"1.5 to Stay Alive": When to Stop the Warming?

Operating oil and gas well silhouette in remote rural area, profiled on dramatic sky
Operating oil and gas well silhouette in remote rural area, profiled on dramatic sky

Originally published through Conergy.

In the past few days here in Paris, there's been excitement about the possibility of including mention of a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature limit in the COP21 agreements, a shift from the historical limit of 2 degrees endorsed by most developed nations. World powerhouses like the U.S., Canada, China, and the EU have come out in support of a 1.5 degree agreement, showing solidarity with frontline communities in Africa that have long said a 2-degree rise in temperature would mean climate catastrophe.

It would seem, then, that COP21 may truly bring about justice for frontline communities by capping temperatures at levels determined by and for them. Yet earlier this week when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Mashable's Andrew Freedman about a 1.5 degree agreement at the UN Foundation's event Earth to Paris, his statements rang empty to me. He seemed to stammer through the interview, apparently uncomfortable with the thought of saying something wrong or controversial.

"I'm for embracing -- conceptually, aspirationally -- anything that gets us below two degrees," Kerry said. He conceded that "the formal goal of the agreement is 2 degrees, but yes, we all need to take note that it would be better if we can move in the direction of some further reduction."

Catherine McKenna, Canada's environment and climate change minister, has echoed Kerry's noncommitment. Her spokeswoman said in an email to CBC news, "We support the Paris agreement having language that says we should aim and strive towards limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees."

So. What do these statements truly mean? My answer: not that much. Kerry's and McKenna's stances mean that any language that goes into the COP21 pact will not mandate a 1.5 degree limit as a limit, but rather as a suggestion or a vague concept.

Let's interpret this statement by relating it to one of my own real-life experiences. Aspirationally, I want to eat less dairy to reduce the impact of my diet. I stand strongly with the concept of consuming less dairy, because I know that the dairy industry contributes to climate change. When anyone asks me, I will say I am making my best effort to curb my dairy consumption. Yay me! But wait... Last night, I got a pizza for dinner. This morning I ate a bagel that had cream cheese and mozzarella on it... What is happening?! I'm supposed to want to eat less dairy! I'm strongly on-board with the idea that I should eat less dairy!

The fact of the matter is that unless I commit myself to ceasing to eat dairy and am held to my word by repercussions if I fail, I'm never really going to stop. The same goes for temperature increase, and the stakes are even more severe. We don't have the liberty to commit to the "idea" of a 1.5 degree threshold. That really doesn't do anything. It just allows countries to think about the fact that they should be emitting less while they continue to consume fossil fuels.

"Really, there are very few governments that are proposing genuine resolutions to move toward 1.5," said Kate Lappin, an Australian member of the Women and Gender Constituency to the UNFCCC, which has endorsed a 1.5 degree limit. "But it is possible, and extraordinarily many of them are in the worst affected countries."

People from those vulnerable countries recognize that the developed world owes the developing world their right to survival. That survival will not come with a limit of 2 degrees, which Desmond Tutu wrote would "condemn Africa to incineration."

Kerry and McKenna seemed to recognize the responsibility their nations have to protect frontline communities, but there is a disconnect between what they say and what they are willing to deliver. A 1.5 degree ceiling would mean a near-immediate cease to burning fossil fuels, which is hugely controversial in developed nations and a likely reason why the developed world won't endorse it strictly.

"So that they can still use fossil fuels," said Tess Vistro, an advocate for gender and climate justice from the Philippines, when I asked her why she thought developed countries were resistant to a 1.5 degree agreement. "So that they won't go into completely renewable energy. So they can still, to a certain extent, do some business as usual."

Even in the event that developed nations commit to a lower temperature threshold, many advocates for a 1.5 degree solution are quick to point out that just deciding on a number does not necessarily ensure justice.

"Sometimes we just talk about targets, be it 1.5 or 2," said Lappin. "It doesn't actually matter unless we say, 'How will we get there?' And that it has to be with equity and justice."

As Vistro said to me, even a 1 degree goal won't be a win for frontline communities if, in order to meet that goal, developed nations occupy lands, tear through indigenous communities, and promote capitalistic market-based solutions that don't have people's best interest at heart.

What I've learned is that at the end of the day, COP21 is not about a number. It's about what we do with that number. Temperature goals don't create justice unless they are implemented in a way that does so. Still, I believe it is vitally important that world leaders quit their aspirational statements and commit themselves to an agreement that will protect frontline communities. The first step to doing so is adopting a 1.5 degree commitment in Paris.