For too long we have dwelt on the ‘climate’ part of climate change. But now the threat is imminent. The direction of change isn’t in doubt. Now we must focus on the ‘change’ part of climate change. We must prepare for huge impacts to our world and work as hard as we can to limit these. I must prepare more. I must change faster.
This is what I have concluded after spending last week listening to world leading scientists who gathered in Paris at the Our Common Future under Climate Change conference.
I found this a very difficult week. Exposure to the reality of climate science is painfully challenging, particularly as a parent and someone who hates knowing every day I am contributing to the deaths of others. I was jarred by the dissonant disconnect between what the science is suggesting we should do and how we, climate scientists and non climate scientists alike, live and work. The conference grotesquely pushed this dissonance to the fore with everything from bottled water to the hundreds of flights which must have been taken to attend the conference. It all seemed so utterly inappropriate and utterly normal. There was little acknowledgement of this although I was pleased to note some recent public attention on the emotional impact of working on climate change and the related dissonance it causes e.g. in the Guardian.
But after a bit of time to let my immediate emotional reactions of sadness and frustration subside I was able look back at the week to find the most important things I heard and to work out how this might change my approach to climate action. On reflection four presentations stood out for me:
David King, a leading academic and now UK climate envoy, shocked me with his framing of the risks of climate change. This suggested, rightly I think, that we should be concerned with risks which are high impact even if they have a low likelihood. Although perhaps more worrying was that when presenting risks of this type such as the probability of severe life threatening heat waves (for which he was using 3 days over 40 degrees C), he showed how the probability of this in various parts of the world shoots up as global average temperature rise, e.g. of 4 degrees and beyond, potentially making some places like northern India deadly places to live. [Watch his talk here. The full report is due out this week].
Kevin Anderson challenged the carbon reduction targets and pathways used by the majority at the conference. For example he pointed out that the UNEP gap report has 163 scenarios with a 50% or better chance of achieving a 2 degree outcome but of these 140 have global emissions peaking in the past (so are impossible) and the rest rely on negative carbon technologies or geo-engineering which are unproven. I think given this he is reasonable to suggest these are not pathways we can rely on. He also pointed out that the 1000GtCO2 remaining budget the IPCC presented for a 66% chance of achieving 2 degrees started in 2011. So we actually have 150Gt less now. Once you factor in the need for emissions from important but hard to change sectors like food and agriculture, and cement, he suggests we have a much smaller budget left (approx. 600GtCO2). On the assumption that this should be allocated fairly across the world this leaves much less for developed countries than governments are currently assuming. In his view a 66% chance of 2 degrees is no longer within reach. For a 50% chance of 2 degrees we need to go ‘onto a war footing’ and reduce our footprint by 10% per annum in the developed world and even for a 33% chance we need to go beyond anything currently being discussed. This is shocking.*[For more on this see Kevin’s blog here or follow him on Twitter @KevinClimate]
Some hope came from Nick Watts’s presentation of the Lancet Commission on Climate Change and Health 2015. This commission, recently published, was clear that while climate change remains a huge threat to health climate action could be the greatest opportunity we have for improving global health due to the many co-benefits which can result. I have blogged about co-benefits before and they remain a key tool in creating a positive vision for the future so it was great for them to be presented at this conference. [Watch Nick’s presentation here.]
And finally the presentation which I think gave me some of the most useful learning was that of Karen O’Brien of Oslo University. In her reframing of climate change from a technical challenge to an adaptive challenge she gave me a vocabulary and rationale based on social sciences to explain the understanding I have come to about climate action from personal experience (see my previous blog). As an adaptive challenge, climate change requires us to rethink our beliefs, values and worldviews, both individual and shared. It is a personal challenge which can make us uncomfortable (I can definitely relate to this) and a political issue which challenges our traditional notions of power. She told us how research suggests we have a lot more agency and capacity for collective action than we might think. A reason for hope I think. She concluded with the message that we need to take human interaction seriously. We aren’t just the problem. We are also the solution. [Watch Karen’s talk here]
So in summary this has moved my focus from aiming for 2 degrees to aiming for zero emissions as fast as possible, acknowledging that wherever we end up there are risks of terrible impacts and we must prepare for these too. As we rush towards zero carbon we should try to maximise the benefits to health of which there are potentially many, and most importantly of all we have more power than we think. Through our social interactions we define our culture and our institutions. It is up to us to make this happen.
I also came to the recognition that there is no simple answer to what any individual should do if they want to go beyond the obvious personal measures. There are a multitude of actions, some of which were talked about at the conference. But for me the most important message came from Kevin Anderson in response to a question from the audience. He described how he increasingly thought of action as part of emergent system change and as such we should be looking to experiment, to try as many things as possible. Even if many of these fail it is only through this trial and error that the changes we need will emerge quickly. I found this a liberating thought allowing me to move away from always trying to find the ‘right’ approach to trying to find the best approach now, acknowledging this could change if not working.
So I have come home knowing I have to prepare for change and do more, much more, much faster. It won’t all work but at least I’ll be out there trying to change things for the better. I will be able to sit with my children at the end of the day knowing I have tried, tried as hard as I can, to make their world better.
As Professor Schellnhuber asked on the last day of the conference do you want to be part of the generation which screwed up the planet for the next 1000 years? I don’t.
Kevin Anderson and his colleagues’s work on cumulative global emissions doesn’t sit well with the majority of presenters who talked about a 2 degree target at the conference as if it were still achievable within our current way of working (often without stating which probability they were using). As someone who isn’t an expert in the details of greenhouse gas emissions scenarios and climate pathways I have to choose who to believe on this. Aside from his status as leading academic in the Tyndall centre and my own reading of some of his work, the main reason his sums have credibility is that I haven’t heard anyone take them apart or shown any flaws in his reasoning. Indeed if the pathways used are based on past peaks or carbon capture and storage then this would seem a difficult thing to challenge. My sense is that the difference between Kevin and the other speakers is that either they haven’t looked at the assumptions in the pathways they are using or they are turning a blind eye to them because of how uncomfortable the answer they get are. There is no sugar coating with Kevin’s work, no avoidance of uncomfortable truths. So if any readers can see flaws in his sums then please do share them. I would really like them to be wrong. (No offense Kevin! I would just like things to be slightly less challenging!)
Additional Link (added 14th July):
David King and colleagues have now published their report ‘Climate Change – A Risk Assessment‘.