Is it over for our efforts to prevent dangerous climate change? Millions of people in India, Pakistan and elsewhere are still suffering from the record-breaking spring heatwave. The limits of human survival.
These extreme weather events will only increase as global emissions continue to rise. Back in 2015, the international community agreed that warming beyond 1.5°C would cause devastation on an intolerable scale. This was codified in the Paris Agreement, which sought to limit temperature rises since pre-industrial levels. well below 2°C, with 1.5°C as a goal. In reality, there is a vast gulf of impacts between 1.5°C and 2°C. The IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report showed that once-in-50-years heatwaves will become nine times more frequent at 1.5°C, and 14 times more frequent at 2°C.
The 1.5°C goal requires immediate, large and sustained cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But, the current emissions levels are Steeping upwardsWhen the global economy recovers form COVID-19. At current rates and current inaction, the average global surface temperature of our home planet will increase beyond 1.5°C shortly after 2030. The World Meteorological Organisation estimates there is now a 50:50 chance that temperatures will exceed 1.5°C One year within the next five.
Is this a sign that the Paris Agreement has failed What’s next for climate activism and politics? These and other questions are becoming more pressing. We must now find solutions and strategies to these questions. It is important to remember that every degree of global warming avoided will save people, ecosystems, and nations from being destroyed by rising temperatures.
As complex as the climate change conundrum is, in important respects it can be characterised with a simple question: how many people are we willing to see die as a consequence of our governments’ and banks’ continued coddling of the fossil fuel industry? And let us remember, it is the world’s poorest people – those least responsible for the problem – that will be doing most of the dying. If warming were to significantly exceed 1.5°C, then many people in richer, industrialised nations will join them. Climate breakdown is not linear. 3°C warmer world would have far more than twice the impact of a 1.5°C world. Stable societies might be impossible. Humanity could be plunged into mass death.
This not-so distant future world is in many ways unimaginable. Yet this is the world that a recent survey of IPCC lead authors – scientists that draft the comprehensive climate change assessment reports – deemed most likely. The leading science journal Nature found that 60% of those that responded concluded that of all the possible futures for humanity, 3°C warming by 2100 seemed the most probable. Only 4% of respondents believed that 1.5°C was likely.
Wealth and power are both obstacles
If we want to limit the destruction and death that climate change will cause, while at the same time ensuring all of humanity has a good, decent, dignified life, then we must look at how our civilization’s resources are being used, and how they have been accumulated. We must confront the fact that powerful forces are keeping us stuck in our current trajectory. These forces have emerged as a result of Jahrhunderts of fossil fuel exploitationThese have led to large concentrations in wealth and power. It is not surprising that wealth and power are resistant to redistribution.
It is not a statement that financial and technological innovations are not important. We need to find new ways to generate zero-carbon electricity while also reforming the systems that funnel trillions of dollars around the globe so they can be used for equitable and just climate solutions. These acts, however, can only be used to stick plasters on the problem.
Keep climate justice alive
We must look at where we are now in that context. Declaring 1.5°C to be lost, that the Paris Agreement is dead, risks playing directly into a narrative of dangerous delay. Many people, instead of being galvanised into desperate and all-out action to keep warming as low as possible, might instead conclude that this means we will fall back to 2°C. Such a conclusion would be music to the ears of fossil fuel interests which have resisted decarbonisation for decades – and risks locking us into warming far beyond 2°C.
There are legitimate fears that, as the situation rapidly deteriorates, political pressure will be applied to keep us safe – where “us” in this instance will be some of those living in rich, industrialised nations. If politics adopts a strong protectionist stance, the fact that these nations are most responsible may not matter. Securing energy, food and water supplies – ensuring national security – would take precedence, turning desperate migrants and climate refugees away at the borders, condemning them to danger, famine and death. This means that the majority humanity would be forced to leave the planet in order to deal with unprecedented environmental change.
The dangerous path to safety
The Paris Agreement was a rare victory that helped those most affected by climate change. That we are on course to barrel past 1.5°C should not be a reason to disavow the values that underpin it. Instead, it should be a focus on minds and energies.
The decisions we make become more – not less – important as the world continues to heat up. If our actions were truly transformative, then yes – it could still be possible to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C, or stay as close as feasible.
However, we need to be honest about the chances of such transformation in the context of the deeply dysfunctional political system and economic system we are currently in. This includes the powerful forces who will continue to resist our actions. So we must go beyond meekly and vaguely asking for “increased political will”. We must not ignore the dangerous and difficult situations we find ourselves in if we want humanity to be safe. To protect our world, we must all be involved and active. By all means.
Are we on track to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C? We are far from it. So: what are we – what are you – going to do about it?
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