Transformation for Climate: but, of what?

The latest warnings from the IPCC predict that the world is heading towards critical temperature limits. We have already reached 1.0 degree of global warming. The IPCC report estimates that global warming is likely to triple to 3.2 degrees unless urgent, radical action is taken immediately. The IPCC warns that incremental change is no longer enough, and what we need now is transformation. But, what does this mean?

The IPCC defines ‘transformation’ as, “a change in the fundamental attributes of natural and human systems.” Is this enough to prevent it from becoming another catchphrase amenable to co-optation as the status quo sees fit?  To avoid perpetuating what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls, “a litany of broken climate promises” the course will have to change. We are running out of options.

Transformation, therefore, should effectively address and change the structural and systemic causes of social and environmental injustices that impede any genuine change. Confronting the crisis requires urgent political and societal change.

Transformation then is not only about technology and energy policy, but also a holistic approach to how we govern society on an interwoven planet. So, when we talk about transformation, we also have to talk about what type of transformation, who is involved, how, and at what scale.

The type of transformation that can see us through the change we need is plural, locally embedded, embraces all forms of knowledge (not only technological), and is inclusive of all geographic, cultural, socio-economic, developmental, and linguistic realities. It also needs to transform behaviours and practices from a largely anthropocentric model of society to a more holistic view that embraces a human society interwoven in harmony with nature.

To speak in metaphors of interwoven systems, humans have long viewed the world like a double helix, one strand representing nature as a living being, necessary for life, and the other strand representing society seeking to dominate nature and control it. The two strands coil around each other but running in opposite directions, their purpose intertwined, yet never touching. Yet, nature and society are more like an intricately woven tapestry. One loose thread in one part, can see the rest come completely undone. We are part of nature and any attempts at transformation to save it from climate change must recognise this.

Transformation is more than about scientific and technological mitigation strategies. Part of this is shifting mentalities firmly towards a post-extractive economy, not only discussing transition. The transition to just climate policies is important, we have to get it right, but merely focusing on discussions of what it looks like takes away from the immediate radical change that is needed and the larger goal of what comes after. Continual discussion about transitions without immediate action only sustains current convictions, planted in short-term fixes.

A hybrid approach that incorporates daily social transformation with the ultimate vision of what needs to be achieved to limit global warming will help achieve both long and short-term goals. In the quest for daily transformation, education plays a major role. That is, education on all levels, formal, in the home, in communities, and in policy. Education must be strategic not to continue the messages of the past. The transformation of education thus must also be systemic. I will discuss the transformation of education in my next post.

Post-Extractive Circular Society

The theme of Earth Day yesterday was “Invest in our Planet”. The question needs to be asked, at which point does the fix-all economic narrative become redundant? While we do need future investment in new technologies, we can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of techno-fixes for reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Yes, technology and will play a crucial role in transformation, but relying on it to achieve the real physical change that is needed in urgency is not the solution. Perpetuating the myth that we can build our way out of this through technology that supports exponential economic growth is dangerously digging us a deeper grave.

The IPCC report states that other mitigation strategies are likely to be prohibitively expensive, and that is the excuse used in ideological stances to abandon any kind of concrete change. According to Munich Re Research, in 2020, climate change disasters have led to estimated global economic losses of A$272 billion. Yet, when we look at the costs of inaction the argument mounts that it may very well be more economically expensive to continue down the same path of slow transition and economic justification, but more than that it will also cost us much more than money, it will and is starting to cost lives. In 2020, there were approximately 31 million internally displaced people from climate change impacts alone. By 2050, think tank IEP estimates that at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by climate-related events. We can therefore legitimately argue that there is more at stake than economic growth.

A move to a low carbon society will not be effective at its aims if it destabilises ecosystems and puts efforts to protect biodiversity in jeopardy. This is why transformation must not only be about the types of energy we transition to, but also how much and on what scale. For true transformation, the use of renewable resources has to be in harmony with nature, as well a society. After all, even renewal resources perpetuate an extractive mentality on a large-scale as part of a neoliberal economic growth strategy. Our global economic model, for starters, has to evolve and transform with the challenges that lie ahead.

The ways we transform the energy sector should also be plural, locally embedded, and embrace all forms of knowledge to sustain transformation in harmony with nature. Policy strategies like moving towards a circular economy, which embed multiple approaches with the same aims such as Donut Economics, Buen Vivir, Regeneration, or even Degrowth can be part of a just economic transformation towards a post-extractive society. Instead of thinking about it as only economic as we do with a circular economy, by embracing these various approaches in tandem, we can then evolve towards a circular society – renewing and regenerating all life in harmony with the natural environment.

The UN calls for “transformation [that] requires attacking the root causes that generate and reproduce economic, social, political and environmental problems and inequalities, not merely their symptoms” but there is no concrete blueprint for this type of transformation. Many scholars have argued that this requires visioning a post-extractive society that focuses on regenerative approaches to society and natural resource management.

