Within the drumbeat of bad decisions, ‘impossible’ is toxic

Correcting the harm of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions habit is an intentional, effortful act of altruism towards the community of living things that will exist on Earth in the future. We know they will feel pain, and so we help them. The planet has already warmed more than one degree relative to pre-industrial temperatures because many people in the past decided not to help us. And thanks to the relentless drumbeat of bad decisions made by people today, we’re on track for far worse.

The climate problem exists because humans made it exist. It continues because people make it continue. That is the ‘anthro’, in anthropogenic climate change.

Those decisions are spread across us all, but some bear a heavier weight than others. Relative to the world’s billions, I am a wealthy individual who has taken overseas flights, driven a privately-owned fossil car, and lived in three countries that each benefited from burning or selling (or both) eye-watering quantities of fossil fuels. I am worse than my relatives living in India, but I am nowhere near as bad as the CEO of a fossil fuel company, whose personal lifestyle choice has been to wake up every day and powerfully facilitate the worsening of the greatest threat our species has faced. These people have personal carbon footprints that eradicate species and extinguish human life.

The worse the decisions, the greater the emissions, and the worse the impacts. That probably isn’t entirely linear, and the exact details of how bad the outcomes are for every additional molecule of greenhouse gas we plunge into the sky and sea are fuzzy, because some climate impacts involve the release of additional emissions, feeding back into the cause of the problem. No, we have not yet ‘tipped’ the system past the point of no return, but yes, this threat should increase the urgency of emissions reductions.

Everything in climate action boils down deciding to not emit. That means not digging up fossil fuels in the first place, dismantling the infrastructure used to move them around, creating cheap replacements for the functions they serve, removing the existing greenhouse gases from the sky as much as we can and doing all of these things as fast as possible while respecting the rights, livelihoods and safety of all of the humans involved in the greatest transition our species has ever undergone (don’t forget shielding the entire process from bad-faith delay from the fossil industry and avoiding the worsening of pre-existing social ills).

A problem created by human agency is a problem that can be resolved by human agency. Climate change is a disaster created by decisions. Nothing in the span of time that will exist after you finish this sentence is locked in. If you subscribe to the idea that we, with effort, can change or be made to change – the ability to choose one pathway over another – you believe that the harm of fossil fuel usage can be brought down far, far lower than what will happen if we continue on our current path. There is no ceiling on this philosophy, no end point to willpower and struggle. There is only a spectrum of difficulty, and the ticking clock of atmospheric physics.

A recent report from a major Australian scientific organisation said something that I feel grinds against this view, and I really need to explain why it bugs me.

All but doomed

In 2015, the world’s governments and expert bodies came to the conclusion that we ought to aim to limit the world’s temperatures, certainly to well below 2 degrees and preferably around 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Climate scientists can calculate the quantity of climate-warming gases (greenhouse gases, or GHGs) could be released by us to push the planet past that 1.5 ‘preferred’ point. In a recent report, Australia’s key science organisation, the Academy of Science, did the math on how many gigatonnes are left, and declared that:

“After decades of insufficient action to reduce GHG emissions, the emission budget for the 1.5°C target has shrunk to a range of 40–135 Gt C. Limiting the temperature rise to the lower Paris Agreement target (1.5°C) is exceedingly difficult, and with only three or four more years of emissions at current levels remaining, the target has become virtually impossible to achieve”

I wasn’t sure why at the time, but this was like nails down a chalkboard to me. It’s muddled language but there is a common theme – the Science Academy describes a 1.5C ambition as “virtually impossible”, “exceedingly difficult” and “extremely unlikely” in three different places. The conclusion is simple: if something is very hard, then it can’t be done.

It was understandably interpreted in the media as such – not as a signifier of a massive summoning effort required to meet a goal, but a marker of doom and failure:

The message is simple: there is nothing we can do to prevent a global temperature rise of this level. We are ‘all but doomed’ to surpass this. If something is ‘virtually impossible’, you don’t dedicate time, effort or money to doing it – the tiny pixel of probability is so small you may as well treat it as impossible. Some even argue that the ‘virtually’ is a pointless concession – just admit that limiting warming to that target is as unthinkable as time travel or teleporation.

Nothing virtual

The differences between 1.5C of fossil fuel impacts and 2C of fossil fuel impacts are substantial. As explained in the 2018 report by the IPCC, a global climate body, falling back to 2C allows for a massive increase in climate impacts, particularly on countries in the Global South.

The people in those countries haven’t had a big say in the debate about “impossibility”. “The report finds that significant climate impacts already occur at 1.5˚C, especially in regards to low-lying areas, human health and oceans. The impacts will hit the poor and most vulnerable the hardest due to loss of livelihoods, food insecurity, population displacement, health effects and more”, writes the World Resources Institute.

