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The sad truth about our boldest climate target

Limiting global warming to 1.5˚C is almost certainly not going to happen. Admitting that need not end hope.

Activists in Berlin stood with signs calling for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius at a rally that criticized Germany’s insufficient climate policy on May 29, 2019.
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Image

In the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the countries participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to a common target: to hold the rise in global average temperature “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” The lower end of that range, 1.5˚C, has become a cause célèbre among climate activists.

Can that target still be met? Take a look at this animation from Carbon Brief:

No graphic I’ve ever seen better captures humanity’s climate situation. If we had peaked and begun steadily reducing emissions 20 years ago, the necessary pace of reductions would have been around 3 percent a year, which is ... well, “realistic” is too strong — it still would have required rapid, coordinated action of a kind never seen before in human history — but it was at least possible to envision.

We didn’t, though. We knew about climate change, there were scientists yelling themselves blue in the face, but we didn’t turn the wheel. Global emissions have only risen since then. Humanity has put more CO2 in the atmosphere since 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen first testified to Congress about the danger of climate change, than it did in all of history prior.

Now, to hit 1.5˚C, emissions would need to fall off a cliff, falling by 15 percent a year every year, starting in 2020, until they hit net zero.

That’s probably not going to happen. Temperature is almost certainly going to rise more than 1.5˚C.

A lot of climate activists are extremely averse to saying so. In fact, many of them will be angry with me for saying so, because they believe that admitting to this looming probability carries with it all sorts of dire consequences and implications. Lots of people in the climate world — not just activists and politicians, but scientists, journalists, and everyday concerned citizens — have talked themselves into a kind of forced public-facing optimism, despite the fears that dog their private thoughts. They believe that without that public optimism, the fragile effort to battle climate change will collapse completely.

I don’t think that’s true, but I can’t claim to know it’s not true. Nobody really knows what might work to get the public worked up about climate change the way the problem deserves. Maybe advocates really do need to maintain a happy-warrior spirit; maybe a bunch of dour doomsaying really will turn off the public.

But it is not the job of those of us in the business of observation and analysis to make the public feel or do things. That’s what activists do. We owe the public our best judgment of the situation, even if it might make them sad, and from where I’m sitting, it looks like the 1.5˚C goal is utterly forlorn. It looks like we have already locked in levels of climate change that scientists predict will be devastating. I don’t like it, I don’t “accept” it, but I see it, and I reject the notion that I should be silent about it for PR purposes.

In this post, I’ll quickly review how 1.5˚C came to be the new activist target and some reasons to believe it might already be out of reach. Then I’ll ponder what it means to admit that, what follows from it, and what it means for the fight ahead.

How 1.5˚C became the “last chance”

The new target adopted in Paris reflected a growing conviction among scientists and activists that 2˚C, the target that had served as a kind of default for years, was in no way “safe.” Climate change at that level would in fact be extremely dangerous. Thus the addition of “efforts” to hit 1.5˚C.

But it wasn’t until last year that the world really got a clear sense of how much worse 2˚C (3.6˚F) would be than 1.5˚C (2.7˚F), after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on the subject. Its findings were grim. Even 1.5˚C is likely to entail “high multiple interrelated climate risks” for “some vulnerable regions, including small islands and Least Developed Countries.”

All of those impacts become much worse at 2˚C. (The World Resources Institute has a handy chart; see also this graphic from Carbon Brief.) Severe heat events will become 2.6 times worse, plant and vertebrate species loss 2 times worse, insect species loss 3 times worse, and decline in marine fisheries 2 times worse. Rather than 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs dying, 99 percent will die. Many vulnerable and low-lying areas will become uninhabitable and refugee flows will radically increase. And so on. At 2˚C, climate change will be devastating for large swathes of the globe.

In short, there is no “safe” level of global warming. Climate change is not something bad that might happen, it’s something bad that’s happening. Global average temperatures have risen about 1.3˚C from pre-industrial levels and California and Australia are already burning.

Still, each additional increment of heat, each fraction of a degree, will make things worse. Specifically, 2˚C will be much worse than 1.5˚C. And 2.5˚C will be much worse than 2˚C. And so on as it gets hotter.

The aforementioned IPCC report is the source of the much quoted notion that “we only have 11 years” to avoid catastrophic climate change (which I suppose now is “only 10 years”). That slogan is derived from the report’s conclusion that, to have any chance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5˚C, global emissions must fall at least 50 percent by 2030.

That goal, a 10-year mobilization to cut global emissions in half, has become the rallying cry of the global climate movement and the organizing principle of the Green New Deal.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, uses a bullhorn to speak to a crowd.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and others at a rally.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Being honest about 1.5˚C

Climate hawks, along with numerous recent scientific and economic reports (including the IPCC’s), emphasize that limiting global warming to 1.5˚C is still possible — physically and economically possible, with technology and resources we now possess.

