by Judith Curry
The modification of the 2C climate target will put an end to the vision of a “science-based” climate policy – Oliver Geden
‘Avoiding dangerous climate change’ is essentially synonymous with limiting the average global surface temperature increase over 2C of pre-industrial average. A major focus of climate science has been identifying the level of CO2 below which we can avoid this dangerous 2C increase – this level has previously been set at 550 ppm, I’m not exactly sure what the latest ‘consensus’ value is. These numbers have been hard-wired into international climate policy.
Two previous threads at Climate Etc. discussed ‘dangerous’ climate change:
Oliver Geden of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) has written a provocative essay on this topic entitled Modifying the 2C target. In today’s Guardian Geden has an article: Climate change – what next after the 2C boundary? Extensive excerpts:
It is highly doubtful that the international community will be able to agree on a treaty that would commit all industrialised countries and emerging economies to binding emissions reduction targets by the end of 2015.
With global emissions still rising, it is even more unlikely that such an agreement would be compatible with the overarching target of international climate policy: to limit the global mean temperature increase to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which is considered to be the threshold to “dangerous climate change“.
Nobody really wants to talk about the coming failure of the 2°C target. But from a political point of view it is pretty clear that a target that is considered to be unattainable cannot fulfill either a positive symbolic function or a productive governance function. Thus, the 2°C target will have to be modified eventually. Such a process is not only risky for the EU as a global climate policy leader; it also entails troubling consequences for scientific policy advice.
For almost two decades, the 2°C target has served as a common reference point for climate policy and climate science, as a “boundary object” that allows these two different spheres to communicate and interact productively. Efforts to raise the status of climate policy have gained scientific legitimacy, while climate research has found a growing political consensus and increased societal relevance, reflected not least of all in significantly improved funding.
Basically, there are three modification options. World leaders could either allow the 2°C target to become a benchmark that can be temporarily overshoot, accept a less stringent target, or give up on a global stabilisation objective altogether.
The impending necessity to reinterpret or even revise the 2°C target primarily marks a fundamental failure of international climate policy. But it also highlights the failure of scientific policy advice.
What seemed to be a non-negotiable planetary boundary will be subject to (more or less publicly visible) renegotiation.
The problem-centred modes of extensive environmental governance associated with the carbon budget approach are ultimately unfeasible politically. Its key weakness is the lack of consideration of crucial political factors, in particular the ways multilateral organisations, national governments, and political parties actually work.
In the process of modifying the 2°C target, climate policy will tend to “politicize” while climate science will tend to “scientise”. The EU will no longer be able to count on climate scientists to support its international climate policy preferences. At the same time, climate scientists will have to accept that their relatively privileged status will be limited to the areas of media access and research funding, whereas their political influence will be no greater than the influence of scientists in other policy areas.
In the near future, scientific policy advisors will have to carefully re-examine their role. When appearing in the media or before parliamentary committees, they should not attempt to distill the enormous volume and range of climate research into explicit demands for political action. Rather, they should restrict themselves to presenting the conditions and consequences of specific policy alternatives (pdf).
The history of the 2°C target clearly demonstrates that the establishment of an absolute climate target contributes little to effective risk management if major emitters refuse to actually implement corresponding measures because the reduction paths appear too ambitious to them.
Furthermore, unrealistic pledges send the signal that they can be disregarded with few political or reputational consequences. A more pluralistic approach in scientific advice to climate policy makers could result in a more pluralistic understanding of legitimate policy options.
This collision between climate predictions and emissions stabilization policies with observations of climate change and political realities has potentially huge ramifications not only for climate policy and climate science, but also broader implications for the interface between science and policy.
How we landed in this mess has been the subject of a number of previous posts at Climate Etc. and also in my Congressional testimonies:
In a nutshell: oversimplification of both the problem and solution in context of a consensus to power approach, plus failure to actually clarify the meaning of ‘dangerous climate change.’
This collision is in progress; Geden makes interesting predictions as to where the pieces will land. Your thoughts?