The atmosphere does not react to pledges for the future or reports about past achievements. It only reacts to real emission reductions. The research published in Nature last week showing that the pledges by countries to reduce emissions made since the Paris agreement could keep warming within 2C, if met on time, has therefore understandably sparked a series of conflicting reactions. Outrage that even if the promises are met, they don’t come close to 1.5C; and optimism that 2C is such a huge improvement on where we’d be headed without the Paris agreement.
On the one hand, we have to acknowledge this looks very much like failure. A 2C world will not be livable for vast swathes of humanity, and half of the world’s children are already at extremely high risk from the impacts now, including hunger-inducing floods and droughts.
A 2C future may even lead us into conditions that insurers would deem uninsurable for practically all businesses and homes, and that’s only if the pledges are met. There will never be a shortage of excuses for slippage on these promises. The atrocious invasion of Ukraine, which has brought our deadly addiction to Russian oil and gas into shocking view, is just one of them. Short-term arguments to push decarbonisation down the road will always find a way to rise back above the parapet.
On the other hand, we have to agree that this new projection based on national commitments portends a far better outcome than we would get without them. Bending the curve of future emissions down – from 4.5C or higher as it was projected to be in 2015 – to within the stated goal of the agreement would be a huge improvement.
This is a real result stemming from the difficult, intricate and decades-long multilateral process of negotiations as well as from the power of the decreasing costs of clean technologies. The Paris agreement is working, even if not fast enough.
This process has been enabled at every turn by extraordinary momentum for action from all sectors of society, activism of all stripes from all corners of the globe and individual leadership. It’s also just the start: once action unleashed by these commitments begins to really kick in, and the non-state actor community continues pushing their additional pledges, the progress will quickly become exponential.
So we are caught between two truths, and two deep feelings in our bones: outrage and optimism. Both are valid responses and both are necessary.
Those in the community who have contributed to the provenance and ongoing implementation of any commitment to reduce emissions – national or corporate – would do themselves a great service by celebrating the tectonic shift. I know that these pledges are nearly always the result of dogged hard work and determination combined with deep-seated effort to develop a shared understanding and collective action.
Yes, they are not yet enough, but behind each one are individuals who share the increasing pain about the ecological devastation we are witnessing and the anxiety about what we will continue to lose as a result of unambitious choices.
Celebrating what we have on the table so far doesn’t mean we should not continue to challenge the commitments made, ensure their basis in the latest science and call for proper accountability. After all businesses and governments pledging action cheat all of us, including themselves, by saying one thing and doing another. Integrity and transparency must be at the heart of all efforts.
Delving into the current work going on on the ground is absolutely inspiring. I know this first-hand from working closely with the Climate Pledgein which 300 companies are aiming to accelerate solutions to the climate crisis and reach net zero by 2040. There is a treasure trove of future burgeoning possibility, even as we constantly read of new fossil fuel projects the atmosphere cannot afford being developed.
By assuming one reaction or the other – outrage or optimism – we force ourselves into a box. We risk reducing our thinking and acting according to a binary mentality that can drive polarization at a time where acting in solidarity with each other is ever more important.
The complexity of the climate crisis and its solutions mean we need to get used to holding complex emotional reactions, and to pursuing complex solutions. The path ahead will be full of outrage and optimism. We can use both of those to push for the policies we know we need: policies that will enable every commitment and pledge to reduce emissions to be met not just on time, but ahead of schedule.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism