Whether it is still possible to stay below 1.5 C of global warming was heatedly discussed in the past few weeks as international diplomats gathered for the 27th annual CoP meeting, and for no small reason. Past 1.5 degrees of global warming, Earth’s weather systems are expected to become dangerously chaotic, with famines, floods and fires expected to increase dramatically. We’re headed there, full speed because, for 27 years, CoP meetings have affirmed the possibility of meeting the 1.5 target, but not halted ever-rising CO2 emissions. As the news cycle eerily moves from CoP to the World Cup, it is time to ask whether by repeating the mantra that “staying below 1.5 C is possible” we are helping humanity score an own-goal.
What I mean is this: Climate-informed people know that the only honest thing we can mean, at this point, by saying “reaching the 1.5 C goal is possible” is that it is theoretically or “physically” possible to avoid climate chaos. However, when less knowledgeable audiences hear “meeting the 1.5 goal is still possible” they tend to hear affirmation of a practical or political possibility. By thinking in terms of theoretical possibility but allowing ourselves to be heard as asserting practical possibility, we are scoring points for the opposition (which is apocalypse.)
Past political failures mean that, by now, a 1.5 C goal implies reducing emissions every year at a greater rate than during 2020’s world-wide Covid lockdowns. And we have absolutely no serious political arrangements in place to make this politically possible. But those arrangements could be made and enforced in a few days. Emissions could even stop tomorrow, if we are willing to suffer economic collapse. So, in that sense “meeting the 1.5 C goal is possible.”
To see how easily different senses of possible are confused, let’s consider an example from football. Imagine a genuinely respected football expert says, on national television, “its possible that the United States will win the World Cup this year.” What will viewers think the expert means? It depends. Viewers who are well-informed about international football will know the young US team is not realistically a force. Such viewers will probably guess that the expert really means “anything can happen”. After all, no physical law prevents balls kicked by the US’ players from going into their opponents’ nets.
On the other hand, a person who knows very little about football may think that “A US win is possible” means: “the US has a practical chance.” Perhaps the next Pele and Ronaldo have suddenly arisen in the US’ junior ranks. The uninformed listener has no way of knowing. Hope is alive among those with a casual interest in football, though aficionados know the US’ chances are slim and none. The fans want hope and the experts want to give it to them, dutifully delivering their lines about possibility.
Like these “fan-friendly” statements of football experts, official proclamations that “the 1.5 C goal is possible” create the impression that the teams we have in place can deliver victory. This weirdly coded conversation is more comfortable, for now, than clear communication would be. It gets less comfortable, though, as we feel the effects of failed carbon reduction efforts. Even still, we’ll only have to admit that 1.5 C is physically impossible when we’ve fully entered climate chaos.
How serious is this dynamic? Let’s think about it. The tendency to hold onto physical or theoretical possibilities (such as massive upset victories) increases when we are attached to an outcome, and unfamiliar with the relevant human factors. We are all emotionally attached to our planet and most of us know little about the ultra-complex human realities of attaining the 1.5 C goal. Football fans say to each other that “anything is possible” when rooting for an underdog, focusing on physical possibilities over human realities, and we see the same with climate.
Climate communicators feel they must mention only the possibility of reaching our ultimate goal, behave like rabid football supporters. In contrast, when football announcers offer affirmations of the physical possibility of underdog victories, they accompany these with doses of reality — discussing home teams’ weaknesses and formidable opponents. If US football experts acted, as a group, like climate experts they’d tell their viewers, in chorus: “a US win is possible”. And they’d barely mention the deep human challenges facing the US so as not to dampen the mood. They’d be encouraging some very foolish bets at the casino.
And that, in my opinion, is where we are at. Climate experts have decided to give “the fans” a reason to tune in to games, and cheer, but only popular outcry will create vast changes at the human level. Reaching future climate goals will require clear voicing of unpleasant truths about our failed politics. To join the chorus singing blandly that “1.5 is possible” is to pass subtly over this need for deep changes.
We cannot wait for the pain of physically failing to meet the 1.5 goal to be fully felt before calling for big adjustments. Though football losses are felt immediately, we are now feeling the failures of climate politics from a decade or so ago, and will feel today’s political losses in a decade. Realistically, economic and political system can’t be deeply changed in a year. By the time that meeting a 1.5 target becomes physically impossible, targets of 1.8 and up will be politically impossible.
The comfortable, subtle skipping over of the truth that is enabled by vague statements that “1.5 is alive” must stop now. A new and more real hope will come after climate-informed citizens as whole acknowledge that almost nobody really likes our odds of making 1.5, frankly admit the painful consequences of this failure, and ask the population to explore new bold political possibilities.
Teaser photo credit: Spurs fans displaying the club motto ‘To Dare Is to Do’ on the South Stand of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium before the UEFA Champions League quarter-final with Manchester City on 9 April 2019. By Bluejam – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78153606