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.
Nor is the risk of runaway warming the only salient issue excluded from the IPCC report. Its all-important “Summary For Policymakers,” the only part of the report most people read, was subjected to intense negotiation in advance of publication, with the governments of the United States and Saudi Arabia reportedly demanding significant softening of language. At least two justice-related statements were cut from the summary: one endorsing “[financial] transfers to secure the equity of the transition,” and another forecasting that 2 C could unleash “significant population displacement, concentrated in the tropics.” Citing such omissions, Bob Ward, the policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, told The Guardian that the new IPCC report was in fact “incredibly conservative.”
The big, and very welcome, surprise in the IPCC report is that a 1.5 C future is technically achievable. When the world’s governments agreed at the 2015 Paris climate summit to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels,” while “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C,” the 1.5 C reference was widely seen more as a political concession to poor and vulnerable countries than as a realistic policy goal. Now, in 2018, the IPCC has definitively declared that 2 C in fact invites disaster. That would be dire news indeed except for the panel’s finding that a 1.5 C future is still within reach—a finding that surprised some of the IPCC experts. “Two years ago, even I didn’t believe 1.5 C was possible,” Jiang Kejun, a scientist at China’s Energy Research Institute and a co-author of the IPCC report, said at the press conference where the report was released. “But when I look at the options, I have confidence it can be done.”
All nuance aside, achieving a 1.5 C future will require reaching global net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, the IPCC says, and this can be done. Although the report says that this will require changes “of unprecedented scale” in energy, transport, land us,e and other systems, that is not entirely accurate. Jim Skea, a co-chair of the IPCC panel and professor at Imperial College of London, told the press conference that solar, wind, and other forms of renewably generated electricity have made remarkable progress in recent years—progress, Skea added, that must now be replicated in other economic sectors. Reducing emissions alone will not suffice; humanity must also extract a significant amount of the carbon that has already been emitted into the atmosphere. “There is no pathway to 1.5 C that does not include some form of carbon removal,” said Skea.
The IPCC report joins other studies in urging that the technological breakthroughs that have recently disrupted the electricity sector be extended throughout the global economy. “The Exponential Climate Action Roadmap” released at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco last month details scores of feasible technology and policy shifts that could deliver a 1.5 C future by cutting emissions by half every decade, starting now. Many of the shifts are described in Project Drawdown, including such wonky but far-reaching reforms as replacing inefficient refrigeration. At the press conference, Skea referenced another big innovation: moving the transport sector off of gasoline by fueling cars and trucks with zero-carbon electricity instead, which happens to be a core element of California’s climate policy.
Yet, given how challenging it will be to cut emissions by half every decade between now and 2050, technology alone will not be enough. The 1.5 C carbon budget is much smaller than the 2 C budget; at current emissions levels it will be exhausted in about 12 years. If you’re a developing country, still unsure that there’s a way forward without fossil energy, this does not sound good. The global climate transition cannot succeed unless it “opens doors for sustainable development and for lifting many people out of poverty,” insists Gebru Jember Endalew, the head of the Least Developed Countries negotiating group. The IPCC scientists agree, emphasizing that the reforms needed for a 1.5 C future can be compatible with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of reducing poverty and increasing health and education worldwide. Indeed, the closing pages of the policymaker summary are thick with talk of sustainable development, poverty alleviation, and the need to reduce inequality. There are even kind words for “redistributive policies across sectors and populations that shield the poor and vulnerable,” which is probably why Trump administration negotiators repeatedly complained that the text had an “outsized focus” on sustainable development.
We’re also going to have to deal with the problem of wealth, which includes the problem of overconsumption. The IPCC report addresses this in a particularly useful way, describing a “Low Energy Demand” emissions pathway that focuses less on technological breakthroughs and more on the universal global attainment of a “decent living standard.” The details are many, but the point is simple. A push for using energy and natural resources much more efficiently, combined with a radical narrowing of economic inequality, can meet “the 1.5 C climate target as well as many sustainable development goals, without relying on negative emissions technologies.”
