Catastrophic Climate Change: How Should We Respond?

How many years do we have to prevent catastrophic climate change? Much of the debate, especially that involving governments, is conducted on the premise that we have ample time to make the necessary changes. For instance, the Chinese government’s recent commitment that China’s emissions of GHGs will peak in 2030 was met with broad approval. But the scientific research suggests that we actually have much less time to drastically reduce our GHS emissions than is generally thought.

The widely endorsed “safe” rise in average global temperature is 2˚Celsius higher than the average temperature before the industrial revolution. Of course, “safe” is a relative term insofar as even this degree of global warming will lead to islands disappearing under the seas, the disappearance of most glaciers, widespread droughts, ferocious storms – in general, a very unstable climate. Yet the probability of limiting climate change even to this unpleasant prospect shrinks year by year.

One of the most cited articles by climate scientists brings this point home. Malte Meinshausen and six fellow authors published in Nature in April 2009 “Greenhouse Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2 Degrees Celsius;” this article sought to estimate emission targets for 2000-2050 that would limit global warming to 2˚C in the 21st century. The stature of this article is indicated by its ranking in the top 0.1 percent of science articles in terms of citations and that the International Energy Agency has endorsed its projections. The authors develop a complex #climatemodel relating GHG emissions to temperature increases globally. The most pertinent conclusion concerns 2020. If GHG emissions rise more than 25 percent above 2000 levels by that year, the probability of the temperature rising above 2 degrees in the 21st century is 53-87 percent. Furthermore, to restrict global warming to this level would require that more than half of the economically exploitable coal, oil and gas reserves (as of 2006) would remain in the ground, unused. How likely is this?

It is a good bet that we will fail to limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees. Not only have emissions increased year by year since 2000 but the rate of increase has also grown. Emissions have leveled off or fallen in many Western countries (though not in Canada), but they have drastically expanded in the Global South, especially China. It is probable that emissions in five years – 2020 – will be more than 25 percent above the 2000 level. We are already locked in to a 1.5˚C rise in temperatures (according to the World Bank) and are accelerating toward 2 degrees. Realistically, therefore, the climate debate should focus on how to avoid the catastrophic climate change that would accompany an increase in global temperatures of 4˚C. Although no one can say with certainty when we will arrive at the tipping point, the closer we move toward a 4 degree warmer world, the greater the danger.

A common response to this dismal prospect is denial. For instance, Margaret Wente in her Globe & Mail columns vehemently attacks leftists and environmentalists for using scare tactics and direct action to block economically important pipeline projects and other energy-intensive initiatives. Wente for many years derided the scientific basis of the global warming thesis, but when that position became patently untenable, she shifted to claiming that Canadian efforts to combat warming are futile. The enemy becomes, in her columns, not an economic system that is so deeply implicated in climate change, but the dissenting environmentalists. Faith is placed in benign technological change. But what scientific evidence does Wente and the multitude of like-minded columnists cite to buttress their case? Mainly the speeches and writings of the small minority of environmental scientists that dispute the findings of the vast majority.

So, what should we do? We seem to have three options. The first would be to adopt Wente’s position and a “what, me worry?” outlook. From this perspective, we need not feel guilty about driving SUVs and buying luxury goods, which are generally energy intensive. A second position is that we all try harder to be conscientious in reducing our carbon footprint, while urging our governments to do the right thing. Finally, we might join grassroots climate movements in the belief that only mass pressure from below will counteract the political influence of the powerful lobby in favour of business-as-usual and force governments to act decisively. Unfortunately, each of these options is problematical.

Consider the drawbacks. The first alternative amounts to society deciding, implicitly, to have a last fling at the expense of the environment. It is pretty clear where we will end up if we follow this advice – except in the unlikely event that a major technological breakthrough saves us from the worst. But technologies of the scale needed to prevent catastrophic climate change, even if they should emerge, will probably bring with them negative unintended consequences. Solutions to one problem generally create or exacerbate other problems – as is the case with nuclear energy, for example. The second alternative, whereby we continue with politics and business as usual but all – including governments – try harder, is very unlikely to be sufficient in offsetting the influence of the energy-financial lobby and introducing the fundamental changes required to deal with the #climatethreat.

So we are left with the activist option. Yet consider the challenges. A grassroots movement can only prevail if it is highly organized, transnational in scope and united behind a common strategy. A common strategy, however, depends on activists sharing a common view of the root causes of climate change. Is it a surfeit of carbon dioxide that is the enemy, or wrong-headed societal values, or the economic system itself? If the last, do we seek an end to capitalism or, more manageably, an end to neoliberalism? Furthermore, a movement is likely to succeed only if it builds a network of allied groups locally, nationally and globally. Such coordination is difficult to achieve even in the unlikely event that climate activists throughout the world agree on strategy – the goals to be achieved by whom and within what time frame. A divisive issue is how much of the burden of adjustment should be borne by North America and Europe, which have disproportionately contributed to the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In short, movement politics will take years of patient, collaborative work to have any chance of prevailing. And yet it seems to be the only reasonable option.

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).