Event summary by Shobhan Dhir
Covid-19 has sparked the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, and has dramatically altered our way of life for the foreseeable future. Given the pressure governments are under to keep people safe and recover the economy, what will be the implications of this crisis on climate policy going forward? How will future climate negotiations be impacted? And what are the most effective climate policies which are viable in this new political climate, and could any actually facilitate economic recovery?
Professor Jim Skea is the Co-chair of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), leading their work on climate change mitigation. The IPCC is the world's highest authority on climate change science - advising governments on all scientific information related to climate change, its impacts, and its mitigation so they can develop effective climate policy. Jim Skea is also Professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College London's Centre for Environmental Policy, and he was a founding member of the UK's Committee on Climate Change.
Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change, holding a joint chair at Manchester and Uppsala University. He was also the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He has contributed to the development of Paris-compliant carbon budgets for Sweden, and his analysis contributed to the framing of the UK’s Climate Change Act and the development of national carbon budgets.
Jim opened by saying how most of us are interested in how Covid will affect the climate agenda, but that policymakers are interested in the reverse – how will climate action support a response to Covid-19, especially the economic recovery as we come out of lockdown? He explains that policymakers are looking for three key things from actions in a recovery:
Jim then explained that there are a host of climate actions which fit these criteria, such as retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient, tree planting and restoration, and rearranging urban landscapes to encourage more active travel, such as cycling. However, he noted that many of the worst hit sectors are the most carbon-intensive, such as airlines and car manufacturers, and that these industries will also be queuing at the doors of government to make their case for support. Therefore, cases for a green recovery need to be made very effectively. He identified five key priorities:
Kevin’s presentation focused on how Covid-19 demonstrates the inequalities which exist in our society, and the ways the system ought to change in the aftermath, where recovery from Covid-19 should be seen as an opportunity for change. He drew on the ideas of Robert Tressel, understanding key workers as the ‘Ragged Philanthropists’ of the modern day. Originally these ‘ragged philanthropists’ referred to those whose toil, struggles, and often mortal sacrifices working in the factories, built the modern world. Now, Kevin argued that the term could be used to speak about today’s Covid-19 key workers who give up their time, health and often their life, to save the high emitters of today.
One of the most stark facts from Kevin’s presentation was that 50% of all CO2 emissions are caused by the richest 10% of the world’s population. If regulations forced the top 10% of global emitters to reduce their carbon footprint to that of the average EU citizen (hardly too onerous a demand) - and the other 90% of the population made no change, we would reduce global emissions by a third. The pledges submitted under the Paris agreement are projected to result in almost no emissions reduction by 2030, demonstrating how resistant our societies are to changing the lifestyle of the high emitters and how committed to maintaining the status quo. Kevin said this needs to change: labour and resources spent furnishing the lifestyle of the high emitters must be used elsewhere, and these high consumers must change their lifestyles. Kevin concluded by saying we need new narratives on:
The feasibility and risk of carbon capture and storage (CCS) being used by policymakers as an excuse to avoid early action was addressed, with Jim explaining we need to throw everything at the problem. He said he doesn’t see how we can get to Net Zero without removing something from the atmosphere, as some sources of emissions are very difficult to eliminate. Kevin, however, warned of the significantly higher lifecycle emissions from CCS at power stations, with these being many times higher than that of renewables or nuclear, demonstrating that this technology is still far too high in emissions to be compliant with the Paris Agreement. However, for cement, CCS could be very effective. He said direct capture is preferable, but that CCS is a long way off. He also said we should address mitigation policies on the assumption that CCS won’t work, due the high uncertainty involved with the technology at large scale, and the number of feedbacks in the climate system. He also identified the fact that every pound spent on CCS is an opportunity cost elsewhere.
On the topic of stimulus policies, both agreed regulations are very effective and should be pushed. Jim provided the example policy of ‘no gas going into homes after 2023/24’, a tool that can really shift the system to electrify. He also added that with oil prices so low, it is a great time to add a carbon price without consumer resistance. Kevin had a much greater preference for regulation rather than prices, because prices don’t give as definite an outcome. He spoke of setting maximum CO2 emissions limits for fossil fuel companies and car manufacturers, which are reduced each year, letting the companies identify the best way to achieve this. Both agreed that all policies need to be screened for social equity.
On the question of what people can do whilst waiting for leaders to act, Jim said flying less and eating less meat are the two biggest things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. Kevin said we should not wait for leadership, but must see ourselves as part of the process of leadership. We should all take an active role discussing with friends, families, and colleagues; and engaging at the local and national level or on social media, adding our ideas and thoughts to the debate. He added that the leadership of the last 30 years has collectively failed, as we have not succeeded in mitigating climate change, and are not on track, so we need input and leadership from young people on how to make change.
