Is it game over for our efforts to avert dangerous climate change? For millions of people in India and Pakistan, the answer is clearly yes, as they continue to suffer a record-breaking spring heat wave that is testing the limits of human survivability.
As global emissions continue, such extreme weather will become more likely. In 2015, the international community agreed that a warming of more than 1.5°C would cause unbearable devastation. This was enshrined in the Paris Agreement, which aimed to limit temperature increases since pre-industrial levels to well below 2°C, with a target of 1.5°C. In reality, there is a huge wave of impacts between 1.5°C and 2°C. The IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report shows that once in 50 years heat waves are nine times more likely to occur at 1.5°C and 14 times more likely to occur at 2°C.
The 1.5°C target requires immediate, major and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But emissions are currently rising as the global economy recovers from COVID-19. At current speed and inactivity, the average global surface temperature of our home planet will rise to more than 1.5°C shortly after 2030. The World Meteorological Organization estimates that there is now a 50:50 chance that temperatures will rise above 1.5°C within a year. next five.
Does this mean the Paris accord has failed? What about climate politics and activism? These and other questions are only getting more pressing. We must now come up with answers and strategies to deal with their answers. And we need to do that while remembering that every fraction of a degree of warming saved will save people, ecosystems and nations that would be doomed as temperatures rise.
As complex as the conundrum of climate change is, in important ways it can be characterized by a simple question: How many people are we willing to see die as a result of our governments and banks’ continued coddled with the fossil fuel industry? And let’s not forget that it will be the poorest people in the world – those least responsible for the problem – who will cause the most deaths. If warming were significantly higher than 1.5°C, many people in wealthier, industrialized countries would join them. The climate breakdown is non-linear, so a 3°C warmer world would have much more than twice the impact of a 1.5°C world. Stable societies may be impossible. Humanity may be plunged into a period of mass death.
In many ways, this not-so-distant future world is unimaginable. Yet this is the world that a recent survey of IPCC lead authors — scientists who prepare the comprehensive assessment reports on climate change — found most likely. Leading scientific journal Nature found that 60% of those who responded concluded that of all possible futures for humanity, a 3°C warming by 2100 seemed the most likely. Only 4% of respondents believed 1.5°C was likely.
Wealth and power are obstacles
If we want to limit the destruction and death that climate change will cause, and at the same time give all of humanity a good, decent and dignified life, we need to look at how our civilization’s resources are used and how they are accumulated. That means we have to respond to the political reality that there are powerful forces that keep us locked in our current trajectory. Such forces have arisen as a result of centuries of exploitation of fossil fuels that have created vast concentrations of both wealth and power. Is it any surprise that this wealth and power resists redistribution?
That is not to say that technological and financial innovations are not important. We need to harness new ways to generate carbon-free electricity while reshaping the processes that channel the trillions of dollars flowing around the world so that they find their way to just and equitable climate solutions. But in the absence of deeper engagement with the drivers of our current crisis, such acts can only serve as a patch.
Keep Climate Justice Alive
In that context, we need to think about where we are now. Declaring that 1.5°C has been lost, that the Paris Agreement is dead, threatens to play directly on a story of dangerous delay. Many people, instead of being persuaded into desperate and comprehensive action to keep global warming as low as possible, may instead conclude that this means we will fall back to 2°C. Such a conclusion would be music to the ears of fossil fuel advocacy groups who have opposed decarbonisation for decades – and we risk being held to a warming well above 2°C.
There are legitimate fears that, as the situation deteriorates rapidly, political pressure will be applied to keep us safe – where “we” in this case will be some of those living in rich, industrialized countries. The fact that these countries are most responsible for the problem can make little difference if politics takes a strong protectionist turn. Securing energy, food and water supplies – ensuring national security – would take precedence, sending desperate migrants and climate refugees away from the borders and condemning them to danger, famine and death. This means that the majority of humanity is effectively abandoned to face unprecedented environmental changes with all the potential for failure and even collapse of social, economic and political systems.
Dangerous road to safety
The Paris Agreement was a rare victory for those most vulnerable to climate change. The fact that we are on track to go beyond 1.5°C should not be a reason to deny the values that underpin it. It should instead focus minds and energies.
The decisions we make become more important – not less – as the world warms. If our actions were truly transformative, yes — it might still be possible to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C, or stay as close as possible.
But we must be honest about the prospects of such a transformation given the deeply dysfunctional political and economic systems in which we find ourselves. This includes the powerful forces that will continue to vigorously oppose our actions. So we have to go beyond the meek and vague request for “more political will”. If we want to keep humanity safe, if we want to keep the extraordinarily complex and beautiful world in which we live, we must not turn away from the situation we find ourselves in and the difficult and dangerous paths to safety. We all need to get involved and active to protect our world, by any means necessary.
Are we on track to limit warming to a maximum of 1.5°C? No, we’re not close. So: what are we – what are you – going to do about it?
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