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Staying Below 2°C — What’s Realistic?

There is a lot of talk these days about realistic scenarios for limiting climate change to below 2°C.  Realistic scenarios are often practical, sensible, and potentially true to life. What is realistic versus what is possible, however, depends on our understandings of change. How does change really happen? More important, how does conscious change influence what we consider to be realistic scenarios?

Changing scenarios
One would think that we have plenty of knowledge to answer these questions. A Google search on the word change brings up about 3.59 billion results, and refining the search to conscious change limits the results to a mere 22.3 million.

“A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself.”
(Donella Meadows, 1999)

There is widespread talk of political change, technological change, economic change and social change, and an enormous and lucrative industry that has been built around personal change. Yet if we know so much about change, why is the climate changing faster than we are?

To avoid a high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally by the end of this century, we need to transform at a scale and extent that seems daunting or overwhelming to almost everyone who is concerned about climate change. Can it actually be done?  We know that it is still possible, at least in theory. Yet what is theoretically possible seems downright impossible under current assumptions about change. Maybe it is time to take a closer look at those assumptions.

2°C is no laughing matter
The recent IPCC report makes it clear that warming of less than 2°C is still a high risk for many locations, communities and systems, including small island states, low-lying coastal areas, Artic ecosystems and coral reefs. Although limiting warming to below 1.5°C is a much more desirable goal when vulnerability is factored in, 2°C is considered a highly ambitious political target. Of course, some people think that it is more or less impossible to achieve, and instead are resigning themselves to a world that will be 4°C warmer by the end of this century. Yet from what we know about climate change impacts, risk, vulnerability, adaptation and tipping points, this is a catastrophic scenario.

In a short and illustrative video, Glen Peters from CICERO discusses some of the 120 scenarios that might keep warming to below 2°C, including those that can be dismissed because they fail the “laugh” test.  Of the scenarios consistent with warming of 0.9 – 2.3°C, Peters writes off as laughable those scenarios that include a 60-80% CO2 reduction by 2020, i.e., in the next five years. He also laughs at delayed reduction scenarios that follow the current baseline until 2030 (towards 3.2 – 5.4°C warming) and then drop off dramatically, achieving a 60-70% reductions in a decade.  Finally, he gets a chuckle out of scenarios that involve an unrealistic amount of carbon capture and storage, as well as those that include negative emissions towards 2100.

Which realities are realistic?
While it is important to be realistic, it is also important to interrogate reality by critically exploring the assumptions behind the scenarios. A social scientist might ask what the scenarios assume about the relationship between individual change and collective change. Does one person have the power to influence many? Certainly we see that the money and power of a few individuals have played a large role in perpetuating climate change denial in the United States.

In their book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler (2009) discuss how social networks have superconnected us, creating “a kind of human superorganism, with an anatomy and physiology —  a structure and a function – of its own” (p. 289). They explain how social networks develop a memory of this structure and function, and how local contributions to this human superorganism have global consequences. More importantly, they argue that this superorganism can manifest a kind of intelligence that adds to or complements the intelligence of individuals.  An emergent intelligence may be exactly what is needed to successfully address climate change.

Evolving the system
This raises an important question: If part of the system becomes self-reflexive, aware that it has the capacity to consciously evolve to include greater empathy, compassion, and care for “other” parts of the larger whole, will the superorganism itself evolve? In other words,  can the system evolve itself? In a superconnected world, we don’t know for sure how many actually need to consciously change to evolve the superorganism. However, Xie et al. (2011) suggest that it takes only a commited minority of 10%  to tip the system. Understanding these non-linear social transformations is important, since they are more or less essential for sustainability to be realized.

The transformation of any system (whether an energy system, an economic system, a political system, or the Earth system) in a deliberate and desired direction is likely to occur through the conscious evolution of individual and collective thought patterns. New patterns shape new meanings that challenge the given, opening up for new politics, practices, and social movements.

Whether or not the emissions scenarios considered in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report considered the possibility of such non-linear social changes is important, since these changes are part of the reality that we create and experience every day (a recent example is changing public attitudes towards same-sex marriage). If we manage to consciously evolve our systems in a direction that is both equitable and sustainable, perhaps one day we will be able to look back and laugh about the scenarios that today seem depressingly realistic.

[This is the first in a series of four cCHANGE perspectives that will explore the potential for conscious change.]

Picture: The work “Green to Yellow Scribble Detail” by Amanda McCavour.

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