From Climate Change to Climate Action (from physical science to social science)

On Monday, the IPCC’s 6th assessment report on the physical science basis of climate change will be released. The report assesses the current scientific knowledge on the processes and impacts of climate change, projected future warming, and impacts on climate systems. It is a report on why we need to act on climate change. It is being released 84 days before the start of COP 26 – the UN conference where it is hoped that the leaders of 196 countries will commit to actions to meet (or exceed) the goals of the Paris Agreement. These actions must reduce emissions, and quickly. In these 84 days, we must turn our attention to how we achieve emissions cuts… and this means expanding our focus to the social science of climate change.

Czech Warming Stripes (1901-2020): (copyright Ed Hawkins Each stripe represents the average temperature for a year.

The IPCC report is extremely important, and is likely to make for sobering reading. Our changing climate is a physical process. It is shaped by anthropogenic carbon and methane emissions and the impacts we experience are related to our aquatic environment, our soils, forests, and ecosystems; all aspects of our environment that we depend on for our survival and way of life. The report will outline how increasing emissions are pushing us towards disastrous consequences.

The hoped impact of the report is that governments and people recognize the severity of the challenge we face, and the urgency of needing to act. Many commentators have referred to the role of the physical science in the report as creating (or increasing) political and popular will to act. It is important that we take the time to absorb these stark messages and use them as impetus to push for personal, collective and political action.

However, as we move towards finding solutions, we need to look beyond the physical science understandings and forecasts[1]. Some might argue that reducing emissions is a technical problem, of renewable energy capacity, electric vehicles and finding ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And sure, technologies will need to play a role. However, all of these technologies require significant shifts in infrastructure, and are not sufficient alone. As a society, we need to change to undertake behaviours, create business models, and provide social services that deliver a high levels of well-being, while reducing our emissions.

In good news, these changes, or transformations should be an opportunity to adapt to climate change, and mitigate other environmental challenges (such as biodiversity loss) while also reducing our emissions!

But this also means that changes will happen, whether we chose to create them or not. We can deny the need to act, or continue to not act enough, and to ignore the science. But this won’t prevent us being impacted by climate change. Droughts, floods, changes in weather patterns, forest die-off, forest fire – these impacts will force us to make adaptations and changes. We have been lucky here in CZ this summer, but change is coming. At this moment in time we have the chance to be proactive. We can choose, as a country, as the European Union, and as a Global Community to create changes that benefit us; this is what COP should be about.

We therefore need to be asking different questions, beyond “is climate change real?” and “how will climate change affect me?”. As we head towards COP26, our pertinent questions should include:

  • How do we address injustices between those historically responsible for emissions, and those suffering the greatest impacts of climate change?
  • How do we respond and reduce emissions quickly, while maintaining fundamental principles of democracy and human rights?
  • Why are targets (such as the Paris Goals) not being met by meaningful action, despite countries agreeing them?
  • What kinds of policy responses and actions should we want to see from our national governments?

The answers to these questions will not be found in Monday’s report. Making sense of these questions and the transformations we need requires us to look for evidence and knowledge on how societies change, how behaviours change, and how policy systems change. Lets use the next 84 days to look at what we know, draw on our social science, humanities and experiential knowledge, and discuss the answers to these questions.

[1] Noting that improving the science and modelling is important for how we adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change that is already locked into the system, or that we fail to mitigate.

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