The implication in the Science Academy’s report is that every human being that will decide the fate of those remaining gigatonnes will make a specific decision, and there is nothing we can do to stop them. Therefore, the stretch target of the Paris climate agreement has failed, and we must engage in a tactical retreat to preventing worse impacts.

The math has fuzzy edges

You may have heard the sometimes-criticised phrase that we have ‘only 12 years left’ to tackle climate change. That emerged in 2018, based on roughly the same concept: if we keep going at current levels, how long until we emit so much it makes 1.5C of warming unavoidable? This Science Academy report is the same as that, except, it comes up with 3 to 4 years instead.

The math underpinning this threshold has been met with criticism from other climate researchers. This great, detailed piece in Guardian Australia by Graham Readfern and Adam Morton details that disagreement, and I hope you exit my post and go and read it in full, if you can. Dig into this debate on Twitter and you’ll drown in noodly charts and acronyms, but you’ll also learn quite a lot about the range of views on this.

The key point of contention: what is the magic number of gigatonnes that’ll tip the planet over 1.5C? The answer is that we don’t know, but we can guess a range. Pick the lowest of the low end, and we probably are doomed. Pick anywhere higher, and we’re in with a chance. ‘Going past’ 1.5C also has a bunch of caveats too – you can overshoot but fall below later.

As nearly everyone involved points out, it doesn’t matter what the damn target is. We need to be pushing down on the threat with all our might, just as we do for COVID19 (“We’re aiming for fewer than 100 deaths per day by April” isn’t something you hear much). “Climate change isn’t a cliff we fall off, but a slope we slide down”, writes climate scientist Kate Marvel.

It’s true, but every corporate, government and international climate thing still uses the language and metrics of the 2015 Paris agreement. So until that changes, the way we talk about thresholds matters really a whole lot. And even within a ‘harm reduction’ frame of climate discourse, a massive brick wall of impenetrable impossibility that appears along the slope we slide down is still a problem.

There is a confusion about potential action

One constant problem that keeps coming up in discussion around this is that there are many reports and analyses that say that if we stick with our current levels of screwing around with insufficient action and weak pledges, we’ll badly overshoot not just 1.5C but far higher levels. It is conditional on the assumption that there is no change to what we’re doing now.

But the Science Academy report does not include that caveat. It is not “virtually impossible at our current pledged levels” – it is just virtually impossible. That absence of clarity means some people interpreted it as ‘we’re screwed unless we do more’, and others interpreted it as ‘we’re screwed because we’ll never do more’.

In 2017, Glen Peters, a researcher at Norway’s CICERO climate centre wrote a detailed blog post that steps out the towering hurdles that need to be leapt over in global unison to achieve the stretch goals of the Paris climate agreement. It is a clear explanation of how wildly difficult it is to not just stay below 1.5, but below 2 degrees, too:

“First, policy will move along slower than expected because politicians have to balance competing objectives, and it is hard to see that climate will be the policy area that trumps all others.

Second, I am confident we will make technological progress in key areas, with government and business support, but I am less confident we can retire existing fossil fuel infrastructure at the required rates.

Third, carbon dioxide removal technologies are technically feasible, but I am sceptical that we can reach the scale of carbon dioxide removal required.

And finally, the most challenging mitigation will be in the countries that most desperately need economic growth”

Many of Glen’s 2017 concerns have remained entirely relevant. Fossil fuel infrastructure is still hanging around, and policy still lags. Carbon dioxide removal tech remains mostly nascent. Developing countries are toying with the idea of leapfrogging fossil fuels, but with patchy outcomes. A lot has happened in four years – far more than anyone anticipated – but it is not yet enough.

Regardless, nothing on Glen’s list impossible, nor is it even that far from reach. Everything on that list could be decided into existence, with the right application of effort from society, from leaders, from business and from activists.

It’s important to consider the reasons why this hasn’t happened yet, despite plenty of constant effort from activists, campaigners and various other climate and energy people. Here’s a big one: the fossil fuel industry is amazingly good at recognising threats to their revenue streams and stamping them out with speed and aggression.

We have been bullied into believing in the inevitability of fossil fuels

‘Possible’ is culturally defined. What is in our toolbox to reduce emissions? Every one of us can only imagine a particular sub-set of tools. Often, what we imagine is related to the depth of change in society we’re willing to accept. Some of us shudder at the thought of even the slightest shift to society; others see major, fundamental changes as the clear pathway to emissions reductions.

Recently, the global fossil fuel giant Shell released their own vision of the future. It’s pretty simple: they mostly keep selling oil and gas, it keeps getting burned when bought, and Shell builds a rainforest around seven god damn times the size of bloody Brazil.

