Things are not basically OK and never will be again during the lives of any of us. The task is to take these difficult truths and turn them into motivation, ammunition, energy.
Rupert Read is Co-Director of the Climate Majority Project, which seeks to embody the ideas set out in this article, and author of Why climate breakdown matters (Bloomsbury Press), which provides the full background for them.
Thanks to Joseph Eastoe for invaluable research- and editorial- assistance in putting together this piece.
There is at present in the UK a Radio 4 drama on our airwaves: ‘Invasive species’. The initial premise is: the drama is set on the day that the official passing of 1.5 degrees C as the world’s average temperature is announced.
Once upon a time, this was a counter-factual. Now it is just obviously a reliable prediction. Something that is going to happen.
The Paris Agreement on climate has failed: we are obviously going to sail past 1.5 degrees C of average global over-heat, and probably past 2.
Earth’s systems are breaking down; there is no other way to describe what is happening at present to Antarctic sea ice, or to Atlantic temperatures, for instance.
These truths are known to – agreed, at least privately – by virtually everyone in the academic climate community. They are finally being spoken in some places in public very recently, for instance by the former head of the IPCC Bob Watson: see below for details.
And yet politicians and business-leaders continue to speak and act as though things are still basically OK, and we can stay below 1.5, in the ‘safe’ (sic) zone. The press continues regularly to feature lauded voices of ‘climate optimism’, who call out the stating of such truths as those noted in the previous paragraphs as ‘doomism’.
What prevents elites – politicians, civil servants, commentators – from speaking out truthfully is a toxic combination either being insufficiently well-informed (because of the hold that ‘climate optimism’ has upon the media, upon activism, upon politics) or fearing that if they did speak out they would only demoralise people.
That fear is proving fatal to us. For it is holding us back from collectively facing reality.
What is essential is to trust the people: to trust that, if told the truth, and offered help processing it, and offered powerful ways of acting upon it, and given the sense that there are (as there are) many millions of people feeling the same way as them, people will fight back. As they (we) did during World War II for instance. And not just curl up in a ball.
There is evidence to support such trusting: see e.g. https://usercontent.one/wp/climatemajorityproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/CMP-Market-Research-Short-Summary.pdf?media=1685459711 .
Thus there is grounds for active hope: hope grounded precisely in realism not in delusion.
To understand these points fully — to appreciate fully how in the very knowledge of our predicament is the potential route through it — we must first look more deeply at the enormity of what we now have to give up.
Now that we found 1.5 is dead, what are we gonna do with it?
In 2015, 196 countries around the world united to sign the Paris Agreement which agreed that these international bodies would make efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.” Whilst hailed as a great achievement in international diplomacy, critics worried whether countries would adhere to this agreement, with many scientists voicing their concerns over the following 8 years that not enough was being done, and that the target of 1.5C was going to be missed.
Rather than being fringe critics, the consensus has now changed; mainstream scientists are now increasingly publicly stating that our chances of limiting warming to 1.5C is now effectively zero.
Recently Professor Sir Bob Watson, who has long been a leading British climate scientist (most notably, he headed up the IPCC), voiced his belief that the world was certainly not going to stick to the 1.5C of warming that was agreed upon at Paris. Watson told the BBC Today programme that “The big issue is we need to reduce greenhouse gases now to even be on the pathway to be close to 1.5C or 2C. We need to reduce current emissions by at least 50% by 2030. The trouble is the emissions are still going up, they are not going down.” Watson went on to say that not only was he pessimistic of the likelihood of sticking to 1.5C, but “in fact I’m very pessimistic about achieving even 2 degrees C”. This is a man who previously chaired the IPCC between 1997 and 2002, who was the World Bank’s Senior Advisor for Sustainable Development, who was the Chief Scientific Advisor to DEFRA between 2007 and 2012, and who is the current Director of Strategic Development for the world-leading Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. It is hard to imagine a man more qualified than Sir Watson to speak on the matter of 1.5C degrees of average global overheating, and on the tragedy of us not staying below that ‘safe limit’ – with everything that implies (which we explore below).
