Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tipping Point for Climate Action?

For the past 40 years or more some of us have, one way or another, being saying that we'd better change the way we do things or we'll all be doomed. Back in the 1970s, we got excited by a couple of paragraphs mentioning the environment in a national newspaper.  Today the talk is everywhere, and we're a lot closer to being doomed.

There has been a gradual raising of awareness of environmental threats, with global warming leading the pack as our understanding improves but those threats have become more immediate as we have failed to address them.

If we project current trends forward, the future looks bleak. Greenhouse gas emissions are currently on a worse track that the worst scenario, RCP 8.5, described by the IPCC.  If this continues then those who survive to the 22nd century will be inhabiting a very different planet.  Some think it may not be survivable.

To ensure that the worst does not come to pass there has to be change, change so sudden and dramatic it may best be thought of as a tipping point in the affairs of people.  Tipping points are, in the global warming context, regarded more often as sudden, non-linear, changes in the behaviour of elements that influence global climate, the collapse of an ice-sheet for example.

But can there be tipping points in the socio-political sphere and if so are we at or close to one? For many millions of people, 1939 was a tipping point. The change from 1938 to 1940 was dramatic, a non-linear development of previous trends. Let's do some wishful thinking for a moment and consider what sort of tipping point is required to get us off our present path to the cliff-edge.  Most importantly we have to reverse the increase in, and then reduce, greenhouse gas emissions.  And we have to make the cuts so deeply and so suddenly that the climate system feels a tipping point and halts its warming trend.

We know there are no silver bullets to achieve this so everything at every level needs to be tried.  At COP21 in Paris in December 2015 we must have legally binding globally accepted emission reduction targets with a programme of mitigation and adaptation and the funding agreements in place to ensure targets are met.  A big ask, but necessary. We know that to help achieve this there must be a great raft of smaller agreements, focussing on particular parts of the system, addressing particular interest groups.  Some of these will involve international agreements between many or a few nations, others will be more local, within nations and regions and right down to the village and household, reaching to individual hearts and minds.  Many actions will be voluntary, others backed by legislation.  Nothing should be ruled out until it is demonstrably not part of the solution.  It all involves a large proportion of the human race behaving differently, as individuals, communities, companies and states.  The difference from the present trajectory is so profound it requires a socio-political tipping point.

Could it be that we are, right now, approaching just such a tipping point?

Last September saw the publication of the IPCC AR5 report on the science. Three points of note, two of them well reported: the science has become more secure since AR4, the prognosis more dire, and, importantly, the document was signed off by the 194 nations with much less argy-bargy than previous such reports.  In March 2014 we were given the WGII report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The writers tried hard to show that there was still hope, that mitigation now still has a point but also showed clearly the shape of the upcoming catastrophe if mitigation were to fail. All rational thinkers now accept the science, leaving just a rump of deniers.  The BBC is condemned by many for giving any airtime to them.  As I write this WGIII is considering the final wording of its report on mitigation and adaptation.  It seems it will be another unequivocal statement.  The IPCC synthesis report will be produced later this year and Ban Ki Moon has called a special Climate Summit 2014 this August.

Christiana Figueres has made numerous speeches recently, pulling few punches.  Notably she has declared that much of the fossil fuel already discovered will have to be left underground.  She speaks of stranded assets, a devastating concept for the fossil fuel industry and the global financial system of which it is such a large part.  Jeremy Leggett and Carbon Tracker have raised the phenomenon to the top of the agenda and the UK Parliarment's Environmental Audit Committee have warned of the carbon bubble danger. The Prince of Wales' Corporate Leadership Group have taken up the issue with their Trillion Tonne Communiqué.  This involves many leading businesses, including big carbon sources such as Shell, calling for government to set emission reduction targets and make a success out of COP21 in Paris in 2015. Business is running ahead of government in tackling global warming.

This could be the moment for all of us, as individuals and working in households, communities, businesses and all levels of government and non-governmental institutions, to tip society and politics beyond the point of resistance, to re-engineer humanity's course towards as soft a landing as can be achieved.


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