Don’t Look Away Now: what the IPCC’s take on 1.5 °C means for us

Written by Chiara Badiali

On 12 December 2015, in a historic moment for international climate politics, the Paris Agreement was revealed, launching two numbers into public consciousness: 2 and 1.5.

The Paris Agreement sets an international goal to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius, and better yet, 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The more ambitious 1.5°C aim was introduced at the negotiations because of a sense that the consequences of 2°C might already be more than we should be bargaining for.

But how much is there really in half a degree?

The UN tasked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC*, to answer that question in a ‘special report’ published earlier this month.

A world of difference, it turns out.

The detail has been captured by Carbon Brief in this interactive graphic.

It’s hard to capture in words what difference half a degree makes to heat and rain, flooding and drought, and sea level rise in a way that truly captures what this means for the lives of millions of individual people and ecosystems across the globe, and to our efforts to reduce hunger, poverty, and inequality. But it is huge.

Between technical language and intricate graphs, a picture emerges of how little time we have to do what needs to be done; the far-reaching consequences of the decisions we make (or don’t make) now; and just how much worse the impacts of climate breakdown will be if we taking 2 degrees as an acceptable target instead of 1.5.

What is needed?

The IPCC tells us that in order to next exceed 1.5 degrees we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

We need to reduce global CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach global net zero emissions by 2050. That means we have only 12 years to lock in a chance of staying below 1.5 degrees of warming.

The distressing fact is that current pledges made by governments as part of the Paris Agreement still put us on track to easily cross 3°C or more, with a high risk of setting off tipping points and feedback loops that lock in even more warming. We need a heroic effort to change course.

It’s not that any of this is new – but we’ve been putting off tackling the problem for so long, that the scale and speed of what needs to happen now is beyond anything we’ve ever done before.

It means rethinking everything.

It also means investing around 2.5% of global gross domestic product (GDP) for two decades just into our energy system, and capturing carbon from the air either through planting more trees or through machines that capture carbon from the air and store it (a technology that does not yet exist at scale).

We’re in a rapidly shrinking window of possibilities: 12 years and counting for 1.5°C. That doesn’t mean 12 years to start taking action, but 12 years in which to transition.

The IPCC report tells us that this is still technically possible: if we set in motion everything now.

What does this mean for the creative community?

Reading and processing this kind of stuff is difficult.

Figuring out what we can do in the face of spectres of collective failure and guilt, feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and nihilism even more so.

But that’s precisely what we have to do: take action with courage, creativity, and ambition: because 1.5 degrees is better than 1.8 degrees, which is better than 2 degrees is better than 2.4 degrees is better than 3 degrees, or 3.1 or….

It means using all of our skills, ingenuity, and creativity every day to try and nudge us away from climate breakdown and closer to 1.5°C:

  • Including climate change as part of every decision we make: what we invest in, what (and who) we support, how we spend our time and resources, where we go, what we do (and what we don’t do). We won’t always know exactly what the right thing is to do, and we won’t always get it right, but we can no longer afford to wait for solutions to materialise (they won’t if we’re not working on them, and nobody else is going to do it for us!). Search the Resources on the Julie’s Bicycle website for more ideas on reducing your environmental impact. Switch to 100% renewable electricity from suppliers like Good Energy (who, full disclosure, sponsor some of our Julie’s Bicycle events).
  • Putting in place science-based targets to decarbonise creative businesses in line with what the IPCC tells us is needed (a reduction of 45% in emissions from 2010 levels by 2030) – and putting in place the resources to meet these targets. This might also involve putting a voluntary price on carbon. Get your organisation to join the Creative Green community, a framework that helps drive environmental action.
  • Remembering that the cost of inaction will be indisputably higher than the cost of action. That is going to mean bold governance that goes beyond current business-almost-as-usual short-term return-on-investment thinking, and aims for zero carbon disruption rather than incremental improvement. It means going beyond energy efficiency (which we should all be doing anyway by now) and taking brave decisions that push the boundaries of what we think is possible.
  • Lobbying for pro-climate policies and putting pressure on politicians (of all affiliations) to put decarbonisation front and centre of policy decisions.
  • Speaking up and out about climate change and engaging our audiences in conversation wherever we can: through our programming, social media, communications, how we run our organisations, and in our buildings and spaces. As part of that, remember that many of our peers, audiences, and communities are also trying to work through the grief, anxiety, and emotions of this – and that we can help each other face what we need to do, instead of turning away and hiding in inaction. Join and amplify Season for Change, a national season of events inspiring urgent action on climate change coordinated by Julie’s Bicycle and Artsadmin.
  • Understanding how climate change is inextricably intertwined with issues of equity in the world, and questions of who has the right to what kind of life.

At Julie’s Bicycle, we are privileged enough to hear your stories from across the creative community every day: from artists using their platform for climate activism, to organisations rethinking what it means to exist in the time of climate change. We’re working on capturing as many of them as we can, to make visible the incredible creative climate movement working towards 1.5 degrees that we know is out there. But it’s going to take all of us, and we will need to be courageous in the face of those who are not yet part of this conversation until they are. If you do one thing today, speak to one of your peers about what you’re doing already, and how they might take action.

Thanks to the work of oceanographer Robin Matthews, this is the first IPCC report to feature art: a piece from digital artist Alisa Singer, inspired by one of the figures in the report.

While this is a welcome sight, we as a creative community shouldn’t be satisfied with gracing the cover: we should aim for nothing less than influencing what is on the pages of the next one, and helping to write a more hopeful story.

Join us at the National Theatre on 2 November for a Season for Change briefing on what will happen at the COP24 international climate change conference, discuss how our work fits into the global political context, and meet creative climate peers.

* The IPCC brings together hundreds of scientists from all over the world around the mammoth task of summarising what we know about climate science to help policymakers make decisions. For this ‘special report’, they sifted through more than 6,000 papers, often working through the night.

Thanks to all the following for helping us order our thoughts with their inspiring, informed, and thought-provoking pieces:

Carbon Brief: An interactive graphic summarising the differences between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees


BBC: Final call to save the world from climate catastrophe

Matt McGrath: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45775309

The Scale of the Climate Catastrophe Will Depend on What Businesses Do Over the Next Decade

Andrew Winston in Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/10/the-scale-of-the-climate-catastrophe-will-depend-on-what-businesses-do-over-the-next-decade

The climate crisis is escalating – but what else ya gonna do?

James Murray in Business Green: https://www.businessgreen.com/bg/blog-post/3064106/the-climate-crisis-is-escalating-but-what-else-ya-gonna-do

What Must We Do To Live?

Samuel Miller McDonald: https://www.the-trouble.com/content/2018/10/14/what-must-we-do-to-live

If you’re suffering from climate grief, you’re not alone

Eric Holthaus in Grist: https://grist.org/article/climate-grief-un-ipcc-report/

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Image: Photo by Eric Corriel / Licensed under CC BY 2.0