Global climate negotiations are heating up; the New York summit and its 400,000 strong climate march have mobilized leaders for further talks culminating in Paris next year. The climate policy narrative (including the IPCC) is framed to keep global average temperatures beneath a 2˚C limit. This value is seen in the scientific literature but achieved international recognition as part of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. Whilst it is thought that warming of 2°C will prevent the worst climate related effects it is being increasingly questioned. A single figure doesn’t suggest pathways for adaption, and an arbitrary value can prove too abstract for people to engage with. If 2° isn’t right, then what is, and how will the language of organisations such as the IPCC affect government and public ability to engage with mitigation strategies?
Victor & Kennel (2014) argue that 2° represents a scientific and political failing. Particularly with the recent warming ‘hiatus’ it has allowed governments to ‘talk big’ without action. Average temperatures mask the complex processes behind climate change, recent increases in Antarctic sea ice analysed by Holland et al (2014) proved a field day for denialists using the very logical heat=melt argument. As in previous climate shifts, warming (or cooling) is highly disproportionate. The Arctic for example is warming far faster than either the equator of the Antarctic, whilst research on New Zealand Glaciers by Rother et al (2014) show a vastly different response in the Southern Hemisphere than the North. Victor & Kennel call for an expanded set of targets and indicators that better represent the state of the planets health. Using ocean temperatures, atmospheric CO2 or regional temperatures allow governments to identify more cause-and-effect pathways. In terms of risk management calculations a singular temperature limit may though prove more effective than multi-vectored analysis (Sandford et al (2014). It is important to note that this all may prove irrelevant as we are currently on track to blow past 2° in line with IPCC 8.5.
|Current emissions are in line with RCP8.5 (credit IPCC AR5)|
The main issue for me is the lack of tangibility, people cannot see warming, the same as people cannot see emissions. What we can see are benefits (or consequences). Thompson et al (2014) propose a great strategy for evaluating air quality co-benefits of Carbon Policies in the US. With China focusing it’s mitigation strategies around reducing smog, the UK can adopt a similar approach to help companies and individuals see the effects of reducing climate impacts. A visible reduction in air quality, increased species diversity or greener cities are more identifiable than an abstract temperature, in a poll by Yale Climate Communication a greater percentage of Americans identified with the health benefits of mitigation than believed global warming was man-made. Whilst this limit helped mobilise international talks, the world must now turn to more rigorous pathways to change and in particularly the benefits of lower emissions. Victor and Kennel use the analogy that patients still do not understand why doctors monitor their vital signs; but they certainly feel the benefits.