A case against the empty symbolism of the 1.5C climate change goal

In my last post on Pragmatic Environmentalism I brought up the topic of Canada endorsing a call to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. I bemoaned the idea as being the equivalent of promising “a unicorn in every pot and a hoverboard in every garage”. In retrospect that line might sound a wee bit snarky but what I was trying get across is that the scientific community is in general agreement that holding climate change to 2 degrees Celsius is pretty much an impossible goal so going for 1.5 C isn’t exactly in the cards. That being said, since I wrote my post I have read a number of opinions supporting Canada’s call to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In this post I will expand on the points from my last post to make a case against the empty symbolism of Canada calling for limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Let’s start with the obvious first question: is restraining global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius even possible? The short answer to that is: No. The long answer requires that we explain a number of assumptions. As regular readers of this blog know, I am a Lukewarmer who believes that climate sensitivity will end up on the lower end of the IPCC’s range. The reason climate sensitivity is important is that it ultimately defines how much carbon dioxide is necessary to achieve a set amount of heating. [Readers please note: today’s post is for the policy types so I won’t discuss technical details such as TCR, ECS or any of those topic here] However, for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to stick to the absolute mainstream of consensus science. For that I will refer back to my previous post where I discussed the IPCC carbon budget necessary to achieve a high likelihood (over 75%) of not overshooting 2 degrees Celsius: 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2). As discussed in this paper in Nature Geoscience

Two thirds of the CO2 emission quota consistent with a 2 °C temperature limit has already been used, and the total quota will likely be exhausted in a further 30 years at the 2014 emissions rates.

What this all means is that we are already on a very tight timeline to meet a 2 degrees Celsius goal.

According to the IPCC at the 2014 rate of carbon emissions we will exceed the carbon budget necessary to achieve a 50% likelihood of not overshooting 1.5 degrees Celsius in approximately 10 years. Now many pundits have marveled that in 2015 it appears that the global carbon emissions may have peaked but absolutely no one believes that they can go to net zero carbon emissions 10 years from now. Admittedly some researchers and think tanks have some pretty complicated plans to achieve a goal of zero carbon emissions, but not one can get us to where we need to be in 10 years. The best that some of the more ambitious plans can do involves implementing negative emissions. To explain, negative emissions are the panacea of the climate change debate, one might say its cold fusion. The theory goes because there is no practical way to avoid overshooting our goal and then we will use use negative emissions to get us back to where we need to be. Deus ex machine, Bob’s your uncle and everything is better in the end. Unfortunately be it carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), ocean fertilization or any of the other suggested technologies the negative emission technologies are all still in the research phase and for the most part more than a decade away from practical implementation. So to finish this point, there is simply no way, using anything less than magical thinking, to achieve a global goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Having established that 1.5 degrees Celsius is not feasible, why would Canada be endorsing a call to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius? The answer in a nutshell is symbolism. For a compelling read on the positive symbolism of such a pledge I direct you to read Simon Donner’s blog post on the subject. In that blog Dr. Donner suggests that signing on to the pledge

is about respect. In pushing to include reference to a 1.5 °C limit, Canada is saying that the people of small island developing states and vulnerable countries like Bangladesh matter.

Now I am all about showing respect but I am also a self-declared pragmatist and what Dr. Donner and his fellow-thinkers appear to have forgotten is that sometimes symbolic gestures can set back a cause. We live in a world of Realpolitik and in that world you can’t afford to make commitments you are not willing to keep.

As a student of history I am reminded of the George Santayana quote: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Looking into the recent past we can all find a relevant parallel in the field of climate change: Jean Chretien and Canada’s Kyoto pledge. For those of you not versed in political history, during the negotiation for the Kyoto Protocol Jean Chretien informed his negotiators to meet or beat the American commitment. For him it was about the symbolism. Unfortunately the US negotiators had a similar mandate and as a matter of symbolism they ended up agreeing to numbers that were overly-ambitious. The numbers were so ambitious that PM Chretien essentially decided to write them off. It is as well to be hanged for a sheep as a lamb as they say. For the better part of a decade Canada did absolutely nothing to address its carbon emissions and when it came time to pay the piper Canada instead withdrew from Kyoto. It is generally agreed in policy circles that had Canada agreed to set reasonable goals, the Chretien government could have sold them to the public and got buy-in for the pain necessary to make them happen, but by promising the moon and the stars he failed to achieve any political traction.

Continuing our historical theme let’s look at a case where positive change was achieved: The Montreal Protocol. In the negotiations for the Montreal Protocol the Canadian government looked at what could be achieved and then agreed to that in negotiations. Because the goal was doable the implementation went quite smoothly. The Canadian government got onside and got agreement from its Provincial and Territorial partners. More importantly from an implementation perspective, because the goals were reasonable there was general buy-in nationally, this resulted in unexpected improvements in performance and strengthening of the Protocol over the years. There is a reason that it is considered good business to undersell and over deliver and not oversell and under deliver.

In discussing the Montreal Protocol I mentioned some very important players who need to be involved in any attempt to achieve real carbon emission reductions in Canada: the Provinces and Territories. Contrary to what many have claimed for the last decade, Canada is not a dictatorship. In order for the federal government to make changes it needs buy-in from the provinces. Unfortunately for PM Trudeau, provincial premiers have their own issues and are wont to spend their personal political capital to make him look better. Ask Premier Notley how proposing a carbon tax is working for her popularity. Now consider that Premier Notley did virtually everything right in the lead-up to her carbon tax. She picked a strong non-partisan Panel that did a tremendous job of public consultation and they came up with a very reasonable Climate Leadership Plan. Now imagine PM Trudeau going back to Premier Notley to say, “that was great but we need much deeper cuts much sooner?” The speed with which she would show him the door would be interesting to behold. Ontario, Quebec (and now Manitoba) meanwhile are all implementing their combined carbon market. Imagine PM Trudeau’s reception when he drops the bomb on them? As for BC, Premier Clark has an election in May 2017 and does not have any political capital to spare.

