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Address to the Nobel Laureates Event at the Sustainable Development Conference Rio+20

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Below is a transcript and video of the address made by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to the Nobel Laureates Event at the Sustainable Development Conference Rio +20 today by kind permission of His Royal Highness.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am most flattered to have been invited to address you today at this very special event at the UN's Conference on Sustainable Development. I am afraid it has proved impossible for me to do so in person, but by being with you in this virtual manner, at least I am able to say what I feel needs saying in a low-carbon way.

Bearing in mind the message published at the end of the three day conference I convened in London three years ago, you will not be surprised to hear that the message of your event today - that there has to be proper recognition of the peril we are in - is one I agree with wholeheartedly. As you may know, for many years I have done what little I can to raise awareness and to encourage action on the whole issue of sustainability. I even played host to a preparatory international gathering on board the Royal Yacht Britannia in the Amazon Delta some fourteen months before the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago. This was attended by the then President of Brazil, President Collor. I remember everyone wanted the first summit to be a success, but many viewed the scope of it to be far too optimistic. There were basic perceptions to overcome, particularly public awareness of climate change which was lamentable to say the least. Which is why, despite countless such meetings and gatherings ever since, the increasingly dire warnings issued by yourselves and others around the world, that we are rapidly breaching one planetary boundary after another, have been consistently and alarmingly ignored.

Any 'progress' in this context has therefore been a somewhat relative concept. We should applaud the work of both the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which of course were opened at Rio, or the subsequent efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals agreed 10 years later in Johannesburg, but we are facing challenges that are increasing rather than diminishing in their severity and urgency.

I have watched in despair at how slow progress has sometimes been and how the outright, sceptical reluctance by some to engage with the critical issues of our day have often slowed that progress to a standstill. In this, I am forcibly reminded of Sir Winston Churchill's words of warning as the threat of a cataclysmic Second World War was being studiously ignored during the 1930s. He spoke against continuing with the "strange paradoxes of being decided only to be undecided; resolved to be irresolute; adamant for drift; solid for fluidity."

As I speak, the world's rainforests continue to be destroyed, wiping out so much of the world's vital biodiversity and removing our chances of storing carbon naturally; and we continue to ignore the painful lessons of the so-called 'Green Revolution' in India by intensifying our food production methods in such blinkered, chemically and technologically-based ways, that the land and the oceans are now both beginning to fail. Tragically, we cannot even plead ignorance of the consequences of our actions, for the scientific evidence is overwhelming and the impacts are well understood. There is widespread consensus within each discipline which, when put together with all the rest, forms a powerful, aggregated picture that we can ill afford to ignore. Not least that we are heading for a significant rise in global temperatures that could very easily exceed three degrees above the level it was before industrialization and may well even go higher to four degrees, which would be absolutely catastrophic to life on this planet. Already levels of CO2 have exceeded 400 parts per million. 450 parts per million is the tipping point we have to avoid so, every day of delay threatens to make the change more dramatic. And yet we seem resolved to be resolutely adamant for drift.

Gone are the days, I am afraid, when we can somehow imagine that the situation is not as bad as our scientists say it will be, nor that the consequences are so far off in the future that we need not worry. Like a sleepwalker, we seem unable to wake up to the fact that so many of the catastrophic consequences of carrying on with 'business-as-usual' are bearing down on us faster than we think, already dragging many millions more people into poverty and dangerously weakening global food, water and energy security for the future.

One thing is clear. We need to be much more informed about the actual state of the planet. We do not have nearly enough knowledge on which to base the decisions that will be the best for the long term. Until we do, we expose ourselves to the mounting danger of major shifts in policy that are not well conceived, but come as panicked responses to crises that could have been avoided.

With that in mind, in March this year I hosted a meeting of the major resource assessment programmes brought together by my International Sustainability Unit, or ISU for short. The purpose was to see if a more coherent, integrated approach might be possible, whereby the data that is currently collected separately, on energy, water, biodiversity, forestry and soil, is brought together and analysed as a whole. If this could happen, at least then we would know what the state of the planet actually is - and then plan accordingly. The problems we are facing are systemic and, therefore, to address them we need a set of integrated solutions based upon a comprehensive assessment, rather than a piece-meal picture and policy that often seem at cross-purposes.

A gleam of hope in these difficult times is that when science does form the basis of policy, the results can be encouraging. For example, in the marine sector, where for years the industry has been reluctant to accept the evidence of the decline in fish stocks, if the scientific community works hand in hand with the fishing industry - as it has, for instance, in the South African hake fishery - really positive results can be achieved and a truly sustainable management system created.

One thing is certain. At the moment there is a dangerous, fundamental disconnection between scientists, the public and the private sector. It is "dangerous" because it blocks so much progress on the ground, partly due to the fact that too few people believe - or are discouraged from believing - what the best of our science is telling us and partly because they do not relate that troubling global picture to their own, isolated situation and behaviour. Which is why I cannot stress enough that any action from now on must have as its ultimate aim, the goal of integrated thinking.

Not only do we need to connect each individual's concern with that of the Earth's, we also need to forge an economic framework that is just as joined-up. We can ill afford anymore to let things operate in separate silos within individual disciplines. Thinking must be integrated, just as policies must be integrated, so that action at the corporate level and on the ground is much more co-ordinated and aligned. It is to this end that my ISU has been working to encourage countries to undertake economic reviews of food security within the context of energy and water security, so that the full economic, social and environmental impact of these sector policies, when taken together, can be understood and fully grasped.

We do not have long to capture such a comprehensive picture, and so I would appeal to you as you meet here in Rio to make an even greater and concerted effort to persuade policy and decision-makers to act before it is finally too late. It is, perhaps, a trait of human nature to act only when the worst happens, but that is not a trait we can afford to rely on here. Once the worst does happen, I am afraid that this time around it will be too late to act at all.

If you want to learn more about Prince Charles' 28-year commitment to sustainability, be sure to check out the article, 'Nature's Prince,' here.

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