The IPCC report confirms the scale of the climate challenge is daunting, but environmentalists need to shed their cognitive dissonance and get behind the vision for a positive green future
I often joke that editing BusinessGreen is like conducting my professional life in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance, although if I'm honest it is less a joke, more an insight into the ongoing psychological tension endured by all environmentalists.
Every day we run stories about both the exciting clean technologies and business models that can deliver a genuinely sustainable global economy and the rapidly escalating environmental risks that threaten the collapse of that self-same global economy. Given that green economic progress is predicated on an awareness of the viable low carbon technologies that are available and the risks we face if we fail to deploy them, we typically try to maintain a balance between these two competing visions of the future. It is this green utopian-dystopian paradox that results in the cognitive dissonance that characterises so many environmentalists as they simultaneous accept that we are on the brink of a green economic breakthrough and probably doomed to a century of climate misery.
However, it is all but impossible to look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) latest climate impact report and be anything other than daunted and dispirited by the scale of the challenges we all face. There are so many terrifying predictions - all backed with the level of credibility and certainty that comes with the knowledge that this is the most peer-reviewed scientific exercise in history - that it is hard to know where to start. But here are a few of the more worrying warnings from the world's leading scientists: food supplies are already being impacted by climate change; wheat yields are expected to fall two per cent a decade; yields of some key crops could fall 25 per cent by mid-century; fish catches in some areas could fall 60 per cent; food prices may soar by 84 per cent by 2050; coastal cities will face escalating flood risks; extreme weather impacts will become more costly and frequent; climate change is likely to fuel conflict; oh, and your coffee will taste worse.
This litany of escalating climate risks is scary as it stands, but it becomes even more horrifying when you consider two factors that are rarely given sufficient weight by climate change commentators. Firstly, the scale of prospective impacts is so severe that they only have to be half right for the global economy to be facing a serious problem - and the world's finest scientific minds are absolutely convinced they are much more than half right. And secondly, the impacts are already with us and are escalating fast. The days of scary predictions that will affect the world in 2100 are gone. We are talking about scary impacts by mid-century, which means anyone under 50 has a reasonable chance of experiencing them. Today's report confirms anyone born in the past 10 years is staring down the barrel of some potentially catastrophic climate risks during the second half of their lives.
The fact that there are still people who wish to downplay these risks is laughable, although any laughter this sad reality prompts should be contemptuous in its nature. That editors of influential newspapers can read the latest IPCC report and decide to run with the angle that a warming world will lead to a boom in Arctic tourism is mind-boggling. That some media commentators, political leaders, and corporate bosses can continue to give house room to reckless and discredited arguments about net benefits from climate impacts or dubious debates about the merits of delaying efforts to reduce climate risks is a disgrace. The impacts we can expect from climate change are too wide-ranging and too severe to justify a watering down of efforts to tackle climate risks, no matter how much those who advocate a do-nothing or do-next-to-nothing approach argue to the contrary.
Political leaders, business leaders and investors need to ask themselves who they want to believe when it comes to assessing climate change risks, the UN, the Royal Society, US Defense Department, NASA, the world's largest insurers, and every major national scientific body in the world, or the tiny rag tag bunch of keyboard warriors, contrarian academics, and shadily funded libertarian 'think tanks'?
However, while it is tempting to succumb to pessimism or rail against those who are even now scouring the IPCC report with the sole aim of identifying an angle they can spin to suggest climate impacts will not be that bad, neither response will help political and business leaders deliver the response that is so urgently required.
The one question the latest wave of climate warnings should prompt is, what can we do?
Green business leaders, politicians and environmentalists need to wrestle the green utopian-dystopian paradox back into a position of balance, and from there break it completely by delivering the optimistic sustainable future that remains entirely possible. There is mounting evidence that this can be done. It is notable that this IPCC series of reports will include a detailed study later this year of the clean tech response needed to slash emissions. There is also a clear shift in the rhetoric accompanying today's report, with IPCC working group co-chair Chris Fields acknowledging that climate change is a "downer" and that there is a need for a greater focus on the "real opportunities for 21st century innovation" offered by the response to climate change.
This optimism is fuelled by the rapid progress clean technologies and green businesses have made over the past few years. Ever since the global financial crisis hit predictions have been made that the green economy would be derailed, instead it has gone from strength to strength as investment has ticked upwards, clean technologies have matured and fallen in price, and political leaders have maintained, and in some cases strengthened, their commitment to climate action. As The Telegraph's Geoffrey Lean observed over the weekend, the build up to the next major UN climate summit in Paris next year is being characterised by a cautious optimism that the US and China are edging towards an agreement to slash their greenhouse gas emissions.
What can businesses do in response to the IPCC report? They can do everything in their power to fuel this optimism by factoring climate risks into their investment decisions, rapidly mobilising investment in cost effective clean technologies, such as energy efficiency measures, renewables and electric vehicles, enhancing the climate resilience of their operations and supply chains, supporting green R&D, and using their political leverage to demand economy-wide policies that aid decarbonisation. There are pioneering multinationals and green business start-ups on every continent that have already established best practices on all of these fronts, which can now be relatively easily embraced by their peers. Faced with the risks presented by the IPCC, this is nothing more and less than the sensible course of action for any business.
At an individual level it is inevitably far harder to have an impact on a problem that is global in its nature, but that is not to say that people cannot take action. You can and should seek to reduce your climate impact, be it through eating a bit less meat, avoiding a few more flights, investing your money in a responsible fashion, or using your purchasing power to reward green businesses. But arguably the biggest impact individuals can have is in talking openly and honestly about the risks we face. Put climate resilience and energy efficiency on your agenda at work, write to your MP about your concerns, ask about where your pension is invested, complain to your newspaper if they seek to mislead you about climate impacts. It is only by creating a large and vocal constituency for climate action that we will provide businesses and politicians with the confidence they need to deliver that action at scale.
Is this enough? Will it deliver the step change in global emission reductions and climate resilience investment we need to combat the potentially catastrophic risks our agricultural systems face? Looking at the IPCC report it is hard to be optimistic, but on days like today it is worth recalling a blog post last year from the inspiring US environmental commentator David Roberts on the subject of "hope and fellowship". In it he argued that while the scale of the climate threat is daunting in the extreme, we can draw hope from the fact economic and technological change is "non-linear", rapid and unexpected transformations in the way we live our lives can and do happen. Hope remains that clean technologies can deliver just such a revolution.
And even if they don't, that does not mean we should stop trying. As Roberts argued: "Remember, there is no 'too late' here, no 'game over' - it will be a tragedy to shoot past 2 degrees to 3, but 4 is worse than 3, and 5 is worse than 4. Being unprepared for any of those will be much worse than being prepared. The future always forks; there are always better and worse paths ahead. There's always a difference to be made."
For today, pessimism is in many ways the only rational response to the IPCC's warnings. But those fighting for a green economy cannot wallow in that pessimism for too long. The green utopian-dystopian paradox can be broken, we don't have to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It is not too late to choose the right fork in the path.
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