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When “Code Red” Climate Risk Meets Political Risk, Which Prevails? A Chat with Ian Bremmer

This is an excerpt from an article by Andrew Revkin of the Columbia Climate School on his new Sustain What dispatch at Bulletin.com. Read the rest here.

  • Paris targets are unreachable; now what?
  • Dual imperatives – cutting global emissions and local vulnerability
  • Bonus video: IPCC scientists call process to change

Since the Monday release of the new “code red” global warming warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about 1988, when that panel was founded and I began my reporting journey on this epic challenge facing societies worldwide.

At the time it felt like another pollution story, albeit a huge one, and there was a widespread assumption that the tools we deployed to control acid rain (regulation and technology) and save the ozone layer (treaty making and better chemistry) would apply.

So much for that idea. The climate crisis remains as “super wicked” now as some young scholars proposed more than a decade ago.

Fossil fuel companies have rightly been pilloried, and taken to court, over their lies and delaying tactics. But there are vastly bigger impediments to climate action at every level, from individual psychology (status quo bias~) to the huge fossil-powered structures and norms modernizing societies and industry influence have built (try uninventing suburbia), to the grand intertwined political, strategic and economic tussles among global leaders, for whom climate action remains a simmering “forcing” amid a bundle of urgent realtime issues.

That’s why I jumped at the chance for a mutual exploration of what this new science report is likely, and unlikely, to change with Ian Bremmer, who, besides being another Bulletin writer, is a political scientist, author and president and founder of Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy, and GZERO Media (the name builds from Bremmer’s thesis that a new global order is poised to emerge after the end of the influence of individual powers or blocs like G7, G20, etc.).

Here’s our digital conversation.

Ian Bremmer

What’s new in this latest report?

Andrew Revkin

I laid out quite a few observations in a post on Monday and a live stream today, but here are some key points. The 42-page summary and more than 3,000 pages of detail powerfully advance the picture of a human-disrupted climate compared to where the basic science of climate change was when the last such assessment was published in 2013. Models and methods have improved. Many years of additional observations of past and current ocean, climate and land conditions have accumulated. New concepts have moved into the foreground—particularly “compound” threats like simultaneous heat and drought. Contrary to what was believed a decade ago, the report notes that every incremental step to avoid new heat-trapping emissions is a step toward slowing overall long-term warming. (As you’ve noted, that doesn’t mean it’s likely we’ll come close to the Paris targets.) At the same time, there’s much more locked-in change coming with sea levels. But as with warming, ambitious emissions curbs would make a big difference in coastal disruption by 2100.

What’s not new is that the Working Group I report, on its own, is completely insufficient for policy makers or anyone looking for ways to reduce risk or slow warming.

What’s your read as an informed climate observer and political analyst?

Ian Bremmer

My first, positive takeaway is that there is finally overwhelming consensus on the science of climate change. Sure, ‘settled science’ is an oxymoron, but we’re at a point where there’s virtually nobody serious out there denying that climate change exists, that it is largely man-made, and that it is a “code red” threat. The second good news in my view is that the science has gotten better, in the sense of increased precision and lower uncertainty around model projections. That’s useful insofar as it lets us plan only for the things that might plausibly happen.

Where there is disagreement, certainly at least from me and the climate practice at Eurasia Group, is on whether the world can realistically limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC report is, in our view, overly optimistic about this scenario, given recent history and political realities. Or perhaps they’re not overly optimistic and the claim is a tactical one, a way to stave off complacency. There is certainly a lot of political capital that’s been invested in the 1.5-degree goal. Either way, I think it’s foolish to aim for an impossible target. Our best-case scenario puts global warming at 2.5 degrees C. That’s a significant reduction, but it paints a picture of a world that is still radically more dangerous than today’s.

Andrew Revkin

I’ve long pointed to what I call a “reality gap” when looking at IPCC and other scenarios aiming to eliminate the “emissions gap” between nations’ climate pledges and the temperature thresholds they pledged to avoid under the Paris Agreement. That’s one reason I have little confidence the world will limit warming anywhere near those targets. So I’m pretty aligned with the Eurasia Group’s assessment. But that’s a journalist’s view. What is the core of your analysis?

