Last Call on avoiding catastrophic Climate Change

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their 15th Special report yesterday, giving a snapshot of what a world globally warmed by 1.5C above pre-industrial levels might look like within the context of strengthening global responses to climate change, promoting sustainable development, and eradicating poverty. It makes sobering reading:

Rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are now required if we are to limit global warming to 1.5C. The report shows a broad range of negative impacts averted if warming is kept below 1.5C rather than below 2C  – the upper limit given in the Paris Climate Agreement . 2 at which a tipping point is forecast whereby warming will continue regardless of further greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to the positive feedbacks that current warming will already have put in place.

Previously, this kind of alarming report about a threat to humanity would have  galvanised action from the political establishment, as it did in the late 1980s when world leaders came together in Montreal to conclude a treaty to phase out the use of ozone-depleting gasses that were burning a hole in the Earth’s veil of protection against harmful UV rays. However, despite further breakthroughs in science and a deeper understanding of the fragility of our planet and its atmosphere, political and economic expediency are Trumping (pardon the pun) rational science’s concerns over the future of our  planetary ecosystems that support our very survival. Climate change and sustainable development have been pitched as being many generations away and therefore other people’s problems. But the increase in natural atmospheric events, from Hurricane Katrine to Typhoon Kong-Rey are happening now, and it will be our children’s generation, if not our own, that will start to feel the brunt of the impact.

Twelve years on from Nicolas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change and its warning of exponentially increasing costs for inaction, and not only has progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions faltered, but we have not even managed to start reversing the trend. Nothing seems to slake our voracious appetite for carbon-based energy sources and the ‘stuff’ we derive from it.  And following the US decision in 2017 to renege on its inclusion in the Paris Climate Agreement – a non binding agreement to keep warming below 2C – it is difficult to see how catastrophic climate change can be avoided without sanctions against those who don’t want to share the burden.

Furthermore, the IPCC report notes that climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase as global warming increases beyond 1.5 degrees. Populations at disproportionately higher risk of the adverse consequences of global warming (as both warming and vulnerability are not uniform across the planet) include:

disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, some indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods…..including Arctic ecosystems, dryland regions, small-island developing states, and least developed countries.

This is projected by the IPCC with a high degree of confidence. They estimate that up to several hundred million people will have their exposure to poverty and climate-related risks reduced if warming is limited to 1.5C. For those who believe that the successes of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty are destined to be emulated by Sustainable Development Goal 1 to end poverty in all its forms everywhere, think again. Warming above 1.5C will wipe out most of those gains.

If governments won’t act, who will?

Can environmental activists harness ICT4D effectively to promote the kinds of deep and rapid changes required to keep warming below 1.5C  and thus secure some of the gains made in poverty reduction over the last 20 years? It’s a tall order, requiring a  fundamental overhaul of our entire global economic system. Too scary for politicians to contemplate, but will activism force the changes required? Can advocates of the global poor work in tandem to help combat global warming, or at least to ensure a more equitable spread of the impact of anthropogenic climate change in light of which countries are most responsible for it? They have a stiff battle ahead. But social media and mobile communications technologies may provide the capacity to motivate and organise a groundswell of action.

Aside from US president Trump’s refusal to participate in the Paris Agreement, Australian ministers have also met this latest report from the IPCC luke warmly, and they are using traditional mass media to market their message. Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price is betting on technology to pull us through. When speaking to a national radio station, she argued that “I just don’t know how you could say by 2050 that you’re not going to have technology that’s going to enable good, clean technology when it comes to coal.” Considering what is at stake, that’s a risky gamble to put all your chips on. Especially as drought ravages the entire state of NSW and parts of Queensland, sending many farmers to the wall and putting enormous strains on environmental water.

The EU has taken a more proactive stance, issuing a press release welcoming the IPCC’s report and noting that climate change lay at the heart of its research and innovation programme “Horizon Europe” with a view to developing zero-carbon solutions. This is significant from one of the world’s biggest trading blocs,  just two months ahead of the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This critically timed conference will be located in the Polish upper Silesian city of Katowice, a city built on steel and coal, making it an interesting choice. The irony hopefully will not be lost on the activists who are bound to turn up in droves.

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  1. Well said mate. Did I hear Scott Morrison is not intending on sending anyone to this conference?

    • I don’t know if the Australian PM has confirmed whether he will send anyone to the Katowice conference Andrew, but there are plenty encouraging him to decline it. This leader article in the Australian edition of The Spectator last week will take your breath away.

      I think most people, environmentalists included, consider the Paris Agreement to be weak, but it is all that is left now, and no time to start again from scratch. These arguments about large-emission emerging economies having low targets also overlook the obvious – that it’s largely Western demand for cheap manufactured disposable goods that is responsible for those emissions. And that, in the case of Australia’s trade relationship with India, it is Australian coal that is in demand to fuel that growth. The only thing I agree with, is the irony of flying too many delegates to a conference about emissions. But then in terms of total annual greenhouse gas emissions, it is just a drop.