Elsewhere, a letter was sent to Rishi Sunak by Lord Nicolas Stern and 14 other figures who were involved in the 2022 COP26 conference in Glasgow, strongly condemning the UK’s shameful ducking of strong climate change legislation. Lord Stern, who has been the Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE since 2008, appeared on the World at One and argued that the 1.5 target was probably already beyond our reach. Stern then went on to outline the devastating future we are most likely facing, including heating of “2.5 to 3 degrees, millions and possibly billions of people moving . . . the consequences of 2.5 degrees would be absolutely awful.”
BBC’s Climate Editor Justin Rowlatt reported that there has long been a muted discussion within the climate science community as to whether they should publicly announce that the world will miss the 1.5C target. In response to the letter sent to Sunak by Stern and others, as well as the comment Sir Watson made on the Today Programme, Rowlatt argues that there is now a tacit consensus painfully emerging among the climate community that 1.5C is dead.
How not to respond
How do we deal with such news? Many of us have harboured suspicions that not enough was being done, but to see it confirmed in such stark terms by the most qualified people on the planet is uncomfortable and scary. How can we respond?
Firstly, let’s outline a few possibilities that may seem appealing in response to the news that 1.5C is dead, but that we must resist.
The first is geoengineering. If you’re familiar with my work then it will come as no surprise that this is the first response that we must avoid. Geoengineering is the idea that, just as we have ‘engineered’ a less hospitable world through the continued emissions of fossil fuels, that we allegedly have the physical, chemical, and technical ability literally to engineer our way out of it again. Geoengineering involves playing God with our ecological life-support system, and hoping that everything goes the way that it has been modelled. As climate researchers knows all too well, the climate is a very tricky thing to model accurately, with thousands of variables to take into account (indeed, past models have consistently underestimated the severity of features of climate change). With so many complex variables at stake and so many things to consider that we still don’t fully understand, geoengineering is quite clearly in opposition to the precautionary principle which I and other philosophers (e.g. Nicolas N. Taleb) have urged for.
Shifting the goalposts is also unacceptable and must be something that we are very alert of when others try to do it (and they no doubt will try). We may hear companies and governments announce that they are now going to aim to limit warming to 1.7C, or 1.9C, or some other number; but this tactic could keep going on forever. Indeed, Watson espouses his own concerns about this tactic, saying “if we allow the target to become looser and looser, higher and higher, governments will do even less in the future.” People must be held accountable for our missing of the 1.5C target. The admission of failure to stay below 1.5 must be the moment when we finally get serious. The grave, vast significance of this moment is simply missed if one just passes swiftly onto 1.7 or 2 or whatever.
Lastly, we must avoid getting stuck in despair. The fact that 1.5C is now dead and that the consequences of this will be dire is of course not reason enough to resign ourselves to not do what we can to improve our lot. Everything we do now to reduce the globe’s continued dangerous warming will have a positive, meaningful, real effect down the line. Whilst a 1.6C world is still one with a myriad of climate-caused problems, it is many orders of magnitude preferable to a 2C world, or a 2.5C world, or a 3C world, or, as has been suggested by Mark Lynas, a 6C world. Everything we do now to reduce the overheating effect will help future generations, and this is reason enough not to fall into self-pity, but to be moved into action.
What is to be done
So, having set aside what we shouldn’t do, let’s ask more positively: just what can and should we do? The first thing I think we need to do is to stop and reflect on what the failed 1.5C target now entails; we have to acknowledge the epoch in which we are now living, and we need to respond accordingly via mitigation, transformative adaptation, ecological restoration, compensating for loss and damage — and by looking at ourselves hard in the mirror.
The key point about the passing of 1.5 is this: acknowledging it may prompt temporary depression or despair, but really, fully acknowledging it prompts also anger, determination, motivation as never before. We have been chronically let down by our ‘leaders’. It’s up to us, now…
‘Mitigation’, meaning primarily reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, is the approach that we have collectively been focussed on so far (albeit half-heartedly). It involves focusing our efforts on reducing the causes of dangerous climate change. The 1.5C target set in Paris is an example of mitigation; by limiting warming to 1.5C we would have, in the words of the Paris Agreement, “significantly reduce[d] the risks and impacts of climate change”. Reducing impacts is by all means a good cause, and we must double down our efforts to reducing overheating as quickly as possible to avoid the risks and impacts multiplying further. We cannot outsource responsibility for this to others. It begins with ourselves, e.g. where we work.
