What I know about climate change scares me. I know that we are headed for disaster as greenhouse gas emissions spew forth and global warming rises precipitously. I know that the CO2 that is emitted from the burning of fossil fuels is a major part of the problem, and also that the methane from cows is a problem, too. I know that the minimum warming we are headed to is 1.5ºC and that it is already causing extreme weather events around the world, and that 3ºC is where we are actually headed and will spell catastrophe.
But other than these few details, I don’t know much else. Like most ordinary people, I am not that familiar with the data around the problem of climate change, or the solutions that are possible to slow global warming.
I have decided that I need to change that. As scary as it all is, if I am to become at all effective in dealing with the climate crisis, then I need to know more about the problem of climate change, and its potential solutions, than I currently do.
In early April, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, called “Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change.” What better way to become more familiar, than to go right to the source?
What is the IPCC?
The IPCC is the best place to get accurate, clearly communicated information on the reality of the climate crisis now, and where the trajectory for greenhouse gas emissions may be headed.
A bit of background: the IPCC was formed in 1988, when it was given the task to write a comprehensive overview of the climate science known up to that point, evaluate the economic and social impacts of global warming, and identify potential strategies for response “in a possible future international convention on climate.”[i] Over the past 34 years, the IPCC has performed this assessment of the climate situation five times, and written five Assessment Reports. These reports are “the most comprehensive scientific reports about climate change produced worldwide.”[ii] It is currently in its sixth assessment cycle; the report that I decided to read is part of the sixth assessment.
I felt like I had to steel myself for reading the “Summary for Policymakers,” the simplified version of the report for non-scientists like me. I was prepared for a dire report that would lead me to the place of lament for quite a while.
Certainly, there is so much that is lamentable about the climate crisis; I encourage everyone to take time in prayer or quiet time and allow themselves to lament where we are at, and how we got here. But what surprised me in reading the report is that I found it hopeful! The bottom line is that we must act, now, in order to limit global warming to 1.5ºC by 2030 and mitigate the worse effects of climate change. The hopeful piece for me in reading this report is that the technology exists to be able to do so, and it is economically feasible. I did not know that these two facts were true, and so I am feeling hopeful, even as I try to face squarely how difficult it will be to undergo such change.
I want you to feel the surprising hope that I did, too. And so I am sharing some of the details of the report here, with the goal that it will offer you information that you may not have known already about the climate crisis, and that you, too, will experience some of the hope that I am feeling. My prayer is that you will feel this hope and be inspired to act.
What are Greenhouse Gases?
The first thing that was helpful for me was to understand what, exactly, is the problem with greenhouse gas emissions. What are greenhouse gases, specifically?
There are a number of them that are problematic for global warming. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is distinguished in the report between the CO2 that is emitted by fossil fuel combustion and industrial process, and the net CO2 emissions that come from land use and forestry. There is also methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and various fluorinated gases (F-gases). Methane is primarily emitted by oil and gas drilling, fracking and agriculture. Nitrous oxide comes from large-scale farming, and the F-gases, which are synthetic, are typically coolants used in refrigeration and air conditioning.
Understanding what the greenhouse gases are, and how they contribute to global warming, gives me a better comprehension of the roles that fossil fuels, land use, industry, and agriculture play in the problem – and, ultimately, in the solutions for mitigating climate change. While some of the specific details and nuance get lost for me, having this overview makes me feel more climate-literate, and better able to interpret what I read in the news and elsewhere.
Pathways for Change
Another thing that is shared in the report is how the authors have studied and modelled “pathways” toward the mitigation of climate change so that over time it can be limited to certain levels. At our current levels of greenhouse gas emissions from industry, fossil fuel use, agriculture, land use, etc, we are headed for a global warming of 3.2°C by 2100. This is the status quo, the for-sure-and-for-certain trajectory if we do not take immediate action to reduce emissions.
As it stands, there is no way that we can stop global warming from happening. We are headed to a minimum of 1.5°C warming by 2030 – less than 8 years from now. But we have the ability to stop it at 1.5°C if we act now. The IPCC has used complex, detailed data, incorporating the vast range of different social, economic, demographic, and geographic contexts to model a pathway forward. If we take immediate global action to radically reduce emissions across all sectors (most especially fossil fuel reductions), we can stop warming past 1.5°C. “Immediate action” here means “the adoption of climate policies between 2020 and at latest 2025 intended to limit global warming at a given level.”[iii] We need to cut all emissions by at least half by 2030 in order to stop global warming at 1.5ºC.
They also model a pathway toward a total of 2°C warming, and give the specifics of what this would require, too.
A Complexity of Factors
What is fascinating to me in reading this report is the complexity of factors the climate scientists need to take into account to come up with specific data and clear directions for movement forward on the problem of climate change. They have taken into consideration global inequality, extreme poverty and the fact that some communities will need to increase their use of energy and consumption levels in order to get out of “energy poverty”.[iv] They also recognize the need for many players to be at the table of climate change conversations, most notably “civil society actors, political actors, businesses, youth, labour, media, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities.”[v] There is recognition of potential risks and trade-offs to some solutions and strategies, and the challenge that politics and economics play in moving forward.
