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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Special: The IPCC and Hope
distributed 10/16/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Harold Palevsky and Lorna Lynn of Wynnewood, PA, in memory of Jack Twombly. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Just over a week ago, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released a very important document. It has the cumbersome, but highly descriptive title, "GLOBAL WARMING OF 1.5 °C: an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty."

In the Paris Agreement of 2015, the nations of the world made a commitment to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational goal of keeping below 1.5 degrees. This special IPCC report was requested in 2016 to see if it was, indeed, possible to hold warming to that 1.5 degree level.

I've read the Summary for Decision Makers (30+ dense pages of technical language and jargon, with several complicated graphs), and I've had the time and energy to glance at the five much longer and more detailed chapters of the report. [All the report documents are available for download.]

Today, my thoughts and comments are intended specifically for the Eco-Justice Notes community. I don't consider you to be a "general audience" on this topic. I presume that regular readers of this commentary have a working knowledge about basic issues of climate change and related policies. You don't need to read a long report to know that climate change is real, that it is a very frightening threat, and that it is complicated to address. You also bring a strong level of ethical commitment. So I'm going to skip over those preliminaries, and get to what I see as the most essential learnings for you from the IPCC report. (If you want the general audience background, see an article from Time.) Presuming your interest and concern, I'm going to offer a relatively brief introduction and some first reactions to the report.

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There is certainly lots of information in the report that is frightening or overwhelming. Just in the three years since Paris, it has become clear that the 1.5 degree "aspirational goal" is actually a starkly realistic top edge of what can be considered. The report does not pull any punches in spelling out a lot of that danger. But within all of those details, I found two broad messages that stood out to me as hopeful. By my reading, both of those points are absolutely central to the report's message.

1) Yes, it is possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

2) It is easier to limit warming when we also take sustainable development and social justice seriously as a parallel goal.

I'll take those two points as the basis for my comments about the IPCC report.

I was delighted to find the scientist's affirmation that 1.5 degrees is possible. Their report tells us that we are not locked into runaway or utterly catastrophic warming -- not yet. That core finding, though, is not cause for wild optimism. One of the authors of the report told NPR, "Limiting warming to 1.5 °C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes."

The Summary for Policymakers notes that keeping to the 1.5 degree limit

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. [section C2]

As that statement indicates, there's no way to imagine that we'll meet the challenge of climate change only with a lot of solar panels and electric cars. The standard focus on renewable energy, especially electricity, is not adequate. The various pathways to stabilizing temperatures require dramatic changes in agriculture and land use, urban design, and our standards of consumption. The four proposed pathways all require some way to remove carbon from the atmosphere -- ranging from planting lots of trees, to the hope for new technologies that have not been invented. Also required, rather obviously, is a dramatic increase in political will, and in many forms of international cooperation.

The report makes clear that every 1/10 of a degree above 1.5 is critically important. There are not two clear-cut options -- to hold warming at 1.5 degrees, or to accept a jump to 2 degrees. As the world would warm between those two markers, climate problems increase dramatically, and the interplay of positive and negative factors becomes more complex. Any action to bend the curve of greenhouse gasses and warming is very beneficial. While we don't want to go above 1.5, 1.6 degrees of warming would be less catastrophic than 1.8 degrees.

The increasing severity of the climate crisis above 1.5° increases the urgency of action, because even at 1.5° we're in very deep trouble. It is technically possible to meet 1.5°, and we'd better try very hard to do so because after that, more and more changes become irreversible (species extinction and loss of unique ecosystems), the economic costs increase sharply, and the technical, political and cultural problems become harder.

I expected to hear about the challenges of meeting the 1.5 degree goal. I was very surprised by the report's finding that a commitment to global sustainable development -- a concern with alleviating poverty and addressing justice -- makes the work easier.

In chapter 5, where the focus turns to social issues, the authors describe why this is the case.

Sustainable development supports, and often enables, the fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations that help limit global warming to 1.5°C. Such changes facilitate the pursuit of climate-resilient development pathways that achieve ambitious mitigation and adaptation in conjunction with poverty eradication and efforts to reduce inequalities. [chapter 5, section 5.3.1]

The IPCC does not put it in quite this way, but if we attempt to maintain "business as usual" with only some technological fixes to reduce climate impacts, there will be countless roadblocks to effective action. If we are willing to take a larger look at how to make our global society more just and sustainable, then more strategies for mitigation and adaptation become possible.

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I've been speaking of two central points from the IPCC report as "hopeful" in a theological or philosophical sense. That form of hope is quite different from optimism. Staving off the worst of climate collapse will be very, very hard, and there are no guarantees that our global society can pull it off. But my preliminary reading of the long report still points me toward hope.

In an excellent article this week in the Guardian -- "Don't despair: the climate fight is only over if you think it is" -- Rebecca Solnit writes that "the point of the IPCC report is that there is still a chance to seize the best-case scenario rather than surrender to the worst."

In the spirit of the possibility to act dramatically, right now, with hope and commitment, I'll briefly name two important established initiatives that dovetail well with the new IPCC report. These are two places where existing efforts reflect or reinforce what the UN report has stressed.

  1. The Climate Mobilization lifts up a call to action says that dealing with the climate crisis "will take massive, sustained reductions in carbon emissions, and concerted collaborative action on a speed and scale we haven't seen since the home front mobilization during World War II." They're working to get local communities and states to declare a "climate emergency" that will bring commitment and focus to that effort. Their emphasis on a global emergency helps lift climate action above all other social and political issues.

  2. In the last year or so, several Notes readers have told me of their excitement with "Drawdown" -- an initiative based on a recent book by Paul Hawken. A highly qualified group of experts have looked at what needs to be done to avoid climate catastrophe, and they have outlined a diverse "path forward that can roll back global greenhouse gas emissions within thirty years. The research revealed that humanity has the means and techniques at hand. Nothing new needs to be invented, yet many more solutions are coming due to purposeful human ingenuity." It is exciting to look at their 100 practical approaches to reducing carbon.

    However, I do find an important cautionary detail from the UN report, which looked carefully at these kinds of responses. There are many good strategies for slashing climate impacts, but those can interact with each other. The IPCC report speaks of synergies and trade-offs among mitigation options, where action on one front might either reinforce or conflict with action of another form. (Planting forests to soak up carbon, for example, runs into efforts to develop sustainable agriculture.) Use of the drawdown strategies, without some intentional and careful coordination, might substantially reduce effectiveness.

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The new IPCC report tells us that action to contain catastrophic climate change is still possible. We're not locked into a situation that is beyond any positive influence. There are many tools and policy options that can be applied. We face an enormous challenge, and we do have time and resources to protect the climate while also acting for sustainable development and climate justice.

There is no question that the crisis is upon us, and that profound changes need to happen right away. There also is not question, speaking from an eco-justice ethical perspective, that such action for climate justice is the only moral choice.

In hope, and with courage, may we take on the challenge.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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