What is ‘realistic’ now on climate change? - RSA

What is ‘realistic’ now on climate change?

Press release

  • Climate change
  • Social brain
  • Environment

After the Climate Change talks in Paris, there are now reasons to be optimistic as well as pessimistic about our capacity to deal with climate change. A report published by the RSA says the key question now is what is 'realistic'; how do we make what is possible from an engineering perspective plausible from a political perspective? And how do patterns of investment and reinvestment shape that reality?

This report is the final output in a project comprising a range of public and private events including speakers like Sir David Attenborough, leading climate policy advocates such as Nick Stern and Chris Rapley and poets and comedians like Marcus Brigstocke as well as the world’s future custodians: schoolchildren.

Report author Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre said:

“Climate change is both fiendishly complex and incredibly simple. It has many causes and consequences, but all the talk of emissions and targets obscures the simple fact that the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary driver of the problem. We struggle to face up to our deep dependence on coal gas and oil. It is not politically or economically viable to simply ‘keep it in the ground’ in the short term because we rely on fossil fuel energy to keep the lights on and fuel costs down.

However, if we have any hope on climate change it’s about making that short term as short as possible; that means making an alternative energy future possible, which means developing renewable energy and storage to make it affordable and effective at scale, and quickly. From an engineering perspective this is possible, we just need the requisite cultural change to build political will around it. Since warming is already happening and the window to keep it manageable is rapidly closing, we have to accelerate this transition by speaking in a language everybody understands: money. We need to divest in fossil fuels and reinvest in renewable energy.”

The report discusses optimism, pessimism and the ‘new realism’.

The report says: “The case for optimism is growing, because major leaders in the worlds of science, politics, health, culture, economics and finance are speaking and acting in ways that show the climate penny has dropped, and there is existing and exciting momentum that can be built upon.”

The report cites a number of events in 2015 to support this optimistic view:

  • A report by the IMF suggested fossil fuels were being subsidised to the equivalent of 10m dollars a minute;
  • The Pope issued his encyclical on creation and this statement was the first of many, including collective statements by all the world’s preeminent faiths, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism;
  • Research by Arabella Advisors revealed that $2.6 trillion in assets had already been committed as divestments in fossil fuel stocks, suggesting that the divestment movement is one of the most successful social or environmental movements ever;
  • BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, announced that it is launching a fossil free investment product in early 2016;
  • Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned that rising temperatures was one of the top risks facing the financial services;
  • UN climate executive Christiana Figueres said: “Political will has arrived”.

But the report says: “Political will took its time. And damage has already been done. The case for optimism is genuine and building, but the case for climate pessimism looks every bit as compelling. First, the world is not likely to achieve its main targets, and may not even get close, despite the fact that those targets are generally considered pragmatic rather than ambitious or even safe.”

The report cites reasons to be pessimistic:

  • It would appear that 2 degrees is not enough, it’s not happening and it may not even be possible. Given what we know about 2 degrees probably representing the upper ranges of acceptable risk, it appears likely we are

heading for a scenario with significantly increased hazard and harm;

  • Energy demand is rising rapidly in the developing world and will continue to rise. Global meat and dairy consumption will also increase, a behavioural factor with emissions implications that alone may put 2 degrees out of reach;
  • The hydrocarbon hegemony is weakening, but it is weakening slowly from a position of enormous strength;
  • Climate change is still relatively unimportant to most people and most politicians compared to other issues like the economy or immigration. The emphasis we place on dealing with it always risks being trumped by other issues deemed to be relatively urgent, which makes global resolve to stick to climate commitments questionable.

The New Climate Realism:

The report’s original contribution is to look more deeply about what it means to be ‘realistic’ on climate change, by analysing how divestment shapes reality rather than merely reflects it. Climate realism is now ‘reflexive’ in the sense that the signals we send in response to our understanding of the climate challenge create reality rather than merely reflect it. 

The report says that ‘world to mind’ reality is what you get when you read projections by the international energy agency about continued demand for coal or oil, or read the IPCC forecasts; it evokes optimism and pessimism, but it is a passive assessment. ‘Mind to world’, however, is where the higher quality of realism lies, because there is scope to act in ways that change the conditions of action, whether that’s the price of solar or the presumed indifference to climate change of your political representative. For instance, if the world acts as if the future will be based on renewables and storage, the chance of it beginning to happen is that much greater. For example, it is estimated that every time the volume of solar power doubles, the cost reduces by about 20 percent, a phenomenon known as ‘Swanson’s law’.

The report says that for related reasons, energy and fossil fuel demand projections are not very reliable. The world’s leading technological innovators seem to see the transformation that is occurring and the resulting investment opportunities; Google has committed $1.8bn to renewable energy projects and Apple has invested $3bn in solar facilities. Those investments don’t just reflect a reality of renewable energy, they also create it.

In ‘Money talks: Divest Invest and the battle for climate realism’ the report argues the case for the new climate realism as follows:

  1. The unassailable logic: why minimising climate risk is about doing whatever it takes to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
  2. The unbelievable challenge: why we are deeply dependent on fossil fuels and the requisite speed and scale of decarbonisation is hard to imagine and politically difficult.
  3. The signal that sets the agenda: why the ‘Divest Invest’ campaign and movement is needed to strengthen resolve and quicken the pace of the transition.
  4. The map that yields momentum: why the seven dimensions of climate change perspective (science, law, technology, money, democracy, culture, behaviour) helps to keep us focused and give us hope, by showing how the positive impact of acting in one dimension can have an important knock on effect on the others.

Notes to editors
1. This report is the third in a series of reports on Climate Change from the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, following A New Agenda on Climate Change: facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels in December 2013 and The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: introducing a new way to think, talk and act in January 2015.

2. The Seven Dimensions are defined as follows. There are always a range of voices, interests and agendas in play in discussions around climate change, but most of the phenomena can be captured through the following relationships: Science provides the data that sets the agenda, Law tries to respond with constraints at scale, Technology tells us what’s possible, Money asks what is profitable, Democracy mobilises opinion and argues about what is legitimate, Culture tries to keep us interested and reflects on what is acceptable, and Behaviour wants to know what to do.

3. For more information contact RSA Interim Head of Media Sarah Horner via [email protected] or on 020 7451 6893 / 07799 737970
4. Twitter: @theRSAorg #RSAClimate
5. Website: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/money-talks---divest-invest-and-the-battle-for-climate-realism/

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