A psychosocial perspective on IPCC special report on 1.5°C

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 20.20.21.pngThis is the talk I gave as part of Averting climate disruption: what now? a panel event at Edinburgh University, 10th Oct 2018, on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on the impacts of 1.5°C global warming .

We know from the Scottish Household Survey 2017 that most (61%) folk in Scotland view climate change as an immediate and urgent problem, as opposed to a problem for the future or not really a problem at all, and (77%) that it will impact Scotland. But if you look out the window life seems pretty normal, it’s hard to take in that globally we are in a situation of ecological crisis. Ecological crisis is when the environment of a species or a population changes in a way that destabilises its continued survival. This event is titled ‘averting climate disruption’ but actually that’s a huge understatement because what we are facing isn’t just disruption its catastrophe.

I worked until the end of last year as a science officer in the technical support unit of the IPCC working group II (impacts, vulnerability and adaptation) and part of my role was to provide technical and scientific support to the Special Report on 1.5 degrees. I reviewed the internal, first order and second order drafts, so have some first hand knowledge of the process as well as some of the scientific debates around it.

But what I am going to focus on talking about now are some implications of the report. So if we are to take the report seriously, what does that mean?

One headline statement states:

“Pathways to limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.”

We have to go to the main body of the report to get the details of the transformational change associated with these pathways:

  • low energy demand
  • decarbonisation of energy supply particularly electricity
  • electrification of energy end use (gas central heating has no future)
  • deep reductions in agricultural emissions
  • low demand for land
  • low demand for GHG intensive consumption goods
  • ecosystem restoration, reforestation & other CO2 removal
  • sustainable intensification of land use practices
  • less resource-intensive diets

This is not about simply swapping one set of technologies with another, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, this is profound transformation in how we live – major reductions in our consumption of energy, materials, food, dietary change to plant based diet (stop eating beef and pork), and reduce food waste.

The report acknowledges this will create conflicts in land use between:

  • human settlements (development
  • food production
  • livestock feed
  • fibre
  • bioenergy
  • carbon storage
  • biodiversity & other ecosystem services (i.e. space for other living beings)

Time for Scotland’s grouse moor and deer estates and golf courses to get repurposed!

The report identifies the following enabling conditions:

  • strengthened multi-level governance
  • institutional capacity
  • policy instruments
  • technological innovation
  • transfer & mobilization of finance
  • changes in human behavior & lifestyles

Now the key question is, is there the political and societal will to do what needs to be done? How likely is it that the necessary transitions will happen at the scale and speed required?

In my view, not very likely.

We can see in the graph below that the pledges governments made as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement are not sufficient for staying below 2 degrees. Actually they add up to 2.5 to 3 degrees (that’s the red/pink line on the graph). But not only are the pledges insufficient, they depend upon negative emissions technologies that either do not yet exist or that have not been deployed at scale, so it’s all pretty speculative. And then on top of all of that, there is the issue that governments, including our own, are not actually aligning their policies to fit these pledges (that’s the blue line). None of it is adding up. There is huge dissonance between what the science is telling us and what we are doing about it.

UK government subsidies to fossil fuel companies have increased since the Paris Agreement and its support for renewables has been cut back. Globally, powerful vested interests are actively working against action to limit climate change. This is denialism – conscious and intentional campaigns of disinformation and sabotage. It’s not just the US administration, Brazil and Australia are also tending in that direction.

The main problem is that mitigation requires global cooperation. Its not going work if only some countries do it and the rest blow the global carbon budget into the stratosphere. And instead of increasing cooperation we see some countries becoming more isolationist, pursuing self-protection goals. Oil rich countries such as Saudi Arabia fight hard against mitigation because that involves reducing investment in and consumption of fossil fuels.

Indeed the report identifies 3 key impediments

  • lack of global cooperation
  • lack of governance of the energy & land transformation
  • growing resource-intensive consumption

There is also the risk of maladaptation. Governments taking actions that make things worse:

  • increase GHG emissions
  • increase inequality
  • undermine health (human & ecosystems)

One route to deal with inadequate responses by governments and corporations is taking legal action, and it’s very interesting to see the ruling of the Dutch court yesterday. However, in England people have been given jail sentences of up to 16 months for protesting against fracking. We should be very alarmed about this.

So that’s political will. But is there societal will for transformational change?

According to the SHS most people in Scotland (75%) say they understand what actions they should be taking. We don’t know if they are doing it or not but in light of this report we have to now ask, what actions exactly do they think they should take? If its changing the lightbulbs then no that’s not going to do it.

Transformational change is needed but it doesn’t have to be framed in terms of sacrifice, about giving up all these lovely material comforts we have got used to. We would need to massively reduce consumption but there is opportunity to rethink what a good life is, what flourishing looks like, and create a positive vision of the kind of society we want to live in – one that values living in harmonious relationship with the natural world as more important than buying lots of stuff we don’t really need.

But there is no getting away from the fact that the next few decades are going to be deeply traumatic for many people in the world. Two key impacts are missing in the report: one is mass migration and second is the impact of climate change on mental health and the huge demands this will place on already pressured health services, which we in the UK are nowhere near prepared for.

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3 Responses to A psychosocial perspective on IPCC special report on 1.5°C

  1. asimong says:

    Feels like denial is such a natural response, doesn’t it? When it all seems too complex, impossible to know where to start in such a huge endeavour, it’s so much easier, psychologically — and indeed socially — to push it all away. And for the few that have a fanatical energy actually to do something, they find their very fanaticism is pitting them against others they should be co-operating with.

    It’s implausible for all of us suddenly to transform our selves into climate change activists, but what we could perhaps do is to promise ourselves to look out for the ones who are really going to make a difference, and each do our little bit to support them.

    Next challenge — and this is also a really tough one — how do we recognise the people who are taking the action that really matters? How can we tell what is in harmony with the other agents of positive change, and what is dissonant?

    • cultureprobe says:

      Thanks for posting your thoughts, Simon. To your last point I personally go to Taoism and the notion that ‘what is good is unknowable’ – we don’t have the power as a small part of a larger complex system to control the emergent properties of that system, or have the perspective to know how an action today will play out over time. So I think this is where it becomes a spiritual practice of transcending the ego and cultivating a virtue ethics.

      • asimong says:

        I completely agree that in complex systems, it is so hard to predict outcomes that we need to cultivate an attitude of detachment from outcomes, and thus (in some readings) ego. I guess I’m looking for some principles for a “guide” or “compass” here. A virtue ethics might well be a good way forward — do you have more written on your approach to this, or do you identify with particular approaches already published? If we go with a “virtue” based approach, my question is about discernment of the virtues of others, so we don’t slip inadvertently into something that slinks towards solipsism. Solipsism seems to me to be one of of the worst attitudes to cultivate.

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