Menu Menu

The world needs to prepare for exceeding 1.5˚C warming

Falling short of our most ambitious climate targets is a reality that nobody wants to face, but it needn’t be the end of hope.

At the Paris Climate Agreement, the world’s leading governments committed to keep global warming well below 2˚C (3.6˚F) above pre-industrial levels while trying to limit temperature increase to 1.5˚C (2.7˚F). Save a miracle, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the global community is going to meet this target.

The baseline aims set by world leaders in Paris was predicated on the advice of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who found that since human-based carbon emissions rose significantly during the Industrial Revolution, human activities had resulted in approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels.

Though the proverbial train of warming had already left the station, the IPCC counselled that keeping the effects of climate change to below catastrophic level would require a concerted effort to cap rising temperatures at 2˚C by 2030.

The IPCC showed in a later report that the practical difference between 2˚C and 1.5˚C of average warming would in fact be the difference between mild and meteoric calamity.

At a 2˚C increase over pre-industrial levels, extreme heat events would be 2.6x worse on average, there’s be 10x more summers without sea ice, species loss would be up to 3x worse, and the sea level would rise 0.6m more compared to 1.5˚C.

The latter and more ambitious goal thus became the rallying cry for climate activists. Keep warming below 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels between now and 2030, lest you be responsible for the havoc promised above.

The thing is, the world is currently on course to miss both their 1.5˚C and their 2˚C targets by 2030, and by quite a significant margin.

A full turn of the wheel would require rapid, coordinated, international action on a scale never seen in human history. The closest comparison scientists have found to the scale of effort required to fulfil the Paris goals is ‘mobilisation on the level of World War Two.’

To continue with this metaphor, when it came to the giant military and industrial leaps required by the world to deal with WWII, governments found it easy to incentivise a population with bombs falling on their heads.

When it comes to climate change, the capitalist oligarchies have more reason to underplay the threat. Moreover, the physical presence of our adversary is far more distant and harder to gauge. The unfelt facts of glaciers melting in the far off arctic and insect populations declining don’t often register emotionally with the average citizen, and war time levels of fear have not been reached.

Though scientists have been yelling themselves blue in the face since the 80s regarding the possible consequences of climate change, we’ve not mobilised sufficiently. In fact, since scientist James Hanson first testified to Congress that global warming was, indeed, real, humanity has put more CO2 into the atmosphere than they did in all years of human history prior.

According to research from Carbon Brief, emissions would need to fall by 15% a year globally starting this year if we are to have even a sliver of hope of hitting net zero by 2030, which is a Paris Agreement target. The IPCC has said that an investment of $2.4 trillion more per year is needed in the energy system alone until 2035 to limit temperature rise to below 1.5˚C, an amount that certainly can’t be covered by the public sector.

Climate hawks have clung to the odd IPCC report notionally ‘proving’ that net zero by 2030 is possible, but only with sufficient torturing of climate models and contorting national budgets. And sure, technically it is possible.

However, as David Roberts points out in this article for Vox, ‘Such scenarios generally involve everything going just right: every policy is passed in every sector, every technology pans out, we take no wrong turns… If we roll straight sixes for long enough, we can still win this.’

Needless to say, the implication here is that such a scenario is unlikely, and a bet that the smart punter wouldn’t take. All the new technology and climate conferences in the world won’t plug the hole that a lack of political willingness leaves.

Acknowledging this is not merely climate alarmism. The consequences of maintaining blind optimism towards the Paris Agreement could be dire for parts of the world where we see the 1.5˚C threshold already being exceeded.

In Bangladesh last year, climate change accelerated old forces of natural destruction and displacing the native population in record numbers. Australia and California face escalating bushfire disasters year upon year. Flooding in areas of the Midwest of the USA is threatening infrastructure that could take out the internet for the entire country. A report from the US Government Accountability Office estimates that that there could be as many as 143 million climate refugees by 2050.

The Australia Fires: Everything You Need to Read - The New York Times

Forced optimism is not going to help these communities prepare for seasonal catastrophe. The world needs to grapple with the climate targets it’s actually reaching: climate change isn’t something that might happen when the thermometer reaches a certain level, it’s something that’s happening.

The greater our preparedness for a now almost certain ‘worst case scenario’, the better. The Australian government is a perfect example of a state actor that, instead of burying its head in the sand about the certainty of worsening bushfires, should work to ratify next year’s blaze this year. This could include mobilising the military reserves for firefighting capabilities ahead of time, ensuring that they’re sufficiently trained.

Exceeding 1.5˚C, which is certain to happen in Gen Z’s lifetime, doesn’t mean that we should feel apathetic or paralyzed. Whilst the negative effects of global warming have an obviously correlative relationship with rising temperatures, 1.5˚C isn’t a magical delineating line between hope and hopelessness. Climate policy should always revolve around the notion of ‘as much as we can, as soon as we can’, and being honest with ourselves about how much has already been done simply serves to suggest what’s left to do.


Thred Newsletter!

Sign up to our planet-positive newsletter