And it’s true. As the IPCC showed, with sufficient torturing of climate-economic models, it is still possible to construct a pathway whereby emissions decline at the needed rate. Such scenarios generally involve everything going just right: every policy is passed in every sector, every technology pans out, we take no wrong turns and encounter no culs de sac, and climate sensitivity (the amount temperature changes in response to greenhouse gases) turns out to be on the lower end of scientific estimates. If we roll straight sixes for long enough, we can still win this.

The slogan meant to summarize this state of affairs has been around, with variations, for decades: “We have all the tools we need, all we lack is the political will.”

But political will (whatever that is) is not some final item on the grocery list to be checked off once everything else is in the cart. It is everything. None of the rest of it, none of the available policies and technologies, mean anything without it. It can’t be avoided, short-circuited, or wished away.

After all, it is possible to end global poverty in a decade, or even less. We have the technology to do so; it’s called money. The people who have more could give enough to those with less so that everyone had a decent life. Similarly, it’s possible to end global homelessness, habitat destruction, hunger, and war. The resources exist. All we lack is the political will.

But we haven’t ended those things. There are lots and lots of ways to reduce suffering that are possible, and have been possible for a long time, and we still don’t do them. We don’t even do a fraction of what we could to reduce immediate, visible suffering, much less the suffering of future generations and far-off populations. It turns out to be extraordinarily difficult to generate and effectively deploy the political power needed to secure beneficial policies (and hold them in place over time).

It’s not that progress hasn’t been made against a lot of large-scale problems. Global poverty and hunger have been declining. In the US, politics have radically shifted on issues like LGBTQ marriage and drug policy in recent years. Things can change quickly.

But global hunger is starting to edge up again, in no small part thanks to climate change. And climate change is different from those other large scale problems, for two reasons.

A chart showing carbon neutral and carbon negative scenarios.
The trajectory to 1.5˚C, in red.

First, it’s not that progress is swinging around too slow, it’s that there’s very little progress at all. For all the frenzy around renewable energy in recent years, the best we’ve been able to do is slightly slow the rise in global emissions. We’re still traveling headlong in the wrong direction, with centuries of momentum at our backs.

Secondly and consequently, the level of action and coordination necessary to limit global warming to 1.5˚C utterly dwarfs anything that has ever happened on any other large-scale problem that humanity has ever faced. The only analogy that has ever come close to capturing what’s necessary is “wartime mobilization,” but it requires imagining the kind of mobilization that the US achieved for less than a decade during WWII happening in every large economy at once, and sustaining itself for the remainder of the century.

Emissions have never fallen at 15 percent annually anywhere, much less everywhere. And what earthly reason do we have to believe that emissions will start plunging this year? Look around! The democratic world is in the grips of a populist authoritarian backlash that shows no sign of resolving itself any time soon. Oil and gas infrastructure is being built at a furious pace; hundreds of new coal power plants are in the works. No country has implemented anything close to the policies necessary to establish an emissions trajectory toward 1.5˚C; many, including the US and Brazil, are hurtling in the other direction.

Just focusing on the US, there’s a more than 50/50 chance that President Donald Trump will be reelected in 2020, in which case we are all, and I can’t stress this enough, doomed. Even if Dems take the presidency and both houses of Congress, serious federal action will have to contend with the filibuster, then the midterm backlash, then the next election, and more broadly, the increasingly conservative federal courts and Supreme Court, the electoral college, the flood of money in politics, and the overrepresentation of rural states in the Senate.

The US, like many other countries, is balanced on a knife’s edge of partisanship, its growing demographics frustrated by structural barriers, its direction uncertain, and its policies and institutions increasingly unstable. Does a sudden and thorough about-face in social, economic, and political practice feel like something that’s in the offing this year? It doesn’t feel like that to me.

The difficulty of envisioning such a thing has led climate hawks like Al Gore to place their hopes on unpredictable social “tipping points,” invisible thresholds that, once breached, will allegedly yield radical change. (Back in 2012, Gore told me, “we’re not at the tipping point, but we’re much closer than we have been.”)

For as long as I can remember, people have been pointing out signs that such a tipping point is in the offing — counting the number of street protests, or the number of times TV news anchors saying the word “climate,” or the number of city officials endorsing 2030 goals — but global emissions just continue rising.

As I’ve written before, such tipping points are certainly possible. By their nature, they cannot be ruled out. Insofar as we have any hopes for rapid action, they rest there.

But hoping for a radical, unprecedented break in human history is very different from having a reasonable expectation that such a thing will take place. Lightning striking the same spot 100 times is possible. A roomful of monkeys with typewriters producing a Shakespeare play is possible. Human beings shifting the course of their global civilization on a dime is possible. But it probably won’t happen.

We’ve waited too long. Practically speaking, we are heading past 1.5˚C as we speak and probably past 2˚C as well. This is not a “fact” in the same way climate science deals in facts — collective human behavior is not nearly so easy to predict as biophysical cycles — but nothing we know about human history, sociology, or politics suggests that vast, screeching changes in collective direction are likely.

Coping with the tragic story of climate change

What bothers me about the forced optimism that has become de rigueur in climate circles is that it excludes the tragic dimension of climate change and thus robs it of some of the gravity it deserves.