On how to impact high consumers without affecting ‘Tressel’s workers’, Kevin said frequent flier levies with geometric pricing would work, producing a situation where ticket prices rapidly increase with the number of tickets purchased. Also, standards such as limitations on the size of homes could work. Jim said we need to be careful about unintended consequences, for example people with multiple passports taking advantage of flying levies. Finally both emphasised the critical importance of taking a risk-based approach in assessing climate change solutions and policies, rather than a cost-benefit analysis, which fails for large scale issues with complex variables. Jim said the IPCC have been firm that cost-benefit analyses does not help with climate change policy.
To hear a more in depth exploration of the impacts of Covid-19 on Climate Policy and for many more fascinating discussions and questions, head to our YouTube channel for the event video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGxOxiCFJ3A&t=4926s
By Laura Watson
As Europe begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and potentially lean towards a green recovery, the immediate and longer term impacts of a warming world must be considered. While we learned in a recent blog post about the interaction between climate change and disease, climate change also poses a range of other health threats for a large part of the global population. Most of the information presented below comes from a recent review of climate change and mental health.
Physical implications of warming temperatures
Warmer temperatures can have many physiological impacts. It is thought that the optimum temperature for humans is around 22oC, while exposure to higher temperatures can directly impact biochemical levels in the body. For example, differing levels of heat change the amounts of key neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine found in the body. High temperatures can also disrupt human temperature regulation mechanisms.
Mental implications of warming temperatures
Beyond the physical impacts, warming temperatures can also affect mental health at differing rates and times, causing a variety of impacts. Heat stress, for instance, is typically brought about by heat waves, and is associated with anxiety and mood disorders.
In warmer temperatures, people experience higher levels of discomfort, which leads to an increase in aggressiveness and hostile behaviour. Empirical evidence shows that hotter cities experience higher levels of violence than cooler cities, a phenomenon which is likely compounded further by the urban heat island effect.
However, a caveat must be issued along with these findings, because heat stress and the implications of higher temperatures can be influenced by a wide range of cultural, social, political, and behavioural factors. Another factor which adds to the complexity of investigating the relationship of temperature and mental health is the wide variation in levels of exposure to high temperatures between groups across the world, making it more difficult to assess the relationship between the two.
Expansion of areas and people experiencing high temperatures
The decade between 2010-19 experienced exceptionally high temperatures, and the month of May, 2020 was one of the warmest and sunniest on record. As of June 2019, Europe had experienced 5 500-year summers over the course of 15 years (meaning record breaking temperatures were experienced during those years). For a continent not expecting to experience such high temperatures, the implications were devastating. The 2003 heat wave was the most deadly, with 70,000 deaths attributed to the extremely high summer temperatures. Since then, medical services have become more prepared, but high temperatures continue to be dangerous, especially in areas less prepared for them.
This is compounded by the urban heat island effect, wherein urban areas are much warmer than their rural surroundings. This is caused by the energy produced by so many people concentrated in a relatively small area, as well as the way urban infrastructure tends to trap heat. People in cities frequently experience higher temperatures than forecasts predict, and night-time temperatures in cities often don’t fall as much as they would be expected to. The urban heat island effect intensifies the impact of increasing heat waves on cities with climate change.
Tropical economies (before COVID-19) were growing 20% faster than the rest of the world. This means that more people will be living in areas experiencing high temperatures, at the same time as the temperatures in these regions are rising. Rural to urban migration means that there will be an increased number of people exposed to high temperatures and heat stress.
Overall, it seems that climate change has impacts beyond the atmospheric and oceanic systems, and can affect mental and physical health in ways we are only just starting to discover.
Event summary by Luke Hatton
“Climate Emergency” was declared as the word of the year in 2019 by Oxford Dictionaries, as the phrase’s popularity soared from relative obscurity into one of the most prominent terms of the year. Scientists have known for decades that climate change poses a significant threat to the world and society, but 2019 seemed to represent a shift in awareness of the urgency of the situation in the mind of the wider world.
There’s no doubt about it—the situation is dire, and action must be taken swiftly if we are to limit climate change to the ‘safe’ level of 1.5 degrees Celsius. But does climate change really represent a ‘major threat to civilisation’, in the words of the 2020 Doomsday Clock Statement? Does it merit moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock (a measure of threats to humanity and the planet, founded in 1945 by scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons) closer to the midnight apocalypse than ever?
We invited three expert panellists, David Wallace-Wells, Zeke Hausfather and Luke Kemp, to shed some light on whether climate change truly poses an existential risk to human life as we know it.
David is the Deputy Editor of New York magazine, where he writes frequently about climate change and the near future of technology. His cover story from July 2017, surveying the landscape of worst-case scenarios for global warming, became the most-read story the magazine has ever published, and his book on this topic, The Uninhabitable Earth, is a Sunday and New York Times Bestseller.
Primarily, David said he viewed the question of whether climate change poses an existential risk as more of a semantic question; it really does depend on what you mean by the word existential. Practically speaking, he doesn’t think that the threats some climate activists warn of, such as civilisational collapse over the course of the century, are likely.