In regeneration, it’s important to look beyond fossil fuels and carbon emissions because of the circular effects of environmental destruction. Here, the models and frameworks I mentioned earlier work within a regenerative, circular society, such as Donut Economics, Buen Vivir, and Degrowth, for example. For future actions that are compatible with nature, so that the environment may regenerate and flourish, incorporating the rights of nature into future global and national climate policies would be beneficial.

Regenerative alternatives to development promote a state where human society and nature live in harmony. Regenerative approaches are not just about reaching Net Zero, but they are holistic and integral in that they seek to leave environments and their societies in a better state, having a positive impact on human wellbeing and the environment as a whole. 

So, in summary, when we think about the type and scale of change needed to tackle the environmental challenges that lie ahead, transformation must be plural, locally embedded, and embrace all forms of knowledge, particularly Indigenous knowledges. It is regenerative, seeking structural and systemic change which includes, as a foundation, formal and informal education systems. Transformative regenerative approaches work in harmony with nature and seek to enhance environmental wellbeing, as well as societal wellbeing. Transformation then, upends the way the world currently works, towards a more socially and environmentally sustainable future, not solely towards better economic growth.

The IPCC Report on Climate Change: Facts & Scenarios – Part I

What’s the Issue?

Welcome to my second post of ‘What’s the Issue’. This post looks at the long-awaited IPCC Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change and will be in two parts: first I will outline the main findings of the report, its facts, and scientific bases for climate change.

The report details some sombre conclusions. “This report is a reality check,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.”

This can leave us all a little disillusioned about the future of our planet, so part II will focus on the positive aspects of the report and notwithstanding changes in policy, look at ways we can all help slow the changing of our climate.

Let’s get into the facts…

In my last post I explained a little of the background of the report and what we might expect from this Sixth Assessment on Climate Change – the physical basis. Climate change and sustainability experts were not expecting good news from this report, and while the findings are somewhat unsurprising, they are a sobering account of the state of our planet. The report findings combine “multiple lines of evidence from paleoclimate, observations, process understanding, and global and regional climate simulations”, and is the most comprehensive study on climate change yet.

The IPCC has affirmed that human activities are responsible for climate change, with the main driver being CO2 emissions. “Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850.” Global surface temperatures in the first two decades of the 21st century (2001-2020) was 1.1°C warmer than 1850-1900. If we average this trend over the next 20 years, we will exceed 1.5°C warming, or even 2°C by the end of the century.

Importantly though, global surface temperatures will continue to increase to at least mid-century under all scenarios.

There will be no cherry-picking. Every region on earth will be affected. This concerns us all from all corners of the globe, and as we know that climate change is emmeshed with social justice the outcomes for the world’s most vulnerable are looking dire. We only need look at the news this week and see the devastation occurring in Haiti with a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and awaiting tropical storm Grace with all its fury.

On the current trajectory, the outcomes will be unthinkable. We are already seeing the extreme changes in weather patterns around the world, and in the coming few decades there will be multiple climatic changes which will intensify with further warming scenarios. We will see:

  • harsh changes in urban climates
  • intense wetness and drought with affected rainfall patterns
  • already occurring sea-level rise leading to more severe flooding in low-lying regions, and increased coastal erosion
  • amplified changes to and melting of snow, ice and permafrost
  • more marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and reduced oxygen levels acutely affecting ocean ecosystems.

With higher global ocean and land temperatures, both ocean and carbon sinks will be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere – driving further acute changes to climate.

Despite this, there is some hope if we enact immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions and other GHG emissions globally. The most positive conclusion from the IPCC is that strong and sustained reductions in CO2 would limit climate change and give us a chance to slow warming. With radical wholesale transformation of our political, economic and social systems this could be below 1.5°; however more realistically if we see immediate drastic global reductions in emissions, we could limit warming to below 2°. This means 1.5° is almost certainly locked in.

The news is not good. But we can turn it around!

To even remotely have the chance of achieving these reductions governments globally must take multiple paths to reducing emissions, in global concertation with business, and citizens. A post-extractive economy is most certainly a necessity – that means an end to fossil fuels as the mains source of energy, but also changing the economic system to limit the exploitation and exportation of natural resources (especially from the Global South) for economic growth and wealth accumulation. COP26 in November will be a momentous opportunity for world leaders to leverage on this report for change.

Technology will play an important role in lowering industrial and consumer emissions, but it will not be a silver bullet. The way governments understand and “do” development must change. The argument for relying on extractivist policies heavily based on fossil fuels to raise global development expectations to a universal Westernised standard is redundant. The problem is not just fossil fuels, but all capitalist levels of extractivism of natural resources.

In light of the work that needs to be done there is a strong impetus on looking beyond ‘development’ and ‘sustainable development’ to other decolonised ideas about how we can better approach the transformation needed to slow climate change and its impacts.

