1.5° C Cap on Climate Change: Ultimately value judgments – What are lives worth?

October 29, 2015

Bishops from four continents, the Pope, and many other leaders and scientists have issued letters and signed onto statements calling for a cap of 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels on global temperatures This week bishops worldwide called for a “fair, legally binding, and truly transformational climate agreement” putting “the common good ahead of national interests.” 

More than two-thirds of the countries that signed the 2009 COP convention strongly object to the 2°C target as much too dangerous, given the levels of heat, flooding, drought – indeed death and destruction – already seen.  Scientists support them.  IPCC lead author Petra Tschakert summarized conclusions of IPCC scientists who met last December: “The crux of the matter is no longer about the scientific validity of one temperature target over another…It is first and foremost about overcoming deeply entrenched divisions on value judgments, responsibility, and finance… It is about acknowledging that negative impacts of climate change under a 0.8°C temperature increase are already widespread, across the globe, and that danger, risk, and harm would be utterly unacceptable in a 2°C warmer world.”

Recent science has shown that the weather, environmental and social impacts of 2°C (3.4 F) rise are happening more quickly and severely than they estimated, and that impacts for a 1°C rise are now expected to be as great as those previously assumed for a 2°C rise.  Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCC recently said: “2°C is not enough – we should be thinking of 1.5°C. If we are not headed to 1.5°C we are in big, big trouble.” Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute and other prominent figures signed a letter calling a Paris treaty to set a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2025.  In addition, costs are rising all the time with delay.  Avoiding action for another 15 years is expected to raise real costs by around 50%, in addition to irreversible damage caused to the ocean, species, and ecosystems by that point – damage of which the Pope speaks saying “we have no right.”

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele de Strihou, former vice-chair of the IPCC said the science has outlined the potential scenarios but “ultimately, it comes to a value judgment: are the lives of those who would be drowned under such a long-term sea level increase worth saving or not?”  Those in developing countries are expected to bear 75-80% of the costs of damages caused by the changing climate.  Drylands are degrading further, causing hunger and intensifying displacement, which is expected to rise into the hundreds of millions later this century (est. up to 700 million people).  Nations are struggling to accommodate the (only) 50 million who are already refugees today.  And even a 1.5°C rise entails major damage to coral reef systems and the emergence of regular occurrences of unusual heat extremes of over large land areas, along with damage and hunger.[1]

We are already experiencing the effects of climate change.  Nineteen of the 20 hottest years on record occurred in the past two decades. Countries and communities around the world are experiencing deeper, more persistent droughts and being pounded by more severe weather, inundated by bigger storm surges, and imperiled by more frequent and dangerous wildfires. Rising temperatures lead to more smog, longer allergy seasons, and an increased incidence of extreme-weather-related injuries, all of which imperil public health, even more so for children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.  Pollution kills and maims too. Half of Delhi’s children – 2.5 million children – have developed irreversible lung damage. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 88 percent of the current disease burden linked to climate change occurs in children younger than 5, and they will be exposed to climate damage the longest.

Heat waves bolster plant and animal diseases.  Hunger due to drought, flooding, and crop failures is on the rise.  Areas subject to long-term chronic diseases are spreading and affecting children and the elderly most severely; for example, boys ages 5 to 9 with Lyme disease.  Dengue fever and malaria are also spreading.  Rising temperatures and acidification threaten shellfish and ocean fisheries, and those who rely on them.  Given that current impacts and risks from climate change have already reached unacceptable levels, impacting people’s health, death, and under-nutrition significantly and inequitably and prompting displacement, WHO stressed that there is no ‘safe limit’ (on further GHG emissions).

Temp anomalies Russia

Temperature and weather records are being broken by vast extents worldwide, such as the record high broken by 32 degrees F in Alaska, US and increasing “1000 year” events, such as the Russian and Parisian heat waves in 2010 and 2003.

In all cases, the world’s poorest are the most vulnerable; poor countries have accounted for only 33% of recorded global disasters, but 81% of all deaths.  Sea level rise, storm surge heights, and strengthened storms mean that the combined increases of each have raised the likelihood of a devastating 500-yr flood occurring as often as every 25 years.[2]  A storm that occurred once in 7 generations is now occurring twice in a generation.  Extreme weather events tripled between 2000 and 2009 compared with the 1980-1989 period, putting many at risk of injury and death. In addition to the stress caused to adults through damage to their homes and livelihoods, for children such events can cause loss or separation from caregivers, and the devastation of their homes, schools, and neighborhoods, as well as emotional disorders.

Heat is deadly and has barely been discussed, though it killed over 10,000 in the Russian drought in 2010, and 14,802 in the Paris heat wave in 2003.  “1000-year” weather events, drought, precipitation, and flooding, as well as heat are becoming much more common.  Last summer, the heat wave in Pakistan killed 1200 people. In Chicago, 82 died in the 2012 heat wave; in 1995, 739 died over 5 days.  The elderly are among the most vulnerable. Morbity in recorded heat waves is 2-3 times above normal summer periods.

