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Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point

Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point | Portside
(read the entire report - this is a very good analysis)
Are we doomed? It’s the most common thing people ask me when they learn that I study climate politics. Fair enough. The science is grim, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reminded us with a report on how hard it will be to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it’s the wrong question. Yes, the path we’re on is ruinous. It’s just as true that other, plausible pathways are not. That’s the real, widely ignored, and surprisingly detailed message of the IPCC report. We’re only doomed if we change nothing. The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now...

Reporting on the IPCC, and climate change more broadly, is unbalanced. It’s fixated on the predictions of climate science and the opinions of climate scientists, with cursory gestures to the social, economic, and political causes of the problem. Yet analysis of these causes is as important to climate scholarship as modeling ice-sheet dynamics and sea-level rise. Reductionist climate reporting misses this. Many references to policy are framed in terms of carbon pricing. This endorses the prevailing contempt in establishment circles for people’s capacity to govern themselves beyond the restrictions of market rule. Meanwhile, the IPCC report is overflowing with analyses showing that we can avoid runaway climate change, improve most people’s lives, and prioritize equality through a broad set of interventions.

It remains physically possible to keep global warming at a relatively safe 1.5 degrees Celsius, and certainly a less safe—but not apocalyptic—2 degrees. This would require dramatic changes in economic policy and doubling down on the powers of public planning. Taxing carbon is essential, but is just one of many complementary tools. Using “command and control” regulatory methods, the Clean Air Act cleaned up much of the United States years before “market mechanisms” became famous. Indeed, “command and control” is the centerpiece of the best climate policies in the United States. Take California: There, the state’s regulatory mandates forcing utilities to source more renewable energy are the main reason emissions have gone down. In contrast, the market-mechanism piece of California’s climate policy, a “cap and trade” program, has failed to slash emissions; it may even have facilitated a moderate increase in carbon pollution in the state’s poorest neighborhoods.
Despite the framing of most news coverage about it, the latest IPCC report is innovative precisely because it uses new social science to highlight the climate implications of a range of political choices. But you have to read beyond the “Summary for Policymakers” to see it. The IPCC has embraced an approach developed by climate scholars called “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways,” or SSPs. Prior to the latest report, the IPCC projected future scenarios based on skeletal, technocratic models of energy, land use, and climate. They represented climate politics as being like a dashboard with a few dials that engineers could turn—a little more renewable energy here, a touch less deforestation there. In contrast, the SSPs imagine different possible climate futures in terms of realistic clusters of policy decisions, which in turn affect emissions, land use, and how the impacts of extreme weather are felt.
In the current report, there are five SSPs, which illustrate the huge differences between possible paths forward. Each pathway represents a different set of approaches for slashing emissions and coping with climate change. The first three strike me as most plausible. SSP 1, called “Sustainability,” imagines a world where policies increasingly favor sustainability, equity, education, and health care (which all reduces population growth), technological progress, and energy efficiency. This pathway also includes major cuts to fossil-fuel investment, which combined with public policy drive a hard, fast shift to clean energy and increased efficiency.
Compared to this rosy scenario, SSP 3, “Regional rivalry,” is terrifying: It projects low technological progress, few advances in health and education, high energy use, low international cooperation, and a booming population. Thanks to Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, it’s depressingly easy to imagine this world, though we’re not there yet. SSP 2, a “middle of the road” scenario, feels closest to our current reality; it projects only moderate amounts of technological progress, cooperation, and social investment. While SSP 2’s climate implications are also scary—limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius on this path is hard—the scenario is flexible enough for a turn to 1 or 3, better or worse. SSP 4, “Inequality,” and SSP 5, “Fossil-fuelled development” explore other unsettling options. The next report will have nine of these.
The scenarios do a nice job of tying together disparate social science about drivers of greenhouse-gas emissions beyond crude energy accounting. For instance, women’s improved education, job prospects, and smaller families in SSP 1 are a key reason climate models find that it is the easiest path to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. Keywan Riahi, one of the architects of this new modeling approach, told me that some of the numbers glossed in the IPCC report’s “Summary for Policymakers” miss crucial takeaways, like the social-impact analysis buried deeper in the report’s third chapter. For instance, at two degrees Celsius warming, in an SSP 3 world, between 750 million and 1.2 billion people would be severely exposed to climate-linked extreme weather, according to a 2018 study discussed in the IPCC report. In contrast, the IPCC reports, under the SSP 1 scenario, well under 100 million people would be hard hit by extreme weather at the same level of warming.

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