Let’s get the frightening stuff out of the way first: to have any chance of keeping global heating within 1.5˚C and avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown, we must act immediately to decarbonise the entire global economy. Even at 1.5 degrees of heating we’ll lose 70% of the world’s coral reefs and see a 100% increase in flood risk and considerably lower yields in many food crops worldwide. This will disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable, who are least able to adapt and least responsible for the climate crisis.
The scale of the challenge is intimidating: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have just 12 years to halve global emissions if we’re to keep warming within the critical 1.5˚C range, beyond which tipping points could trigger runaway temperature increases.
The scientific and political communities have understood the need for drastic reductions in emissions for some time, and yet we’ve seen very little progress to date. Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. This is partly why this autumn will see the biggest internationally coordinated demonstration in modern history: a week of major events starting on 20 September, including the Global Climate Strike.
This marks a critical juncture for two reasons. First, movements like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future are helping to shift the climate crisis firmly into the mainstream, as the public becomes increasingly aware of what it will mean, for them personally and for global geopolitical stability. Governments around the world, meanwhile, know that their responses to climate change are becoming a key electoral battleground.
Second, a few days after the Global Climate Strike, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will bring together heads of state and business leaders to discuss the climate crisis, presenting them with the perfect opportunity to show the ambition needed to get the world onto a 1.5˚C trajectory.
Some things can be done immediately. Renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuel power in most countries, and has none of the pollution or health impacts. There’s no longer an economic argument for building coal power stations when renewables do the job better and cleaner – indeed, the only reason the coal industry survives is down to the massive government subsidies it receives.
Research by ODI shows that G20 governments provide $64 billion a year to keep the unsustainable industry afloat. The UK is leading the charge away from coal as part of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, but continues to pour subsidies into the North Sea oil and gas industry, providing £10.5 billion in 2016 alone. Removing these subsidies would rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and free up funds to support a just transition through the creation of good green jobs in renewables, energy efficiency and other low-carbon sectors.
So how does this link to the Global Climate Strike and subsequent public events this autumn? Well, there’s often an assumption that individuals can’t make a difference to something as complex as climate change, and to some extent it’s true that a small number of elite individuals hold a disproportionate amount of influence over the means to decarbonise the economy.
Democratic governments do though respond to public pressure, and well-informed grassroots activism and public momentum are central to driving policy change. The research community has an obligation to ensure that its work is not only accessible to grassroots campaigns, but that it works to actively engage them too.
By joining the Global Climate Strike and demanding immediate action, including an end to fossil fuel subsidies, individuals, businesses and civil society can collectively push governments to take the steps necessary to support the transition to an equitable, low-carbon world. Governments must recognise that their social contract demands that they act now to cut emissions in order to protect the world’s people from the worst impacts of climate change.