Ian Bremmer

For starters, 1.5 degrees C is predicated on all nations doing their part. The US and the EU are (more or less) on track—the challenge is convincing China, India, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia and other large low- and middle-income countries to follow suit. But they look at industrialized countries and see that not only are they responsible for the vast majority of historical emissions, on the back of which they grew rich, but also that they still emit far more carbon per capita than they do. The hypocrisy is glaring. At the end of the day, though, the climate doesn’t care about equity and fairness. Only total emissions count. Yes, rich countries should bear the largest cost for carbon reduction, but it’s also clear that a decarbonization drive that doesn’t include China and India is doomed. I’m not hopeful that these countries will be able and willing to participate in this transformation at the level and speed required without substantial help.

Which brings me to my second reason for pessimism. The US and the EU have the resources and the capacity to help developing countries decarbonize quickly. To compensate them for the foregone development gains of burning coal a few more decades. To mobilize the vast power of their financial markets, central banks, regulatory agencies, and business communities in service of a global green transition. What they don’t have is the political space to do so. In the US, political dysfunction, polarization, and—frankly—lack of broad-based popular support constrain the ability of the Biden administration to do as much as it’d want to, not just domestically but also in terms of leading the world. The EU fares a little better but is also hamstrung by internal divisions, and in any case lacks the scale to make the move by itself.

But let’s step away from decarbonization for a second. In your work, you’ve been urging people to pay much more attention to what we can do to reduce climate vulnerability on the ground, beyond just cutting emissions. Now, you’re not saying that emission cuts don’t matter. It’s just all the focus and coverage has always been on mitigation, when the real low-hanging fruit lies in preparedness. But the two are not mutually exclusive and we should absolutely be doing both. Do I get that right?

Andrew Revkin

There is no ethical or practical way to cut climate risk—which is the core reason there is an IPCC to begin with—without aggressive work to cut both exposure and vulnerability to climate hazards now (alleviating poverty, promoting access to safe housing and land, restricting dangerous development patterns) and to cut heat-trapping emissions to stop worsening the hazards themselves going forward (extreme heat, flooding, sea rise, etc.).
But building a dual narrative remains a grand challenge. Through most of my 34 years (and counting) of climate reporting, I (like most of my peers) was captured by a narrative that put the change in the climate system, global warming, in the foreground. That was partly because I came at this first as a science writer, and climate change science is an incredibly interesting and consequential body of science. It was partly because the global warming issue grew around existing templates for pollution problems where the solution was at the source—smokestacks and tailpipes. We didn’t address smog with gas masks. And it was partly because giant powerful companies were an easy enemy. Environmental groups raised money and grew big around those framings, and journalists like me thrived, too. Of course, it’s vastly more complicated than that. As I wrote on Monday, “China’s Communist elite hasn’t vaulted that vast country to the top of the global emitters list because of fossil-industry lies.”

Many political and cultural factors have sustained a hyperfocus on cutting climate-heating emissions at the source rather than cutting distributed climate risks. Doing so ignores well established science showing that the rise in losses and damage from climate-related hazards in recent years is still mainly from growing exposure and pockets of deep vulnerability on the ground, not some change in the hazard itself.

Ian Bremmer

Even if the world suddenly found the will to engage in aggressive mitigation starting tomorrow, that wouldn’t help the tens of millions of people who would continue to be exposed to sometimes deadly climate disruption until those emissions cuts materially reduced climate hazards. That would take, what, 15-20 years at least? Or is it the next 30-40 years of hazards that are already locked in? Psychologically and politically, I think it makes a world of difference.

Read the rest here: https://revkin.bulletin.com/857271561579310

Also make sure to watch and weigh in on the invaluable Columbia Climate School Sustain What webcast I just ran: “Code Red for Humanity” – Now What? Meet IPCC Scientists Working That Problem.” Watch below or on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

You’ll hear from authors from the IPCC Sixth Assessment’s three working groups:

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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