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Climate Science: Rage, Hope, and Despair

By Sir Jonathon Porritt |

The world is careering towards a number of critical tipping points in confronting the climate challenge. We should not turn away from the institutionalised hypocrisy of political leaders around the world and acknowledge the true nature of our betrayal of young people today.

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On August 9, mainstream media around the world were flooded with hard-hitting headlines about the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the body set up by governments back in 1988 to advise them on the science of climate change. 'Code Red for Humanity' was how Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, described it. World leaders made all the right deeply concerned noises, promising faster action.

A few weeks on, I can pretty much guarantee that it will be back to business-as-usual, with both the apocalyptic warnings and the empty promises having faded rapidly away. I've seen it all 100 times before, even as the data has gone on getting worse and worse over the last 30 years. So, this is where we are now:

IPCC climate report

What that graphic tells us is that we’re careering towards a number of critical tipping points where complex climate systems tip over from one relatively stable state to increasingly volatile states, with 'runaway' climate impacts rapidly becoming the new norm. The Report explains that some of these impacts (including sea level rise, ocean acidification, melting permafrost and so on) are now inevitable – and perhaps even ‘irreversible’ within timespans stretching over thousands of years.

I can also guarantee that your response to that graphic and its implications will depend in part on your own age – and on the age of your children or grandchildren if you have any. Even if you don't, just for a moment put yourself in the shoes of a 15-year-old today, with a quite reasonable expectation of still being alive at the end of the century, given continuing increases in average longevity. The certainty that climate change will inevitably go on getting worse throughout that time, year on year, perhaps irreversibly, is so cruel and shocking a reality for that young person to be living with as to demand Code Red media headlines every single day until that Emergency has been substantively addressed.

From the emergence of the School Strikes movement back in 2019, young people have played a significant part in shifting the dynamics of climate campaigning, even though COVID-19 has made that so much harder. But I have no doubt that their voice will be heard even more loudly in the run-up to COP26 in November.

It's important that we should be open to their anger. That we should acknowledge the true nature of our betrayal of young people today. And that we do not turn away from the institutionalised hypocrisy of political leaders the world over – including in my country and in yours. That hypocrisy becomes more and more startling:

  • Since the much-vaunted Paris Agreement back in 2015, when world leaders committed to decarbonize their economies as fast as possible, the governments of the G20 have funnelled an astonishing $3.5 trillion into new subsidies for fossil fuels. Massively more than has gone into promoting renewables. Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Bloomberg Philanthropies, ‘Climate Policy Factbook’, 25 July 2021.
  • Despite endless promises to 'build back better' in response to the Covid19 pandemic, governments have done exactly the opposite: since March 2020, a mere 2% of the fiscal support offered in response to the pandemic has gone into clean energy and other sustainability initiatives.International Energy Agency, ‘Sustainable Recovery Tracker’, 25 July 2021.

You can understand why more and more young people are enraged by these double standards. And many will be doubling down on that rage when they learn that pretty much everything we need (technologically and financially) to avoid potentially irreversible climate change is already available, capable of delivering cost-effective solutions within just a few years rather than a few decades.

One of the best ways of keeping despair at bay – for young and old alike – is to remind oneself that total global electricity demand could be met from renewables not just by 2050 but by 2030 – IF there was sufficient political will.

Which, of course, there isn’t. Ours is still a world where fossil fuels rule – even though that stranglehold is at last weakening. An increasingly powerful combination of renewables, energy efficiency, storage, and distribution technologies is already disrupting economies the world over – but not yet at the scale and the speed that the Climate Emergency demands.

As Antonio Guterres put it, the IPCC Report also sounded 'the death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet'. That death will either be slow and lingering, putting the very future of humankind at risk, or fast and merciful.

Sir Jonathon Porritt

Sir Jonathon Porritt is a British-based sustainability campaigner and writer. Among his many international affiliations, he is Patron of the Aotearoa Circle and Chair of Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Advisory Panel

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