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Climate Action Epistemology Part 1: An Activist’s Analysis Of The IPCC Mitigation Report

March 21, 2023

This is the first article in a six-part series examining the 2022 IPCC mitigation report (working group III). (Ed. note: The rest of the articles in this series will be published over the next 2-3 weeks on Resilience.org)

recent commentary notes that “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is widely regarded as the most important and authoritative source on climate change, its impacts and how to tackle the rising emissions that drive it.” In March 2022, the IPCC released the mitigation-focused portion of its sixth assessment report (AR6), which explores humanity’s options for addressing the threat of climate breakdown. It is the product of thousands of scientists who assemble a picture of the state of scholarly understanding on climate action every few years. As an activist, I believe that diving into the report can offer useful lessons in climate action epistemology.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. It deals with questions about what constitutes knowledge and claims about what we know and how we know it. For those whose task is to evaluate different approaches to solving the climate crisis, there is a lot of information to sift through and either synthesize into the bigger picture or disregard. And then there are decisions about how much attention to give to each included perspective. The only way we can be sure that the recommendations emerging from the research actually match the scale of the crisis is by trying to analyze that filtering and framing process. This is epistemology applied to the domain of climate action. Activists pushing for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels must be concerned with identifying the limits we face, the opportunities we have, and the likely outcomes of different action plans given the circumstances at hand. The IPCC report should, in theory, capture the views of academics on these questions.

But despite the immense amount of research it attempts to summarize, the IPCC cannot necessarily be expected to provide a perfect analysis of possible solutions. Plenty of relevant sources in books and non-scholarly articles are not consulted in its knowledge-gathering process. A poor picture can also result from issues in the underlying literature cited by the report. Apparent shortcomings of the report may stem from these limitations rather than its authors. Even with these caveats, it remains a 2,000-page encyclopedia of the research that shapes our understanding and discussions about climate action, and therefore deserves our scrutiny.

Before exploring the report’s contents, we should consider some of the foundational ideas highlighted in its first few chapters. When evaluating our mitigation options, the authors attempt to pay attention to several dimensions of feasibility. It’s incredibly important not only for the IPCC to consider these details, but for activists to do so as well. Feasibility analyses ultimately try to answer fundamental questions: what obstacles impede the transition to a zero-carbon economy, and to what extent can technology solve them? Basically, we are asking how hard the transition is likely to be, how much lifestyle change and disruption may be involved, and what level of preparation the public might need to support the process. These are key ideas for anyone involved in envisioning and planning for a successful transition.

The authors acknowledge that previous IPCC reports have tended to ask only what technology can do to address climate change. “While previous ARs dealt with the definition of alternative mitigation pathways mostly exploring the technological potentials, latest research focused on what kind of mitigation pathways are feasible in a broader sense, underlining the multi-dimensional nature of the mitigation challenge.” The six “dimensions of feasibility assessment” considered in the report are:

  • Geophysical, not only the global risks from climate change but also, for technology assessment, the global availability of critical resources.
  • Environmental & ecological, including local environmental constraints and co-benefits of different technologies and pathways.
  • Economic, particularly aggregate economic and financial indicators, and [Sustainable Development Goals] reflecting different stages and goals of economic development.
  • Socio-cultural, including particularly ethical and justice dimensions, and social and cultural norms.
  • Technological, including innovation needs and transitional dynamics associated with new and emergent technologies and associated systems.
  • Institutional & political, including political acceptability, legal and administrative feasibility, and the capacity and governance requirements at different levels to deliver sustained mitigation in the wider context of sustainable development.

The trade-offs of different mitigation options are another vital concept discussed in the report. While co-benefits are often highlighted, like lower air pollution as a result of reduced fossil fuel use, new or exacerbated issues can also result from our attempts to reduce carbon emissions. Acknowledging these trade-offs is a key part of assessing feasibility and developing robust transition policies. The report highlights many possible complications of the large-scale deployment of emission-cutting technologies—“Areas with anticipated trade-offs include food and biodiversity, energy affordability/access, and mineral resource extraction.” These of course are not small areas.

