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Opinion: Abandon the idea we can limit overheating to 1.5C




“If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi knew the score. Sometimes, to win, you have first to lose. Big. And I can’t help but think if we adopted his same philosophy when it comes to the dream of keeping global overheating to a maximum of 1.5C, we might actually achieve what, at the moment, seems impossible: saving civilisation.

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a new report on adapting to the damage already done by climate change. It says its impact will be more severe than initially predicted. Crucially, it says if we reach 2C of over-heating, there will be massive damage to food-producing areas across the world.

“Our atmosphere is on steroids, doped with fossil fuels. This is leading to stronger, longer, and more frequent extreme weather events,” said Petteri Taalas of the World Meteorological Organisation.

Broadly, I welcome today’s report, but I worry that it continues to hold out hope that we will manage to stay below 1.5C. In that way, it represents climate-communications business-as-usual. It continues to lull us all, actually, into a false sense of security.

According to the IPCC last year, “Human-induced warming reached approximately 1C […] above pre-industrial levels in 2017.” That was five years ago. What have we done since? We have made things worse. Cop26 has failed us. If we were going to keep to below 1.5C, that was our last chance. Governments did not take it.

The only way forward now is, instead, a paradoxical one.

We have to let go of the idea that we can limit global heating to 1.5C. To avert the crisis that climate change will bring, we have to abandon our dreams of a smooth transition. Some say we need to keep the 1.5C hope “alive”. But we are not leveling with people on how entirely improbable 1.5C now is. We are not telling the truth. Our true power lies in admitting we have failed.

I don’t believe there would be a smooth transition to “OK then, let’s just retrench to 2C”. Because 2C is so much worse: it puts our very ability to feed ourselves at risk, even in the UK. Until we admit that it is now near-impossible to limit ourselves to 1.5C, we will continue to pretend we have this covered.

If we were to face the awful reality that 1.5C is gone, more people might well be jolted into truly stepping up. Without that shared shock it is impossible to have the deep reflection and narrative breakthrough that comes with admitting failure.

In 2018, I gave a talk at Churchill College, Cambridge, entitled, “This Civilisation Is Finished”. I said at the time: “I have fear for you. I fear that some of you are unlikely to grow old. There’s nothing really worse for human beings than not being able to take care of the next generation.” The talk went viral partly because, I believe, of this startling admission of shared failure.

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By admitting we have failed bigger still, that the dream of 1.5C is gone, we can harvest and unleash greater power than we have dared to imagine. The power of our grief, our horror. The power of righteous rage. The much-needed power, which Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have started to bring into our climate politics in the last few years, of truth.

I refer you back to that great line from Star Wars. Ben Kenobi knew his time had come when he met Darth Vader. He also knew that accepting death was the only way to succeed, later.

Abandoning the idea that we can limit climate change to 1.5C is not giving up. It is the very opposite. It is facing reality, so that together we finally rise to the occasion.

Dr Rupert Read is an expert reviewer for the IPCC Working Group II report on adaptation, out today

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