The next big issue in climate negotiations, which are set to resume in December in Poland, is strengthening the national pledges of action, which currently are far too weak to hold the 1.5 C line. Progress will be challenging, given the poisons that the Trump administration has injected into the talks, including Trump’s plan to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Trump also blocked a $2 billion contribution president Barack Obama pledged to the Green Climate Fund, which is charged with facilitating poor countries’ shift to climate-friendly technologies and practices. It will be extremely difficult to strengthen national pledges while the message from Washington is that developing countries are on their own.
And if we don’t heed the scientists’ warning? Mainstream news coverage has ably highlighted the IPCC report’s list of projected impacts if the earth warms by 2 C rather than by 1.5 C. Hundreds of millions of people would be more likely to endure poverty. Heat waves would get much worse. The record heat wave that struck Europe in 2003, killing over 71,000 people, was a one-in-100-years event at the time. Such extreme heat waves would be 50 percent more common in a 2 C world than a 1.5 C world. At the poles, the difference between 1.5 C and 2 C will be particularly severe. Think ice-sheet instability, which directly threatens sea-level increase. A 2 C future would expose at least 10 million more people living along coastlines to inundation. “Every fraction of a degree of warming we can avoid matters,” says Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Human lives can be saved, and coral reefs, wetlands, and other vulnerable species and ecosystems better protected. The risk that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will ultimately melt, leading to catastrophic sea level rise, will also be lower.”
The climate transition is going to be as hard as anything human beings have ever done. It raises immense justice challenges, challenges that require the same kind of concentrated attention that has, to this point, been focused on the ins and outs of science and technology. The IPCC report is a milestone in this long overdue reorientation of the climate debate. Ultimately, however, it’s not going to be the IPCC that answers the fundamental questions facing us, for those questions are not scientific questions. They are questions of morality, justice, and the political and economic actions needed to achieve them, and they involve all of us.
Tom AthanasiouTom Athanasiou, the director of EcoEquity, is the author of the forthcoming book, Everybody Knows: Climate Emergency in the New Age of Inequality.
Time to Use Our Fear as Fuel: Three Takeaways from the IPCC’s New Report
More and more people are coming to the conclusion that this escalating crisis, ever-harder to deny, can galvanize change on the scale that is really needed. Nothing less will do.
This is the most hopeful note: more and more people are coming to the conclusion that this escalating crisis, ever-harder to deny, can galvanize change on the scale that is really needed.(Photo: The Leap)
The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is out, and it is a dramatic development . The threat advisory from the world’s scientific climate community just went from orange to flashing red.
But here’s the key takeaway: limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible, and will require a rapid transformation of our economy.The great news is that this need for fundamental change is now recognized by the world’s leading climate scientists, who advise the United Nations. And as we’ve been arguing for years, the wider opportunities and benefits of that unprecedented transition are vast: a global green new deal, millions of new jobs, deep change anchored in justice.
The call to action in this report is why we started The Leap. Transforming our economy and society on the scale this crisis requires is the most powerful opportunity we’ve ever had to build a more caring, liveable planet.
So don’t look away. While the understandable reaction is to avoid, avoid, avoid (hey, we have this feeling too!) we find relief in engaging with the facts. Here are 3 takeaways from The Leap on this unprecedented UN report.
1. Don’t doubt what your senses are telling you.
Yes, the climate crisis is unfolding even faster and more furiously than expected. At current emissions rates, we could hit 1.5°C of global warming as soon as 2030 — and we’re on track for far more. If that happens, the worst impacts of climate change — previously predicted to take place closer to the end of the century — will likely begin within our lifetime. Food and water shortages across the globe. The death of all coral reefs. Hundreds of millions of people impacted by deadly heat or rising waters. And a predicted economic cost counted in tens of trillions of dollars. Trillions. Overall, the more than 6,000 scientific papers behind this report are telling us that 1.5°C is more dangerous than previously predicted, and it’s all happening sooner than we thought. We have less than a decade to turn our global emissions trends around.
