This past week has been quite eventful given that major issues have been either discovered or experienced when it comes to climatic changes.
A new study published in Nature used paleoclimatic data (past climate records) to show that it is highly likely that we have underestimated the degree or level of climate change that we are already committed to.
This new study sets the Paris Agreement’s goal to stay below 1.5 degrees into question, a temperature goal that is also the focus of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 1.5 degree report to be released later this year in October.
Yet, for those who do not necessarily work on climate change or are not following this area of research and policy that closely, what does it really matter if it’s 1.5. or 2 degrees or 4?
Sadly, this is not some kind of a game where we just pick goals and then see who comes closest to what.
The difference between degrees of warming is drastic as some ecosystems and their services that we rely on can stop functioning even with 1.5. degrees of warming, let alone 2 degrees or 4.
This is a world most of us do not want or cannot fathom.
Adaptation Limits and Planetary Boundaries
Some critics have noted that perhaps we need to accept that focusing on 1.5 degrees is futile as a goal given the latest science and changes we are already seeing; that the science community would do better to tackle the real big questions as to what actually happens with more drastic warming of the planet.
Others have voiced concern over talking about 4 degrees as this could take away focus and commitment from the 1.5 goal that has now been globally agreed on, and what changing extremes mean for adaptation limits.
What might be useful in this discussion is the link to another body of research, that of earth and planetary boundaries.
These concepts have been researched by Professor Will Steffen and others and are often used to provide a global set of trends in areas such as population growth, and ecosystem and biodiversity loss etc.
While we might look at our own city, our own neighbourhoods, state or country and try to determine what kinds of limits we face in adapting to climate change, all of these are part of a much bigger complex system that has its own diverse limits and thresholds that we seem to be stepping closer and closer to.
The intersection of these is that we need to keep in mind both a broader planetary boundary perspective but also the context specific details of where adaptation takes place.
Yet, often there is strong focus on one kind of risk for example on rising sea levels but not compounding risks necessarily where for example seas begin to rise, erosion increases, cyclones become more intense, droughts become longer and common plants and ecosystem services change.
We cannot cover all risks at once and we do not have the data or capacity to provide exact specific details how all of these risks and impacts accumulate and interact over space and time.
But what we can say is that countries, communities, households and individuals need to at least begin to consider particular risks while also understanding the interconnections that different risks and systems have.
I recently saw the movie Geostorm that describes the world in 2019/2022 and how particular kinds of geoengineering efforts including using a global satellite system to control weather are failing.
The world the movie describes shows a high level of political cooperation on the “fixing strategies” to create this shared system of planetary control.
In Fred Kohman’s book on Transcendent leadership, he notes how in a marathon people are not running to follow a leader. People run because they have a goal and leaders are often simply just closer to the goal.
What this means is that transcendental leaders actually get people’s commitment to the mission, and not just to the leader.
It is the mission that people believe in and the leader’s job is mainly to excel in helping people to reach and spread that mission.
This has led me to reflect what exactly is our mission when it comes to climate change and temperature goals, and what leadership style can deliver the most support for such mission.
And if we have already moved past 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming, what then?
This calls for a discussion on the role that science can contribute to urgent policy decisions but also deeper reflections on how we all see our own roles in producing or using knowledge in a warming world.
At this point, I have no real answers except that as a scientist I am committed to exploring these questions further and hopefully some of the science that we produce can answer these questions.