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Climate change policy and the need for paradigm shift

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By Asterios Tsioumanis

The world is facing an acute environmental and climate crisis. Although systematized environmental concerns were less popular prior to the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the decades since then witnessed a shift in that respect. Despite the 21st century information noise, we now know, beyond reasonable doubt, that we are on a collision course with the natural world, the climate crisis being a significant part of it.

This is not news. 40 years ago, in 1979, the First World Climate Conference took place in Geneva, agreeing on the urgency to act against the backdrop of alarming climate change trends. 13 years later, the Union of Concerned Scientists circulated the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity signed by over 1700 scientists, including the majority of living recipients of the Nobel Prize in sciences. They explicitly warned that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about”.

Since 1992, the international community has intensified efforts to address environmental concerns, including the establishment of the three Rio Conventions, directly derived from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, to address concerns related to climate change, biodiversity, and desertification.

Despite the recognition of the environmental challenges and the systematization of efforts to address them at the policy level, humanity has failed, according to available relevant evidence, to make sufficient progress in solving them. Making things even worse, most of these challenges are on a negative trajectory. The collision course has not been diverted so far and the environmental crisis, including the climate one, seems more threatening than ever. In the words of the Global Risks Report 2019 of the World Economic Forum “of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe”.

In 2017, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the “1992 Warning to Humanity”, World Scientists’ Warning – Second Notice was co-published in BioScience by more than 15,000 scientists from around the world. Looking back, the scientific community emphasized that, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress towards solving the well-known environmental problems. They expressed particular concern about unleashing a mass extinction event, with current research from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services showing that one million species face extinction, many within decades. They further lamented the current trajectory of catastrophic climate change, particularly due to rising greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production.

Indeed, the climate crisis and the way humanity has dealt with it, especially since the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), provides ample evidence of the “sleepwalking into catastrophe”. UNFCCC was created with the objective to stabilize greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Under its auspices, the Kyoto Protocol and, more recently, the Paris Agreement convey the same sense of urgency and ample warning of insufficient progress.

As everyone involved in addressing the climate crisis realized during the world’s multilateral efforts to address the problem, these efforts are heavily influenced by socio-economic realities.

As expected, vested interests that benefit greatly from the status quo were unwilling to engage in the necessary transition. In the case of the climate crisis those vested interests come from the fossil fuel industry, which is well equipped in terms of both resources and power. Less than two dozen companies’ exploitation of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves can be directly linked to more than one third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era.

Furthermore, the climate crisis is closely linked to excessive production and consumption that can only take place to affluent countries, which bear the main burden of the historical GHG emissions and still typically have the greatest per capita emissions.

In this respect, on the one hand, less prosperous countries in the developing world have traditionally called for additional flexibility to be granted in their mitigation efforts. They pointed not only to unequal historical emissions, but furthermore to the varying availability of means to tackle climate change, which gave rise to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. On the other, developed countries pointed to the need for a set of common rules that will hold all, especially emerging economies, equally accountable.

While separating the two camps into Annex I and non-Annex I parties, as per the Kyoto Protocol, has been deemed counterproductive by many, the Paris Agreement, despite breaking this binary division, does not provide the necessary clarity on how to move forward. It does recognize the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, but also includes ambiguous language that varies across different provisions. In addition, the level of ambition through the system of nationally determined contributions has been criticized, as experts note that even if pledges are fully fulfilled, the world will be still lagging behind the necessary level of emission reductions to avoid catastrophic effects. 

The threshold, as set by the Paris Agreement, is to hold global average temperature increase to 2°C while “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. The number itself was the result of a compromise. Countries allowed the target to appear in Article 2 of the Agreement with a clause for the scientific review of its feasibility. Some argued that science is not mature enough to demonstrate differences between 1.5°C and 2°C; yet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ICPP) Special Report on 1.5°C revealed an astonishing degree of certainty on the importance of every fraction of degree of warming. In the same report, the Panel bluntly noted that we have at most 12 years left to make the drastic and unprecedented changes needed to prevent average global temperature from rising beyond the Paris Agreement goal. 

Despite all efforts, the agreements and the protocols, current trends in the vital signs of climatic impacts are far from reassuring. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide continue to increase in the atmosphere as does global surface temperature. The 20 warmest years on record have occurred over the past 22; the 5 warmest were the last 5. A warming trend does not get much clearer than that for the non-experts. Ice has been rapidly declining, ocean heat content, ocean acidity, sea level and extreme weather events are all increasing. Climate change is predicted to greatly affect marine, freshwater, and terrestrial life, from plankton and corals to fishes and forests.

