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Moving goalposts no solution to climate change

A group of eminent climate scientists has come to the not-so-scientific conclusion that adopting the 2°C target for global warming has “failed to drive social change”. Their proposals to move the goalposts are unlikely to meet with any more success.

A group working with the prestigious Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia say that the prospects for holding average global warming to below 2°C are “rapidly decreasing”. There’s no arguing with that conclusion, which was reinforced by the recent inter-governmental climate change panel assessment.

That  showed that the world’s “carbon budget” – the amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted without exceeding two degrees warming – could be used up entirely by 2040.  

Carbon emissions have continued to increase, intensified by a turn to shale gas and oil extraction in the United States and the expansion of coal-fired power in China and elsewhere. Cost-cutting by corporations looking for a competitive edge in the recession has put carbon reduction investment projects into cold storage for the duration.

The Tyndall group argue in a peer-reviewed paper published in Climate Policy that too much of the debate has been taken up with when/or if global warming will cross the 2°C threshold that scientists agree will have irreversible and catastrophic results.

And their response? “Society should accept that adopting science-informed targets such as 2°C has failed to drive social change and governors should instead concentrate on delivering what is politically achievable in the short to medium term.” (emphasis added)

They urge policy makers to “explore the risks and opportunities associated with alternative goals and targets”. What are these exactly? The Tyndall group has more modest ideas: mitigate for 2°C but adapt for 4°C; adopt more specific goals; be politically “more pragmatic”; “recommit” to substantial reductions in emissions.

While Professor Andrew Jordan of the Tyndall Centre says “this need not be a pretext for abandoning the existing target”, there’s a grave danger that’s how government policy makers will view the proposals.

In reality this is how most governments already act – minimum targets, half-hearted attempts at renewable power, "green capitalism", failed energy saving schemes and pathetic amounts of aid to countries like Bangladesh already facing climate change impacts. None of it has reduced emissions overall or prepared us for what is coming up the line.

In the end, no amount of finessing targets, alternative proposals, mitigation ideas etc. will cut the mustard. The present international system of states cannot reach an agreement on global warming for other reasons. These are primarily to do with the nature of the economies they represent.

Climate talks have foundered because the corporations set the agenda. Their mantra is growth based on year-on-year expansion. Without that, capitalism seizes up and goes into recession. Then cost reduction takes over, ensuring that even dirtier methods are used or maintained.

Even as the Tyndall scientists do their best to extract humanity from this impasse, another study in the journal Nature confirms the urgency of the situation. It says that between 2047 and 2069, the mean annual climate of an average location will pass the most extreme conditions experienced during the past 150 years.

Tropical areas will be among the first to see the climate exceed historical limits, threatening significant rainforest ecosystems. The study team from the University of Hawaii estimate that up to 5 billion people could be affected under a business-as-usual emissions scenario.
The study “provides a new metric of when climate change will lead to an environment that we’ve never seen before,” said author Camilo Mora, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

How many more warnings like this do we need. The 2°C target was adopted as an aim of international climate policy back in the 1990s. Previous warnings that humanity will overshoot this target have failed to stimulate climate policy, as the Tyndall group point out.

We have to conclude that those in charge are beyond stimulation as they move robotic-like towards a precipice, accepting their marching orders without too many questions. It’s a question, then, of us or them. The case for replacing the political and economic system with  non-profit, democratic alternatives has never been stronger.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
10 October 2013

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