Is it virtually impossible that the handful of humans in charge at Shell could decide to stop supplying the cause of climate change? If any powerful decision maker flippantly deciding to worsen the heating of our only home is chained to a deterministic fate, can any of them be held responsible for the chain of catastrophe that their behaviour leads to?

The fossil fuel industry is really, really good at ensuring we don’t wander too far into imagining a world without them. They’ll only allow the imagery of darkness, caves and suffering, in an abusive effort to paint their absence as terrifying. By arguing against an ‘instantaneous’ switch-off of oil and gas, and presenting an extremely slow transition as the only alternative, fossil fuel companies (and associated government bodies) monopolise imagination and cauterise the conversation. They are extremely good at this.

The inverse has played out too, where the growth of zero carbon power sources like wind and solar were portrayed as grid-destroying, electricity-bill-increasing harbingers of doom and darkness. It turns out they’ve become cheap as chips and integrating them in massive volumes in grids is completely feasible. Climate inaction to date has been built on a paper-thin substructure of fear and lies, and we discover the depth of these lies every single day. You can read about the taxonomy of these ‘discourse of delay’ here.

This is important. The physical mass of emissions that could be released into the skies and seas – that would tip us over into global temperatures above 1.5C – is comprised of a clump of decisions made by people, many of whom operate with full agency and awareness of their actions. And when you start drilling down into the messed up, clumsy and terrible decisions being made today, the idea that it’s impossible to avoid them becomes truly silly.

Australia’s biggest polluter and its impossible coal shutdown

Let’s gaze on a recent, perfect example. Australia’s worst corporate emitter, AGL Energy, owns a bunch of very big coal-fired power stations and is responsible for a gargantuan 8% of Australia’s entire domestic emissions. The technology to fully replace their massive, bloated and aging coal plants with zero-emissions alternatives not only already exists in Australia, it’s already cheaper than coal.

We know that for Australia’s electricity sector to align with a 1.5C global climate target, coal needs to be shut down in nine years. It’s a rapid change, but not that rapid, compared to the previous decade. It can definitely be done, if the current trajectory of too-slow change is corrected.

So, what do AGL say about this? Will they shut down their coal plants early? That’s a big hearty ‘no‘. Why? The company claims they’re needed for “reliability”, and that they couldn’t act unilaterally without coal phase-out legislation. The former is wrong – we know that coal basically doesn’t need to exist on grids anymore. The UK’s proportion of coal has fallen to near zero; a non-dramatic end to decades of uncritically broadcast scaremongering about a life without coal. The latter is ludicrous in the knowledge of how easy it is for a fossil fuel company to dictate government legislation when it puts its damn mind to it.

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This has been going on for a while

AGL are trying to escape scrutiny for this decision. They recently announced a restructure, cleaving off their retail arm from their coal arm. That was hailed across several media outlets as a truly wonderful moment of climate action, despite it being a smiling, happy, conscious and totally self-aware decision to breach alignment with a 1.5C target.

AGL are even bold enough to release their own scenarios, including a 1.5 compatible one, and simply shrug it off. There’s no secret here, no dastardly hiding behind misleading numbers. They know what they need to do to align with a 1.5C target, they know they are Australia’s biggest corporate polluter by a gargantuan margin, and they simply choose not to fix it. This wasn’t a ‘discourse of delay’ – this was, in Australian parlance, ‘Yeah………..nah’.

Perhaps they sat down at a table and asked if they’d get even the slightest scrutiny for announcing a plan to breach climate targets, correctly predicted a solid ‘NOPE’, and ticked the ‘keep burning coal scenarios’ box. Even if they keep their coal plants running for another three decades, they still get to claim alignment with ‘net zero’:

from here

Is it impossible for AGL to choose not to run their coal plants until I’m 65? No, it is not. They are choosing this path because within Australia, there is no underlying corporate or political pressure in Australia to align with an ambitious climate goal. There is no deep, baked-in understanding of the urgency of action, or the consequences of failure.

When the IPCC’s 2018 ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C’ was released, Australia’s government responded by (a) suggesting the 91 scientists behind the report had made a huge mistake and (b) aggressively rejecting the idea of phasing out coal by 2050 (yes, twenty-bloody-fifty). “Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasised it was not a report specifically for Australia, but for the whole world”, despite Australia being, I’m pretty sure, inside the actual world.

