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Understanding one point five

– We tend not to take into consideration the needs of developing countries. The story of the 1.5°C objective is no exception.

Last May, I visited the UN's annual "summer summit" on climate change in Bonn, Germany. This was my first personal meeting with the UNFCCC (the United Nations Convention on Climate Change) and as many before me, I was overwhelmed. Not only by the multiple rooms, corridors and various formal and informal meetings taking place at all hours, but by the stories I found on my quest for the origin of the 1.5°C target. Below is one of these interviews.

- Monica Bjermeland, CICERO communications advisor

In this story

 

Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, head of climate science and impacts at Climate Analytics

Climate scientists used to talk about parts per million (PPM) rather than temperature, but with the 2°C target we saw a shift. There simply is more to temperature than to PPM! It’s better for measuring real impact. A temperature goal is a good focal point because it somehow sits between mitigation efforts and impact assessments.

I think the 1.5°C report will tell us, more than ever, what scenarios are available and how mitigation can be done.

Who coined the 1.5°C target? It came as a surprise to many in 2015 ...

Because people didn’t pay attention. We tend not to take into consideration the needs of developing countries. The story of the 1.5°C objective is no exception.

More than a hundred states over six-seven years have an official target of 1.5°C and it could have been in the AR5. But the scientific community didn’t pay attention, neither did the western political community.

Then it became very clear that these small islands, the SIDS (Small Island Developing States), weren’t leaving Paris without a 1.5°C limit. In the Caribbean, for example, there was an initiative running called "1.5 to stay alive" with youth engagement, videos and what have you . Several heads of states declarations stated that they wanted to see 1.5 degrees in the Paris Agreement.

Historically, you can see that climate change is a devastating reality in these vulnerable countries. There is no debate about whether climate change exists, and there’s no debate of its effects and the severity of these effects.

Are people aware that it’s climate change causing it and not just weather?

The temperature target is our choice.

CARL-FRIEDRICH SCHLEUSSNER

Yes. You would be surprised at how different the discourse is in many developing countries compared to western countries. There is very limited cognitive dissonance on the climate problem.

Basically, what the 2°C target communicates, is that we’re not yet at 1°C but twice as much is ok. We’re safe! But this is simply not true for vulnerable countries. They’re not safe at 1 degree!

Temperature targets are intrinsically linked to the objective of the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) which is to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system.

Dangerous is a political term, one that different people may interpret differently. There will be value judgements involved. This is why different groups favor different temperature targets, because their own risk assessments will lead them to different results, which is fine!

When temperature goals emerged, they emerged as an operationalization of exactly this term because it is difficult to assess – it’s a bit of a bulky word. The temperature target is a risk assessment based on value judgements heavily informed by science. It’s is not a scientific assessment. The IPCC has not said: “This is what you need to do.”

The temperature target is our choice.

"We" have chosen 1.5°C because we find alternatives too dangerous?

Two degrees constitutes dangerous interference.

CARL-FRIEDRICH SCHLEUSSNER

Yes! So basically, in 2010, when the 2°C target was included in the Cancun text of the Climate Convention, it was only included with a premise that it would be reviewed. The reviewing process happened in 2013 and 2014, which I participated in as an observer, and which I found really interesting. It was a science-policy-communications experience with more than 70 experts, and IPCC chairs and co-chairs presenting in a process called the Structured Expert Dialogue.

During this process, it became apparent that 2°C could not be considered safe – scientists and politicians shared this understanding – it is not safe. Two degrees constitutes dangerous interference. Climate change happens already at below one degree, we already have dangerous interference in regions, even in Norway. This was the outcome of the dialogue.

What are common vulnerabilities among indigenous peoples?

All over the planet, we see that people who live in a strong relationship with nature are more strongly affected in their way of life.

CARL-FRIEDRICH SCHLEUSSNER

Well, their very existence is part of their concern. Climate change threatens their physical home. All over the planet, we see that people who live in a strong relationship with nature are more strongly affected in their way of life – and these are very often indigenous groups.

I admire them for their relationship with nature. The industrial part of the world, in contrast, very heavily interrupts this relationship and makes it impossible for them to continue the way they did. The reindeer Sami people of Norway is a stark example of that. They are living on the edge. 

What is the deepest wisdom people in the industrialized part of the world could take home from the indigenous part of the world?

Decency.

If you live in sync with nature, you are experiencing its powers and forces, you are living with them. Our western society is more focused on conquering these forces, which is a really great achievement. I am not at all arguing that we should go backwards, that is not the point, but with climate change, we’re conducting an enormous experiment with our planet.

There are still unknown unknowns out there, and there will be surprises out there, hopefully some good ones, but certainly also some bad ones.

What do you expect from IPCC’s 1.5°C report?

Even if we limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, in 300 years, the sea-level will still rise. It is up to us to decide how much.

CARL-FRIEDRICH SCHLEUSSNER

To start with the impact part, I think it will be made clear that every little bit matters when it comes to climate change and that half a degree matters. Look at the Arctic sea ice. Or the coral reefs who might not survive. It will strongly define our long-term legacy of sea-level.

Our parents’ generation will be remembered as the generation that started sea-level rise. Even if we limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, in 300 years, the sea-level will still rise. It is up to us to decide how much. Every five-year delay in global carbon emissions peak, even if we keep within the Paris scenarios, will lead to an additional sea-level in 2300 than we have observed so far.

That is a really strong legacy. In the bigger scheme of things, there’s been a shift from whether climate change is a problem and we should do something about it in AR5 to ok, we have a Paris Agreement now, where are we headed?

Science has a new challenge; to describe the climate impacts of the different possible pathways we may be headed towards, to inform. In order to address the climate challenges, the scientific community needs to be open to how they may be addressed.

Also, what will come out of the report, is that climate action and sustainable development can go hand in hand – and be mutually beneficial.