Chapter 3: The science
My message is –and has always been– listen to the science, listen to the scientists.
“Which scientists?” you could of course argue. Within all scientific fields there’s a constant and never-ending debate. That’s what science is about. And climate crisis deniers and delayers love this angle. To spread doubt about whether there’s actually consensus on the scientific grounds of the climate crisis.
That argument can be used in almost all other issues, but it’s no longer possible to use here. The time for that has passed. The consensus is overwhelming. The debate around the global adoption and acceptance of the Paris Agreement and the IPCC reports is over. So what do those two things actually mean?
In Paris, the world’s governments committed themselves to keeping the global temperature rise to “well below 2°C”. But in the latest update from the IPCC –the SR1.5 report– scientists underline that 2°C is not a safe level. We have today already passed about 1.2°C of global heating, and in their report they instead stress the importance of limiting the warming to below 1.5°C. And that is to give us the best possible chance to avoid passing so-called tipping points, and start irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
So where do we start? Well I’d suggest that we do precisely what all the world’s governments have committed to do in the Paris Agreement. Which is to follow the current best available science.
And that, among other places, we find on page 108, chapter 2 in the IPCC’s SR1.5 report. Right there it says that on Jan. 1 2018 we had 420 Gt CO2 left to emit globally to have a 66% chance of staying below the 1.5° target. We emit about 42 Gt CO2 every year, including land use such as forestry and agriculture. So today we’re soon already down to lower than 300 Gt of CO2 left to emit.
That is the equivalent of less than 7.5 years of today’s ‘business as usual’ emissions until that budget completely runs out. This is the carbon budget which gives us the best odds to achieve the 1.5° target. Yes, you heard it right, less than 7.5 years.
Do you remember the London Olympics? ‘Gangnam Style’ or the first Hunger Games movie? Those things all happened about seven or eight years ago. That’s the amount of time we are talking about.
But even these figures are very watered down. They include almost no tipping points or feedback loops, nor the global aspect of equity in the Paris Agreement, nor already locked-in warming hidden by toxic air pollution. Most IPCC scenarios also assume that future generations will be able to suck hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere with technologies that don’t exist on the scale required, and that very likely never will in time.
I will try to explain more about what these aspects mean later on. But if you read between the lines you realize that we are facing the need to make changes which are unprecedented in human history.
One reason why the climate and ecological crisis is so hard to communicate is that there’s no magical date when everything is beyond saving. You cannot predict how many people’s lives will be lost, or exactly how our societies will be affected. There are of course countless estimations and calculations which predict what could happen—one more catastrophic than the other—but they almost exclusively focus on a very limited area and almost never take into account the whole picture. We therefore must learn to read between the lines. Just like in any other emergency.
But these are at least the basics. Even if these figures are way too generous they are still the most reliable roadmap available today. They are what we should be referring to.
And the fact that the responsibility to communicate them falls on me and other children should be seen for exactly what it is – a failure beyond all imagination.
This is the transcript of Chapter 3 of the Sverige Radio program aired on June 20, 2020 with the title Greta Thunberg: Humanity has not yet failed.
The full transcript was published by Time magazine on July 10, 2020. Here it is offered in chapters to make it easier to read.