In some regions, there will be—and indeed there already is—a literal threat to existence due to climate change, with many people dying from climate-related catastrophes. He warns that we have already reached a level of warming today—estimated at over 1℃ above pre industrial levels—where our lives and our society are being shaped by these forces, with increased risk of droughts, hurricanes and mass migration already being seen as a result of climate change. Practically speaking, a 2℃ rise from pre-industrial levels is the best possible outcome we can hope for, but even this could result in hundreds of millions of climate refugees, an additional 150m deaths from air pollution, and summer temperatures that cause heat death or stroke in some regions.
Political institutions will be challenged in ways that require us to renovate, reform or rebuild them to cope with this 2℃ world, David added, with the shape of life in a time of intense climate change depending not only on the physical warming, but the institutions we build and the protections we put in place to support human flourishing. To some degree, the nature of our existence will be preserved, but the lives of our children and grandchildren may well be unrecognizable.
We are very far from the curtains coming down and all life on Earth ending from climate change, but we are fooling ourselves by thinking about this in binary terms. We live in a world transformed by global warming and have the opportunity to shape the future of all human life on the planet by choosing to adapt and respond today. Our existence is already being shaped by the climate—the question we must act to answer is how far along that spectrum we will fall.
Zeke is a climate scientist and energy systems analyst whose research focuses on observational temperature records, climate models and mitigation technologies. He has spent 10 years working in the cleantech sector, and currently is the Director of Climate and Energy at the Breakthrough Institute and the US analyst for Carbon Brief.
Zeke began by suggesting that we can all agree that climate change isn’t going to cause the extinction of the human race. Humanity is a remarkably adaptable species, and has spread to the most extreme environments on the planet. However, climate change can and will have a huge impact on society, and could act as an existential risk multiplier, amplifying the impact of other shocks to society, he warned.
The work being done in the lead up to the next report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is dividing the ability to adapt to climate change and the magnitude of climate change itself into separate scenarios so the two can be compared. As it turns out, Zeke explained, the worst case for climate change is not necessarily the one with the most warming. The worst case will be a world that is relatively poor and unequal, rife with nationalism, isolationism and conflict, coupled with a high degree of warming. This is a world where institutions and governments are weak, and where climate change could tip civilisations into collapse. Echoing David’s point, he explained that the strength of society and institutions will play a strong role in whether climate change can pose an existential risk.
However, Zeke warned of the risk of framing climate change in terms of extinction, as this can be reductive and lead to doom-ism with regard to climate action. Scientists now argue more with doom-ists than climate sceptics, and defeatism around climate change is dangerous.
From a scientific perspective, there is certainly a lot that is unknown about climate systems, but the best models do not tend to indicate a strong significance for tipping points (that is, the risk of reaching a level of warming that sets off a domino effect of positive feedback, significantly raising the warming past the initial level), at least on a global scale. Global warming is largely a function of cumulative emissions, a pretty linear relationship—certainly not containing a strong tipping point that could turn the climate crisis into a climate catastrophe.
Overall, the world certainly isn’t moving in the direction we need fast enough, Zeke said, but it has come far in the last two decades. 20 years ago it looked quite possible that emissions would double or even triple by the end of the century, while ten years ago China was building a coal-fired power station every two days. Ten years later, in 2013, global coal peaked, and has fallen ever since, while renewables are increasingly becoming the cheapest form of energy in many places. We’re moving towards a ‘muddling through’ world right now, where we’re avoiding 4-5℃ but are very far from the best case outcome of 1-2℃. This will be catastrophic for some human and natural systems but it is less likely to pose an existential threat to society than the unconstrained world we were on track for.
Luke is a Research Associate with the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, where he looks at past civilisation collapses to guide present policy. He is also an honorary lecturer in environmental policy at the Australian National University (ANU), holds a PhD in international relations and was previously a senior economist at Vivid Economics.
The blunt answer, Luke began, is that climate change does pose an existential threat. Above three degrees of warming we are running in the dark, and have to rely on geological records to work out what could happen. There is a lack of interest amongst scientists in looking at the outcomes for large temperature increases and worst case scenarios, as people tend to err on the side of the least drama. Unfortunately, there is not enough information to base conclusions on.
It's useful to define what an existential risk is when examining it with regard to climate change, Luke explained. Professor Nick Bostrom defines it as the annihilation of earth-originating intelligent life and/or permanent drastic curtailment of human potential. The easy way to think about this is to think of a global civilisation collapse, with the destruction of most critical systems, the failure of many states and drastic loss of social complexity. With a 2℃ rise, already most atoll and small islands nations are likely to become uninhabitable.
Luke set out four reasons why we can consider climate change as an existential risk;
Given the unknowns and uncertainties with regard to climate change - it would be bad risk management to not think about the worst case scenario, Luke concluded.
To hear a more in-depth examination of the question of whether climate change poses an existential risk, and to hear the answers to the questions posed by the audience, head to our YouTube channel, where a copy of the panel discussion has been uploaded: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ah1pLU10o_U.
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