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UN Target of 2 Degree Limit for Temperature Rise ‘Utterly Inadequate’

Petra Tschakert, Coordinating Lead Author of IPCC Climate Change Report, says the 2 degree limit will not prevent climate catastrophe


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DHARNA NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore.

The United Nations Framework on Climate Change has set an official target for the global rise of temperature at 2 degrees Celsius. The limit, which has been presented as a universally accepted goal, will guide the upcoming agreements at COP21 in Paris this December. But according to our next guest’s recent report, 70% of all the countries signed on to this UN Framework find this limit too high. Instead, they’re calling for the limit to be set at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

So without further ado, now joining us is Petra Tschakert. Petra is a human environment geographer who works on climate change adaptation, livelihood resistance, and social and environmental justice all around the world. She was the coordinating lead author on the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Record, [working group two] on a new chapter entitled Livelihoods and Poverty. Thank you so much for joining us today, Petra.

So Petra, why is the 1.5 degrees Celsius an important and better goal than 2 degrees? I mean, I think a lot of folks would hear that and say, does that half a degree really make a difference?

PETRA TSCHAKERT, ASSOC. PROFESSOR, GEOGRAPHY AND THE EARTH ENVIRONMENTAL SYSTEMS INSTITUTE, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY: That’s a really good question. Think about it in the following way. First of all, let’s clarify that we’re talking about Celsius, here. So 2 degrees Celsius as a global warming record above pre-industrial time, so end of the 18th century. And if you think about it in Fahrenheit, that would be 3.6 Fahrenheit roughly, 1.5 indeed doesn’t seem like a whole lot of a difference.

But think about this temperature target as a global average. It’s not the temperature you or I would experience on a daily basis. It’s really a mathematical construct. It’s a collection of all the temperature targets around the world including thousands of temperature stations, climate stations in general, on land. But as well temperature records on the ocean, so sea surface temperature. Also including temperatures that come from satellites and temperatures that come from the Arctic. So it’s an aggregate. It’s a global average, that of course we can calculate in an Excel sheet, for example. But no real person experiences this global average on a daily basis.

You know, I’ve heard Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop from South Africa, say at the Copenhagen meeting in 2009 that a 2 degree target, global target, as kind of the upper limit of safety by the end of the century would mean 3 degrees, or 3.5, or even 4 degrees Celsius for Africa. For the African continent. And that would mean cooking the African continent.

So let’s understand that an aggregate does not mean that this temperature is actually perceived, experienced. We do know that in many places the actual temperatures perceived are much higher.

We also know that the temperature target, 2 degrees, in a sense really summarizes or signals a whole bunch of climate effects that are not necessarily just related to temperature. Expressions of climate change, and the temperature target summarizes those simply because we have a lot more data on temperature records going back 100, 120, 130 years than we have records on extreme events.

So let’s understand that this temperature target really encapsulates the various climate changes we’re experiencing. Think about, also, the winter we have experienced in the Northeast this year. Really, really cold.

NOOR: Sure.

TSCHAKERT: At the same time, we have drought and very high temperatures in California, for example. So it’s an aggregate measure. Now if you think about it as an aggregate, it becomes much clearer that a 0.5 degree difference actually has real implications for people on the ground. Right?

NOOR: I guess I’m wondering where that 2 degree limit came from. Who is that that’s insisting on that 2 degrees Celsius target?

TSCHAKERT: Yes. So this 2 degree has been floating around for quite some time. It was first really introduced in the scientific community in the ’60s, in the ’70s. One of the first attempts was to use some kind of temperature threshold to calculate the limit of emissions and then emission reductions. It was later circulated to think about differences between moderate and acceptable climate change, and dangerous and really disturbing climate change. But really just as an orientation.

Twenty years ago, the European Union used it as kind of the threshold for maintaining the health of coral reefs. And you know, it just got anchored in people’s minds, and it’s easy to grasp because it’s a round number, so people kind of rallied behind it.

