The Planet Will Warm Past 1.5°C. What Now?

The only way of ensuring that the overshoot is temporary is to decisively defeat the fossil fuel cartel.

This essay was originally published by The Nation, here

The 1.5°C temperature target is difficult to honestly and openly discuss. Within the climate movement, it has become a locus of anguish, confusion, and even despair. Long a symbol of mobilization and hope, 1.5°C has become central to both activist campaigns and scientific analysis. Yet it’s now clear that the planet will almost certainly warm more than 1.5°C.

This is a rough prospect. It will likely condemn countless communities, many of them largely innocent of responsibility for the climate crisis, to suffering and destruction on a vast scale. It will trigger major ecological crises, extinctions first among them—the coral reefs, to pick just one example, could almost entirely vanish as the warming breaches the 1.5°C line.

These are not encouraging words, but they should not be taken as invitations to despair, or to a strange denialism in which, fearing hopelessness, we soft-pedal the severity of our circumstances. Because the truth is that the planet is not doomed, and neither are the world’s most climate vulnerable people.

The message here is that it’s time to act. Fortunately, significant action seems finally to be possible. At the last climate summit, after a grand push from the Global South coalition (the G77 + China) and the climate movement, the long-deadlocked battle to establish a “loss and damage” fund was finally won. That fund could finance disaster prevention and disaster mitigation in regions that have been pushed beyond their adaptive capacities. There will, of course, be limits to such interventions, but this could be the beginning of real climate internationalism. And it would not be alone. To cite just one other justification for cautious optimism, the renewable technology revolution has finally arrived.

Still, implacably, year by year, the “emissions budgets” are being drawn down, and the IPCC’s new “Synthesis Report” has made this undeniable. We’re going to hit 1.5°C. Thus, if 1.5°C is still achievable, it is only by way of an “overshoot and decline” pathway in which the temperature, in time, drops back below 1.5°C. As Peter Thorne, a physical geographer at Maynooth University in Ireland, noted at the report’s launch, “Almost irrespective of our emissions choices in the near term, we will probably reach 1.5 degrees early in the next decade.… The real question is whether we reach 1.5 degrees and then maybe go a little bit over and come back down or whether we go blasting through one and a half degrees and two degrees and keep on going.”

The challenge now is to limit the depth and duration of the 1.5°C overshoot and thus the destruction that occurs during and after it. This means, among much else, rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, a tremendously challenging prospect that will disrupt economies and political alliances around the world. Such a phaseout can succeed only if it unfolds in a manner that is widely accepted as fair.

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