Some countries of the Middle East are projected to be inhabitable outdoors during heat extremes later this century if strong climate action is not taken.  Outdoor work is already becoming more difficult and dangerous in some areas and 25% declines in worker productivity are forecast for Malaysia, Singapore, and some other Southeast Asian countries, with rising temperatures this century.  By the time global warming reaches 1.5°C,  unusual heat extremes in the three regions (Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and South East Asia), increase to cover 10-60% of land area.[3]  Heat waves hit urban areas (heat islands) the hardest.[4]  And 1.5°C will mean more severe droughts and global sea level rise, increasing the risk of damage from storm surges and crop loss, presenting adaptation costs to billions of people.  The risks of reduced crop yields and production losses for the regions studied increase significantly above 1.5°C to 2°C warming.  Declines in agricultural productivity will also have impacts outside core producer regions, with strong repercussions on food security, and may negatively affect economic growth and development, social stability and well‐being.  In Brazil, for example, crop yields could decrease by up to 70% for soybean and up to 50% for wheat at 2°C warming by 2050.[5] In Jordan, Egypt, and Libya, crop yields drop by 30% at 1.5 to 2°C warming by 2050, plus migration and conflict. Ocean acidification, sea level rise, tropical cyclones and temperature changes will impact coastal livelihoods, tourism, health, food and water security, particularly in the Caribbean.[6]  Melting glaciers would be a hazard for Andean cities and imperil the natural water towers that supply some 50 million people. [7]

“Business as usual is neither viable nor respecting of human dignity; cultures that have evolved over ten thousand years will be extinguished,” a “double injustice,” said Professor van Ypersele. “The poor are the most vulnerable, while they are also the least responsible for the greenhouse-gas emissions.” [8] The rich should not think they can escape the impact of climate change though. “We all share the same planet, the same boat.”[9]  No corner of the planet and no sector of the global economy will remain unaffected.

We are placing our primary water sources at risk.  One of every 5 cups of water on earth is produced in the Amazon.  Another cup is produced in the Congo rainforests.  Himalayan glaciers, which are not being restored, supply 50 million people.  Meanwhile, fossil-fuel dependent power, industrial agriculture and extractive industries also overuse ancient aquifers.  If temperatures rise to 2 C, freshwater supplies will be greatly impacted, with average annual runoff decreasing 20-40% in the Danube, Mississippi, Amazon and Murray Darling (Aus.) river basins.

The countries that have used up much more than their share of the atmosphere in pollution they have dumped there over the past 200 years must lead the way and reduce greenhouse gas pollutants rapidly in the next 15 years.

As the bishops said on 26 October, the Paris agreement in December must “strongly limit a global temperature increase and set a goal for complete decarbonisation by mid-century, in order to protect frontline communities suffering from the impacts of climate change, such as those in the Pacific Islands and in coastal regions.”  We must put “an end to the fossil fuel era,” phasing out emissions by midcentury and providing “affordable, reliable and safe renewable energy access for all.”[10]

Scientists point out that wealthy and technologically advanced nations have the technological ability to move to 100% clean energy much faster than other states or nations.  Nations that are rapidly extending electricity to all also represent an opportunity to develop in the right way without duplicating the fossil-dependent path taken by others.  Developed countries have a “differentiated responsibility” to move to make a rapid shift to clean energy and help poorer countries do so as well.  Recent studies have shown that “most countries need to at least double their efforts on climate,” and developed nations would need to double or triple their current efforts to limit global warming to 2⁰C.

Fair and ambitious climate agreements can be measured and evaluated using cumulative emissions.[11] “Distributive justice” proposes that all countries start from the present and converge at some point at the same level of per-capita emissions.  However “corrective justice” seeks to correct the unfair distribution in past emissions by requiring higher historical emitters to emit less per capita in the future (and perhaps even produce negative emissions). This essentially means that all nations have an equal sum of past and future per-person emissions.[12]  One proposed mechanism for fairness is that countries match the effort, calculating commensurate targets based on either distributive or corrective justice approaches (whichever results in a more generous allocation for each country). Ultimately, no country does any “more” than any other country, and each country is free to choose its own definition of what is fair.  Leaders can be identified as such and relative ambition can be transparently assessed.

Achieving 1.5C with high probability requires CO2 emissions to be zero as early as 2045, no later than 2065, with negative emissions thereafter, and total CO2 below a level of 400ppm CO2 equivalent in the long term.[13]  Zero net emission economies and societies are achievable as part of well-planned, robust economic growth that emphasizes shifting from reliance on fossil fuels (e.g., coal) to clean energy for electricity, shifts to electrification (for transport and other demands) that displaces demand for oil and gas, and improved energy efficiency in buildings and plants that helps lower electrical demand.  We also need to respect and protect the Earth and our life support systems, such as forests and natural areas that provide natural carbon sinks.

