The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just published their fifteenth special report, which projects the changes we can expect with warming of 1.5°C and 2.0°C. While the full special report is quite long, the summary for policymakers is approachable to nonprofessionals. They also produced a three-page headline summary — the IPCC equivalent of “tl;dr.” As the institute is dedicated to understanding how our world is changing as we look to a future where fossil fuels are not as abundantly available, we wanted to take a look at this new report.
We’ve caused 1°C of warming since industrialization with the combustion of previously sequestered carbons — that is, our burning of fossil fuels and production of carbon dioxide — and this increase will persist for centuries to millennia. As the earth’s temperature continues to rise, ecosystems and human infrastructure are at greater risk of negative impacts; they are bad if we hit 1.5°C and worse if we reach 2.0°C. Effects include warmer temperatures, more extreme weather systems, heavier precipitation in some areas with drought in others.
If we can keep to the lower projection of 1.5°C total warming instead of reaching 2.0°C, the sea will rise 10 cm less because less ice will melt, half as many species and ecosystems will be threatened or become extinct due to habitat loss or change, oceans and their fisheries and ecosystems will be better off as acidification and loss of dissolved oxygen will be less pronounced, and finally, human systems, health, economies, food networks, water, and security will be less disrupted.
To limit ourselves to 1.5°C, we must drop carbon emissions almost in half by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050. Even to hit the 2.0°C mark, emissions must decline 20 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2075. Three pathways are described to reach these goals: 1) drastically reducing (fossil-fueled) energy use, 2) greatly cut carbon-based energy use with some reliance on carbon capture and storage (which is not yet a reality at scale), 3) somewhat reduced carbon emissions with greater reliance on the development and implementation carbon-capture technology. The authors illustrate a fourth pathway, showing business-as-usual emissions and a heavy reliance on large-scale carbon-capture technology — this scenario is projected to lead to high warming. The authors note that even keeping to the ambitious Paris goals would not limit our temperature increase to 1.5°C. If the nations stick to their stated emissions plans, we might be looking at twice as much warming.
Not only will a warming planet affect ecosystems and human infrastructure, it will make it harder to reduce global inequality and poverty. Development that focuses on sustainability is necessary to help reduce inequality and help communities rise out of poverty without increasing emissions. Many avenues must be supported, from investment strategies and government policies to technological innovation and change in our behavior, all focused on climate-resilient development and adaptation. International cooperation of national and subnational groups is necessary for this strategy to be effective.
This special report represents potential ways forward, but unfortunately, we will likely to experience the worse-case scenarios identified here. The report discusses how the “developing” world could be part of the solution, where the poorest inhabitants of the world are paid to maintain natural carbon sinks (forests, wetlands, and other carbon-hungry ecosystems) and where development in these areas could be made with climate change in mind, unlike much of the inefficient infrastructure of the “developed” world.
Many news outlets have called attention to the dire predictions of this special report. Wired cries that “we need massive change to avoid climate hell.” Vox worries that “we have just 12 years to limit devastating global warming.” NPR is more reserved, noting that the report “warns of extreme weather, and displacement of millions without action,” while the Washington Post writes that “the clock is ticking to stop catastrophic global warming.” We do not need to reiterate anything beyond the above summary of catastrophic system failures and changes, especially if we exceed the 2°C scenarios.
As a former teacher, though, I know how much people like putting off difficult work, especially when effort doesn’t pay off until much later. It seems that short-term considerations (profit, convenience, etc.) will trump long-term goals in our current economic and political system. As long as fossil fuel industries remain lucrative, they will exert outsized force on the levers of power. If the report deals with this, it doesn’t do it enough. As thorough and conservative as the IPCC is, they are short on social commentary, which is typical of more science-heavy organizations. This is important in one regard: to be seen as an unbiased reporter of facts and data. Unfortunately, in the considered opinion of the institute staff, it is a clear fact that the emission of greenhouse gasses is inexorably linked to our economic system and fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure. By ignoring the important social and economic aspects of global warming, it removes culpability and is less likely to spur those responsible to action.
Another worrisome item in the report is that the only way to limit emissions without relying on the still-developing carbon-capture technology is to quickly cut emissions now, and even that requires “carbon dioxide removal” practices, such as reforestation. Continuing on our current (or even moderately reduced) emissions pathway, we become dependent on the success of carbon capture to keep the world to 2.0°C, let alone 1.5°C. It appears that the economic and political powers that be are willing to bet on the development of technologies rather than make painful cuts in existing industry and infrastructure that would let us reach the same goal. We already have the tools to make this happen, yet we want to hold out hope for a future fix so that we can continue our current way of life.
The Low Technology Institute will work to develop strategies to house, clothe, and feed ourselves in the post-fossil-fuel world, whether that is 1.5°C or 2.0°C warmer . . . or wherever the climate ends up. We are working to use the relatively comfortable time we have now to plan for a more difficult one ahead. Come join us.