There's a gulf between imperative and honest action - so how do we actually change stuff?
14 April 2017
Fewer than 18 months since world leaders pledged to try to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, it looks like it may be game over. New research suggests we only have four years at current emissions rates before we blow the 1.5° carbon budget.
Securing the ambition – if not the commitment – to 1.5° in Paris was a major win for the world’s most vulnerable nations. A major study in 2012 linked 400,000 early deaths a year to the impacts of an already changing climate. It’s literally a matter of life and death.
With so much at stake, and so much stacked against us, it’s easy to lose hope. But even if aiming for 1.5° looks tough, it’s still the right thing to do.
Climate change is a continuum, not a binary choice. Every fraction of a degree throws more chaos and risk into the system. A 1.6° rise is better than a 1.7° rise. And so on. Let’s just do as much as we can, as quickly as we can. Let’s say we tried.
I don’t mean ‘what do we need to technically do’. We know that. Very many policy reports have been written, such as last week’s contribution from the IEA and the International Renewable Energy Association.
But they’re just words. Emissions are still going up. Actions aren’t keeping pace with implied lines on graphs.
Take fossil fuel subsidies. Obviously we need to end them, and in the next few years. But there’s a gulf between imperative and honest action – much like the Paris pledge to 1.5° itself.
So: how? How do we actually change stuff?
Power. We need to talk about power. There’s a reason many of the world’s richer economies have done so little for so long on climate change. It’s hard, and it makes you powerful enemies. Particularly so when your entire industrial and to an extent financial system has been built around fossil fuels; when oil companies have so much clout with and influence over governments; and when the faint threat of angry queues at petrol stations is enough to give any mandarin palpitations.
We’re talking about a mass disruption: a rapid change from one state to another, far faster than would happen as a result of things like ‘peak oil’. That’s scary to a lot of people with a lot of power.
There are probably, very crudely, three ways that power might be unseated.
People aren’t lines on graphs. They’re messy and unpredictable bags of water – seven billion of them. Changing complex systems is one heck of a messy and unpredictable business. The above forces – and other ones too, no doubt – will interact with each other. Who knows quite how it’ll all pan out.
But we do know that we need to understand power just as much as we understand emissions pathways, or all those reports may end up being little more than glossy ‘I told you so’s.
This article first appeared in Business Green and is reproduced here with permission.
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