We need to ask ourselves and our leaders: is the idea of development now redundant? And, be prepared for hard truths.

The future needs all-hands-on-deck, not just a motivated few. Behavioural change in the world’s most consumerist societies will help us avoid the worst case scenario, as will a realisation of the consequences our disconnection from nature is having on the natural world. Most of all, a positive future needs people everywhere, everyday doing what they can. The next part of this post looks at what that might look like.

Sources:

www.ipcc.ch

Full report

IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J. B. R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press.

Summary for Policymakers

IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [MassonDelmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J. B. R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press.

What’s the Diagnosis? What the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change might mean for Future Action

What’s the Diagnosis? What the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change might mean for Future Action

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is releasing its Sixth Assessment Report today 9 August, 6pm AEST and it’s a huge deal.
The Report was prepared by 234 climate scientists from 66 countries and is the most comprehensive and important study on climate systems and climate change in the world. Its findings are as relevant to individuals and communities as they are to governments, policymakers and business.


As such you will probably be inundated with news and media reports of the IPCC report. As climate experts we are expecting the report findings to be very dim assessment on climate change. The Report will provide the most recent scientific findings on the climate system and where we stand on climate change.


The IPCC established in 1988 is the United Nations’ body for assessing climate related science. Its Assessment Reports have been instrumental in the making of global climate-related policy. The First Assessment Report in 1990 argued climate change as a global challenge requiring international cooperation.


The Sixth Assessment Report is divided into three parts. The first part, released today, will be the physical science basis for climate change. The other two parts will be released in 2022, with a synthesis report due in September 2022.


We expect the Report to build on the last assessment report in 2013 and reveal just how much human activity has influenced our planetary systems. We also expect the Report to how soon scientists expect temperatures to rise 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, after which we could enter tipping point. In fact, temperatures in some parts of the globe have already risen above 1 degree, including here in Tasmania!


There was a leak last month warning that tipping point is indeed near, and once we go beyond that we can never recover. This is not a surprise; climate scientists have been warning about nearing the earth’s tipping point for decades. In fact, the idea of tipping points was introduced by the IPCC more than two decades ago. Just recently, I found a paper I wrote 16 years ago on tipping points and climate change based on the IPCC data, back when I was a non-expert Honour’s student, reminding me that this has been in discussion for well longer than I care to remember – with yet any decisive political action.

In 2019, Prof Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, along with Johan Rockström and colleagues released a report in Nature suggestion the world may have already passed several of the nine climate tipping points . Recently, scientists have warned that many of these tipping points have already been reached with the rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet, Arctic permafrost, and the discovery that the Amazon basin has turned from a carbon sink to a source of CO2 emissions. The West Antarctic ice sheet, the authors said back in 2019, may already have passed tipping point. We are in trouble. We already know that. We are seeing this manifest in extreme heatwaves in North America, wildfires in Greece and unprecedented flooding events across Europe. The question is: what is the best way forward? It will likely be a massive culmination of pathways to address the crisis radically and urgently.


We are past the need for widespread urgent political action. It is long overdue and has let us and future generations down. It now needs to be swift, radical and transformative, and that includes mitigation and adaptation for the impacts that we are already witnessing, and a change of economic system. But, we also need wholesale behavioural change supported by legislation and technology – technologies that have already been developed and can be fast-tracked into not just circular economies, but circular societies that value human and environmental connection more than economic growth.


Actions will need to be localised, but in keeping in mind the global repercussions. Indigenous and traditional knowledge must be prioritised and incorporated into policies. There will be no one-sized fits all way to tackle the propensity of what needs to be done. There will need to be a decolonisation, a localisation, and contextualisation of all action on climate and sustainability that is no longer anthropocentric. All of the current global policies and strategies that target climate change including the Paris Agreement and the SDGs will need to be re-evaluated in light of the findings, and in the aftermath of the global pandemic that is changing our environment, the way the world operates and our understandings of our connection to nature.


In light of the expectations over the coming days, weeks, months and years, it’s important to look after your mental health – eco anxiety is becoming more prevalent, especially in younger people. That’s when it is vital to know that our actions have reactions, and no matter how large this climate crisis is, individuals can and do make a different. And, despite all the projected gloom, we expect there to be snippets of optimism. We can find momentum in a mentality of climate hope.


*The report is a mammoth feat of authorship, and therefore a sizable document. I will be writing about the first part over coming weeks. If you have any questions or discussion, don’t hesitate to get in touch via the contact form. If you are an individual or community association/group, or policymaker interested in how to use Buen Vivir as a way to tackle the climate problem, please also get in touch. There is a brief guide to Buen Vivir for communities available for download on my website (Spanish only for the moment). If you are interested in the English version or the guide for policymakers, please get in contact. My work on Buen Vivir and the SDGs is also available on the Taylor & Francis SDGs Online Collection (Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals).