trillion tonnes of carbon if we want a reasonable chance of keeping warming below two degrees and avoiding ‘dangerous climate change’. So far, we have burned about three quarters of our allowance, and we are now faced with a choice: do we use the final quarter of our budget to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, or do we allow the world’s wealthy to go for the fast buck powered by high-carbon growth? I hope the choice is as obvious for you as it is for me.
We are at a unique position in history: we are the first generation to know of the threat of climate change, but we are also the last that can decide to avert it. You are gathered here today as key decision makers in business and government, and though you may not think it’s true, it is the decisions that you make over the coming weeks and years that will determine which path we choose at these crossroads in history. But you are not just decision makers, you are brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and father, and all of you are someone’s grandchild. What will your grandchildren think, when they learn of the power and opportunity that you had to create change during these key years? You won’t have to live with the long-term consequences of the decisions you make, but your grandchildren will, and so will I. I wouldn’t trust you to pick out my wardrobe, and from the direction we’re headed, I don’t think I could trust you with my future either.
This is why I will be going to the negotiations in Copenhagen, alongside hundreds of young people from across the globe. We will be speaking for the three billion youth on this planet that will be affected by the choices made at the conference, and for the countless generations to come whose prospects are being gambled away like chips on a poker table. We call upon you to choose to take immediate action, to ensure that we have a future worth looking forward to.
Sometimes the hardest choices are the ones that have the best consequences. I urge you to make those difficult decisions, and to strive for the most ambitious outcomes; because if we can work together, if we can devote our time, if we can dedicate our resources to this most urgent of challenges, we can move out of the dark days predicted in my climate models, to the future that our children, and our children’s children deserve.
Niel Bowerman is a member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition and will be representing young people at the Environment Agency's annual conference, which opens in London today.