Life Beyond 1.5C

Headlines describing the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties (COP) of UNFCCC more commonly referred to as COP27 at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt sent troubling messages: “The Greenwashing Scam Behind COP27’s Flop” (In These Times) “COP27 Climate Summit Missed Chance for Ambition on Fossil Fuels” (Reuters) “COP27 Is Full of Politicians and Policymakers” (The Guardian). None of the headlines spotlight climate scientists because they have been pushed into the background.

At issue, nation-state commitments to reduce CO2 emissions routinely fail. It’s been over 30 years. As a result of inaction, the impact of global warming at only 1.2°C above pre-industrial is already disrupting ecosystems. Meantime at COP27 the rallying cry was “Keep 1.5 Alive” with the delegates all voicing the same slogan, smiling, joining hands, thumbs up.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already informed the world that it’s necessary to hold global temps below 1.5°C pre-industrial or all hell will break lose. Moreover, the IPCC, does not yet see a clear pathway out of the morass. In fact, based upon several analyses, it’s starting to look like 1.5C is in the cards. So, get used to it… it’s coming this decade!

For perspective, it’s worth contemplating that this is the first time in human history that a series of major forums, most recently 40,000 attendees at COP27 in Egypt, met to discuss the ramifications of, and possible solutions to, potential destruction of civilization. Such a massive series, twenty-seven COPs, has never happened before. In that regard, it’s unbelievable that the results have been negative for three decades running. Greenhouse gas emissions continued rising and accelerating, never down. It’s as if they, world leaders or their surrogates, are frozen in time like the well-preserved remains of well-to-do Romans at Pompeii.

Zooming ahead 2,000 years beyond Pompeii and focusing on the results of 30-years of meetings to discuss global warming, then what about 1.5°C above pre-industrial? Will 1.5°C hit soon enough that it impacts today’s generation?

Based upon the opinion of analysts, it looks like the answer is “yes.” One explanation for 1.5C hitting this decade by 2030 is found in the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which is the same brand that published “Brazilians Should Keep Slashing Their Rainforest” (March 27, 2020) and “What Greta Thunberg Forgets About Climate Change” (July 12, 2020). AIER is a favorite of the Charles Koch Foundation, which donates accordingly. When it comes to libertarian credentials, AIER gets an A-plus grade.

An AIER article by James E. Hanley: “The Battle for 1.5 Degrees of Warming Is Already Lost, So What’s Plan B?” April 7, 2022, clearly conforms to what several climate analysts are saying about the inevitability of hitting 1.5C. It’s inevitable!

His article does a good job, convincingly, explaining how fossil fuels are embedded in society, really embedded more so than people realize, way more than realized. Frankly, it is difficult to take issue with his facts as presented. Not only does he explain embedded fossil fuels but also: “In more bad policy news for the 1.5 degrees goal, few countries are committing to the necessary policy actions to achieve it. According to Bloomberg research group: ‘No G-20 government has implemented sufficient and concrete policies to match promises … from COP26 in Glasgow last year.” This is also commonly mentioned by climate analysts.

More significantly yet, according to the same article, he proffers the IPCC take on the issue: “Here’s the simple math. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that holding the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 430 ppm. In 2020 we reached 412 ppm, up from 400 in 2015. At that rate of increase, we’ll hit 430 before the end of the decade, and zero-emissions climate pledges aren’t even scheduled to take full effect until 2050, another twenty years later.” As of November 29th Mauna Loa registered daily CO2 at 416.58 ppm.

As a solution, or Plan B if you like, the article suggests environmentalists don’t really have any suggestions, no real Plan B, other than renewables, which according to the article have several serious drawbacks; alternatively, the article suggests solutions such as nuclear power and massive subsidization into research for carbon capture and sequestration, including atmospheric removal.

An altogether different source that’s more palatable to environmentally sensitive circles is Climate Code Red, which recently stated: “The warming trend will reach 1.5°C around 2030, irrespective of any emission reduction initiatives taken in the meantime. This is because short-term warming is largely determined by past emissions, and the inertia in the energy and political systems.” 1

In part, the Climate Code Red analysis is based upon a study by H. Damon Matthews. 2

So, what of 1.5C? What happens beyond 1.5C? Obviously, nobody knows because it’s never happened before. However, some clues come from trends at +1.2C, where we’re at today.

