In the race against climate change, humanity is quickly running out of time. On 9 August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 2021 AR6 climate change report in addition to a summary for policy leaders. One hundred ninety-five countries endorsed the Report, and its findings were unsurprising but sobering.
The Report shows that climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying. It contends that given current trends, the Earth will heat by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next ten years. This 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold was established through political negotiations leading up to the Paris Agreement due to pressure from many developing countries and island states who argued that it was a matter of survival for them. However, the current situation is bleak. To date, current global surface temperatures are already 1.09 degrees Celsius higher than between 1850-1900 and the past five years are the hottest on record since 1850. Correspondingly, the Earth is warming at a rate not seen in the last 2,000 years; levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than in the past 2 million years; the rate of sea-level rise has tripled since 1901-1971; and climate change is generating erratic and severe weather events.
The IPCC is also unambiguous about the cause of this calamity. The Report states that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land.” As such, human activity is the cause of this phenomenon, and we must act to limit further destruction. The world must cut emissions in half by 2030 and reverse deforestation. Overall, climate change is increasingly becoming an immediate threat for people across the globe.
According to Professor Arthur Petersen from University College London (UCL), “there’s not one single kind of new surprise that comes out, it’s the over-arching solidness that makes this the strongest IPCC report ever made.”
This Report constitutes a “code red for humanity,” in the words of United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres. “The alarm bells are deafening and the evidence is irrefutable: Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”
Across the world, this clear warning has caused a surge of interest in international climate agreements such as the Paris Agreement and the upcoming COP26 summit. For example, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “I hope today’s IPCC report will be a wake-up call for the world to take action now, before we meet in Glasgow in November for the critical COP26 summit.” So far, countries such as the USA, Japan, South Korea and China have proposed ambitious targets to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Although these ambitions should be applauded, based on the historical record of states failing to meet targets, this represents an acknowledgement of the issue’s severity rather than a genuine commitment to changing policy and practice.
Furthermore, climate change is understandably a secondary priority for countries experiencing civil war, cross-border war, coups, famine, abject poverty and underdevelopment. The costs of COVID-19 have exacerbated these circumstances in terms of blood and capital. This creates a tragic catch-22 situation for such countries. These countries are most likely to bear the brunt of climate change despite having contributed the least to it, contributing to standoffish states when negotiating international climate agreements. Moreover, these agreements do not include enough sensitivity to local context. In these countries, governments are often pressured to primarily react to immediate crises to save lives and alleviate human suffering with limited available funding. This leaves the root causes of these crises inadequately addressed and discourages governments from taking on climate change as it is deemed a separate issue. However, climate change has a complex relationship with the root causes of these devastating events, making them more frequent and more intense. As such, the government must invest an ever-increasing portion of their resources in addressing immediate symptoms, leaving them with fewer resources to address causes. Therefore, climate change is a major contributing factor to the cyclical and escalating complex emergencies.
The effects of climate change are obvious and devastating, and ultimately, international forums are an insufficient mechanism for addressing this crisis. The first IPCC report came out 30 years ago and indicated that 2050 was a turning point and that emissions needed to be drastically reduced. Since then, the greatest success achieved by these forums was the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act which banned the commercial manufacture and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to protect the ozone layer. This agreement was narrow in that it focused on one specific emission and deep in that it set out concrete goals and timelines for its eradication. However, it should be noted that the largest producer of CFCs worldwide, DuPont, was also a major producer of alternative chemicals, which reduced company losses and thereby reduced lobbying pressure. Subsequent agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement have not seen the same level of success. Recognizing the role of multiple greenhouse gases in contributing to global warming, these forums have had a far broader scope which has come at the expense of depth. The Kyoto Protocol only required developed countries to reduce emissions — targets that were not met. The Paris Agreement applied to a still broader range of actors, calling on all states to simply set emissions targets that have not been met so far. Despite scientific evidence and international agreements going back decades, there has been little actual progress. Hence, the problem is not scientific – it is political.
The forums that have the most difficulty achieving unanimous consent on issues that contain both breadth and depth are at the international level. This is because the number of actors and different viewpoints overcomplicates negotiations. However, all climate agreements are pursued at an international level. To date, this method has proven to have great potential but is often unsuccessful. These forums should not be abandoned, but given the severity of the climate crisis, they should be augmented by forums with fewer actors. As such, agreements should simultaneously be pursued at international, regional, state, and local levels to make 1.5 degrees Celsius targets an achievable reality.