What the New IPCC Report Can’t Say

This new response to the IPCC report comes from two of the coeditors of Global Environmental PoliticsSteven Bernstein and Matthew Hoffmann. ICYMI, here’s part 1 and part 2 of our series. 

As has been well-covered in the media, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released an interim report on the possibilities, practicalities, and impact of holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report is not encouraging. The bottom line is that the world needs to immediately embark on emissions reductions and decarbonization on a massive scale to achieve this goal. Further, the time frame for achieving transformation is more constrained than originally thought. The IPCC is now convinced that without major emissions cuts (45% below 2010 levels globally) by 2030 we will eclipse the 1.5 degree barrier and start to see some of the more significant and even catastrophic impacts from climate change before 2050 (and as soon as 2030) rather than the second half of the 21st century.

If this report is to catalyze action, we have to avoid the temptation to shrug our shoulders and say this is just another in a long line of reports predicting doom and asking for urgent action. This is a political choice—what the report demonstrates is that predicted changes owing to climate change are occurring as expected, and will continue to accelerate at a faster pace than previous reports indicated. It does not frame or ensure a political response because some political leaders and their backers who profess to accept the science do not believe even the certainty of catastrophic climate change at higher temperatures should concern us now.

One startling example of this attitude can be seen in July’s US Department of Transportation’s draft environmental impact statement on future vehicle emission standards, which acknowledged the scientific consensus that without significant action,global temperatures by 2100 will be 4 degree C higher than preindustrial levels. Instead of framing the accepted science as a call to radical action, it used the stark numbers to justify no policy change, reasoning that the inevitable temperature rise was so great that increasing fuel efficiency standards would make little difference. Leaving aside the absurd circular logic of justifying doing nothing because not enough is being done, the Dept. of Transportation report demonstrates that the IPCC report won’t change any politician’s mind who simply does not care about the future: 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees, 4 degrees, it’s all inevitable to the Trump administration and doesn’t mean we have to do anything.

However, for anyone concerned about the differences between these scenarios, the report usefully highlights that even half a degree does make a difference. And, starkly and with more precision than previously available science it identifies scenarios and choices we need to make make now if we wish to avoid a 2 degree world (let alone a 4 degree world), with its higher risks of serious and irreversible damage.

This is not new science, it is a report that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat and member nation-states asked for to assess the feasibility of a key goal in the Paris Agreement. We have known for a while that the world must embark on rapid and deep transformation of energy, economic, and transportation systems. Yet even without new science, the new time-frames and stark choices we face to keep warming to 1.5 degrees call for a new urgency and politics that might be catalytic. Some of the slow progress on climate change has always been attributed to the problem of long time frames–acting on climate change promised costs in the short run to fix a problem that would not be felt acutely for decades. This new report has changed that equation dramatically. Now, instead of today’s children having to take action and our grandchildren feeling the effects, the premise is that we have a decade to take action and today’s children will feel the effects acutely if we don’t.

Three shifts in climate politics seem possible (and necessary) from this new understanding and they also suggest orientations for research. First, the report has the potential to change what is considered radical climate policy and to shift how radical, incremental, and non action are perceived. Global Environmental Politics (GEP) board member Simon Dalby often asks in talks “what counts as radical—continuing to burn fossil fuels when it will lead to catastrophe or changing what we do?” This report essentially answers Simon’s question—the radical course of action is business as usual and working towards the massive transformations called for in the IPCC report is the rational choice. But here the IPCC report has more questions than answers—where are the necessary transformations likely to come from? The report lays out a number of scenarios to avoid overshooting the 1.5 degree target, but figuring out the political pathways to these scenarios is beyond the report’s scope.The report acknowledges what is a widespread understanding that the Paris Agreement is not enough. It refers to actions taken by sub and non-state actors and the need for technological advances. Research in GEP and from the GEP community can help to fill in these gaps. It is now well acknowledged that decarbonization is a challenge that will have to engage actors (see also here) from the local to the national to the global (see also here) levels. Figuring out how to catalyze rapid change from the myriad initiatives at play must be a core research objective for our community.

Second, the Sustainable Development Goals (and see here) were given a prominent place in the report, highlighting the synergies and trade-offs involved in attempting to avoid overshooting 1.5 degrees (and the different consequences for sustainable development in a 2 degree world). In so doing, the IPCC has made questions of democracy, equity, and the shape and necessity of a just transition central to any serious discussion of decarbonization. Scholars have begun to explore these very questions, but the rapidity of change required presents new challenges for both policy makers and scholars seeking to make sense of what is possible. Further, the substance of the report serves as a clarion call for more interdisciplinary research on the linkages between the SDGs and climate action.

Finally, the report ensures that geoengineering will be an even larger part of the climate action discussion moving forward. The scenarios in the IPCC report for keeping temperature rise to 1.5 degrees already rely on measures to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, but they do not yet rely on more invasive geoengineering approaches like solar radiation management. However, the short time frame highlighted in the report will likely bring more drastic geoengineering options into public discourse and debate. Some have already called geoengineering an inevitability. This will make nascent conversations about governing geoengineering  (see also here) and the compatibility of geoengineering and democratic values all the more crucial. The IPCC report notes that even less radical options of carbon dioxide removal – such as afforestation, reforestation, and carbon capture and storage – already face many implementation constraints and difficult trade-offs (e.g. with food security and biodiversity protection). In other words, if there is “overshoot” of a pathway consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees by 2030 (which seems likely), the trade-offs in any of the necessary carbon dioxide removal strategies to get back to that pathway later this century will also require effective governance that takes equity, justice, and social conflict into account. The record so far highlights significant challenges, if examples of strategies and technologies already deployed on a limited scale, most notably in policies such as REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), are an indication.

The IPCC report lays bare how much effort it will take to avoid eclipsing the 1.5 degree target and how little time we have to make major changes. It should clarify the minds and purpose of those working to achieve climate action and those studying global environmental politics who hope to contribute to that work. There is simply no time to waste.