1.5 to Stay Alive: IPCC report recommends carbon pricing to limit catastrophic warming

The final draft of the recent IPCC report is candidly grim. Even 1.5 degrees of warming will have devastating effects and we must turn to policy solutions including carbon pricing to prevent them.

This post was written by Cecelia Bolon and Zachary Gavel, New England Our Climate Fellows and second-year undergraduates at Northeastern University. Cecelia and Zack met the Executive Director of Climate XChange Mike Green, our close partner in the carbon pricing campaign, during a study abroad program at the United Nations in Geneva. They have maintained their passion for carbon pricing ever since and continue to collaborate with Climate XChange as fellows. They adapted this post from a Climate XChange report on the same subject that they helped to write found here.  

The 2015 Paris Climate negotiations set a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise as the ultimate boundary that humanity should not cross in its battle against climate change. But many scientists, activists, and small island nation representatives argued that 2 degrees of warming was a dangerously inadequate benchmark. According to a recent update from the world’s top climate scientists, they were right.

On Monday, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on the effects of raising planetary temperatures 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Half a degree of warming makes a staggering difference. Half as many people worldwide will experience “climate-change induced increase in water stress” at a 1.5-degree rise than at a 2-degree rise. Though the report states that “extreme weather events” will be more frequent and severe at 1.5 degrees, they will not wreak the same degree of social, political, and economic havoc as those driven by 2 degrees of warming.

Still, a 1.5-degree future is hardly rosy. Reduced water and food supplies will likely increase conflict around the globe. Warmer temperatures will continue to shift the ranges of infectious disease, often extending them to new regions that are poorly prepared to combat them. Warming will also reduce people’s ability to migrate and in turn, alter cultural identities and social realities worldwide.

The predicted timelines for these climatic changes are also grim: to make the 1.5-degree target, the world would have 10 years to cut its carbon emissions by 50 percent, and 40 years to become carbon neutral.

Previously, many have criticized the IPCC--a decades-long, worldwide collaboration of hundreds of scientists and politicians--for being conservative in their climate projections and their language. Such criticisms at the Paris Agreement may have driven the UN to invite the IPCC to prepare this special report in the first place. However, the content and tone of this report are different.

“This report is the strongest alarm bell we've seen from the global scientific community about the present and near-term impacts we can expect to see if we don't drastically change our behavior,” said Maria Olano, Communications Director for Climate XChange, a nonprofit ally of Our Climate that analyzes environmental policy.

Given that we are already two-thirds of the way to reaching the 1.5-degree limit, something has to give, and soon. If it remains cheap to cause warming, we’ll be soaring past 1.5 degrees toward our original 2-degree target in the next few decades, which will be catastrophic.

Luckily, the 1.5 report also broke the cautious trend of previous reports in that it does not shy away from policy suggestions and explicitly names carbon pricing as a critical tool to fight climate change. This powerful economic incentive to reduce carbon emissions has the potential to completely shift the direction of existing climate change mitigation strategies. While implementation will be challenging (it’s hard to get people to agree to pay more for something that is so deeply ingrained in their daily actions and needs), the IPCC report makes it clear that swift action is necessary and that long-term benefits far outweigh short-term economic challenges associated with increasing the price of carbon.

It's not new for climate science to predict this level of destruction, but the urgent language and policy recommendations in this report are unprecedented. This indicates that the political players in the IPCC are no longer diluting what the scientists are saying and are unwilling to shield their constituencies from the call for immediate and sweeping action. Let’s follow their lead and #PutAPriceOnIt.

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