“I can say with a high degree of certainty that civilizations can thrive in a 14-degree C world – but nobody can tell at any degree of certainty that we can thrive at (much higher temperatures) because we’ve never been there,” according to Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research while at COP27 in Egypt.”  3

1.5C has become a focal point. At the COP27 meetings countries argued over whether the endangered 1.5C goal should be kept or abandoned. Of serious concern, according to IPCC scientists, studies have shown that air pollution particulate matter is holding down global temperatures by 0.3C. This means the planet may effectively “already have 1.5C in the pipeline but is not showing the effects yet,” according to Rockström.

At 1.5C several things happen much worse than what’s already happening at 1.2C. Most prominently, food and water shortages, which are already very serious problems, as international conflict arises over natural resources combined with ultra-extreme weather events, all-in putting the world on edge, a razors edge that has unforgiving political connotations. Just look at politics at only 1.2C. It’s edgy.

The concerns surrounding 1.5C have already started to surface at 1.2C. Over the past 24 months the world has literally been on fire, massively on every continent for the first time ever, especially the methane vulnerable Siberian permafrost (threatening a breakout of runaway global warming thereby making 1.5C look frighteningly ominous), Australia’s biblical mega-fires, Western US, Paradise, Calif. pop 27,000 burned to the ground like a matchstick; floods have ravaged, torn apart communities, for example, Pakistan (1,739 dead) and the massive European floods of ‘21 (125 dead), and the out-of-the-blue massively disruptive Henan, China flood (302 dead, people trapped in Zhengzhou subway cars with water up to their chins); in stark contrast to flooding, droughts shriveled major rivers and commercial waterways, Rhine, Loire, Danube, Po, Yangtze, Mississippi as well as depleting water resources for entire towns and villages in France and Italy (trucking water to towns) and China and elsewhere in the world, like Chile, where suburbs of Santiago, a city rationing water, also trucking water for 450,000 families. Meanwhile, angry residents take water truck drivers hostage in Northern Mexico (NY Times, August 3, 2022). And America’s largest most important reservoir system Lake Mead close to dead pool status. As November 1st, Lake Mead’s level was 1,046 feet. Dead pool status is 995 feet.

These recurring disasters, already powerfully destructive, but only a small sampling of the bigger world, will likely hit with ever more frequency and potency at 1.5C. This is not normal! All of this is something that’s never been witnessed at such massive scale! It’s absolutely frightening. World governments need to focus on whether the climate system can be fixed or somehow toned down, e.g., by drastically reducing emissions. Yet, that’s not happening at forums of 40,000 high-ranking people. Really?

In turn, the edginess of failing ecosystems brings in its wake social turmoil as disheartened confused people look for scapegoats, thus empowering bellicose political leaders who could care less about social welfare. This is an exercise in insanity.

It’s a nonstop disaster merry-go-round that upends the establishment in favor of rambunctious leaders of desperate souls that have nothing more to lose going nowhere. Maybe the establishment needs to go all-in with both barrels blazing to fix climate change, assuming it’s possible, while they’re still “the establishment.”

What can be done? Some scientists say the only way is to physically remove the stuff, CO2, from the atmosphere while also reducing reliance on fossil fuels slowly approaching net zero, which is a major sticking point that seems insurmountable when understanding the true dimensions of the fossil fuel industry that holds hostage the neoliberal economic system. It’s a fact that needs to be recognized. It’s an iron grip.

Hopefully, developed governments will unite to strategically provide massive amounts of funds to finance technologies, natural climate restoration systems, and/or whatever techniques required to reduce the impact of way too much CO2 in the atmosphere. But, of course, that’s what UN-sponsored COPs are supposed to do. Hmm.

Meantime, beyond 1.5C some say 2C, 3C are on the docket.

  1. “Over Half of All Fossil Fuels Are Extracted By Just Seven Countries, As World Heads to 3C of Warming”, Climate Code Red, November 28, 2022. []
  2. “Global Efforts Are Insufficient to Limit Warming to 1.5°C”, Science, vol 376, June 23, 2022. []
  3. “Explainer: How Close Are We to Passing 1.5 Degrees Celsius of Global Warming?” Reuters, November 14, 2022. []
Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.