Is 1.5 degrees the right message for climate action?

This week world leading scientists are gathering in Oxford to discuss the aspiration agreed in Paris of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C. In this blog I am going to put aside what for me is the key question for the conference which is whether 1.5 degrees is conceivably possible without heroic assumptions about technological fixes. I want to wait till after the conference to try to understand this based on what is said.

Instead I want to focus on how we should be communicating climate science to drive climate action, arguing policy makers and scientists have an ethical duty to frame scientific findings differently.

The dominant framing of climate action is based on global targets for the end of the century e.g. 1.5 or 2 degrees C. When communicated well these are clarified with an associated probability e.g. 50% or 66% likelihood, but this is often lost. Sometimes linked to these goals are cumulative carbon or greenhouse gas budgets e.g. a trillion tonnes CO2. At national, local or corporate level, goals are created ‘to align with 2 degrees’, often in the form of percentage reduction targets per annum such as the 80% by 2050 reduction set out in the UK Climate Change Act. These are hard to set as they demand assumptions about, among other things, allocation within the global budget.

Quantitative analysis is fundamental to the future of humanity. It absolutely must be done and we particularly need to keep track of our cumulative emissions, past and projected, so we can prepare for the coming climate disruption. We need to understand the assumptions on which our models depend and to try to make some assessment, independent of vested interests, of the likelihood of these assumptions coming true. For some this sort of quantitative analysis will be vital, perhaps for planning within specific sectors or for investors trying to quantify risk in their portfolios.

However I want to argue here that this quantitative focus has resulted in a framing of climate action which is fundamentally flawed. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly framing dominated by a quantitative understanding of climate change gives the wrong impression about climate action. To me it gives the feeling that climate action can be planned and controlled. The social reality of transformative climate action is that it is complex, uncertain and messy. With a quantitative framing based on a temperature threshold (or ‘guardrail’ as some have taken to calling it) comes a notion that the chosen target is sufficient, it’s safe, within this we will be okay. Clearly this is not the case. People are dying already because of climate change.

Secondly framing dominated by quantitative description is not easy to understand or communicate. I write this as someone who has come to climate science from another discipline (public health/medicine) and spent time trying to understand modelling of climate scenarios and carbon budgets. It is complex and in the large part poorly communicated. Just look at how many people talk of 2 degrees without realising this has an associated probability, or talk of greenhouse gas budgets without being clear what’s included, what assumptions have been made about land use or cement, the distinction between consumption and production footprints, or the allocation decisions made in deciding that budget. It’s all too complicated for most of the situations in which climate action is required. It is important that more people understand key numbers related to climate change, particularly powerful decision makers. However I would argue, that by attempting to frame climate action with quantitative targets up front, we are making our lives harder. 2 degrees, and now 1.5 degrees, has to be one of the most misunderstood quantitative headlines globally ever.

But what alternative is there for those of us who believe in science and support evidence informed policy-making? I think there is an alternative framing we can use. What about if instead of focussing on 1.5 degrees we agree we are past the point we want to be with climate change already? What about if we agree that the faster we go the better the outcomes we will get for humanity? Don’t we agree on this? We have enough science to agree the broad scale and pace of change needed, don’t we? We mustn’t let on-going scientific enquiry, and particularly debate about the challenging task of quantitative modelling, be used to delay action. Climate science tells us we need a radical transformation of our energy sector, our transport sector, our food sector, our built environment and our patterns of consumption if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Rather than arguing about the target we are aiming for and how likely we are to get there what if we all embraced a much simpler qualitative message, something like:

‘Climate change is a global emergency and we need to go as fast as we can to stop it.’

I know a lot of scientists won’t like how this feels, too radical, too emotive, not scientific enough. But do you disagree with it? How we frame climate change will have an impact on how rapidly society changes to address it. Lives depend on how quickly we address it. This means we all have an ethical duty to get our framing of this right. It is my suggestion that a qualitative framing based on a message of going ‘as fast as we can’ is more appropriate for the nature of social action required. It will also be easier to communicate and so more effective.

I am all for scientists working together to understand climate change and the responses society needs to make to this. But perhaps at the next conference we could frame things a bit differently? I think it might save lives if we did.

Please do let me know what you think about these ideas, particularly if you disagree with them.  

P.S. This blog isn’t meant to be a criticism of the conference organisers. I understand the framing has followed the COP21 climate change talks last year. It’s hopefully useful food for thought for next time though.

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