The IPCC Can’t Predict How We Fight Back

What is and isn’t possible isn’t just a matter of science. It’s also a matter of politics.

by Sam Knights

11 August 2021

A helicopter drops a bucket of water over a wildfire in California. Adobe Stock

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered its sixth comprehensive assessment report, compiled by hundreds of scientists over the last six years. The report made for grim reading. It warned that climate breakdown was now happening rapidly and almost everywhere around the world. Even worse, some of the changes are now irreversible on human timescales; the oceans will continue to warm, sea levels will continue to rise. Whilst drastic reductions in emissions may counteract the worst effects of climate breakdown, we are unlikely to ever see a return to ‘normal’.

In 2015, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement, which committed governments to “pursue” efforts to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This was not some arbitrary target. If global temperatures are allowed to surpass 1.5°C, millions more people will be exposed to extreme heat, severe drought and the impacts of sea level rise. The coral reefs will die out, crops will fail, and freshwater will become less and less available. This is a death sentence for millions of people around the world. Indeed, Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres once said that breaching the 1.5°C target was tantamount to “genocide”.

This is why, during the signing of the Paris Agreement, small island nations coined the slogan “1.5 to stay alive”. It was an important demand that was attacked and undermined at every opportunity by high-income countries. Sadly, it now rings hollow. The world’s top scientists are warning that limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C is increasingly unlikely. “Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”, they write, “limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach”. In other words, millions of people are going to die.

Given the political context, we always knew that limiting warming to 1.5°C was unlikely. In 2018, the IPCC concluded that even if we did reach net-zero emissions by 2050 – a legally binding target in the UK – that would still only give us “a greater than 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5˚C”. Most of us wouldn’t cross a road if there was only a 50% chance we’d make it to the other side – yet that’s the gamble governments are taking with our lives. They would rather risk millions of us dying than make the transformative changes necessary for survival.

The target of net-zero by 2050 is far too weak: it doesn’t consider the latest science, nor the UK’s historic and unequal contribution to the climate crisis. But the government is refusing to do what’s necessary to meet even this target. The UK is spending 32 times more money on fossil fuels than on renewables, and there are plans to open both a new coal mine in Cumbria and a new oil field near Shetland. Consequently, we are currently on course for global temperature rises of 3°C above pre-industrial levels.

What’s more, governments are actively working against us in terms of understanding the cause of the problem at hand. No matter how instructive, the IPCC report’s summary for policymakers – which is approved line-by-line by government delegates from 195 countries – makes no mention of fossil fuels. The phrase was reportedly removed during the approval process. How can we talk about climate change without talking about fossil fuels? And how do we know that 1.5°C is really “beyond reach”? The IPCC report can find no scenario that limits warming to 1.5°C. Their best-case scenario is that we overshoot the target and are later able to claw our way back. But that’s not because other scenarios don’t exist – it’s because they didn’t model them.

What is and isn’t possible isn’t just a matter of science. It is principally a matter of politics. If we wanted to stop burning fossil fuels, we could. If we wanted to build a just, green and sustainable world, we could. The problem, of course, is that our governments don’t want to. They refuse to take the action required because they are wedded to an economic model that depends on growth, that incentivises destructive practices for short-term profit and that values the private accumulation of wealth over the continued existence of life on this planet.

It isn’t too late, despite what many would have us believe. It is simply too late under the current system. We don’t have to accept catastrophic levels of warming. We don’t have to accept the death and displacement of hundreds of millions more people. The truth is that, now, organised resistance to the political and economic system is the safest and most sensible course of action. This is something that the IPCC doesn’t model. And this is what we need to survive.

We know the left has the answers to the climate and ecological crises – but we need to think strategically about how immediate, rapid and large-scale emissions reductions are going to be achieved. How will the left win power? How can we grow our movements so that we’re at our strongest? And what happens when we try to implement the necessary policies, such as the nationalisation of key industries and the global redistribution of wealth and resources, and we come up against the power of organised capital?

At the same time, we have to demand more action on adaptation to climate change. We know that some global warming is inevitable. Of course, every fraction of a degree matters, and we should be fighting tirelessly to mitigate the horror that is coming – but we also have to be clear-headed about the future. We need to demand a better world, whilst mitigating the horror of our current one. At COP26, climate-vulnerable countries are demanding the delivery of climate finance, greater ambition from major emitters, and a focus on loss and damage. We need to amplify the voices of the Global South, and act accordingly.

Scientists will continue to run their models and monitor their data. But by far the most important variable is what people do in response. There’s still time to build a better, fairer, more equitable world, but doing so will require mass disruption, mass disobedience, revolutionary system change, and all that entails.  

This is the most important issue of our age. So, what are you going to do?

Sam Knights is a writer, actor and climate activist

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