Almost a month after UN Secretary General António Guterres called upon Member States for more ambitious climate action in the face of the urgent existential threat of global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a somber, yet unsurprising, report showing the dire state of the environment in which we live. The report focused on the disastrous effects of making the climate 1.5-degrees Celsius hotter than it was in pre-industrial times and the extreme unlikeliness of preventing the increase. It also called for the near termination of burning fossil fuels, like coal, and the use green-house gases. According to the Huff Post, “by 2050, emissions need to hit net zero. Failing to do so would be cataclysmic.”
Although climate change is an existential threat to all of humanity, the imminence of its effects differ based on geography and socioeconomic status. The IPCC conducted its report as a response by the small islands of the United Nations to the Paris Agreement that aimed to prevent a 2-degree increase. For they would be devastated by a 1.5 degree increase. Carolyn Kormann, of The New Yorker, states that “for the citizens of small island countries and other vulnerable places in the tropics and the Arctic, even two degrees of warming would be a death sentence.”
Small islands and coastal populations in places like Puerto Rico and Bangladesh are experiencing a catastrophic rise in sea level and extreme weather significantly sooner than the United States and China, the nations responsible for the overwhelming majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and burning of fossil-fuel. Professor Kevin Anderson from the University of Manchester stated in a blog post that “almost 50% of global carbon emissions arise from the activities of around 10% of the global population, increasing to 70% of emissions from just 20% of citizens.”
The IPCC report, and most mainstream conceptions, frames the issue of climate change as if no particular entities, be it country, company, or individual, is responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that have and are continuing to destroy the Earth’s environments. Rather, the scientists of the IPCC discuss it as if we as a human species are collectively responsible for its occurrence and prevention. Other than being simply untrue, the notion of collective responsibility is counter-productive. This leads to a strange phenomenon where the greatest perpetrators can claim the bystander effect and those who bear insignificant responsibilities can stress over CNN’s suggestions about “what consumers can do.”
Until the IPCC (and society more generally) are prepared to acknowledge the huge asymmetry in consumption and hence emissions, temperatures will continue to rise beyond 1.5 and 2°C – bequeathing future generations the climate chaos of 3°C, 4°C or even higher. – Professor Kevin Anderson.
The scientist Jim Skea, who, according to Kate Aronoff of The Intercept, is a “chair of one of the IPCC working groups that crafted the report [stated that] hitting that target [of preventing a 1.5-degree increase] ‘is possible within the laws of physics and chemistry.’” However, that is not an answer which inspires well-founded optimism, since in the case of climate change the political is a locked gate blocking the possibilities within the laws of physics and chemistry, and the radical changes in the lifestyles of the wealthiest people in the wealthiest nations will almost certainly not occur. Especially if the most popular ideas about how to prevent a 1.5-degree increase are themselves not radical.
According to Aronoff, when the authors of the report were asked “whether carbon pricing alone could get the job done, several working group members laughed.” The problem of climate change cannot be approached using exclusively ideological free market logic, as conservatives, Shell, and Exxon Mobil would like to claim. Radical action needs to be taken in order to prevent the suffering of millions of people and animals, and these actions need to be outside Neoliberal modes. Greta Thurnberg, a 15-year-old activist who walks out of school every Friday to protest outside of a Swedish Parliament building, told Masha Gessen that “the politics that’s needed to prevent the climate catastrophe—it doesn’t exist today. We need to change the system, as if we were in crisis, as if there were a war going on.”
The IPCC report makes apparent that without an immediate radical change in available political possibilities, the world will become warmer by significantly more than the staggering 1.5 degrees. Those who are responsible for the destruction of the earth’s environment need to be held accountable rather than remain in power. Like Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout, politicians should “have pledged not to take money from fossil fuel companies and… [promise] instead to prosecute them.” For only through identifying the United States and fossil fuel companies as those who are primarily bringing about the existential threat of climate change, and demanding that they take responsibility, can imminent doom be prevented.