Chapter two examines emissions trends and the forces driving them, suggesting places to focus our mitigation efforts. This is where we begin to see some potentially major shortcomings of the report (or perhaps its underlying literature). The IPCC is clear on the main drivers of increasing emissions over time: economic and population growth. As human numbers and our systems of production and consumption have expanded, so has fossil fuel use. Previous IPCC reports have presented literature that assumes this growth can and will continue, and have explored the feasibility of rapidly reducing emissions almost exclusively through technological solutions. That narrow approach is the one that societies have actually taken. The current report summarizes the results:

“Technological improvements (e.g., improved energy or land-use intensity of the economy) have shown a persistent pattern over the last few decades, but gains have been outpaced by increases in affluence (GDP per capita) and population growth, leading to continued emissions growth.”

Increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy have been overwhelmed by the growing scale of human societies. The ensuing sentence highlights broad areas to explore in mitigation planning:

“The key gap in knowledge therefore is how these drivers of emissions can be mitigated by demand management, alternative economic models, population control and rapid technological transition.”

Those four action areas make a lot of sense to explore. Developing zero-carbon energy systems is in large part a technological matter and it’s clearly essential, but it isn’t the only key topic. Demand management, which examines ways to reduce our resource consumption through changes to lifestyles and more efficient modes of organizing society, is also crucial. Yet 2022 was the first year that the IPCC report included a designated chapter on demand management. The other two topics would address the primary drivers of emissions directly. However, alternative economic models (that presumably prioritize well-being or other goals besides economic growth) and approaches to stabilizing and gradually reducing human population size are almost never explicitly discussed in the report. It’s hard to understand why that is, considering the consequences of leaving them unchecked. For example, the authors note that “The highest emissions scenarios in the literature result in global warming of >5°C by 2100, based on assumptions of rapid economic growth and pervasive climate policy failures.” They also identify “high levels of global population growth” as one of the “high mitigation challenges” that “may render modelled pathways that limit warming to 2°C (>67%) or lower infeasible.” Thus despite its own acknowledgement that technological solutions have never been able to cut emissions sufficiently, the report appears to remain a considerably technology-centric document.

These omissions are huge, because they lead people to neglect any role for alternative economics and population stabilization in addressing the climate crisis. The report could draw on well-established heterodox economic literature, particularly the discipline of ecological economics, which has a non-growing economic system as a focal point of its research. This would get people thinking about the sorts of institutional changes that could shift our economic goal from profit maximization to meeting basic needs within ecological limits. The report could also draw on the work of demographic experts who offer nuanced perspectives on the role of population growth in the ecological issues we face and evidence of the rapid fertility changes that are possible through non-coercive population policies. The IPCC report itself notes how different ideas about mitigation lead to very diverse approaches:

“Different sets of beliefs can shape climate-related policies, targets, and instruments. First, beliefs [may] link climate governance with social justice concerns; policies, targets and instruments may therefore reflect justice issues. Second, climate mitigation may be seen as primarily a market correction issue and mitigation compatible with economic growth, as exemplified by ecological modernisation, climate capitalism, market logics or a global commons approach. Third, climate governance may be understood relative to policies on technological innovation and progress, often conceptualised as social-technical transformations.”

The way we frame climate change has significant implications for what feasibility constraints, trade-offs, assumptions, and opportunities we pay attention to, and ultimately what targets we set and the policies we design to achieve them. IPCC reports have long been built from beliefs that center market logic, limitless growth, and technological responses to human problems.

This series begins by examining the role that climate mitigation models play in the report’s findings. It then explores the two mitigation areas mentioned above that receive significant attention in the report: technological solutions and demand management. Lastly, it reviews the report’s comments on how power struggles impact efforts to address the climate crisis. The analysis draws from many parts of the report that provide a high-level discussion of these areas (chapters 1-6, 12, 13, 16, and 17). One approach taken in this series is to compare different statements made in the report on the same topic, which at times suggest different ways of understanding the transition and how challenging it may be. Another approach taken is to add context by considering questions or consulting sources that aren’t covered much or at all by the authors. The result is an exploration of climate action epistemology.


Teaser photo credit via Unsplash.

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is an activist writing a book about why our ecological crises demand economic and cultural transformation, not just an energy transition, and how the climate movement can lay the groundwork for these changes. He writes at freedomsurvival.org and tweets @LimitsLiberate

Tags: climate change responses, IPCC reports, technofixes