I’m at Stage Five of 1.5°C Grief

I’m convinced that acceptance is the best path forward.

a dark, shaded woodland path flanked by trees.

The path of acceptance may not be the brightest or most inviting, but it is increasingly inevitable.

Photo: Ed Schipul. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.
When I saw the push notification from the New York Times pop up on my phone, I gasped. Then I cried. The U.S., the last hold-out, would support creation of a “loss and damage” fund. That’s a pot of money for rebuilding vulnerable countries that are being destroyed by climate-change disasters they did not cause.

But with no legal liability attached, and controversy over who will pay and how the money will be disbursed, we don’t know whether a single dollar, euro, or yuan will ever be spent to help these countries. It’s just one of several potentially empty promises associated with COP27, the big international climate summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022.

The other big one has to do with the 1.5°C average heating goal established in Paris in 2015. In 2021, we declared that COP26 in Glasgow “kept 1.5 alive.” I’m no longer so certain.

The painful math

A lot is riding on the hope that we can still limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Companies and governments around the globe have set “science-based” decarbonization targets derived from the calculations behind the Paris Agreement. Although these pledges have been lambasted as lacking integrity, many people see them as vital to meeting the goal. The pledges at least provide a structure for transparency and accountability. If we lose hope, there’s a real fear all that will evaporate: people will stop bothering to limit emissions, and we’ll shoot way past 2°C. We’re already at 1.2°C, and the World Meteorological Organization has said the chance of hitting 1.5°C temporarily in 2023 is basically a coin toss.

The final COP27 Implementation Plan has all the right words, with the parties resolving to “pursue further efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” and committing to “rapid, deep, and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43% by 2030 relative to the 2019 level.” But a lot of people think that’s ludicrous.

The COP itself admitted as much. The plan highlights that “about $4 trillion per year needs to be invested in renewable energy up until 2030,” and “a global transformation to a low-carbon economy is expected to require investment of at least $4 to $6 trillion per year.” For that to happen, “a transformation of the financial system and its structures and processes” will be required.

Has there been any sign of that?

Some people saw a glimmer of hope when the world shut down due to COVID-19 and emissions plummeted in 2020. But emissions bounced right back the next year.

Think about how disruptive the pandemic was in 2020, and consider this: to stay on track to meet our remaining “carbon budget,” we would need to reduce global CO2 emissions by a COVID-19 unit (1.4 gigatons) every year between now and 2050, according to a group of climate scientists writing in CarbonBrief. That would require “a long-term, structural change of the economy,” they say.

Given where we are today, does that level of change seem likely?

Hope vs. delusions

There’s hope, and then there’s deluding ourselves.

And deluding ourselves is outright dangerous, according to Bill McGuire, author of Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide, writing in The Guardian. “Continuing to present this temperature threshold as an attainable target provides a fig leaf for business as usual,” McGuire argues, because it’s used “to justify inertia right up until it is too late.”

This flies in the face of the idea that we need to keep 1.5 alive so people don’t give up. McGuire calls for a shift in mindset that will take away the 1.5°C “safety net” he claims corporations and governments “use as an excuse to do little or nothing” (cf. “Man announces he will quit drinking by 2050”). Once we admit we’re streaking past 1.5°C, he believes, “each and every 0.1°C rise in global average temperature that we can forestall becomes critical,” increasing accountability for corporations and governments because “every ton of carbon dioxide or methane we can prevent being emitted becomes a vital win.”

More importantly, McGuire says we need to face the music when it comes to adaptation, “knowing that the world we are leaving to our kids and their kids is certain to be grim.”

The COP27 Implementation Plan agrees. It identifies perilous gaps in our climate adaptation planning, urging “a transformational approach to enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience, and reducing vulnerability to climate change”—but without any specifics.

What does it mean?

Let’s say we move out of the denial phase (and anger—don’t forget anger), accepting the death of the 1.5°C target. What changes?

I think McGuire is onto something: by accepting this loss, we can gain new momentum to work harder and faster ourselves, and to demand more from the companies and governments whose activities underpin our lives (and in some cases pay our bills). In addition, we must also focus even more than we do now on resilience.

In the end, accepting the death of the 1.5°C target could, counterintuitively, help us reduce emissions with greater urgency while we also prepare for the inevitable catastrophes to come.

Published December 21, 2022

Melton, P. (2022, December 21). I’m at Stage Five of 1.5°C Grief. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/i-m-stage-five-1-5-c-grief

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