COP27 has maintained a commitment to the 1.5 C goal but (as in the previous 26 years) left the key issue of a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel production and consumption unresolved. The conclusion of the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2022, that there is currently “no credible pathway to 1.5 C” in place, remains unaffected. Given this grim outlook, some pundits seem to see value in climate activists acknowledging the improbability of achieving 1.5 C (with or without overshoot) sooner rather than later, and adjusting their demands upwards to a more “realistic” “well below 2 C”. But while it is normal that political goal posts and long-term aspirations evolve over time, it is important to understand that 1.5 C is not a normal goal. We cannot simply give up on it because it has become seemingly “impossible” to achieve. First and foremost, 1.5 C is a physical limit, a scientific margin of safety. We cannot abandon a physical limit. Furthermore, 1.5 C is a moral responsibility. And we cannot escape our moral responsibility.
Of course, 1.5 C is also a promise which we have made to our children, to vulnerable populations, and to future humans. While we are obviously failing to keep this promise, there is no good excuse for this failure. We could have started to work on addressing it 30 years ago, and we can still start now. It is too late but still never too late to begin. The COP process is not the only means of coordinating climate action internationally. Leading countries could form “climate clubs”, use every means at their disposal to phase-out fossil-fuel demand, pilot offset-free carbon mitigation pay-for-success schemes, and take other emergency measures. But they need to recognize and treat the climate crisis as the global existential threat to our civilization that it is. If keeping our promise seems increasingly “unrealistic”, then this is not because of a lack of technological feasibility (climate solution technologies are crossing tipping points) or economic feasibility (the net present value of phasing out coal is estimated at more than 75 trn USD), or due to human nature (humans are actually kinder and more cooperative than we think), but because of design flaws in historically evolved social constructions, systems and institutions, of our own making:
There is a failure of markets to price immense climate risks and damages, offering perverse incentives for continued and profitable fossil fuel exploration. At the same time, climate mitigation services are not sufficiently profitable considering their immense value to society. With sufficient political determination and leadership, market failures can be fixed through proper laws, policies, regulations, international agreements etc.
There is a poverty of visionary leadership and governance in key positions, characterized by severe shortcomings in terms of imagination, wisdom, scientific literacy, historic/planetary responsibility. Our current political systems exhibit a worrying tendency to flush the most incompetent, short-sighted, and reckless personalities into power at the worst possible time. Obsolete libertarian market ideologies from the last century, advocating for a “mini-state”, continue to dominate the resistance to institutional reforms. Just when we need a mission-driven “entrepreneurial state”, strong climate policy responses, and international alliances to protect our planetary commonwealth more than ever, precious resources are wasted on radically nationalist agendas and increased militarism.
Another critical failure of the current socio-political system design can be found in the inability to control relentless fossil fuel lobbyism and misinformation directed against climate policies and regulation. There is a widespread inability to sufficiently comprehend the urgent warnings of the climate science community in an increasingly polarized, “post-truth” world. Large social groups are living in constructed subjective realities, some of which are obviously delusional and out of touch with the actual, physical world that is the subject of natural science. The fracture of our shared consensus reality has been amplified by the rise of “anti-social media”, algorithmic propaganda, and the failure of our education systems to properly train the general population in basic media literacy, science literacy and critical, reflexive thinking. What we need to do, once we have blown through the carbon budget for 1.5 C, is to keep doing everything we can to get at least as close as possible to 1.5 C, and as much as possible below 2.0 C, as promised in the Paris Agreement. The overarching imperative is to achieve net-negative GHG emissions at scale as early as possible, and to start cleaning up the atmosphere and restore the safe climate conditions of the Holocene before tipping point dynamics cannot be slowed down anymore - even if this endeavor might turn out to take centuries rather than decades. But we need to start addressing social system design flaws. They are at the heart of an unnecessary and misguided “social realism”, which is based on questionable assumptions that inform our beliefs about what we deem as “realistic” at a given time
Lending a concept from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dawid Juraszek describes the term “climate anti-fragility” as: “a perspective that allows us to engage in environmentally and socially vital initiatives not less but more decisively even as the planetary conditions in the coming decades inevitably deteriorate”. The more improbably stabilizing at 1.5 C by the end of this century becomes, the greater our resolve and perseverance should be — not because we are motivated by the probability to succeed, but because we are intrinsically motivated to keep doing the right thing, regardless of probabilities. Paradoxically, this might be the only way we can possibly succeed after all. The direction of travel will be set in the first half of the 21st century. It is up to us whether our generation’s legacy will be a blessing or a curse for many generations to come.
This opinion piece is an extension of an article published on the author's blog. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.