More recently in 2009, at the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, the 2 degree target was accepted as the threshold between safe and potentially dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. And that’s when it became really contested, especially from countries who are small island states, but also many of the African countries. And many of these countries, as a matter of fact as you said, roughly 70% of all the countries who are part of the UN, said 1.5 would be much more appropriate.

NOOR: And so you’ve mentioned that some countries will be affected differently than others by these increases in temperatures, that some might have more to lose than others. Who will be affected the most by rises in temperatures beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius?

TSCHAKERT: Well, let’s — I would say let’s think about it that way. There is absolutely nobody who is immune to the negative impact of climate change. You’re right, there are certain countries that are more vulnerable simply because of their exposure. That includes all the small island states given the fact that sea level rise is already threatening some of their land, their livelihoods. But also questions of [identity] [inaud.]. Deltas like in Bangladesh, again, exposed to sea level rise are certainly vulnerable simply because of their location.

But the way we understand vulnerability today is not just limited to countries. It’s really about being potentially exposed to harm, having a propensity of predisposition to be negatively affected and be harmed, and that has to do with inequalities that are baked into any society. They exist in any society independent of climate change. And very often these inequalities are linked to categories like gender, age, race, class, ethnicity, and so on.

You know, think about the heatwaves. 70,000 people died. That’s an astonishing and completely unacceptable, unacceptably high number. So who are these people who died? Actually, very similar to the heatwave in Chicago in the ’90s. These are people who are disadvantaged in their own societies. Chicago it was particularly black men, single men, isolated without a social network, living in places that didn’t have access to air conditioning. This is what we’re talking about when we think about [vulnerability] [inaud.].

So yes there are countries that are more vulnerable than other countries, but we are particularly concerned with people. Individuals in their own society who are disadvantaged, who experience multiple vulnerabilities. But of course we all realize that we have poor and disadvantaged people in our own country, in many countries in Europe, and these are the ones who are most vulnerable. These are the ones who experience climate change already significantly.

NOOR: I guess in the news we’ve been seeing so many signs of this in industrialized countries. I mean, as you’ve mentioned we’ve had the long-term drought in California, there’s an increase in the sea level rise, there’s been flooding, record storms. I guess some scientists seem reticent to link these things to climate change, these extreme weather events. But would you say that these things would be expected outcomes of increased temperatures?

TSCHAKERT: I think climate scientists are right. You know, you do not want to link every single hurricane and every single drought and every single wildfire to climate change. But I think what the science has shown–and this is one of the most important outcomes from this Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC. So if you think about a particular place that has a record of an extreme drought every 20 years, well, this frequency is very likely to increase four-fold, for example, having a drought every 5 years, by the end of the century. And most likely that drought also being longer. More severe. And this is what we definitely have to expect.

NOOR: And do you think that adaptation to climate change is possible? Can those who are vulnerable develop response strategies?

TSCHAKERT: Adaptation exists around the world. There are fantastic records, and again the IPCC has a really detailed list of adaptation strategies. Many of them are already in place. Many of them are functioning, and many of them have shown significant results. What is lacking is sufficient funding to support these adaptation structures and strategies, and really link them from the local level to the national and the global level.

So more funding for adaptation is certainly needed. But we also realize, and that’s something that comes from, again, from the [Fifth Assessment Report], we also realize that there are limits to adaptation. And you know, sometimes we think that we can just adapt our way out of the climate crisis, and that will not work. It will not work for everybody. Not every person, not every individual will have the capacity to do so, and that of course is true for ecosystems and species as well.

So the science does tell us that limits to adaptation exist at any temperature target. Whether that’s 1, 1.5. What we realize is it will become much more difficult to adapt with every single notch in the temperature scale, and it will become much more hostile.

NOOR: Well Petra, I hope that we hear from you again before COP21 in December. Thank you so much for joining us today, again.

TSCHAKERT: You’re very welcome.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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