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

Essential Predispositions for Climate Action
distributed 1/11/19 - ©2019

Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released a major and urgent report on "Global Warming of 1.5°C." An Eco-Justice Notes written shortly after that publication offered my first take.

Three months later, I've had time to dig more deeply into the 438 page document. For this reading, I asked myself a slightly different question. The first time, I wondered, "What does the report say?" More recently, I've asked, "What do ordinary folk need to know?"

The lengthy report has an enormous amount of detailed and very carefully stated information. That wealth of highly specific data is essential for the scientific community and for policy makers. However, it can be overwhelming and confusing for those of us who are concerned citizens.

I don't think it will be helpful or productive, for example, to have an adult education series at your church exploring the intricacies of the diverse carbon dioxide removal strategies that are evaluated by the IPCC. However, it will be very helpful to have a class that touches on the main points of the report, and provides some guidance on a few of the big ethical take-aways.

In October, I highlighted two themes in the report that seemed like good news. Today, I'll expand that list to five bullet points that seem like essential knowledge. I'll also point to a very short piece of the report that may be the most important new finding as we look at broad-based political action to stabilize the climate.

It is not enough to know about the report. All of us need to be able to find ways of acting -- personally, politically and with moral witness -- that will make a real difference in reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

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The IPCC report was requested shortly after the Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted in 2015. The Paris Agreement set the goal of "holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels." (2 degrees Celsius is equal to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Knowing that the planet has already experienced 1C of warming, the authors of the report were asked to consider (1) is it possible to hold the rise in temperature to 1.5°C, and (2) what is the difference between 1.5° and 2°C? Five short statements can summarize the findings of the IPCC report.

  • Yes, technically, it still is possible to hold the global temperature rise to 1.5°C.
  • The danger and damage of 2°C is much worse than 1.5°C. The 2°C target cannot be considered a safe or acceptable goal.
  • Reducing the impacts of climate change is easier when there is also an emphasis on social and economic justice, based on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
  • The need for action is extremely urgent. Major reductions in CO2 emissions -- of 45% from 2010 levels -- must be accomplished by 2030, only 11 years from now.
  • Meeting these targets will be an unprecedented challenge for the global society -- technologically, politically, economically and culturally.

Those five points will give you just enough sense of the report to know if a politician or commentator is taking the IPCC document seriously and honestly. They are the bare minimum of what all of us should know.

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In chapter 2 of the IPCC report, there's a very short discussion of socio-economic factors and the possibility of achieving 1.5°C-consistent pathways. (It is section 2.3.1.1, if you want to read those two pages.) This very small part of the report may be the most important action piece for those of us who are ordinary citizens.

A simple chart considers the socio-economic challenges to both mitigation (reducing carbon emissions) and adaptation (dealing with the impacts of climate change). On this grid, characteristics of various cultural settings are listed in the four boxes where high and low levels of challenges are found on each axis. There's also a "medium" box in the middle that really doesn't say much. A copy of this chart is copied to our website -- take a quick look.

Each of the four major areas of the chart are given a name. The one at the intersection of the two "low challenge" lines is called "sustainable development." The opposite corner, with high measures of both challenges, is called "regional rivalry." The other two are labeled "fossil-fueled development" and "inequality."

In each box, there are about eight short characteristics of the way that a particular culture, community or nation operates. The report speaks of them as "socio-economic predispositions." None of these are highly technical matters about climate science or technology. They are the sort of broad considerations that we could easily identify in the stances of any political candidate, or in the platform of a political party.

It turns out that these socio-economic choices and perspectives are profoundly important in whether there is a realistic chance of holding to a 1.5°C temperature rise. High challenges to mitigation virtually doom effective steps to limit warming to 1.5° or even 2°C. The report give this blunt assessment:

No model could identify a 2°C-consistent pathway for SSP3 ["regional rivalry"], and high mitigation costs were found for SSP5 ["fossil-fueled development"]. ... No model found a 1.5°C-consistent pathway for SSP3 and some models could not identify 1.5°C-consistent pathways for SSP5.

The analysis is very different in some areas of low challenges:

all six participating models identified 1.5°C-consistent pathways in a sustainability oriented world (SSP1) and four of six models found 1.5°C-consistent pathways for middle-of-the-road developments (SSP2). These results show that 1.5°C-consistent pathways can be identified under a broad range of assumptions, but that lack of global cooperation (SSP3), high inequality (SSP4) and/or high population growth (SSP3) that limit the ability to control land use emissions, and rapidly growing resource-intensive consumption (SSP5) are key impediments.

As I read this short section of the IPCC report, it seems to me that the decisive political issues for addressing climate change may not be how to put a reasonable price on carbon, or whether to invest in new technologies for carbon capture, as important as those are. Before those details can come into play, we need to build political power and social consensus around bedrock issues of "socio-economic predispositions."

Will we look favorably on the global cooperation that is essential for climate solutions, or will we insist on regional or national benefits? Will we affirm a general notion of resource-efficient lifestyles, or will be continue to depend on fossil fuels? Will we be able to celebrate the sufficiency of low energy and food demands per capita, or will we expect resource intensive lifestyles?

For those of us living in the United States, there is -- I'm afraid -- an inescapable conclusion from section 2.3.1.1 of the IPCC report. The broad socio-economic agenda of the Trump administration is an absolute roadblock to achieving the needed climate pathways. Policies of "America first" and of "energy dominance" contradict the most basic aspects of climate action. Celebrations of wealth, privilege, consumption and individual freedom are roadblocks to sustainable development.

The Trump administration, of course, has not put forth policies that are totally new. US predispositions have been leaning in the wrong direction for decades. But Mr. Trump has been blatant and aggressive in pushing these into extreme territory, and our nation's failure to lead, or even act, on climate is the tragic result.

For ordinary citizens, the most important political action we can take in the coming years has to do with foundational work about the character of our society. What do we want our nation or our community to look like? Will we choose the hopeful path of sustainable development, with a mix of values and goals that take us in the right direction? Or will we hold to the climate-destroying values of fossil-fueled development or regional rivalry?

Faith communities can take the lead in celebrating the path of sustainable development. All of us can speak out to politicians, family and friends about the basic values of cooperation and sufficiency.

We must speak and act, because limiting warming to 1.5°C is virtually impossible unless we claim the socio-economic predispositions of a sustainable society.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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