Feature Science

In a single week, the entire story

The recent IPCC admission that we will overshoot 1.5ºC stunned the world. It shouldn't have. It's been an open secret for a while.

The Entry

This column was published in my Medium page July 3, 2017, during a busy week of news stories on climate change. That alone makes it worth reposting here, as we launch The Resilience Journal. The string of stories carries direct relevance to today, particularly given such recent stories as this one and this one, where the IPCC finally admits what has been an open “secret” for some time now: that we can no longer fall short of the feared 1.5ºC and 2ºC temperature threshold.

That brings up an underlying issue readers of this blog should introspect on.

As I connected the dots in the stories below, it dawned on me how remarkable it is that climate believers can be missing the resilience imperative altogether. It’s understandable when a denier misses the beat. I mean, they deny everything incorrigibly. But why are most believers still not getting the inevitability and the urgency? I mean, OK, that was a particularly eye-popping week. But we’re hit with these headlines constantly. Witness the IPCC!

The answer, I think, is the same as applies to the whole question of why there hasn’t been more action on climate change in general.


The Story

Cognitive dissonance has been at the heart of the climate debate for years, or that psychological wall that keeps you from seeing the facts as they are and taking appropriate action. When it comes to climate change, dissonance happens on both ends. Despite overwhelming science, deniers continue to deny, but what is just as troubling, believers continue to hallucinate.

The former insist beyond reason that climate change is not happening. The latter insist beyond comprehension that we can still avoid the dreaded 2ºC global temperature rise above the millennial average, or the more daunting, yet spot on, 1.5ºC favored in the December 2015 Paris Agreement.

Last week treated us to a news feast showcasing the second dissonance brilliantly. Most telling was this story Thursday on the launch of Mission 2020, a valiant effort led by chief Paris believer and negotiator Christiana Figueres. The group assures we have until 2020 to accelerate decarbonization and have a prayer of holding to 1.5ºC and, worst case, 2ºC. But the prescription is a series of well known steps we don’t a prayer of achieving, given the sheer momentum of the global economy and the time those measures will really take.

So there goes that idea. In fact, the ink on Paris was hardly dry when Figueres and most signers were lamenting that the agreement’s voluntary national commitments will overshoot 1.5ºC and allow global temperatures to reach 3.5ºC. Calls went out immediately urging far more aggressive steps to close that 2º gap, the difference between 3.5ºC and the 1.5ºC. That is now the highly improbable, though laudable, Mission 2020 agenda.

It is also the latest reminder of why our attention must now turn with the utmost urgency to prepare for the post-1.5ºC economy and society we will have, scientists say starting in the 2030s, by embracing deep resilience and engaging in the exciting Climate Resilience Economy.

Several other articles last week point us in the same direction. This one from Monday in the New York Times, citing compelling new evidence, says carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are rising even as emissions on the ground are stabilizing. It appears such carbon absorbers as forests and oceans, so wonderful at keeping huge amounts of carbon from spewing upwards, may have reached their absorption limit, forcing us to decarbonize exponentially more than the miracle levels called for by Mission 2020.

Also last Monday, this Washington Post story revealed yet another scientific study showing faster than expected sea level rise, lending further credence to this peer-reviewed blockbuster study last year virtually guaranteeing several meters of sea level rise in the coming decades, well before the end of the century, along with a new-normal era of disruptive monster storms, regardless of what new decarbonization steps are taken under Paris or any other initiative. This piece from Tuesday illustrates where that sea level will take us.

Other studies have established a 10-15 year lag between emissions and temperature rise, which means the latter will happen for decades more, enough to overshoot 1.5ºC in the 2030s and 2ºC in the 2040s, powered only by carbon already in the atmosphere, and boosted like steps on a staircase by El Niños every 2-3 years.

Society- and business-altering climate change, therefore, is locked in. As I said in this November 2015 analysis, a month before Paris, companies, governments and families must plan for what is most likely, not for miracles totally unlikely. And today, that means complementing our mitigation efforts with a relentless focus on adaptation and resilience.

Not that we can or should pull back on or slow mitigation. At all. I always accompany the call for more urgent adaptation, most recently two weeks ago in this column, with an equally emphatic one to proceed and even accelerate decarbonization without pause. It is the only way we’ll keep safely within 3.5ºC, and that alone is a life-saving mission.

But since we can no longer avoid 2ºC, and given the severe and certain damage from climate impacts beyond that point, the time has come for everyone in the mitigation movement, and even more so everyone not yet in the movement, to place resilience higher on the priority list.

To wrap up the rundown from an amazing week of news, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has become the leading high-profile figure pushing adaptation among governments and corporations, last week co-launched the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, or TFCD, a CERES-like group to persuade and pressure large players to report their climate risks and adapt accordingly.

That, too, is part of the Climate Resilience Economy. The risks of inaction are, indeed, high. Lao Tzu said it best: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Changing direction at this juncture means, not just managing risk, but just as importantly capitalizing on boundless adaptation-economy opportunities, as I highlight in this post.

The first step is to break your cognitive dissonance and see resilience as the new game in town that it is. And then to jump right in.

Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent strategist, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor-Publisher of The Resilience Journal and Founder-President of COMMON Future, a climate-adaptation studio scaling game-changing Next Resilience with communications, construction and culture. Alex is also communications adviser to the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and resilience lead at the Puerto Rico chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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