Written by Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
The latest IPCC report is difficult reading, and clearly sounds a very loud alarm about the prospects of a 1.5⁰C or greater rise in global average temperatures. The analogy I always think is most helpful is to think of the planet as a living human body. If we had a 1.5⁰ – 2⁰C rise in our body temperature we would not be feeling very well either, and some of our systems would start to fail or behave differently. This is precisely what is happening with the planet. And the higher the temperature is allowed to rise the worse these responses are going to be, and the more likely one illness or reaction will trigger another.
We should be concerned. But for those of us involved in the climate arena this is not news, it is simply a reinforcement of known evidence. That is not to dismiss the importance of this report – the IPCC’s report is scientifically robust, if not conservative, because it relies on corroborated peer-reviewed science, so it is often 2-3 years behind the latest findings when published. And every government then gets a chance to edit and influence the final wording, often leading to a softening in language.
So what does the report say? Ultimately, it is an urgent call for an acceleration in action to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Most of the report concerns itself with the difference between 1.5⁰C and 2⁰C, and in short makes it patently clear that we should be making even more effort. The report states that the ‘climate related risks for natural and human systems are higher for global warming of 1.5⁰C than at present.’ In essence, it is worse than previously assumed, and much of the rest of the paper reinforces the fact that impacts at this temperature level would be pretty drastic, and if much higher would lead to ‘irreversible change’.
The report also states that new trends in intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extremes have been detected, making the obvious link between increasing weather extremes and temperature change. And in a glimmer of positive news, states that ‘warming from anthropogenic emissions [to date] … alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5⁰C…’ So if we stopped emitting excess greenhouse gases immediately we could avoid a 1.5⁰C temperature rise. However, very few observers still believe this is achievable, as there is such limited appetite for change.
So how should we respond? Firstly we should take this seriously – it is really serious and anyone who understands credible science has realised this for years. We should look again at what we can and are prepared to do, because we can, all of us, do more. We should empower politicians to make some of the bold decisions we ultimately all need, in order to bring about necessary change – in Scotland via the new climate legislation due to be passed in 2019. But most of all, we should familiarise ourselves with the solutions. Because there are many and we need to enact most of them. There are some really comprehensive solutions packages out there, like Ed Hawken’s ‘Drawdown’ and the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Delivery Plan, and we all should know more about them – what would make a difference, how much of a difference, and how much might it cost? And in many cases, how much might it save? At RSGS we are developing a qualification for managers and senior staff in climate understanding to help share these solutions more widely and help people understand the role they can all play in delivering them.
Yes we need to live differently, because humans as a society are currently too wasteful, uncaring and unsustainable. But there is so much we could and should do – and that, if viewed positively, represents a huge opportunity for new thinking, new industry, healthier habits and innovation. Because solving this complex problem needs a positive shift to a sustainable mind-set. And, importantly, we need to stop delegating this issue to children and young people; we need to get on with it.