Too Late for 2 Degrees? The latest from the IPCC

. . . There is a lot of pressure to reduce greenhouse gases now, or else in 20 years we may have reached a point where scientists are not sure whether the conditions for life on Earth would be feasible.

“Dr. Thomas Stocker, Co- Chair of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)  Working Group 1 and candidate for the IPCC Presidency, visited Costa Rica to meet with Government officials and gave a public presentation on 14 August 2015 at the Costa Rican Lawyers Bar Association.

Dr. Stocker is a physicist and head of the department of Climate and Environmental Physics at the University of Bern, Switzerland. The focus of Dr. Stocker’s research is the development of models of climate change based on, among others, the analysis of ice cores from the polar regions.

In his presentation, Dr. Stocker shared the latest findings on the global climate change situation, which are incorporated in the synthesis report that the IPCC publishes for policy makers. He mentioned that there was an effort to include simple and easy to understand statements about the current situation, showing that global warming is unequivocally occurring and that it is due mainly to burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.” (click here for rest of article).

An Interpretation

Part of the problem with the exceptional science of the IPCC is that it is so “accurate” and consistent with scientific method that it presents a false sense of possibility, and therefore underestimates and undermines effective lay understanding and public policy for the required response.

First, 2 degrees is presented as a safe limit, when in fact, 2 degrees is the borderline between possible safety and likely catastrophe, a limit to be avoided at all costs. The calculation of the remaining “budget” for GHG production, that is subtracting current cumulative emissions from the limit to achieve only a 2-degree warming, is a false budget. We don’t actually want to achieve production at the 2-degree level; we want to avoid it by as large a margin as possible. In addition, there is substantial disagreement over whether one or two degrees is the “safe” limit.  Ten years ago, the IPCC and discussion was focused on 1-degree. Because even reversing 1- or 2-degrees will take 150-300 years because of the long lag times and “stickiness” in the climate system, even avoidance will incur associated pain, suffering, and costs of temporary “adaptation” during the “mitigation” period, and thus, somehow been subsumed into an acceptable” level.  Finally, there is a wide margin of uncertainty in forecasting the behavior of complex systems. We may “hold” 2-degrees, or 1-degree, as the “safe” limit, but there are many catastrophic surprises possible even within those scenarios.

Second, that the “solution” and effective response is simply a “reduction” in GHGs. Based on current technology, “reducing” GHGs means a real decrease in economic production. If we were only speaking of reduction in luxury and excessive consumption among the “made” elite, the issue would be trivial and goal possible.  However, the global economy can only now support approximately 30% of the population of the planet at what can be characterized as a “restorative” standard, with the rest living in various states of deprivation.

The “reduction” needed to “solve” the climate crisis is not simply a “cut back” in excessive luxury production/consumption, BUT a transformation of the global-local economy that decouples human economic production from effects that compromise and ultimately destroy the regenerative life support capacity of the biosphere. Such a transformation involves the redesign of economic production, processes, and consumption that dramatically increases productivity (x10+) and substitutes materials that are rare in the biosphere with those that are common and plentiful (aluminum for lead, for instance). In addition, for processes where such benevolent substitutions are not possible, it would be necessary to create closed-loop production/consumption/disposal circuits to insulate the toxic human economy from the life generating biospheric system for the duration of the use of those toxic processes. Simple reduction, or doing less damage, is not longer a solution path. The pursuit of transformative paths that lead to net positive, restorative, and regenerative impacts is the solution path. This would include entering, reinforcing, and amplifying the generation and cyclic flows of materials through through the living system of the biosphere.

Third, time is of the essence, and therefore a massive global campaign of socio-economic transformation is essential for success.

Planning has a critical role to play in society’s effective response as follows:

1. Translating the “accurate scientific” understanding into an accurate basis for public policy and action under extreme conditions of uncertainty and dire consequences.

2. Convening the conversation that leads to effective action.

3. Illuminating the settlement pattern and performance parameters of urban and regional systems in a sustainable society in the biosphere (2D land use, 3D urban form, and multimodal transportation system).

[Post prepared by Scott T. Edmondson, AICP, founder/past co-director and Research Program Lead of the Northern Section’s Sustainability Committee, one of the APA Sustainable Communities Division’s Sustainability Champions, and a strategic sustainability planner-economist at the SF Planning Department.]