28. 10. 2018

From 2 degrees C to 1.5 degrees C: This Changes Everything

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If you’re not shit-scared now, about the likely impacts of accelerating climate change, you’re not awake. Or you’re dead to the future of humankind.

True, I have been saying that (and worse) for years. But the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) raises the warning level to a new and completely unmissable mark – even for those who’ve studiously grown tin ears over the last decade or so.

Throughout that decade, the scientific and political focus has been on what has to be done to ensure that global average temperature increases by no more than 2 degrees C by the end of the century. The IPCC Report is pretty compelling in what it has to say about that, and particularly in terms of the stern advice that it gives to politicians:

1. To set aside that 2oC threshold on the grounds that it will absolutely not ensure any kind of ‘safe operating space’ for humankind in this, let alone the next, century;
2. To accept that the science has moved on, and that the alternative 1.5 degrees C threshold (first advanced in the 2015 Paris Agreement) must now determine all policy responses from politicians around the world;
3. To understand that the difference between staying below 1.5 degrees C and 2 degrees C is not a small matter. In fact, it’s massive, in terms of impacts on agriculture and biodiversity, sea-level rises, loss of reefs and other critical ecosystems, water stress, extreme weather events and so on;
4. To raise their game to new heights, on the grounds that it is still possible to stay below that 1.5 degrees C threshold, BUT ONLY if we do a ton of stuff over the next decade or so. The other side of 2030, it becomes so much harder to stop things spiralling out of control;
5. To get their heads around one overarching priority for the world: to do what needs to be done between now and 2030 in order to create a net zero global economy by 2050.

It’s a hard-hitting report, realistic, not without hope, and just what is needed to jerk politicians out of their current state of continuing torpor as they prepare for the next Conference of the Parties in Poland later in the year. So let’s at least welcome that.

But we have to instantly move on from that positive conclusion to point out that the Report still falls far short of ‘telling it like it really is’, however disturbing and hope-sapping an exercise that might be.

Here are five supplementary things that need to be hold ‘as they really are’:

1. THE IPCC REPORT PAYS NO ATTENTION TO THE PRESSING QUESTION ABOUT FEEDBACK LOOPS.

The IPPC was asked by governments to look at the challenges associated with the 1.5 degrees C threshold first advanced in the Paris Agreement. It was not asked to review the increasingly disturbing likelihood of existing temperature increases triggering certain tipping-points in the Earth’s systems.

By contrast, back in August, the so-called ‘Hothouse Earth’ Report laid bare the full extent of these potential feedback loops, suggesting that once the Earth has warmed by 1.5 degrees C, it will inevitably keep on warming for the next few centuries, even if our emissions of greenhouse gases cease pretty much entirely.

For instance, there are five such potential ‘feedback loops’ in the Arctic: the state of the summer sea ice; the state of the winter sea ice; the state of Greenland’s ice sheets; what’s happening with the jetstream; and what’s happening with the Arctic, particularly in Siberia.

I’ve written about this before: http://www.jonathonporritt.com/blog/climate-fight-night-donald-trump-v-peter-wadhams

But this year has seen such shocking weather extremes in the Arctic, including forest fires in Siberia, record high temperatures in Lapland and elsewhere, accelerated melting of the sea ice, and growing evidence of significant releases of methane from melting permafrost in Siberia, as to make it all but inevitable that some if not all of these systems will indeed tip into irreversible change – and in a much shorter period of time than was thought possible even five years ago.

And that means we would end up crashing through 1.5 degrees C, 2 degrees C, and who knows what lies beyond?

2. THE IPCC’S REPORT PAYS INSUFFICIENT ATTENTION TO THE EMISSIONS OF GREENHOUSE GASES FROM AGRICULTURE AND CHANGING LAND USE.

Most people still seem to think that if we can just sort out energy, transport, manufacturing and the built environment, through increasingly aggressive decarbonisation strategies to get to ‘net zero’ as soon as possible, that all will be well. It absolutely won’t. We’ll need an equally aggressive set of interventions to transform food production systems, to eliminate any further deforestation and loss of wetlands, and to restore health and vitality to the world’s soils.

The authors of the IPCC Report acknowledge that this is a critically important part of the net zero challenge, but fall short of spelling out what this means in practice. For instance, it doesn’t begin to get to grips with the dramatic reductions that will be needed in meat consumption if we are to have any chance whatsoever of staying below 1.5 degrees C.

(If you want to see what the IPCC Report should have covered here, you might like to check out another blockbuster article, recently published in Nature, ‘Options for Keeping the Food System within Environmental Limits’.

3. THE IPCC REPORT CAN BARELY BRING ITSELF TO MENTION THE IMPORTANCE OF POPULATION.

This is, inevitably, taboo territory for all politically-correct Greenies, so I guess I should be pleased that population does actually merit a short and reasonably intelligent reference in the IPCC Report:

‘Lack of global cooperation, high inequality, and/or high population growth that limit the ability to control land use emissions, and rapidly growing resource-intensive consumption, are key impediments to hitting the 1.5 degrees C target.’

But beyond that, there’s no serious attempt to address the population challenge, no doubt with the authors of the IPCC Report reassured that ‘population growth is no longer a problem’. This has become perhaps the most pernicious misperception about population today, assiduously cultivated by legions of Hans Rosling groupies and population denialists. However:

‘Contrary to expectations, birth rates across sub-Saharan Africa have remained high, and declines in birth rates have stalled in several countries. As a result, the latest UN world population projection is the highest ever, expecting 11.2 billion people in 2100, a 4 billion increase in world population since 2015. Much of this rise is projected in sub-Saharan Africa (from 1 billion in 2015 to 4 billion in 2100), but Asia and Latin America are also projected to grow substantially.’