2. Beware of doom merchants.
After this report, get ready to start hearing two new angles from pundits and deniers. First, that we’re doomed anyways, so … let’s not do anything at all. We got a first glimpse of this tactic in August, from the Trump administration. In a draft environmental impact statement, it argued that warming of 4°C is indeed on its way — so the fact that the administration was axing fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks didn’t really matter .
The second take we can expect to hear more of is the idea of the “moonshot.” That things are so dire that it’s time to start radical climate experiments, or “geo-engineering” to counteract global warming. These sci-fi schemes include terrifying ideas like dimming the sun by releasing sulfur into the upper atmosphere.
The good news is: this report doesn’t back such doomsday approaches. It warns against the substantial risks of untested geoengineering strategies. And it is up front about the fact that while the situation is dire — responses based on hopelessness are not what we need.
3. We can still turn this around. And it’s going to take a leap.
With this report, the UN has suddenly reached the very realization that gave rise to The Leap Manifesto in 2015: the only thing that can save us now is the total transformation of our political and economic system. Of course, there’s a clear implication of this fact that the UN is not yet ready to admit: system change requires taking power away from the people most responsible for this crisis, from bringing about a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry to bringing the high-emitting billionaire class down to earth.
Consider, for some perspective, this take from climate and energy expert Kevin Anderson: “almost 50% of global carbon emissions arise from the activities of around 10% of the global population…. Impose a limit on the per-capita carbon footprint of the top 10% of global emitters, equivalent to that of an average European citizen, and global emissions could be reduced by one third in a matter of a year or two.”
Of course, cracking down on the emissions of the high-carbon global class would not be that simple — but instead of wasting another decade on market-friendly tweaks and silver bullet technologies, we certainly can mobilize for real, democratic control over every part of our economies.
This is the most hopeful note: more and more people are coming to the conclusion that this escalating crisis, ever-harder to deny, can galvanize change on the scale that is really needed. Nothing less will do. The idea of a “Green New Deal” is gaining momentum around the world.
This is white-knuckle terrifying stuff, but don’t turn away: the report makes clear that the worst effects of global warming can still be prevented, and the urgency of transformative change should excite and empower all of us who are fighting for justice anyway.
This is a time to use our fear as fuel, and ratchet up our determination. Let’s take a good, hard, clear-eyed look at the fucked-up future we are headed for, and decide — collectively — to leap to a safer, better place.
© 2016 This Changes Everything
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Avi Lewis is an award winning documentary filmmaker and long-time television journalist. His films include The Take and This Changes Everything. He is one of the co-authors of the Leap Manifesto and is the Strategic Director and Co-Founder of The Leap.
Statement of Vision Toward the Next 500 Years
“Our Visions” was a historic gathering of 100 Native wisdomkeepers, artists and writers at Taos Pueblo. It was sponsored by The Morning Star Institute and The 1992 Alliance.
This Statement was the collective work of Oren Lyons and Suzan Shown Harjo, as co-chairs, and Marcus Amerman, James Anaya, Cecil Antone, Thomas Banyacya, David Bradley, Walt Bresette, Mildred Cleghorn, Benito Concha, Vine Deloria, Jr., Heid Erdrich, Jodi Archambault-Gillette, Joy Harjo, Bob Haozous, Allen Houser, N. Scott Momaday, George Morrison, Allen V. Pinkham, Sr., Tom Porter, Lonnie Selam, Jesse Taken Alive, Robert W. Trepp, Lois Risling, Mateo Romero, Emmett White, Alex White Plume, Rick Williams, Sally Williams, Susan M. Williams and all the other 100 Native wisdomkeepers, artists and writers who gathered for four days in October 1992 and never talked about Columbus.
