There is plenty of both bad and good news in the landmark science report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released October 8 from Incheon, South Korea. The bad news is that a 2 degree Celsius global temperature rise—long regarded as a relatively safe guardrail against apocalyptic disruption of the climate system—is now officially recognized as being catastrophically dangerous. The IPCC’s special report “Global Warming of 1.5<° C” warns that even 2 degrees C will bring a staggering increase in the heat waves, droughts, storms, and sea-level rise that are already battering people, places, and economies the world over, and will expose hundreds of millions of people to higher risks of displacement, water shortages, and poverty. The good news is that humanity can still avoid this fate. In a further revision of climate orthodoxy, the IPCC report declares that limiting global warming to 1.5 C is possible, though it will require revolutionary changes in government and investment policies for which “there is no documented historical precedent.”
“One point five degrees is the new 2 degrees,” said Christopher Weber, the global climate and energy lead scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. But it will be far from easy to hit a 1.5 C target; the experts who’ve said that it’s impossible are not all fools and knaves. The next 12 years will be decisive: By 2030, carbon emissions worldwide must fall by a massive 45 percent (from 2010 levels). And they must continue that steep decline and achieve net zero emissions by mid-century. The world as a whole remains far from this trajectory, but the fact that California, the fifth-biggest economy on earth, is officially committed to just such a path—and is prospering economically along the way—indicates that other jurisdictions could do likewise.
Implicit but unmentioned in the IPCC report, and in most news coverage of it, is that holding the 1.5 C line will require not only a deep technological revolution but also a justice-led social transformation. The report makes clear that burning coal must “decline very substantially” by 2050, while oil and natural-gas burning must also sharply fall. If that is to happen, workers and communities whose livelihoods currently rely on fossil fuels will need help transitioning to a clean-energy future. Since this transition must be global, less-developed countries will need financial and technical assistance to shun fossil fuels, deforestation, and other climate-destabilizing activities, not to mention to protect themselves against the harsher heat waves, droughts, storms and sea-level rise that even 1.5 C will deliver.
One can be forgiven these days for thinking that such a justice-led transformation isn’t on the agenda. Nevertheless, we had damn well better try to deliver it; in fact, it’s our only hope. The opportunity, and the imperative, here is to leverage the green-tech revolution and the climate-justice vision to maximum advantage. We are in a deep hole, and it’s going to take both legs to climb out of it.
Indeed, the hole may be deeper than the IPCC indicates, for this special report did not directly address the question of “runaway” global warming. But a separate blockbuster scientific report released in August, the Hothouse Earth study, warned that even 2 C of global temperature rise could well cross “tipping points,” such as triggering the die-back of tropical forests or the release of methane-rich permafrost, that would release still more heat-trapping gases and thus drive temperatures to beyond what civilization could survive. In other words, even a 2 C future could yield a situation where, no matter what humanity belatedly does to cut emissions, our efforts will be swamped by runaway feedbacks.