There is no Plan B on climate change

There is no Plan B on climate change
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It has become fashionable for critics of the Paris Climate Accord to ask “What is Plan B?” That’s particularly the case in the wake of failures of agreement in its just completed summit in Madrid. This question is shorthand for “If the current accords prove to be unachievable, how do we plan to put the planet on a more stable footing?”

Alas, there is no Plan B. But here are some ways to move the current plan along.  

The overarching goal adopted in Paris in 2015 was to hold temperature increases to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels. This will require driving net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero with progressively more ambitious commitments.

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From the very beginning there has been contentious debate over whether these limits are aspirational or to be taken literally. But that’s immaterial. The experience of the last four decades suggest that the climate system is becoming increasingly inhospitable to humankind — and that much of it is of our own doing. Common sense suggests that we do what we can to halt emissions as expediently as possible.

Although abatement efforts have reduced global GHG emissions below earlier projections, they are still rising. To stop warming at levels even close to those suggested will require that we soon bend the curve more dramatically downward. This will not happen unless the public realizes that global warming poses an unacceptable risk to human health, economic prosperity and the very ecosystems upon which we depend. And be in no doubt, it does.

This low public support for climate action will ultimately be corrected in one of two ways. The nations can let Mother Nature take the lead and allow conditions to continue to deteriorate until the public demands action. Or they can double down on efforts to inform the public what is at stake and what will be necessary to make the risks more tolerable.

Relying on Mother Nature assumes that "seeing will be believing” — that is, that substantial progress will be made only once the type and extent of the threats is painfully revealed in day-to-day climate damage. Valuable time will be squandered, and the price of the further procrastination will be heavy, because the process is not reversible on human time scales. Continuing to play chicken with Mother Nature is not only irresponsible, it is utterly crazy.

The alternative is to increase efforts to heighten public awareness of the hard-won insights from the natural sciences. We are not referring to the protesters in the conference halls of United Nations meetings, but those who seem blissfully unaware of the seriousness of the impending dangers. By helping the poorly-informed better appreciate what is ahead, the severest damages may be forestalled, if not avoided altogether. At the very least, we may buy valuable time to enhance our ability to adapt.

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First, of course, it is important to better understand why those who deny that climate change is occurring, or that human activity is a main cause, do so in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Or why those who accept that climate change represents a serious risk put such a low priority on efforts to ameliorate its impacts. In short, what is driving public attitudes about climate change?

One needs only watch National Geographic documentaries or BBC specials to see how well the story can be told. Unfortunately, much of the intended audience is either watching something else or somehow not absorbing the message. If communication of the risk is to be more effective, likely more guidance is needed from research by social and behavioral scientists.

More investment is also needed in improving environmental literacy. A prime candidate would be to introduce environmental science courses throughout primary and secondary school curricula. Such an effort would both improve the nonscientist’s understanding of the world in which we live, as well as produce a better-informed electorate. But the clock is ticking.

Publics in many countries may be grossly misinformed about the stakes, oblivious to the science and apparently apathetic to future generations. But humankind is not suicidal. There will come a point where the costs of inaction overwhelm the status quo, and action will be universally demanded.

Whatever we can do to speed up the learning process will be effort well spent. The science already provides a compelling case for action, but it must be more effectively communicated in the court of public opinion.

Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He served as lead author for multiple chapters of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the areas of mitigation, impacts and adaptation from 1992 through 2014. He also served on the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the first U.S. National Climate Assessment. 

Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He served as convening lead author for multiple chapters and the Synthesis Report for the IPCC from 1990 through 2014 and was vice-chair of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Henry D. Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former Co-Director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.