Guest blog: Rosie Watson’s response to the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees

October 12th, 2018 Posted by Blogs No Comment yet

Note: The views in this blog are my own, and do not represent an organisational standpoint by 2050 Climate Group.

The IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees was published on Saturday, with a (disappointingly) short blast of media attention. It reports that urgent, transformative action is needed to mitigate severe climate change, at a scale significantly beyond any current commitments made to date, including those made at the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, 2015. The report outlines the difference between stabilising global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels (with little or no overshoot), compared to 2 degrees of warming (we are currently at about 1 degrees). These differences are extreme and detailed, and many have argued that the report shows that things are even worse than we had thought, due to the limited timescale we have to make this change – 1.5 degrees warming is on track to be reached between 2030 and 2052. This blog aims to show two sides to the report, which are both true, but will leave with a call for action.

The negative reality

It is important to face emotionally the true nature of this crisis, and connect with it in a deep way, despite how tempting it is to turn away and focus on ‘normal life’ which can seem comfortingly absorbing and unchanged. For example, consider what a world characterised by more intense and frequent hot extremes, extreme precipitation, more droughts, floods, storms and natural disasters actually means. To give one example, the difference in 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming is the difference in sea level rise of 10 million more people being exposed to flooding. These changes to local climate and weather patterns mean that those who are dependent on farming and agriculture, and the millions already living on the poverty line and unable to absorb such shocks, disproportionately suffer. The systems people depend on to live are destroyed, homes become uninhabitable, and they are displaced, potentially leading to a mass migration crisis. Ecosystems shift in makeup, and the climatic range which species can survive shrinks or shifts to quickly for them to adapt, resulting in mass extinction. Food systems fail.

The more we have to deal in a reactive way to these events, the less capacity we will have globally and nationally to take mitigation efforts, and control the situation unfolding around us. These examples only scrape the surface of the impacts we face if we fail to act quickly, and this is before we even get into the potential of reaching a tipping point in interconnected global systems such as ocean acidification, drying wetlands/rainforests and permafrost loss, which could result in ‘runaway climate change’ entirely out of human control due to natural feedback loops. Steffen et al (2018) outlined earlier this year that this is much more likely to happen after 1.5 degrees warming is overshot. However, the IPCC found that current commitments are consistent with a 3-degree warming pathway. They name international cooperation as a key enabler for success, yet some argue that countries are becoming more insular and closed, while the debate of ‘who is to blame’ rages on, and nations backtrack from their measly climate commitments many times faster than they were made. The IPCC found that poorly designed responses could actually increase emissions, inequality and poverty, and there is a risk that sticky tradeoffs will have to be made – for example the demand on land use for biofuel versus food security.

The positive reality

The above is all true, but equally true is an opportunity – which is essential to grasp with both hands if we are to have any hope of success. The IPCC report that by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, all of these impacts would be significantly reduced, in some cases, halved or more (compared to 2 degrees warming). To focus biasedly on humans, this means less livelihoods lost, less hunger, less people displaced, and more people with the capacity for mitigation action, than if we reached 2 degrees warming. 1.5 degrees pathways also have synergies with improved air quality, reduced vulnerability of human and natural systems, reduced disaster risks, improved health, maintained ecosystems, and reduced poverty and inequality. They could include empowerment of often ignored groups such as women and indigenous groups, with opportunities for collaboration between different types of knowledge and worldviews. The IPCC emphasise that these opportunities for synergies are far greater than the risk of damaging trade-offs. To top it off, the IPCC found that the rate of transformative change has happened before in specific contexts, many of the options for success are technically proven at various scales, and that overall, it is physically possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

The IPCC state that in 1.5 degree pathways all people, sectors, industries and nations must take ambitious action. They state international cooperation as a key enabler of success. What if this could be used to positively counter the trends towards more insular and closed societies – what if tackling climate change offers an opportunity to reconnect on a common, global goal? The IPCC report shows the extent of what we can save, by stabilising warming to 1.5 degrees. This is something which unites us globally, and so could bring us together on an unprecedented scale. Can we do it? Human history is littered with stories of human resilience in the most extreme circumstances, in situations where people knew they had every chance stacked against their success. The most magical events in human history are characterised by situations where something which seemed impossible, became possible. I don’t believe it is necessary to know if something can be done, in order to act, try and believe.

What is ‘transformational change’?

Although the IPCC does not cover in detail what this means, I suggest that this is not simply switching one fuel for another, a petrol car for an electric car or going from plastic to paper, or switching to LED’s, or meat to plants. This is an opportunity for whole system change – to redesign an inclusive mobility system; to move from an ownership economy to a sharing/service economy; to rethink how we grow, distribute, transport and share food; to re-evaluate our role as humans in a natural world. This is the time for questions like: Is there a place for business which doesn’t provide a deeper social or environmental purpose? Is an economic system targeted predominantly on economic growth fit for purpose? What values underpin our societies systems? Could we get people around without private cars? Should businesses be allowed to advertise as relentlessly, driving consumption?

2050 Climate Group is run entirely by and for 18-35 year olds, aiming to engage, educate and empower to create a social movement of young people taking action on climate change. The main body of work involves taking on 130 ‘young leaders’ every year, who go through a development program which helps them take action in their personal, professional and political lives. The organisation is run almost entirely by young volunteers who dedicate a huge amount of time alongside full-time jobs. The organisation represents the idea that although individual action is important, those actions are more powerful when they are connected in a network – the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Individuals from the program have created change in their workplaces, extended their learning to their colleagues, become young trustees in other organisations, started businesses, run campaigns, spoken in parliament, and been part of the groups political consultations. This is something anyone (of any age) can do – you all have leverage points which enable you to make change bigger than what you could do alone. Your workplace, your industry, your street, town, your club, your friends and family. Everyone can consider their personal, professional and political lives and find these points of leverage, ways to increase momentum, and to ask the above ‘big questions’ of true system change.

There is no time to wait for others to act first, to figure out who is to blame more, to wonder if there is any point if x, y and z aren’t acting. It’s time to simply ‘get on with it’. There will be no perfect time for transformational change, or a time where everyone will suddenly ‘begin’ simultaneously and in total agreement. By re-imagining on a deep level how we live, this can be a route to a better, healthier and fun world for everybody and everything. By taking leadership towards this, no matter what anyone else is doing, it will increase the likelihood of a rapid social movement where a minority issue becomes a majority. 1.5 degrees of warming is expected to be reached between 2030 and 2052. To reiterate, there is no perfect, convenient or comfortable time to start transformational change. Everybody can step up and be a leader. What the IPCC Special Report really does say, is that 2050 starts now.

Rosie is our Engagement & Information Assistant. She is interested in transformational change and the deeper systems of culture, worldviews and values behind our big global problems. If climate change wasn’t so urgent, she would spend all her time running in the mountains, wild swimming and climbing. Contact: rosie.watson@2050.scot

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