STATEMENT OF VISION TOWARD THE NEXT 500 YEARS
In memory of more than 500 distinct Native Nations and millions of our relatives who did not survive the European invasions, and with respect for those Indigenous Peoples who have survived, we make this statement.
We, the Indigenous Peoples of this red quarter of Mother Earth, have survived 500 years of genocide, ethnocide, ecocide, racism, oppression, colonization and christianization. These excesses of western civilization resulted from contempt for Mother Earth and all our relations; contempt for women, elders, children and Native Peoples; and contempt for a future beyond the present human generation.
Despite this, we are here.
Since time immemorial, Native Nations have lived in harmony with this land and in solidarity with all our relations. Our continued survival depends on this vital relationship. We perpetuate this harmony for our continued survival and world peace.
We carry out our religious duties for the good of all. Endangering us endangers us all.
We call for the immediate halt of the abuse, neglect and destruction of life.
We call for immediate strategies and compacts to halt the genocide of Native Peoples throughout the western hemisphere.
We demand an end to all exploitation, desecration and commercialization of Indian spirituality and cultures, our sacred places and the remains of our ancestors.
We demand an end to the violations of our right of worship, to the disrespect of our religious and cultural property and to the disregard of our very humanity.
Native Peoples over the next 500 years must maintain our status as distinct political and cultural communities.
Indian Nations expect the world community to honor and enforce treaties that recognize tribal property and sovereignty.
Sovereignty is the inherent right of Indian Nations to govern all actions within their own countries based upon traditional systems and laws that arise from the People themselves. Sovereignty includes the right of Native Nations to freely live and develop socially, economically, culturally, spiritually and politically.
The domestic laws of the non-Native countries of this hemisphere have been used to subjugate Native Peoples. Vindication of our rights must be achieved through fair and appropriate procedures, including international procedures.
Indigenous Nations have the right to secure borders and fulfilled treaties for which we gave up vast territory and wealth.
Native Nations have the responsibility to provide a safe and secure environment for the People’s economic self-sufficiency, health and well being. Tribal economies work best when based on traditional systems. A secure and adequate land base and respect for sovereignty are prerequisites for viable tribal economies.
Indigenous People have the right to educational and social systems that affirm tribal cultures and values; that promote physical, spiritual and mental well-being of people; and that teach the care and healing of Mother Earth and all Her children.
We envision that in five hundred years Indigenous Peoples will be here, protecting and living with Mother Earth in our own lands.
We see a future of coming generations of Native People who are healthy in body and spirit, who speak Native languages daily and who are supported by traditional extended families.
We look forward to leadership that encourages the religious and cultural manifestations of our traditions, and the reclamation and continuing use of our traditional ceremonies, hairstyles, foods, clothes, music, personal and tribal names and medicines.
Our cultural renewal will assure the perpetuation of natural species that are dying, and perhaps even some of those thought to be extinct.
We celebrate our rich, continuing tradition of artistic excellence. The works produced for tribal functions or within a religious or historical context are the sole cultural property of the Native Peoples. Our strong cultural continuums accord great freedom of artistic expression, which enhances the dynamic and incorporative nature of our traditional cultures.
We envision a future when our artistic gifts are recognized fully for their spiritual transforming power and beauty.
Native Peoples are strengthened by relations among each other at all levels of community life. Commitment, integrity, patience, the ability to build consensus and respect are essential components to the flourishing of culture, friendship, strengthening of economies and the pursuit of a common peaceful world.
All life is dependent upon moral and ethical laws which protect earth, water, animals, plants and tribal traditions and ceremonies. Humanity has the responsibility to live in accordance with natural laws, in order to perpetuate all living beings for the good of all Creation.
We share a bond with all the world’s Peoples who understand their relationship and responsibility to all aspects of the Creation.
The first of these is to walk through life in respectful and loving ways, caring for all life.
We look forward to a future of global friendship and the integrity of diverse cultures.
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