Too Little, Too Late: might panic set in?
Optimism about the potential to transform the world’s economic system, cutting emissions to net zero and realising the goals of a sustainable world is warranted. There is growing evidence that investors, regulators, city leaders and the public share common goals.
This is despite evidence that global political leadership has little sense of urgency. Many countries are committing to 2050 targets, but not short-term action. There is a gap between rhetoric and reality. The US administration is isolated, as the June 2019 Osaka meeting of the G20 demonstrated. The radical action needed to transform the global economy within the next decade is not, at least not yet, the overarching priority.
This stands in stark contrast to growing popular acceptance, including in the US, that in the real world, the short-term weather, distinct from the long-term climate, is changing quickly. The Green New Deal, which barely registered a year ago, is beginning to shape the policy agenda in the US election cycle and contributing to the rise of ‘radical environmentalism’, which in January we called ‘the missing narrative’. Yale published ‘Climate Change in the American Mind’ in April that showed US public attitudes changing, but not at the scale, or the speed, likely to dominate the short-term agenda.
Even so, our tracking of global media underlines the potential for transformation. The idea of radical, systemic innovation—by which we mean step changes, not incremental evolution—drawing together policy, technology and ‘ecosystem thinking’, also has momentum, though it receives far less media attention.
Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”.
If we substitute ‘narrative’ for ‘idea’, the first is the optimistic, even Utopian thinking that zero emissions policy, technology and investment will reduce global temperatures.
The second and opposed narrative is that even the most aggressive short-term, fundamental re-invention of the global system may be ‘too little, too late’. This also has growing momentum in the world’s media.
At risk of stretching Fitzgerald’s observation too far, keep a third narrative in mind: that the transformation itself is a source of systemic risk, with the potential to destabilise the security, financial and economic landscapes. The soft language in policy circles and the financial markets focuses not on the word ‘transformation’, but on the ’transition’. Transformation means a shift from the current, mass consumer system to a broad vision of a sustainable, zero emission world and even ‘regeneration’ of the natural ecosystems.
Everyone is searching for answers: how might the three competing narratives cannot just be held in mind, but reconciled? The prevailing language disguises the potential for violent disruption.
The possible, distinct from probable, scenario, is this: the world faces extreme weather and rapidly deteriorating forecasts for the world’s climate together with radical, systemic innovation and political panic, with all the unintended consequences and systemic failures that this may generate.
To underline what is becoming common knowledge and recently common experience, earth systems may have begun what climate scientists have most feared: non-linear, irreversible, accelerating and runaway conditions.
As the alarm signals make daily headlines, the emerging narrative is that collective action is indeed too little too late. At best, the most extreme outcomes may only be avoided by radical, short-term action.
Evidence is pervasive and global. Temperature increases in the Arctic have reached four degrees above historic levels, far beyond the mainstream IPCC forecasts (see Weak Signals). The loss of sea ice has continued to accelerate, and so increase warming. The Antarctic ice systems behave differently and peaked in 2014. Since then, there has been a sudden decline. Recent data shows that Antarctic sea ice has reached record lows in the 40-year record in 2017.
More broadly, carbon emissions continue to rise, rising to 413.76 in June 2019. The so-called ‘Keeling Curve’, a graph showing the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over Hawaii, continues to rise.
Large-scale wildfires are breaking out as far apart as California, Sweden and, this year, Spain. We have seen record June temperatures of 45.8 degrees Celsius in France; 43.2 degrees in Vietnam; and 41 degrees in Laos.
India is particularly vulnerable in the short-term. Temperatures reached 48 degrees in New Delhi, population 21 million, in June. India’s mean temperature has risen from a range of 24.5 to 25 degrees between 2000 and 2016 to 26.5 in 2017. A recent study by Stanford University, quoted in the Financial Times, argued that ‘global warming had already slowed India’s economy 31 per cent’ from expected levels.
Amitav Ghosh, an Indian novelist and author of The Great Derangement, a non-fiction book, argues that in history, climate change has created large-scale social unrest. Drawing on evidence of ecological, social and political upheavals in the Little Ice Age of the late 15th and 18th centuries, he makes the point that “The current cycle of human-induced global warming is likely to lead to a much greater climatic shift than that of the Little Ice Age.”
This may be the most important of the many warnings now gathering momentum. Political systems may not be resilient. There are few reasons for confidence after thirty years of inaction. Leadership teams around the world have not yet focused, preferring to set well-intentioned targets for 2050.
More important, civilisation does not yet have a convincing hedging strategy that will work in all possible scenarios. Above all, there are no coherent narratives to describe how environmental, social, economic and political systems might maintain stability and security in the event that extreme, runaway climate change emerges. ‘Inventing the Big Hedge’ (see https://oraclepartnership.com/long-reads/climate-change-inventing-big-hedge/) is more urgent than ever.
In absence of a better, sustainable narrative, the question is when panic may set in. Public values and attitudes, inherently dominated by individual and collective short-term experience and local conditions, continue to hold the key to estimating when the shockwaves begin. There are signs that attention is shifting towards the winning and losing regions and cities in the more extreme scenarios. The panic may already be emerging.
- https://oraclepartnership.com/in-brief/the-missing-narrative-radical-environmentalism/ ↑
- https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/climate-change-in-the-american-mind-april-2019/ ↑
- https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/06/25/1906556116 ↑
- https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/ ↑
- https://foreignpolicy.com/gt-essay/the-coming-climate-crisis/ ↑
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