The choices we make today lock in emissions trajectories for decades to come, leaving communities vulnerable to climate impacts or charting a better, safer, and healthier path forward.   Clean, affordable, reliable fuels like wind and water can turn energy poverty into energy prosperity, employing more people and supporting more families.  This shift is vital to the health and well-being of future generations as well as our own.

[1] Hare, B., Schaeffer M, Serdeczny O. & Friedrich-Schleussner C (2014). “Can global warming be limited to 1.5C?” http://www.rtcc.org/2014/11/24/can-global-warming-be-limited-to-1-5c/#sthash.oGGQVwlw.dpuf.  Also see World Bank’s  “Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal” report.

[2] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Increased Threat of Tropical Cyclones and Coastal Flooding During the Anthropogenic Era.”

[3] World Bank, “Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” pnas.org/content/112/41/12610.

[4] University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Heat waves hit heat islands hardest.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 September 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150928182124.htm>

[5] World Bank, “Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” pnas.org/content/112/41/12610.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] New York Times, Catholic Church Leaders Issue Appeal on Climate Change, 27 October 2015. www.nytimes.com/2015/10/27/world/europe/catholic-church-leaders-issue-appeal-on-climate-change.html

[9] New York Times, Catholic Church Leaders Issue Appeal on Climate Change, 27 October 2015. www.nytimes.com/2015/10/27/world/europe/catholic-church-leaders-issue-appeal-on-climate-change.html

[10] New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/27/world/europe/catholic-church-leaders-issue-appeal-on-climate-change.html?ref=world.  On current energy poverty, on current (fossil-fuel based) trends, there will still be some 500 million people in Africa without access to modern energy in 2030.  At this point, 621 million people – 2 out of 3 sub-Saharan Africans –do not have access to electricity and Africans pay as much as 66 times more for their electricity than someone in the UK according to the Department for International Development.  Half of businesses in sub-Saharan Africa say a lack of reliable electricity supply is a major constraint in their enterprises. Power outages cost sub-Saharan Africa countries 1-2% of their GDP annually.

The use of solar panels provides not only a safer and more reliable energy supply, but cheaper too. Additionally, reaching the 2030 objective could create 4.5 million jobs in the off grid renewables based electricity sector. Solar has already come a long way in the region. In 2009, just 1% of sub-Saharan Africans used solar lighting. Today, that has reached nearly 5%.  A joint project with Kofi Anan and Richard Branson thinks that solar-powered energy can be provided to all by 2030.  The latter said, “Energy poverty and economic poverty are two sides of the same coin. Access to sustainable energy like solar can change all that. It fuels entrepreneurship, it boosts educational opportunities and it’s an incredible source of women’s empowerment.”  theguardian.com/global-development /2015/oct/22/solar-power-energy-africa-low-carbon-campaign-kofi-annan-bob-geldof-richard-branson

[11] G. Peters, R. Andrew, S. Solomon, and P. Friedlingstein, Measuring a fair and ambitious climate agreement using cumulative emissions. 15 October 2015. Environmental Research LettersVolume 10Number 10  http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/10/105004

[12] reneweconomy.com.au/2015/most-countries-need-to-at-least-double-their-efforts-on-climate-study-65031

This chart shows targets under different justice approaches. All targets are expressed against 2010 levels.

Country Years Distributive justice Corrective justice
Argentina 2025 -18% -14%
Argentina 2030 -28% -24%
Australia 2025 -18% -40%
Australia 2030 -30% -65%
Brazil 2025 -25% -31%
Brazil 2030 -35% -45%
Canada 2025 -29% -48%
Canada 2030 -41% -70%
China 2025 -19% +3
China 2030 -32% -4%
EU28 2025 -30% -35%
EU28 2030 -41% -49%
India 2025 +68% +68
India 2030 +84% +98%
Indonesia 2025 -32% -26%
Indonesia 2030 -39% -32%
Japan 2025 -39% -34%
Japan 2030 -50% -45%
Mexico 2025 +1% +8%
Mexico 2030 -9% +13
Norway 2025 -2% -13%
Norway 2030 -13% -23%
Russia 2025 -35% -53%
Russia 2030 -48% -73%
Saudi Arabia 2025 -11% -21%
Saudi Arabia 2030 -22% -38%
South Africa 2025 -21% -22%
South Africa 2030 -33% -37%
South Korea 2025 -44% -36%
South Korea 2030 -54% -43%
Switzerland 2025 -23% -13%
Switzerland 2030 -33% -20%
Turkey 2025 0% +4%
Turkey 2030 -5% +6%
USA 2025 -29% -51%
USA 2030 -41% -74%

[13] UNEP (2014) Emissions gap report.