How do we talk about issues that really matter, such as our climate crisis? Philosopher Hannah Arendt argued in Men in Dark Times that “the exchange of ideas, perspectives and arguments is essential to democracy and humane societies.” And, I would add, our climate crisis.
Therefore, I believe that Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, the global authority on energy, slammed scientists and activists who have claimed that the recent COP27 UN climate summit killed off hopes to achieve the 1.5ºC target.
“It is factually incorrect,” Birol said, “and politically it is very wrong. The fact is that the chances of 1.5ºC are narrowing, but it is still achievable.”
Birol said that the claims at COP 27 that the 1.5ºC limit was dead were coming from an unusual coalition of scientists, activists and fossil fuel industry incumbents.
He maintains that the world can still limit global heating to 1.5ºC, and to claim that the target is now out of reach is to play into the hands of fossil fuel proponents. That said, many people these days avoid “hot-button” topics such as climate change because the issues are so complex, or because they don’t feel prepared to handle the strong feelings and beliefs that come back at them.
Back in the day, I read that civil discourse is a way to invite deep engagement with people whose beliefs were different from mine. Civil discourse did not mean prioritizing politeness or comfort over getting to the heart of an issue. If we are going to ask people to listen to us and engage civilly, we have to ensure that we are communicating in an equitable space.
What in this weary warming world might possibly define an equitable space? A space in which we could discuss our environmental concerns with, for example, people who have supported their families by working in coal mines for most of their life? Or on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico? Or in a concrete factory?
Without equity, civility can feel repressive. In 2019, the NPR series “Civility Wars” explored how the call for civility “can feel like an effort to stifle people’s outrage over injustice or hate.” At a time when we are facing so many urgent public concerns, meaningful and constructive discourse is not possible if voices of protest are silenced. It should surprise no one that the 13 Pacific Island countries most vulnerable to the rising ocean expressed legitimate moral outrage in strong terms. They insist that big oil companies pay for mounting damage from ocean storms and sea-level rise caused by their carbon emissions.
This begs the much larger question about how to reach any kind of climate change mitigating agreements with the petroleum industry when, at this moment in time, oil companies have enjoyed a phenomenal year. Oil profit margins are up to a whopping $10 billion. The cost of carbon dioxide reduction to the fossil fuel industry is seen solely as a threat to its bottom line.
What we must achieve across all industries is how to speed up technological progress, investments, and reducing the lead-time to shift away from carbon-intensive processes and practices. At the same time, we must somehow manage transitions for workforces, communities, assets, and the environment, all in accord with each other.
Fatih Birol points to the surge in clean energy investment this year in the wake of the Ukraine war and soaring fossil fuel prices. He noted that COP countries’ targets on reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions will result in a temperature rise of 1.7ºC, and that is only if all pledges are fulfilled. Nonetheless, he finds this within striking distance of the critical 1.5ºC limit.
For Birol, the economics of the transition to clean energy are clear, with wind and solar power now cheaper than fossil fuels across much of the world. More countries were seeking to expand clean energy sources as a matter of national security and of industrial policy.
The International Energy Agency “is an evidence-based organization,” Birol told the Guardian. “To say that 1.5ºC is dead and that we will never reach a peak [in emissions] before 2030 is dogmatic and in my view not a data-driven conclusion. Proponents of the existing energy systems will be the beneficiaries if the obituary of 1.5ºC is written,” he warned.
The 1.5ºC climate target was set at COP 21 in Paris in 2015. To say that progress toward this goal has proceeded at a snail’s pace over the past seven years is a profound understatement.
So, back to the fundamental question. How do we talk about issues that really matter, like our climate crisis?
John Bos is a contributing writer for Green Energy Times. His biweekly column “Connecting the Dots” is published every other Saturday in the Greenfield Recorder. He is the project director for a new book of 50 poems and related photographs from nature that he and three other cancer survivors created as a thank you to Cancer Connection, a non-profit support agency in Northampton, MA. Questions and comments are invited at email@example.com.