The IPCC reports are pretty clear about the impacts, noting that the risks depend on the magnitude and rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development and vulnerability. It is also clear that human activities have already caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, affecting land and ocean ecosystems and the respective services they provide.

The future looks bleak with expected increases in mean temperature and extreme weather events, including heat waves, heavy rain, drought and associated wildfires and coastal flooding. Along with sea level rise that will seriously impact low-lying territories, humanity will need to address augmented climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply and human security. Impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems should not be underestimated, including marine ecosystems as increases in ocean temperature as well as associated increases in ocean acidity and decreases in ocean oxygen levels impact the growth, development, calcification, survival and thus abundance of a broad range of species. Indeed, there is uncertainty about the risks. However, that uncertainty mainly concerns their magnitude, intensity and frequency rather than the negative impacts themselves.

World’s decision makers prove to be extremely myopic and fail to grasp the urgency of the problem and act accordingly. Despite the steady drumbeat of extreme weather events worldwide and the continuous explicit warnings from the scientific community that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion, deforestation and land-use change are primarily responsible for climate change, emissions continue to increase. Even more problematically, the political context in the international arena has shifted towards populism, including, in some cases, even opposition to scientific evidence.

Notwithstanding the warnings and the numerous meetings of the climate community to address the problem, it is fair to say that during the past decades, humanity has conducted business as usual. More pessimistic observers note that to change course, it may well take a major catastrophe like reaching an irreversible climate tipping point, which could potentially make large areas of Earth uninhabitable.

While doomsday scenarios may capture public imagination, the status quo is serious enough without them. The fourth climate assessment conducted in the United States, warns that without significant reductions in emissions, average global temperatures could rise by 5°C by the end of the century. As the IPCC reports show, these uncontrolled increases will have dire consequences for humans and will become the source of “untold misery” if not appropriately tackled. The climate crisis is already here; it is moving faster than most scientists have predicted and it is more severe than most anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and humanity’s future.

Civil society organizations, especially through the Fridays for Future movement, have explicitly warned that “what is politically possible is not acceptable”, demanding more ambitious actions and plans, and stating that this “is a matter of life or death”. It is true that climate change negative impacts may indeed prove a matter of life or death for a significant proportion of the human population in the future. It is also unquestionable that our actions and behaviors today, significantly and negatively influence the rights of future generations. In that respect, Greta Thunberg’s message is focused and solid. She is not far off when, during the 25th conference of the parties in Madrid, in December 2019, she described the pledges of affluent countries and businesses to curb climate change as “clever accounting and creative public relations”. She is also correct to point out that “you have been negotiating for the last 25 years, even before I was born”.

The uncomfortable reality is that, during these 25 years and always under the shadow of vested interests, negotiations often resembled to the theater of the absurd, a form of drama that emphasizes the absurdity of human existence by employing disjointed, repetitious, and meaningless dialogue.

Responding to Greta’s message, United States President Trump suggested that Greta “chill” and “work on her anger management problem”. This reaction perfectly portrays that the stakes are not identical for all stakeholders in the climate crisis debate. To put it bluntly, it is much more difficult to “chill” for those that are young and will have to face the consequences of today’s actions in the decades to come.

While stakes are not the same, it is also misleading to think of the climate crisis response as inadequate due to a generational gap. Many adults, including prominent scientists, have expressed similar concerns to the Fridays for Future movement over the past decades. The inability to respond to those concerns has to be attributed mainly to organized resistance by vested interests in a labyrinth of an unsustainable economic system that prioritizes short-term profit maximization, often at any cost.

In order for the necessary transformational changes to occur in our societies and economies, a paradigm shift will be required, accompanied by significant shifts in individual practices. The maximization goal, embedded in all economic activities, will need to be questioned and replaced, together with societal choices on fairer systems for benefit distribution. Structural changes will be needed in order to bridge the inequality gaps inter- and intra-nationally and deliver viable systems that respect the rights of humans, including younger ones and those not yet born, as well as the natural world that has provided humanity from the start with endless services that should be preserved. Social Solidarity Economy provides such an example of the necessary paradigm shift. As such, it should be further explored, developed and promoted.