Deciding to dig up the cause of climate change

As another example of conscious decisions to breach climate targets, companies within Australia are planning a massive expansion of the supply of both coal and gas, and neither major political party is the least bit interested in doing anything about it. Here’s the eye-watering list of planned new and extended coal mines in Australia, from the latest government ‘resources and energy quarterly’:

Are the men in suits in charge of decisions at these companies bound by some immutable biological law? Is it impossible, or so close to impossible that they could ever stop, or be stopped, through some external force like activism or divestment or shareholder pressure or a collapse in demand for the fossil fuel product? Are they a train on deterministic rails, or a boat in an ocean, buffeted by winds but with the power to trace a path?

I want to give you an international example (I left Australia two years ago physically but not professionally). The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an influential global think tank that produces highly regarded forecasts of the future. Those forecasts often predict a long, slow decline for fossil fuels and as such, are frequently cited by fossil fuel companies. For some time, a range of activists and experts have been pleading with them to include a scenario for constraining world temperatures to 1.5C and in 2020, they begrudgingly included a limited net zero by 2050 scenario, walled off in its own section and pointedly absent from the fundamental heart of the report. But hey, it was something, right?

Except, later in 2020, the IEA also released ‘coal report‘, written with heavy involvement from coal industry players, which predicted coal would easily exceed the 1.5C scenario. The IEA made no mention of this – bringing it back to a 1.5C target was left to us, the Weary Wonks of Twitter.

People are choosing to worsen climate change, and they are not paying any price for being completely open about it. This is because it is hard to change decisions, particularly in fossil-saturated countries like Australia. The cultural, political and corporate stagnation continues despite the literal manifestation of the consequences, like Australia’s Black Summer bushfires of 2020. But we are not done trying: the failures of the past do not prove the impossibility of change. We have never faced a threat like this before.

Every future mass of emissions will have the provenance of human feelings. Decisions made in the heady brew of politics, culture and economics. Individuals with friendships and worldviews and fears and loves. Every molecule is stamped with a stack of human decisions that led to its transfer from the crust of Earth into the sky and the sea. That makes change hard, and fast change extremely hard. But not impossible.

How to decide to stop causing climate change

There is no chance that everyone involved in the decisions that create this problem – from CEOS to politicians to people and communities – will leap in precisely the same direction, in a magical moment of quantum randomness. The shift in decision making must be engineered through effort. This is what climate action is.

Thank you, Katsuragi

The IPCC’s 2018 1.5C report starts with a quote: ”Pour ce qui est de l’avenir, il ne s’agit pas de le prévoir, mais de le rendre possible“  – Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Citadelle, 1948. Roughly, ‘As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it’.

A lot of things need to change, fundamentally, to shift the ugly probabilities we’re carrying on our weary backs right now.

The centrality of hand-wringing about GDP and economic growth almost always serve as a counter to climate efforts, as Australia demonstrates nicely; that needs to change. Treating PR-heavy greenwashing fossil fuel companies as if they’ve had some revelation about climate action is a destructive act – they are simply re-framing their decades-long effort to pollute as much as possible before they’re held down with sufficient force. The ‘net zero’ plans of countries and companies need to be more than scrutinised – they need to be blowtorched at 2,000 degrees. Short term actions need to be the new test of ambition. Most corporate and country climate plans are empty shells, and that too needs to change.

There has been a problematic inversion between political feasibility and human safety. The sheer urgency of climate action has been watered down to accommodate the assumed hard boundaries of change. But within that space, the fossil fuel industry made their bed – taking that instinct of political caution and aggressively weaponising it to worsen the emissions problem. The realm of what is possible on climate has been populated by the fossil fuel industry, and their paper-thin fabrications. That really needs to change.

Fossil fuel companies currently get the sole and single vote on what’s feasible, when it comes to reducing emissions. They have captured culture, politics, money and society. They are lying about how much we need them, and how fast we can rid ourselves of them, and their lies are widely believed. They decide the gradient of the slope we slide down, and that needs to change.

The replacements for the services provided by fossil fuels all have the potential to be far more than just replacements – they can be transformational, curing the ills of the past and healing the hurt of our crisis-ridden era. Post-COVID19 recovery policies hold the key to 1.5. Make climate action something inherently desirable – not just desirable in a shiny-Tesla way but a curing-deep-societal-wounds sort of way – and everything will move faster, because we will demand change, and participate in it, instead of just flicking between passively accepting its presence or loathing it. That needs to change.

To define any decision on emissions as impossible to avoid is a total surrender to the forces causing this problem. It is a direct betrayal of people living in regions vulnerable to climate impacts. In amalgam, 1.5C is exceedingly difficult, vanishingly unlikely and harder than anything our species has faced before. But in its components, a stack of fucking awful decisions enabled by a shitty political and corporate culture that is arrogantly disconnected from the physics of our only home, it is very, very far from impossible to prevent.

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