1.5 degrees looks to be inevitable in the next few years – weren’t we supposed to stay below it?
How does the media read climate science and present it to the public and consequently to decision-makers? In this guest post, UCL Open: Environment Editor-in-Chief, Prof Dan Osborn highlights the way scientific climate research is disseminated for public consumption through the media.
Why 1.5°C matters
The BBC recently issued a climate-related story and other media have done likewise. The BBC article is important as it tells readers that, in what looks like a strong El Niño period, humanity might well fail in its ambition, set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change, to keep the global average temperature below 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average. This is serious. Something that decision-makers and the public need to know about if they are to gather the will to make the necessary lifestyle and economic choices to tackle climate change and avoid its worst impacts such as the fatal heatwaves experienced recently all over the world.
Having initially made strong points in the article, the message is diluted by explaining that exceeding 1.5°C may be only temporary. Many scientists might be pleased to see this caution by the BBC providing a balance. But, readers may dismiss the 1.5°C as just another “blip” in the climate, showing again that the climate has always varied and as such there is not too much to be concerned about and, certainly nothing that requires any radical action or changes to lifestyle now. This is not the kind of outcome needed if climate action is to succeed.
Why is 1.5°C important? What’s the context? This means looking at another kind of article: Article 2 of the Paris Agreement. Paragraph 1(a) is clear about what the aim is. It involves:
“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, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.
There is nothing temporary or transitory in Article 2, a major international agreement ratified by almost every government on the planet. There is no time frame to this Article and yet the UNFCC website says that subsequent discussions suggest this is something to aim for by the end of the century, 2100. It is now mid-2023 and we are talking about passing 1.5°C by the end of 2027. It seems to me that 1.5°C might be thought to be the really important figure in the Paris Agreement as it can be argued to be “well below 2°C”. And we might see that threshold passed in just a few years.
The great biogeochemical cycles of the planet in the shape of an El Niño are giving us all a wake-up call. Maybe the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the UNFCC COPs need to take more note of these massive physical and biological systems than is already done? People’s behaviour and economic activity is now great enough to change these great cycles in major ways, with serious negative consequences and these cycles, some that play out over geological timescales, some with much shorter time cycles, are the source of our health and wealth (for example, at the extreme, there is no AI without silicon and maybe not enough renewables without certain perovskites).
A Global average may be the wrong kind of figure to focus on
One problem the media and the scientific community face in delivering impactful messages on climate change is that the figures in the Paris Agreement are for the global average. A key issue for an ever-increasing number of populations – often living in poorer countries or environments that are fragile or marginal in different ways – is that their world, their environment, is already warmer than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. We can see this happening progressively with data up to 2019 with a static map for 2022 here and in a 30 second video on YouTube with the latest data, freely accessible here.
These areas of warming are spread and are spreading across the globe. The Arctic is warming about three and a half times as fast as the average. 1.5°C in such places is becoming a memory – especially for the Inuit but also for the peoples of the Middle East and parts of Asia. For those living in these areas, 1.5°C already looks like a permanent issue and not a blip that will come and then go around the late 2020s (as per the way the first BBC article I speak about here, tends to imply).
Instead, we should be braver in the way climate change is being covered in the media. There is an audience that wants to know the facts and what needs to change and how to go about it. There is an enthusiasm for “doing your bit” that is not at all difficult to engage with. So, let’s take the international agreements seriously and take 1.5°C as the value not to be exceeded at any time not just by the end of the century. Let’s make it clear that 1.5°C keeps being exceeded in parts of the world where people are struggling to cope already with adverse environmental conditions. The time to act is now.
More radically but usefully perhaps, let’s abandon the focus on the global average and focus instead on what is happening at much more local scales and what the best of the models tell us is likely to happen in the future. For all we know an average of 1.5°C might lead to unacceptable change in one region or even for one population/people. What if the Inuit culture disappeared entirely because of this? Is that not a bad thing? A lot of people get focused on perhaps aspects like polar bears, but what about the people in the environment in which they live? What matters, as Georgina Mace once pointed out, is nature and people, together (Georgina Mace, 2014 https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.1254704).
When it comes to it, no part of the world is immune from climate change and its variables. We all, media and academics alike, need to say clearly that for many people 1.5°C is already here and give the examples. Point out that liveability is becoming an issue for people in some places on Earth and point out that there is no need to continue on the current path (see Peter Schlosser’s piece on that here). Point out that a cleaner world – and climate change essentially is just another form of pollution – is a better world; healthier because there is less pollution and wealthier because of the new technologies that will be deployed; and more sustainable as we are not putting the biogeochemical cycles under so much strain that the planet might start to really “complain”. Maybe we should be keeping an even closer eye on that seasonal pattern of atmospheric carbon dioxide changes at the key observing stations than we already do? In some ways that pattern is the planet “breathing”. Do we want that to stop?
Some people still argue that we don’t need to act now for a whole complex of reasons. Some feel that if climate change were really serious then politicians would change their lifestyles more noticeably and be driving home measures that will help everyone make the necessary adjustments. Others in this camp have vested interests at heart or argue that measures to improve the environment in some ways are some kind of plot to limit freedoms. These kinds of reactions are best tackled by pointing up what the evidence shows and what actions can be taken by people, and that the more we invest in the future, the faster and more positive the payback will be. It is, of course, better to act now rather than delaying and panicking later when much of the damage will have been done and the world may have moved passed Lenton’s Tipping points (e.g. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781003331384-17/climate-change-tipping-points-historical-collapse-timothy-lenton) or the limits identified by Rockstrom and colleagues as pointed up in a recent editorial (which, interestingly, with regards to our open review journal UCL Open: Environment, points readers to the many benefits of an open peer review process to improve knowledge exchange and debate).
In all that its worth remembering that climate change, left untackled, will not only be causing its own problems but will be making almost all other problems worse as well. With impacts of climate change all pervasive, for all our sakes, and that of biodiversity and our food chain, we need to stick to temperatures that are “well-below 2°C” and that means as, Johan Rockstrom has said, not treating 1.5°C as if it is some kind of acceptable target. It may well be the functional limit we really cannot cross and to avoid that we need to up our game and up the pace of our response. There may be no better place to start than by visiting www.fivetimesfaster.org with Simon Sharpe’s recent book Five Times Faster, a must read for scientists, media, and decision-makers of every kind. The message? Act now; act differently; act much faster.
About UCL Open: Environment
UCL Open: Environment is seeking submissions from any researcher or professional at knowledge-based universities, institutions, and organisations (including Non-Government Organisations, Think Tanks, Inter-Government Organisations, and the United Nations) broadly across environment-related research, covering climate change, the character and functioning of the environment, Planetary Health (its resources and limits), public health grounded in environmental factors, and the environment in which people live.
UCL Open Environment is a fully non-commercial, Open Access and Open Science scholarly journal, publishing high impact, multi-disciplinary research, on real world environmental issues, with the overall aim of benefitting humanity. Read more at ucl.scienceopen.com.