To summarize the above, in the real world, the world of realpolitik, you only make promises and commitments you are willing to keep. If you want to be treated as a player in the game you can’t say one thing on the world stage and then do another on the home front. That might have been possible in a time without the world-wide web and streaming video but is not the case anymore. If you want to be a serious government and to be treated like a serious government then when you make a commitment on the global stage you have to keep it. If the Canadian government wants to make real, palpable change then it needs to figure out the most we can achieve and then commit to doing so. Empty symbolic gestures will certainly garner praise from activists and make for good headlines, but once the drinks are all drunk and the partiers have all gone home our government will have some hard work to do. Let’s not let these heady days get to our heads. We need to be practical and pragmatic and set achievable goals and then work hard to achieve them. If we are lucky (with lower climate sensitivity or some marvelous technological breakthrough) then like with the Montreal Protocols we can set loftier goals or tighten our timelines in the future. But for now let’s stop with the empty symbolism and start with doing the ground work and building the foundation for real change.

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7 Responses to A case against the empty symbolism of the 1.5C climate change goal

  1. Mooloo says:

    If you want to be a serious government and to be treated like a serious government then when you make a commitment on the global stage you have to keep it.

    Nope. You make a ridiculous commitment, that makes you look very forward thinking. And in ten year’s time someone else will renege on it. It’s what everyone has done on climate for twenty years, and will continue to do for the next twenty. There’s no downside for the politician in doing so, after all. The Greens will applaud them, invested as they are in political theatre over reality, whereas industry only look at what actually happens.

    To make biting changes in current emissions is political suicide however. Britain and Germany are discovering that their electric grid is in real trouble and they have barely started.

    (BTW, the smoke and mirrors of carbon dioxide’s warming effect isn’t in TCR or such, it’s in the Bern model of sequestration. If that is wrong then the 1.5 C target will be met easily.)


  2. Pingback: Paris pantomime reaches final act | Climate Scepticism

  3. How about that hiatus?

    How many more decades of no warming or even slight cooling before the concept that lack of warming can make it get warmer breaks through the closed minds of Greens as a Blinding Flash of Reality.

    How about the rapidly cooling Poles and where we are in the current, very,very long in the tooth Interglacial Period?

    Every generation has its “ism” . The current generation in the Western world has filled the spiritual void of modern life and has adopted environmentalism as its religious faith and they get their jollies honoring the pagan God Gaia.

    It will pass but only after $$$$$Trillions of public money get squandered implementing utterly useless but feel very good policies like the $37Billion Geeen Energy fiasco red toy exposed in Ontario.

    Wonder how much Healthcare $37 BilliIon would buy, or how much housing for seniors or poor people or potable water for aboriginals or . . .



  4. Kevin Hearle says:

    I’m with Freddy Green, the dichotomy is that the politics is going in one direction and the real science in the other towards low climate sensitivity. The interesting point in the future will be when the masses wake up to the fact that CAGW is NOT and the climate is cooling. The pause is the first indication that something is wrong with the modelled science and the resulting politics. When the AMO turns negative and the solar cycle continue to a minimum (maybe Maunder like) and we are skating on the Thames again the politics will be even more interesting. Given that the UK are generating their very own energy crisis with insane climate/energy legislation there will be a few laughs to be had in the not to distant future when the lights go out and the cost of power is crippling. Is it time for Canada to factor in the possible downside risk of another Maunder minimum? Meanwhile down in NZ we are enjoying the big El Nino, real climate that we understand thanks in no small part to Bob Tisdale try his blog for a reality check.


  5. My comment is purely technical: we would see decreasing CO2 concentration if we were to drop emissions to 45-35 % of today’s level. The carbon sink ability to remove CO2 is a function of concentration. As long as the sinks don’t saturate, they will continue to withdraw CO2. So if we drop emissions to about half today’s level we should see stable to slightly dropping co2. Dropping to 1/2 of today’s rate is going to be impossible unless there’s a huge effort to build nuclear,plants in developed nations including China.

    I agree the climate sensitivity is probably lower than stated. Thus if I were driving this bus I would emphasize building extremely safe nuclear plants and setting up real nuclear waste disposal sites. And since I’m an engineer I’m pretty sure I can manage to do that.


    • Chester Draws says:

      That’s how we know it is all pantomime though Fernando.

      The Prime Minister of New Zealand could announce tomorrow that in 20 years his country will be almost entirely carbon neutral. It’s not technically difficult. Although it would be quite expensive it’s within the realms of affordable. We’re mostly hydro and geothermal, so we have a good head start, and bio-fuels could help fill in the need for fuel for rural transport.

      The catch is that the country would need two, perhaps three, large nuclear power plants.

      The result is that the Greens would go mental. Despite the future of the world being on the line, the small danger of nuclear leaks is worse! What could be worse than the imminent threat of thermageddon. That’s right — an actual solution that did not involve de-industrialisation!

      In their hearts, I’m convinced, most Greens don’t actually believe the CO2 threat. If they did they’d be marching for nuclear right now in Paris.


  6. Pingback: On pragmatic Environmentalism, the Paris Agreement and where do we go from here? | A Chemist in Langley

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