That’s the thing: The story of climate change is already a tragedy. It’s sad. Really sad. People are suffering, species are dying off, entire ecosystems are being lost, and it’s inevitably going to get worse. We are in the midst of making the earth a simpler, cruder, less hospitable place, not only for ourselves but for all the kaleidoscopic varieties of life that evolved here in a relatively stable climate. The most complex and most idiosyncratic forms of life are most at risk; the mosquitoes and jellyfish will prosper.

That is simply the background condition of our existence as a species now, even if we rally to avoid the worst outcomes.

jon snow sad
Yeah, it’s a bummer.

Tragedy isn’t the only story, of course, and it’s not necessarily the one that needs to be foregrounded. There’s can-do innovation and technology, there’s equity and green jobs, there’s national security, there’s reduced air and water pollution — there are lots of positive stories to tell about the fight against climate change.

But it would be shallow, and less than fully human, to deny the unfolding tragedy that provides the context for all our decisions now.

I know from conversations over the years that many people see that tragedy, and feel it, but given the perpetually heightened partisan tensions around climate change, they are leery to give it voice. They worry that it will lend fuel to the forces of denial and delay, that they are morally obliged to provide cheer.

I just don’t think that’s healthy. To really grapple with climate change, we have to understand it, and more than that, take it on board emotionally. That can be an uncomfortable, even brutal process, because the truth is that we have screwed around, and are screwing around, and with each passing day we lock in more irreversible changes and more suffering. The consequences are difficult to reckon with and the moral responsibility is terrible to bear, but we will never work through all those emotions and reactions if we can’t talk about it, if we’re only allowed chipper talk about what’s still possible in climate models.

Hope in the face of tragedy

Saying that we are likely to miss the 1.5˚C target is an unpopular move in the climate community. It solicits accusations of “defeatism” and being — a term I have heard too many times to count — “unhelpful.”

Such accusations are premised on the notion that a cold assessment of our chances will destroy motivation, that it will leave audiences overwhelmed, hopeless, and disengaged.

But the idea that hope lives or dies on the chances of hitting 1.5˚C is poisonous in the long-term. Framing the choice as “a miracle or extinction” just sets everyone up for massive disappointment, since neither is likely to unfold any time soon.

As climate scientist Kate Marvel put it, “Climate change isn’t a cliff we fall off, but a slope we slide down.” Every bit makes it worse. No matter how far down the slope we go, there’s never reason to give up fighting. We can always hope to arrest our slide.

Exceeding 1.5˚C, which is likely to happen in our lifetimes, doesn’t mean anyone should feel apathetic or paralyzed. What sense would that make? There’s no magic switch that flips at 1.5˚C, or 1.7, or 2.3, or 2.8, or 3.4. These are all, in the end, arbitrary thresholds. Exceeding one does not in any way reduce the moral and political imperative to stay beneath the next. If anything, the need to mobilize against climate change only becomes greater with every new increment of heat, because the potential stakes grow larger.

Given the scale of the challenge and the compressed time to act, there is effectively no practical danger of anyone, at any level, doing too much or acting too quickly. The moral imperative for the remainder of the lives of everyone now living is to decarbonize as fast as possible; that is true no matter the temperature.

No one ever gets to stop or give up, no matter how bad it gets. (If you need a kick in the pants on this subject, read this essay by Mary Heglar.)

Preparing for the world to come

As a final, practical point, speaking frankly about the extreme unlikelihood of stopping at 1.5˚C (and the increasing unlikelihood of stopping at 2˚C) could affect how we approach climate policy.

To be clear, it shouldn’t have any effect at all on our mitigation policies. In that domain, “as fast as possible” is the only rule that matters.

But it should mean getting serious about adaptation, i.e., preparing communities for, and helping them through, the changes that are now inevitable. As the old cliché in climate policy goes, we should be planning for 4˚C and aiming for 2˚C instead of what we’re doing, which is basically the reverse, drifting toward 4˚C while telling ourselves stories about a 2˚C (and now, 1.5˚C) world.

Here in the US, we need to think about how to help Californians dealing with wildfires, Midwestern farmers dealing with floods, and coastal homeowners dealing with a looming insurance crisis.

All those problems are going to get worse. We need to grapple with that squarely, because the real threat is that these escalating impacts overwhelm our ability, not just to mitigate GHGs, but to even care or react to disasters when they happen elsewhere. Right now, much of Australia is on fire — half a billion animals have likely died since September — and it is barely breaking the news cycle in the US. As author David Wallace-Wells wrote in a recent piece, the world already seems to be heading toward a “system of disinterest defined instead by ever smaller circles of empathy.”

That shrinking of empathy is arguably the greatest danger facing the human species, the biggest barrier to the collective action necessary to save ourselves. I can’t help but think that the first step in defending and expanding that empathy is reckoning squarely with how much damage we’ve already done and are likely to do, working through the guilt and grief, and resolving to minimize the suffering to come.