Roger Bannister and Limiting Climate Change

Roger Bannister, the first human to run a mile in less than 4 minutes, died on March 3, 2018. His story provides inspiration to those of us fighting climate change as well as to aspiring athletes.
Credit: Photo ©2018 David B. Goldstein

Roger Bannister was the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes. “The quest to break the 4-minute mile carried a special mystique. The numbers were easy for the public to grasp: 1 mile, 4 laps, 4 minutes.”  Bannister died on March 3rd 2018, but his story continues to be important to all of us that are concerned about climate change:

The Hollywood version of the Bannister story could be this: for years, people believed that humans were physically incapable of running a mile in 4 minutes. When Sweden’s Gunder Hagg ran 4:01.4 in 1945, the chase was truly on. But, time and again, runners came up short. The 4-minute mark seemed like a brick wall that would never be toppled. And for years it wasn’t.

But Bannister, a medical student, believed the goal was possible to meet. “There was no logic in my mind that if you can run a mile in four minutes one and 2/5ths, you can’t run it in 3:59… I knew enough medicine and physiology to know it wasn’t a physical barrier, but I think it had become a psychological barrier,” he later recounted. Of course, Bannister couldn’t prove it could be done, because it had never been done before.

You have seen this type of movie many times: through hard work (he was still a full-time medical student), study, training, and will-power, Bannister overcame all the obstacles at a public race in May 1954, fully 9 years after the Swedish record of 4 minutes one and 2/5ths was set.

And naturally he won. Dramatically. In those days timing was done by hand and several timers recorded and compared results. So a dramatic pause occurred right after Bannister crossed the finish line and fell into the arms of his friend, nearly passing out.

After this pause, “the announcer read out the time: ‘3…’ The rest was drowned out by the roar of the crowd. The 3 was all that mattered.”

The movie would have ended here, and there would have been no connection to the question of limiting climate change. But real life did not end. Bannister’s record lasted just 46 days. The next runner ran 3:57.9. Within 4 years 17 additional runners are known to have had times that beat 4 minutes. By 1964 an American had beat the target while still in high school. The current record is 3:43.13.

So the real story of the four-minute mile is this: when no one thought a 4 minute mile was possible, no one tried very hard—thus no one succeeded. The interesting story is that once the goal was accepted as being achievable, many people achieved it. "There was not a single athlete of my generation that was not inspired by Roger…” observed Sebastian Coe, UK Olympic gold medalist and president of the International Association of Athletics Foundations. (Coe himself ran a then-world-record 3:47.33 mile in 1981.)

A key problem with doing something serious about stopping climate change is the lack of inspiration. The Paris Agreement set a goal of “pursu[ing] efforts” to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees, and 190 nations, essentially the whole world, signed on.

But I perceive that this goal lacks inspiration—of the type that Roger Bannister provided: Even among those who recognize the danger of allowing climate change to exceed 1.5 degrees, many people seem resigned to the belief that the goal is impossible to realize.

Tom Friedman spoke of the following metaphor on how people react to climate change. If the captain of the Titanic had announced that the ship was about to hit an iceberg, the passengers’ attitude would have been “party on!” Conversely, if he had said that the ship was expected to avoid hitting the iceberg, the attitude of passengers would also have been “party on!” But if he has announced “I’m concerned that the ship could hit an iceberg, but if everyone runs to the starboard rail I think we could miss it” then people would have been motivated to act.

Careful analysis shows that the more ambitious climate goal is achievable. On a global level the International Energy Agency has for years published studies showing how to meet the more mandatory 2-degree goal also adopted in the Paris Agreement. They show that major changes in the global energy system are needed, but they are mainly ramping up and expanding the scope of efforts that are already underway. More recent analysis is much cruder but does not at all claim much less show that the 1.5 degree goal is unachievable.

NRDC recently published a comprehensive study of how the U.S. could meet our accepted share of the global emissions reductions needed to stabilize at 2 degrees, and found that it is clearly feasible and essentially cost-free. Based on that resource, I estimated what it would take for America to do its share of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees. This analysis is a lot simpler but it concludes that the additional steps could be accomplished at no net cost and with important benefits. Just one of the six recommended policies would produce 500,000 new jobs.

Figure 1. Meeting climate goals would require that all houses perform as well as this one:

Both reports offer specific programs and policies that we need to get us there. Some of them are already being implemented, others are expansions of existing programs, and some are new initiatives. None of them imposes burdens on citizens or on many businesses. But all of them have been done before, at least at a low level, and thus all are possible.

We need to focus on how we get these things done, acting with the confidence that Roger Bannister is remembered for–the confidence that overcomes psychological barriers. Meeting advanced climate goals is difficult only in the way that breaking the 4-minute-mile barrier was difficult: it cannot be done unless we try hard.