We will not solve climate change and other pressing global threats until we admit, and learn from, the repeated failures of past proclamations and promises. 

The general public, the American news magazine proclaims in its cover story, ‘The ravaged environment’, ‘has been seized with such anger and alarm as to goad political leaders into proclaiming conservation of the environment the chief task of this decade’. The US president is quoted as saying this must be the decade ‘when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water and our living environment. It is literally now or never.’

At last! But wait. When was this? The president is obviously not Donald Trump. Perhaps Barack Obama? No, it was Richard Nixon, the date was 26 January, 1970, and the magazine was Newsweek.

It is barely stretching the truth to say that since the 1960s, we have declared each decade as the time for decisive action on the environment, and as each decade passes, we postpone the deadline another ten years. Now, as we near the end of the 2010s without the necessary action having been taken, the 2020s are shaping up to be the critical decade.

In the same year – 1992 – that I cited the Newsweek article in an essay for the Australian Commission for the Future (to make a similar point to that here), more than 1700 independent scientists issued a warning to humanity that environmental destruction required a great change in its stewardship of the Earth if ‘vast human misery’ was to be avoided. Last year, on the 25th anniversary of that warning, more than 15,000 scientists signed a ‘second notice’ warning that with the exception of stabilising the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in solving environmental challenges, and ‘alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse’.

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