Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Tipping points and targets: what the science really says

The formation of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, an independent group of scientists which held its first meetings over the summer, may turn out to be a pivotal moment for humanity getting to grips with the climate emergency.

This new committee, chaired by the ever-impressive Sir David King (former UK government Chief Scientific Adviser and also Chair of Independent SAGE, which has provided robust scientific advice on the COVID pandemic, frequently challenging government profit-before-people policies), comprises a globally diverse group of scientists with a mission to accurately convey the reality of the climate crisis and spell out the measures necessary to contain it.

Their message is straight-forward:

  • global emissions need to reach net zero by 2035, not 2050 as is the current political consensus;
  • tipping points in a series of eco-systems have now been passed, causing irreversible damage in some cases and systemic impacts overall;
  • most critically, the Arctic and Amazon rainforests have tipped from being carbon sinks to net carbon sources;
  • knock-on impacts from breaching a tipping point in one eco-system helps explain why extreme weather events across the globe in 2020 and 2021 have exceeded even the worst case scenarios of climate models;
  • geo-engineering is now unavoidable – past failure to cut emissions means it is inevitable that some greenhouse gases will need to be removed from the atmosphere in addition to rapid emission reductions, however risky that may be.

In short, as we edge closer to the critical COP26 climate talks in November, and despite the giant steps forward in terms of nation state emission reduction commitments in the last twelve months, we remain way off any realistic hope of preserving human civilisation as we know it (my hyperbole, not theirs). Presidents and Prime Ministers need to increase their collective ambition five-fold to get on track to constrain global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius – offering some possibility of avoiding run-away climate breakdown – otherwise we are on track for an increasingly imaginable, yet catastrophic, 3 degrees of over heating.

After noting that Arctic permafrost melt is occurring 70 years ahead of model predictions, one chilling sentence in the Group’s second report, ‘Extreme Weather Events in the Arctic and Beyond‘, reconfirms why the difference between these seemingly small increases in global average temperatures are so critical: “The exact level of global heating that would lead to an irreversible permafrost thaw and a tipping point feedback with climate heating is not known, but it is possible that 1.5-2°C could trigger such a transformation”. The quantities of greenhouse gas emissions that would be released from an “irreversible permafrost thaw” don’t bear thinking about.

But why do I think the Climate Crisis Advisory Group saying all this is so important? Surely anyone who takes any interest in the climate emergency has heard it all before?

Maybe. But I don’t recall a group of scientists of this eminence (their numbers include Johan Rockstrom) and global diversity (including from Africa, the USA, China, Europe, India, and Latin America) delivering their message with such clarity, and with the promise to keep doing so relentlessly, month after month.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will publish its sixth assessment report next week and it will no doubt establish some harsh new realities. But that body is inevitably hobbled by its requirement to achieve consensus on its conclusions from the governments of nearly 200 countries, and a resulting decision making process that means its science is always a few years out of date. The Climate Crisis Advisory Group has made a convincing start in telling it how it is and applying its expertise to the immediate moment.

As someone who has spent a lifetime looking to science-fiction not just for escapism, but as a stimulus for thinking about the consequences present day socio-economics, geo-politics, and belief systems, I also can’t helping thinking about the parallels between the Climate Crisis Advisory Group and elite saviour organisations in the climate disaster sci-fi I’ve been reading recently. In those novels where it is imagined that humanity ultimately finds a way to avert complete climate breakdown (like Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant Ministry for the Future, about which I blogged effusively earlier this year), the most critical driver is usually massive popular uprising, but a secondary key stimulus is almost always the formation of an establishment group whose mission is to tell it like it is and take action accordingly.

In any case, in the very real here and now, for my money the public meetings and reports of the Climate Advisory Group are required watching and reading for anyone who is serious about playing their part to avert climate disaster and create a greener, fairer future. And if it later turns out to be the body that saved the human race, you heard it here first 😉.

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