Climate action: the time for incrementalism is over
It is much later, and much more urgent than you think.
I wrote the following piece for Illuminem last year. It is just as relevant today, if not even more so with the passage of time. With COP28 on at the moment I thought it would be a good reminder of what we risk losing if we do not respond to our ecological crises with the urgency they demand.
The stakes are really high
A climate study was published in the online journal Nature earlier this month, which was reported in the mainstream press with positive headlines such as “2 degrees still possible”. The study states that the combined revised targets - not policies - of all the signatories to the Paris Agreement means that we have a 50% chance of keeping warming below 2°C versus pre-industrial times. I’m not a betting person, but given what is at stake, those sound like terrible odds. Furthermore, as I‘ll outline below, the evidence suggests that we will activate a ‘global tipping point’ before we reach 2°C of warming, a point of no return in which the natural world will contribute to warming in such a way that it will no longer matter what we do, the Earth will be 3°C warmer than pre-industrial times before the end of this century, and several degrees warmer again after that. Scientists state that this is an existential risk to humanity. These new and improved targets - which are not yet supported by policies - are still too little and are still too late.
In this talk for Scientist Rebellion Australia, the late climate scientist, Professor Will Steffen highlights the individual tipping points that are likely to be triggered before the year 2050, including:
West Antarctic sea ice: we could lose this “within ten years”, and if so, sea levels will eventually rise three metres because of it.
Amazon rainforest: the current projection is that we have “five to ten years” before the rainforest tips into a new state, that of a savannah.
Greenland ice sheet: we could lose this in “20 to 25 years”, and if so, sea levels will eventually rise seven metres because of it.
If these ecological points tip, Professor Steffen believes a global cascade “is very likely”, leading to what he terms a “hothouse Earth”: an Earth that is virtually uninhabitable for humans.
The IPCC report
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) 2021 Sixth Assessment Report is consistent with Steffen’s analysis, stating that catastrophic events – collapse of major ice sheets, rapid temperature increases – “cannot be ruled out and are part of risk assessment”. In the talk above, Steffen reminds us that “the current rates of CO2 and temperature change are almost unprecedented in the entire 4.5-billion-year geological past”, that 3°C of warming is “catastrophic” and it will mean that we “are likely to see the collapse of the globalised society that we live in today”. Finally, he makes it clear that “as the science improves, tipping elements appear to be vulnerable at lower temperatures”: the more we learn, the closer the threat appears to be. He is clear that we are in a climate emergency and have been for some time.
The word ‘emergency’ is defined as “a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action”. Sadly, the world’s response to the climate emergency is akin to setting a date in the future to put out a house fire or calling for an ambulance to the scene of a car accident and telling them to arrive by the end of the month. Wholly inadequate and incompatible with avoiding the worst outcomes. Limits such as 1.5 or 2°C and ‘net-zero by 2050’ are not equal to the scale of the threat: there is a very real risk a global tipping cascade could be triggered before both 2°C of warming and the year 2050. As environmental journalist George Monbiot states: “[if] Earth systems tip as a result of global heating, there will be little difference between taking inadequate action and taking no action at all”. Don’t be mistaken, this is not a call to do nothing at all, but a call to implement policies that are actually going to prevent warming, not make us feel good about ‘trying’ all the while not doing nearly enough.
The way forward
We need to decarbonise with urgency, which will require war-like mobilisation starting now and completed as quickly as possible - quite the opposite to the ‘carbon budgets’ and ‘targets set in the future for someone else to achieve’ that we are currently being placated with. We have already squandered three decades to not only inaction, but actively making the situation worse by increasing our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are now 60% higher than they were in 1990. Gone is our chance to decarbonise slowly. We have only one option now: to rapidly reduce our GHG emissions whilst ensuring that the needs of all are met in the process.
In many ways it is a race against tipping points. Can we reach a global social tipping point and the subsequent meaningful action that such a movement would unleash in time to avoid activating a global ecological tipping point? Can we get enough people to actively care before it’s too late? We will know when we have triggered the social tipping point because we will begin to see genuine climate action, as outlined in this article by economic anthropologist, Professor Jason Hickel. Genuine climate action in wealthy nations starts by nationalising the energy industry - removing the profit motive that has derailed climate action for many decades - and ensuring energy goes where it is needed most as we wind down fossil fuels until they are virtually eliminated by the mid-2030s. Until governments do this they are simply continuing to give us lip service, as they have done for the last three decades.
The social tipping point is a challenge, I can attest to that. Getting people to care about the world we leave to our children – indeed the world we, ourselves, will experience in just a couple of decades - is much harder than it should be. Many people don’t change their minds based on very clear and very well-established facts. There are all sorts of reasons why people prefer to pretend that climate change is not real, or that we are doing enough, or it is for someone else to worry about while they go on with their everyday business. Furthermore, gaining momentum for a social movement is difficult because of decades long corporate campaigns to seed denial, deflect attention and delay action. In many countries climate change has been politicised due to corporate lobbying, rendering it a taboo topic, when what we really need to be doing is speaking about it as much as we can, to whoever we can. When we talk about climate change we may not always change hearts and minds, but we may plant seeds that will be watered as the momentum grows.
It is much later, and much more urgent than you think. We are in a climate emergency and the time for incrementalism has long passed. According to the IPCC:
The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.
It is impossible to overstate how much we need everyone’s voice right now. This is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced and it is happening in our lifetimes. Collectively, how we spend our time on this magnificent planet is of monumental consequence. I promise you: you’ll never regret doing all you can to help stop climate change, but there may well come a time that you wish you’d done more.