Front and Centre: Fossil Fuels
The problem of fossil fuel use is placed front and centre: the fact is that electrification through clean sources of energy is a must. There is, quite simply, very little role for fossil fuel burning in the pathways mapped out by the IPCC. Where there is a high level of difficulty in replacing fossil fuels with alternatives, such as in the aviation industry, the need for careful mitigation elsewhere to offset the emissions is identified.
Individual Consumption Demand
However, despite the fact that the oil and gas industry is placed firmly in its place as part of the problem as it currently stands, individuals like ourselves are not let off the hook. The problem of consumption and consumption-based demand is named in the report, and analyzed numerically. They state: “Globally, the 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute 34-45% of global consumption-based household GHG emissions, while the middle 40% contribute 40-53%, and the bottom 50% contribute 13-15%.”[vi] While this does indeed mean that the richest 10% of the world are using a disproportionate share of emissions, those of us in that middle category need to dramatically reduce the amount that we use.
Although the ability to reduce our personal greenhouse gas emissions is constrained by the systems and structures we live in – so much responsibility and accountability falls on the shoulders of industry and government – there are, surprisingly, two key areas in which we can make a tangible difference.
The first is in beginning to use a lot less where we can, whenever we can. That means buying electric cars if we can afford them, using transit, bike, and feet where possible, buying less clothing and unnecessary items, etc. The report challenges the “many forms of status consumption” that have led to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and calls for society to help consumers adopt more sustainable patterns of consumption. It is clear: the pathways to mitigating climate change can only be achieved through radical reduction in our consumption.
Change our Diets
The second area in which individuals can make a real difference is in the move to “sustainable healthy diets”; these can be a significant driver in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable healthy diets are defined as those that “promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and well being; have low environmental pressure and impact; are accessible, affordable, safe and equitable; and are culturally acceptable…”It means a diet that features plant-based foods such as grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and meat that is produced “in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems.”[vii]
In other words, we need to eat less meat, particularly beef. This is the single most effective thing that we can do, as citizens and consumers, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While I know that there can be fierce debate around this, I am not suggesting, nor is the IPCC, that an entirely meat-free diet is the best diet. That said, I know that the move to more plant-based meals, and sourcing meat that is produced on small, local farms using sustainable methods, is something that I can do, and have begun to incorporate more intentionally into meal planning.
It is Possible to Halve Emissions by 2030!
While the report[viii] is devastating in what it makes clear about the trajectory that we are currently on toward a 3ºC world, it also spells out quite clearly the changes that are needed to mitigate climate change to 1.5ºC or 2ºC of warming. And, most importantly to me, it makes it clear that the technology already exists to make this shift. It is already possible to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Indeed, this is ambitious. Yet, it is possible. We have the technology and the economic means, globally, to do this. The report spells out what we can do as global entities, regions, countries, socially, and individually. We have the means. Now, we just need the will.
And yes, that is where the rub is. The IPCC, climate scientists and organizations around the world have been showing the data and spelling out what needs to be done for decades now, but the will hasn’t been there. However, as things literally heat up, the alarm is sounding ever louder, and more people are rising up. Scientists, politicians, ordinary citizens from every country in the world are rising up and speaking out. They are demanding that our leaders lead in the fight against climate change; demanding that industries move immediately to renewables; demanding that the middle- and upper-classes stop consuming so much; demanding that there be a shift in resources and priorities to move for climate justice for all.
Finding the Will to Act
We just need the will. This is the big challenge now. The challenge of mitigating climate change to 1.5ºC warming is not technological, nor is it financial. It is political, and it is moral. This is not new for people of faith. People of faith are in the ‘business’ of finding the will to act, of confronting resistance to healing and change. We are in the business of confronting broken systems and economics that favour the few over the many. We are in the business of seeking to bring our own wills in line with God’s will for us in our lives, and in the world.
This is why I feel hopeful when I read the latest IPCC Report on Climate Change; the challenge of will is not new to me as a person of faith. It doesn’t cause me dismay or anxiety when I read the report. Instead, what I have discovered in reading it is that it is possible to reach our goals. It is both technologically and economically feasible, and there are personal, social, and political changes that I can make and advocate for here and now, in my life and in my community.
As I explored in my previous blog post, hope is defined as hope-in-action. Hope is acting for a better world. I’m so glad that I took the time to read the IPCC’s latest report, because it shows me where the hope lies, where it can be found, in our burning world. There is much to be done. Let us find the will, individually and collectively, to act. And let us help others, individually and collectively, to find the will to act, too. How can you find the will? Let me know in the comment section below.
[iii] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2022, “Summary for Policymakers” [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)], in Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)] (Cambridge University Press: In Press), p. 16.
[iv] Energy poverty is the lack of reliable access to safe, affordable, and ecologically benign sources of energy for cooking, heating, cooling, lighting, etc. Nearly 3 billion people around the world experience energy poverty. See: https://www.habitat.org/emea/about/what-we-do/residential-energy-efficiency-households/energy-poverty. Accessed June 7, 2022.
[v] Ibid., p. 59.
[vi] Ibid., 9.
[vii] Ibid., 43.
[viii] There is so much more in the IPCC report that I wish I could cover in this blog post. The authors discuss, for example, the need to consider ethics and equity issues surrounding the uneven distribution of the adverse impacts of 1.5ºC warming around the world. They emphasize the importance of climate justice, which links sustainable development and human rights in any approach to addressing climate change.