That quote comes from an excellent new article in Science by John Bongaarts and Brian C. O’Neill: ‘Global Warming Policy: is Population Left Out in the Cold?

The article also includes a brilliant comparison of the different approaches taken to family planning in Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively, both of which had the same population of roughly 100 million in 1980. Since then, Bangladesh has had one of the world’s most effective voluntary family planning programmes, whilst Pakistan has had one of the least effective. The consequence of which is that Pakistan’s population will be around 350 million by the end of the century, double that of Bangladesh’s population at around 175 million. Both countries are still very poor; both countries will be devastatingly impacted by accelerating climate change. But they now face very different adaptation challenges.

4. WHEN IT COMES TO POLITICS, THE IPCC REPORT LIMITS ITSELF TO A SHORT SUMMARY NOTE FOR POLICY-MAKERS.

So let’s just focus on that window of time through to 2030. Delivering the ‘ton of stuff’ I referred to above, captured within four different pathways that the Report proposes, is not a problem from a technological point of view, and it’s not even a problem from a financial/investment point of view – although we are talking about a lot of money: roughly $1 trillion a year from now through to 2050! But it’s going to be one hell of a problem from a political perspective.

Come what may, we’ve got the misbegotten, climate-denying, Paris-exiting Trump in the White House until 2020, and possibly through to 2024. It now looks more than likely that we’ll have a ‘Tropical Trump’, in the shape of Jair Bolsonaro, as the next President of Brazil, through to 2022. With a second term, he’d be President until 2026 – though it’s true that Brazilian Presidents seem to get impeached rather more regularly than American Presidents! Bolsonaro has already promised that he will follow Trump out of the Paris Agreement, and that he intends to open up both the Amazon and the Cerrado to agriculture, forestry and mining.

That would have a massive impact on any sense of a ‘collective endeavour’ in securing the low-carbon world that we need. Australia might then join the ‘out of Paris’ party, given that the vast majority of Australian politicians are completely (and completely corruptly) in thrall to Australia’s coal industry. They are far, far more afraid of the solutions than they are of the likely impacts of climate change.

At which point, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries may wonder what possible reason they have to stay in such a flawed Agreement, as might President Putin of Russia, whose personal political prospects are inextricably linked to the success of Gazprom and other major hydrocarbon players in Russia.

In the past, we might once have assumed that the EU would act as a counterweight to these corrupt flat-earthers. No longer. It’s perfectly possible that the next European Parliament in 2019 will see a significant increase in representation from populist, right-wing parties – from Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, Austria, Italy and possibly even the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. One of the many things that these parties have in common is a total disregard for science and evidence-based policy, and a deep contempt for do-gooding liberals and lefties putting climate change and the environment ‘ahead of the hard-working poor of Europe’.

In which case, there will be no counterweight. Just an appalling drag on doing what needs to be done by 2030.

5. UNDERSTANDABLY, THE IPCC REPORT CANNOT EVEN MENTION THE BIGGEST GEOPOLITICAL ELEPHANT IN OUR HOMES, NAMELY TODAY’S KLEPTOCRATIC, RAPACIOUS, CONSUMPTION-DRIVEN, GROWTH-BOUND VARIANT OF CAPITALISM.

Thanks for sticking with me so far in this diatribe! But occasional visitors to this blog will know that I pretty much concur with the position advanced by Naomi Klein that accelerating climate change will never be adequately addressed unless and until we start transforming the basic tenets of today’s particular model of capitalism.

For those not familiar with Naomi Klein’s blistering repudiation of the efforts of most NGOs to address climate change, without so much as a splinter of ideological awareness, I think you’d really enjoy a recent article of hers: ‘Capitalism Killed our Climate Momentum, not “Human Nature”’.

In August, the prestigious New York Times magazine devoted its entire contents to just one article on climate change, written by a guy called Nathaniel Rich. Hurrah to that! But Rich’s principal hypothesis is that we failed to deliver on some of the early awareness and momentum around climate change back in the 80s and 90s, primarily because we Westerners were already too deeply ensnared in the deadly embrace of consumptive capitalism, chickening out of any possible transformative shifts available at that time. Worse yet, he suggested we did this because it is indelibly imprinted in our DNA that we should behave in this way:

‘Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. We are wired to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term, and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.’

Naomi Klein rips this junk psychology into tiny pieces, and, in the process, goes right to the heart of the problem: namely, that we are having to negotiate the most radical, most comprehensive shift in human history at precisely the time when we are afflicted by a peculiarly vicious and unreconstructed variant of capitalism. Here’s how she puts it:

‘We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets. That problem might not have been insurmountable had it presented itself at another point in our history. But it is our great collective misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate threat at the precise moment when those elites were enjoying more unfettered political, cultural and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s.’

All of which, of course, is way beyond the remit of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But it needs to be ‘in scope’ for the rest of us as we interpret the findings of their Report and seek to move forward on the basis of their conclusions and recommendations. And that’s almost as uncomfortable for today’s largely ideology-free Green Movement as it is for a generation of politicians who’ve never known anything else in terms of today’s overwhelmingly dominant political paradigm.

Which tells me one thing above all else: seeking to de-politicise our pressing decarbonisation challenge is pure escapism.
 

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