However, since we have now failed to limit warming to 1.5C, we must conclude that the risks and impacts are not significantly reduced, and that we will be entering a period of severe climate-change-induced peril. Thus, it is now clear is that we need a far greater emphasis on adaptation, meaning that we are not just aiming to reduce our carbon emissions to limit future dangerous warming as much as we possibly can (mitigation), but that we are also preparing our societies in every way that we can to be better adapted to a future of climate chaos. 1.5C has consequences, and the world is going to have to face those consequences. Indeed, much of the world is already having to face those consequences today, and the notable wildfires that have recently ravaged parts of Europe, Canada and Hawaii is but a taste of the chaos to come. Adaptation involves societies recognising the dangers that come with climate change, and adapting themselves to be better equipped at dealing with those dangers. Adaptation cannot and will not be taken seriously unless and until we face squarely into the failure to stay below 1.5. Only when this failure is really admitted, and reckoned with, can transformative adaptation take its now central place in our consciousness and our actions.
Another key outcome that must come as a result of the 1.5C target being missed is that we must ramp up loss and damage compensation for poorer nations who bear the brunt of climate change impacts. The UN has tried to keep wealthy countries on the path to providing $100 billion per year (which is way too little, actually), but with no way of punishing countries that fail to contribute their share the Green Climate Fund was at least $17 billion shy of that figure in 2020. This is a great tragedy, and not only should the Loss and Damage Fund secure $100 billion per year, but this figure should now grow considerably. (Is this itself a reason why the rich countries don’t want to admit that 1.5 is gone? Because then their responsibility will be more evident, and the calls for them to pay will grow? I think it is.) Now that we are seeing more and more climate chaos, it is imperative that we provide compensation for the poor countries who must deal with a disproportionately high number of the most severe impacts and have disproportionately contributed less emissions that the wealthy nations. From the point of view of any justice-based approach this is the right thing to do; rich countries have primarily caused the problem (and become rich doing so), they must offer to help those (the poor and unresponsible) that face the most brutal consequences. The good news on this frontier is that the Loss and Damage Fund established at last year’s CoP27 (just about the only positive thing to come out of that conference) aims to ramp up international funding for those struggling with the deadly impacts of human-caused climate change. However, just as the Paris Agreement shows, outcomes of CoPs don’t necessarily mean things are going to change, and we must do what we can to make sure pressure is kept on the politicians to deliver a strong and impactful Loss and Damage fund. Last month it was reported that the UK Government was on the verge of breaking its flagship £11.6bn climate and nature funding pledge. This must not be allowed to happen, and we must put the pressure on our politicians to provide the international aid necessary for those facing severe climate impacts.
Overall, I hope that the actions of the world-leading scientists mentioned above in declaring that the internationally agreed upon limit to global overheating is about to be missed wakes up those in power to get serious. But I suspect it won’t. So then it must wake up the rest of us. A sizeable proportion of the population, ultimately a majority, needs to rise to meet to the true severity of what is to come. If that emerging majority includes you — as, reader, it almost certainly does, given that you are still reading now — then it is now our job to hold the politicians to account to do what is needed in terms of mitigation, adaptation etc., and, in lieu of that, to get started ourselves. For, whilst climate decline requires global cooperation, there are actions we can take together in our own lives that will contribute to deciding just how difficult or otherwise the future we leave to our children is going to be.
When you open your eyes to the realities of climate chaos, there is no closing them again. I hope that the action Sir Bob Watson, Lord Stern, and the other renowned scientists took in declaring the death of the key Paris target will open the eyes of many.
Conclusion: Now that the debate has moved on
Ordinary people increasingly sense that we are way into the danger zone. Things are not basically OK and never will be again during the lives of any of us.
The task is to take these difficult truths and turn them into motivation, ammunition, energy.
1.5 is no longer alive: but we will lose the enormity of this moment – of its passing – if we try to pretend it’s still alive, or that it was never that important anyway. Our greatest hope now is to face the difficult truth that Paris is dead, and that the climate debate is moving into the territory not of how we head off disaster but how we cope with it (and ‘adapt’ to it) and lessen its future scale.
When the public really come to understand how let down they have been by their ‘leaders’ (and media, and pretty much everyone), …only then might there be sufficient public appetite for the dramatic action at scale and speed that is warranted by our desperate climate plight. That possibility is inspiring: this may yet be our finest hour…