The case for a sustainability emergency
The pressure to soft-pedal is very, very high. I know because I feel it. I’m tempted. I do not wish to be dismissed as an apocalyptic. So when I read, in this fine and even astonishing report, that “politics as usual” must be cast aside, and quickly, there’s something in me that balks.
After all, the mainline debate at Bali was about a “25-40% cut by 2020” for the developed countries. Isn’t this enough? Doesn’t it tell us that we’re already moving as quickly as we can? Must we call for emergency mobilization? Must we seek to put all “available and necessary resources” at the service of a global crash program to stabilize the climate?
The question is an open one. The questions here are political, and have no determinate answers. But if you’re a “realist,” and especially if you wish to avoid any inconvenient temptations to “face the facts with brutal honesty” — temptations that, given the state of the science (and the new stuff is pretty bleak) can only disturb any confident incrementalism you may yet harbor — then you should not read this report. Because even if you’re certain that there’s no viable alternative to politics as usual, “climate code red” will bring you doubt. And it won’t be doubt that you can set easily aside.
I can’t say that James Hansen — for Climate Code Red begins as a digest of the tumult and measured alarm that emanates like a shock wave from Hansen’s team — is right for certain. But I can find no flaw in his recent argument that we’ve already passed the “tipping point,” and I agree that the “reticence” of well-socialized scientists, and of the IPCC itself, has become part of the problem. And though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that today’s “widely advocated 2ºC warming cap” is “demonstrably too high and would eventually be a death sentence for billions of people and millions of species as positive feedbacks work through the climate system,” I can certainly see the point. 2ºC indeed appears to be too much, and it may well be far too much, and it’s a measure of our desperation that we do not say so at every opportunity.
The real value of this paper, though, can only be appreciated if you know that Hansen is not its lone guiding figure. True, he figures large in the beginning, but it’s Churchill that looms over the ending, and it’s ultimately the latter man’s blunt, pugnacious presence that seals the deal. Which isn’t to say that “code red” is an artifact from the past. Spratt and Sutton aren’t fighting the last war, but preparing for the next. As must we all.