The latest IPCC report on climate change readiness is grim: we need all hands on deck, across every sector and level of government actor, to keep global warming manageable. But where are we going to get that level of political mobilization in this economy?
Last week, Nature Human Behavior published “Negativity drives online news consumption”, a study that found a strong connection between negative headlines and higher click-through rates. But desensitization is also a significant risk when grim news abounds, as it has in recent weeks (and months, and years). The latest meeting between war crimes suspect Vladimir Putin and third-term Chinese leader Xi Jinping, amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, marks a world order on difficult ground. Even as the UN calls for international intervention in, say, Haiti, bank crashes, rail crashes, and presidential criminal drama in the US, along with spiking interest rates in the UK and protests against the rising retirement age in France illustrate just how many domestic problems are consuming public attention and political capacity.
Which is how we reached, in the first place, the state of affairs most recently described by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which this week released its AR6 Synthesis Report, an aggregate of research findings from its sixth round of global assessment teams.
It’s not great news.
But we knew it wouldn’t be, didn’t we?
The climate challenge
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the report a “survival guide for humanity”. Although some progress has been made in terms of funding, global commitments, and implementation of key technologies, not enough has been done in any of these areas to keep the world under the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold necessary for climate resilience. After decades of failing to take more aggressive preventative actions, we’re now in a crisis scenario where we not only need to transform our economies in just a few years to defend against the initial disaster, but also to undo much of what we’ve contributed to the problem since it first arose.
In this decade, accelerated action to adapt to climate change is essential to close the gap between existing adaptation and what is needed. Meanwhile, keeping warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels requires deep, rapid and sustained greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors. Emissions should be decreasing by now and will need to be cut by almost half by 2030, if warming is to be limited to 1.5°C.IPCC AR6 Press Release
But how exactly is this feat to be achieved? Last year’s Emissions Gap Report noted that we are on track to reach 2.4 degrees Celsius if all current pledges are fully implemented, and 2.8 degrees Celsius if left to only those policies already underway.
Even the version of this latest report developed for policymakers raises significant concerns. Half of its materials emphasize the gravity of the situation, with special attention paid to the increasing complexity and intractability of climate change impacts if not immediately addressed. The other half highlights how government initiative (or lack thereof) has proven to be the primary constraint on climate action. Although some “hard” limits have already been reached in certain ecosystems, most “soft” limits on environmental progress can be addressed with improved government commitments to change, both politically and financially.
Moreover, we’re now dealing with maladaption to climate change: the result of industry sectors and government actors seeking too-narrow fixes for specific problems, which only exacerbate environmental crises across the board. Sea-walls and other hard defenses against flooding, for instance, can worsen long term ecological resilience, especially when they are not developed with a clear understanding of the overall terrain. A version of this problem hit Pakistan last year, when local flooding reached ruinous levels thanks to infrastructural planning that disproportionately affected the country’s poorest, and public-private companies permitted to alter natural waterways for direct control over related resources.
The call in this report is quite clear: Nothing less than comprehensive reform, across all sectors working together for the repair and restoration of our ecosystems, will do.
Which, again, is asking a lot of our ever-distracted species.
The three-part carbon equation
There are three major components to meeting our goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. One is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which reports last year illustrated were still rising at devastating levels. Another is carbon capture and storage, or CO2 removal from the air. This second component is now non-negotiable under the current IPCC report: most every plan to help the world reach this key target requires a significant escalation of related programs.
We have a daunting challenge ahead of us, though, to achieve that end. Earlier this year, the University of Oxford released its first-ever State of Carbon Dioxide Removal Report, which concluded that we are currently pulling some two billion tonnes of CO2 from the air (around 5 percent of the 36.6 billion tonnes we’re putting into it through cement production and fossil fuels alone). Worse yet, the report noted that “virtually all current CDR (99.9% or 2 GtCO₂ per year) comes from conventional management of land, primarily via afforestation and reforestation.”
Novel methods of carbon capture need to increase many times over in just a few years. These methods include bioenergy with carbon capture (BECCS: growing trees, burning them for energy, and storing their emissions underground), biochar (heating carbon-capturing plants without oxygen, to produce a carbon byproduct useful for soil), ocean alkanilization and fertilization (seeding the ocean with silicates or stimulating phytoplankton growth to increase carbon capture), enhanced rock weathering (the use of silicates on land to encourage natural carbon capture), and direct carbon capture (using machines to pull CO2 from the air).
But most critically, since over 99 percent of our carbon capture already comes from afforestation and reforestation, the obvious and urgent policy solution is “better management of existing ecosystems”. This includes peat and wetlands restoration, agroforestry (the integration of tree systems into crop and animal farming), afforestation (the creation of forests in new lands), and good old reforestation.
In other words, while technology will be a critical component of our recovery, the fundamentals of climate change can also be addressed by very old methodologies. The problem is that those older methodologies require a fuller commitment to transforming economic lifestyles. This leads to the third part of our carbon equation: the standing crisis between those who believe that we need to prioritize GDP growth, “green economies” based on sustaining current levels of consumption but with energy sources swapped out, and those who advocate for degrowth: a revamping of our societies such that less is necessary for all to live more sustainable lives. A blend of the two is currently required: swapping out energy sources, while significantly reducing their overall necessity. But can it be achieved in time?
As Lili Fuhr, Deputy Director of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), noted upon release of the IPCC’s latest report:
“The takeaway of the IPCC synthesis is irrefutable: an immediate, rapid, and equitable fossil fuel phase-out is the cornerstone of any strategy to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming. Yet, the negotiations this past week highlighted the clash between the latest climate science and the mainstream economic models that perpetuate a business-as-usual approach. The IPCC reports show that we can prevent irreversible harm to people and the planet if we scale up proven solutions available now. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables, increasing energy efficiency, and reducing energy and resource use are the surest path to limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Building our mitigation strategies on models that instead lock in inequitable growth and conveniently assume away the risks of technofixes like carbon capture and storage and carbon dioxide removal ignores that clarion message and increases the likelihood of overshoot.”
Nikki Reisch, Director of CIEL’s Climate and Energy Program, further noted the implications closer to home:
The Biden Administration’s approval last week of new oil drilling in Alaska is an egregious example of this dangerous disconnect. The science leaves no doubt: we cannot fight climate change without halting all new oil, gas, and coal projects and shuttering existing fossil fuel facilities. The IPCC’s AR6 report puts governments and corporations on notice yet again: every day and every dollar they spend propping up and locking in the fossil economy contributes to mounting death and damage, and increases the chances of overshooting 1.5°C.“IPCC Sums Up Latest Climate Science”, CIEL Press Room, March 20, 2023
The elephant in the room, however, is the surrounding state of international politics: Russia’s war in Ukraine, China’s rising role on the world stage, and even surging secondary oil markets, like India. These are all factors of a global economy that currently trades on petroleum products to pursue heavily industrializing and militarizing ends. And Putin is not going to stop invading Ukraine just because the IPCC put out another devastating climate change report.
Nevertheless, we are destroying ourselves as a species with this fixation on oil supremacy, or at least on oil defence from others’ efforts at the same. Climate change is here, its overall impacts on human thriving are accelerating and cascading, and the best we can hope for is mitigation and resilience as we try to implement policies that, thanks to preceding delays in government action, can now only significantly roll back the climate clock in a couple of decades at the earliest.
But will these facts be enough to halt the war machines? To bring rising national economies into global harmony? To unify us against a common existential threat?
I think we all know the answer.
The challenge now is to keep doing our best, where we can, however we can, for as long as we can, until there are better news items to click on instead.