The fight to battle climate change and global heating has always been one led by narrative. Despite decades of irrefutable scientific work that has shown the extent to which we are skirting with global disaster, the reality of climate change and its reason—our energy dependence on fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas—needed to overcome the denial and obfuscation of the fossil fuel industry as the dominant narrative for the historic UN Paris Agreement of 2016 to come to pass.
However, that was seven years ago, and since then, despite some progress in making the global transition to renewable energy, the international will for climate action has flagged. The current focus is on slow, incremental action, while global emissions continue to rise. The 2016 climate deal had underlined the need to limit global temperature rise to “well below” 2°C compared to the pre-industrial (1850-1900) global average, by 2100. The agreement had further stated the international resolve to limit this temperature rise to below 1.5°Celsius, in order to “significantly reduce the risks and impacts” of climate change. This 1.5°C goal was reaffirmed as recently as November 2022 during the G20 conference and COP27 international climate conference.
However, on the basis of current international climate pledges, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) forecast in 2022 that the world is on course to heat up by at least 2.8°Celsius by 2100. Recent World Meteorological Organization (WMO) analysis has found that according to current trends, that there is a nearly 50% chance that the world will temporarily breach the 1.5 degree threshold by 2026. The choices are clear: In order to achieve the 1.5 degree goal, current global emissions need to be halved by 2030 and brought to zero by 2050. Another nine years of global emissions at 2022 levels will deplete the world’s carbon budget (the amount of fresh emissions that humans can afford to pump into the atmosphere and still keep within the 1.5 degree goal).
A new study prepared by two English policy thinktanks—Chatham House and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)—makes a much-needed appraisal of the state of the current climate narrative. The study, titled 1.5°C–Dead Or Alive? The Risks To Transformational Change From Reaching and Breaching The Paris Agreement Goal, is an important document that analyses the ways that the urgency of climate action can be reclaimed from the current state of moribund international efforts. The urgency is clear from the provocative title of the study, but it is a hopeful—if clear-eyed—stock-take of the current state of international willingness to combat humankind’s gravest existential threat.
As the writers of the report point out, the likelihood of the success of the global effort, to keep global heating under the extremely dangerous threshold of 1.5°C, is increasingly being debated. And the laxity of the world’s governments to tackle this in a war footing is largely to blame for this. After all, whereas annual carbon emissions is supposed to be on a steep downward trajectory right now, what we are experiencing is the absolute opposite. Current atmospheric CO2 and methane levels are at an all-time high, and the planet’s remaining carbon budget is fast dwindling. In this scenario, there are an increasing number of voices—scientists, policymakers, activists—that are wondering if we can actually do anything to avoid catastrophic climate change.
The study’s authors ask whether such a viewpoint is actually factually correct, and is it helpful? The declaration of death of the 1.5 degree objective, the authors argue, could stem from a sincere need to create greater urgency, a misplaced sense of pragmatism, or more sinister motives that favours the fossil fuel industry. The report also suggests that this new narrative may be the result of fact that actual climate action is progressing at a snail’s pace, and people are jaded by mainstream messaging around climate change.
And then there is what the authors call the ‘Doom Loop’. As government resources around the world are increasingly called upon to deal with the fallout of present climate impacts—flooding, wildfires, heatwaves—the will to address the root cause of all this, decreasing carbon emissions, is being lost. This could be driving the view that the goal of keeping heating below 1.5°C is impractical and that the focus should instead be entirely on adapting to climate impacts…while continuing to use fossil fuels for our energy needs!
This is an extremely dangerous and callous line of reasoning, since there is something called ‘limits to adaptation’. Long used by climate scientists, it means exactly what it says: Communities and countries can adapt to climate change only to a certain extent. If the global average temperature increases beyond the 1.5 degree threshold, certain climate tipping points—e.g. the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers, the dieback of the Amazon rainforest—may render human attempts to adapt to a hot, inhospitable Earth well-nigh impossible. However, this inaction on beginning an immediate transition to renewable energy and transforming the nature of global economic activity in order to preserve the planet and human life, is exactly what fossil fuel interests are demanding. Nobody denies climate change any longer. The focus has instead shifted to delaying meaningful action.
The report’s authors state that in order to counter policy paralysis, an urgent re-evaluation of the narrative of climate action is the need of the hour. “Narratives are needed that are able to convey the accelerating danger and spur rapid, transformative change—and are more robust to exploitation by fossil interests and other delayers.” The question shouldn’t be whether 1.5°C is dead. It is whether the current state of public climate communication needs to change, so that public opinion can force governments to do the right thing.