In defence of (a bit of) doom and gloom
As Forum’s resident doomslinger, the recent #ClimateOptimism campaign inevitably provoked a defensive reaction from me. Especially as it arrived hot-on-the-heels of another event that challenged my pessimistic foundations. In the summer of 2017, Forum held an event in which Paul Hawken used the analogy of two sandboxes – one in which the kids are having fun; one in which they are bickering – to argue that we’re all drawn to things that are joyful. He argued that the climate movement had much to learn from this simple truth. And, quite frankly, I can’t disagree.
I’ve therefore taken some time to reflect on the possible error-of-my-negative-ways. But, despite seeing the clear value of a can-do attitude, I’m still not ready to set sail on the Good Ship Positive Thinking.
And that’s because if there’s one thing that I think is blocking action befitting the urgency and magnitude of the climate challenge, it’s complacency. Not fatalism, as the #ClimateOptimism campaign suggests. But complacency.
- Complacency as to just how disruptive a beyond-2°C world might be; and
- Complacency as to the utterly transformative and immediate changes that are required if we are to have a half-decent chance of avoiding 2°C (never mind 1.5°C).
When it comes to the latter, the emerging transformation of our electricity system is indeed exhilarating and inspiring – and offers hope as to just how rapidly even sunk-infrastructure systems can change once they get a bit of momentum.
But if we’re serious about 2°C then we have to find ways to eliminate ALL emissions, not just those from electricity.
And while electricity might be ‘on the move’, the rest of the energy system (heating in particular) still poses plenty of challenges. As do the aviation and shipping sectors (even as ground transportation goes electric). Then there are the oft-neglected, yet hardly unsubstantive, emissions associated with agriculture and land-use change…
If we had the time, then we could sit back and marvel at the transformation of the electricity system, and use that very transformation to imagine and provoke similar revolutions in these other systems.
But we don’t.
Whether the November 2017 US Climate Science Special Report (which stressed the risk of ‘disruptive shifts’ within the climate system if we cross 2°C) or the IPCC’s just-released draft Special Report on 1.5°C (which concluded that “…historical emissions, current policies and patterns of investment have already placed scenarios limiting warming below 1.5°C without overshoot with at least 66% likelihood out of reach [my emphasis]”, every new study that emerges suggests that we have less time – and that the potential impacts of climate change are bigger and sooner – than we previously thought.
Yet governments remain largely happy to talk about their plans to decarbonise by 2050 or beyond. I suppose 2050 is near enough to make our governments feel like they aren’t punting the problem completely. But it’s clearly also far enough away that we don’t really have to change too much in the here and now. Meanwhile, [leading!] companies remain comfortable asserting their intent to become low-carbon – rather than zero-carbon, or carbon-positive – entities.
A key part of the problem is that the risks associated with a beyond-2°C world have not been adequately or effectively communicated to either governments or companies.
For starters, there is a tendency for lay communications around climate risk to imply a level of certainty around future climate impacts that simply doesn’t reflect the sheer complexity of the earth-atmosphere system.
See, for example, the graphic that compares the impacts of 1.5°C vs 2°C or warming in this article.
The idea that the impacts of a 2°C-or-beyond world on specific crops in specific regions can be predicted within single percentage point is tenuous at best (such numbers represent central estimates of model runs, and don’t reflect the huge uncertainties as to future impacts).
And attempting to do this for, say, a 4°C world is ludicrous – yet Forum recently received a request from a company to help them do just that.
A 4°C world is civilisation-threatening! It’s not a place where a well-thought-through resilience strategy will provide commercial opportunity. And the uncertainty bars as to what it might involve are so gloriously huge as to render any well-meaning adaptation plan pointless.
This wasn’t a company at the start of its sustainability journey, but one at the leading edge. And critically, if they think that a 4°C world allows for business-as-usual-with-a-few-tweaks, then they are not pulling out all the stops to prevent us crossing 2°C. Which, of course, is exactly what they should be doing.
Essentially, our understanding of a beyond-2°C world can be summed up as ‘here be dragons!” The stability/reliability of the climatic system that has enabled agriculture-based civilisation to thrive is not a geologic norm – and the reason we want to avoid crossing the 2°C threshold is that doing so brings an unacceptable risk of substantive, disruptive change.
Yet, instead, we hold on to idea that, even if climate change shakes things up, we are going to pop out into a stable and predictable future climate. The ideas that “we’ll just start growing wine in the UK”, or that “the wheat belts will shift north” typify this thinking. We can just about get our heads around a future in which extreme events happen more frequently, and are, eh, more extreme. But we find it very difficult to imagine a fundamentally different climate system.
The risk of exactly that should have companies – especially those reliant on agriculture – screaming from the rooftops for action to stay under 2°C. And yet, they aren’t…
Implied certainty that we know what future climate will comprise manifests as complacency from companies and governments alike as to the potential transformative nature of climate change. And, if we add to that foundation an overly-positive, “we’ve got this sorted!” message, I fear we risk reinforcing this complacency.
I’m not the only one struggling with the right way to motivate companies to take action on climate change, and even I can see that Chicken Little didn’t win the battle of minds (although perhaps the Boy That Cried Wolf provides the better analogy. The wolf, after all, did eventually appear…)
But unless our new sense of optimism is accompanied by a massive dollop of urgency and action, then it’s not going to cut it.
Now, there are reasons for hope. As noted above, the electricity system is changing rapidly, and it’s wrenching the [ground] transportation system along with it. And Project Drawdown shows there are solutions elsewhere too – including in the quagmires of land-use and agriculture.
But we don’t have til 2050 to bring these solutions to scale. We arguably had til 2015.
So we need to up our collective game. Now! And if your company needs a positive framing in order to act then rest assured that, if we do find a way to stay under 2°C, fortunes will be made along the way.