Some fifteen years ago, Al Gore tried to wake up the world with his Inconvenient Truth message, after dozens before him failed to do so. An audience of millions saw the movie or read the book, and moved on to business as usual. That was back in 2006.
New reports from the IPCC followed, in 2015 a major climate conference was held in Paris, and the climate continued to change. We hardly did. At all levels, we continue to underestimate climate- and societal risks.
In 2019 I wrote a column about the risk of extreme events, which is much greater than the IPCC wants us to believe. Breakthrough, an Australian think tank, described this phenomenon in a 2017 report.
It’s forecasts included both the corona pandemic (it could have been any other virus) and the current extreme weather disasters. No one responded to this really inconvenient truth. Even while the world experiences runaway climate change, the illusion is kept alive that we can prevent worse.
Misty IPCC jargon and hidden deceivers hide real inconvenient truth
Underestimation results from the terminology the IPCC applies to describe the risk levels of events, and the level of consent about it. Outsiders are easily misled by this code.
It leads to a (far too) positive assessment of risks. For example, an event with a 33% chance, or 1 in 3, is described as ‘unlikely’. Would you get on a plane that has a 33% (or even a 10% chance = very unlikely) risk to crash? Or would you be able to insure a house that has even a 1% chance of burning down within a year? At the IPCC, they apparently don’t have a problem with those.
Hidden deeper is the underestimation that results from the risk-calculation itself, which is based on a normal distribution of the Gauss curve.
It works fine for collections of static elements, for example the height of people. However it does not work with dynamic elements, whose properties or values change over time, such as the weather. With those, events with a small probability in a normal distribution could appear to pose a much greater risk as a result of the influence of external factors, creating a so called fat tail at the positive end of the graph. (What Lies Beneath, pg 13)
This can have major consequences for estimates like the possible rise of temperature, as Breakthrough shows. In a scenario of (average) 3 degrees rise, the risk that it eventually turns out to be 6 degrees warmer is not 2%, but 10%. In other words, 1 in 10, instead of 1 in 50, or 5 times as large. At the IPCC however, both are still “very unlikely”. So you can sleep peacefully.
The delusional IF word
The illusion that we can prevent worse is often preceded by the word ‘if’. If we take extra measures to reduce co2 emissions in time, if we all work together, if we… just name a few. The Paris Agreement is built on it: if we all stick to our resolutions….
In reality, we have not even done what is absolutely necessary. Even the day after the release of the last IPCC report, both China and the worst polluters of Dutch industry announced that they are not going to change their climate plans. Putin is silent. India says it can do no more and that probably goes for the rest of the world as well. Europe has a plan, but it is slow and divided.
As in the case of the corona pandemic, in the climate crisis too we are unable to organise a collective and coherent response to deal with it. Yet we know very well what needs to be done and there are more than enough resources to do so. But each and every time we don’t. Why?
Bubbles in a tunnel
This paralysis is rooted in a few reinforcing phenomena in human behaviour. Two of these are bubble thinking and tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision is the unwillingness or inability to experience events that lie outside one’s immediate world. It occurs in individuals and in group behaviour.
Bubble thinking arises when likeminded people form a group (bubble) in which they reinforce their common ideas. Thus bubbles are easily created based on tunnel vision. The larger (or louder) the group, the stronger the effect. It happens in football stadiums and in meeting rooms and more recently it happens on social media.
Add the effects of economic and political interests, socio-cultural sentiments and technical lock-ins of existing, rigid structures to this and then calculate the effects of the interplay of millions, perhaps billions, of organised and informal systems interacting. From Yellow Vests and Taliban to United Nations and football associations.
That outcome almost certainly leads to a real inconvenient truth: we won’t make it. The climate warms (much) more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. We are on course for 3 to 4.5 degree rise in temperature which will have dramatic consequences. For you, for me, for our (grand)children and for the rest of the planet, that becomes sheer uninhabitable. Dozens of disaster movies show what that looks like.
What we still might be able to do
Breakthrough argues that only an all-out war economy can turn things around. All our actions should be aimed at the max reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
It requires extreme measures that go way beyond keeping distance and wearing face masks. It will take extensive and powerful interventions.
Unavoidable in such a strategy is the rationing of CO2. Like food stamps during World War II, limited rights on emissions will be allowed. Emission equivalents are assigned to all products.
Car ownership and air travel are allowed only on a permit base. The idea that everyone can own a car is unsustainable, even if it is electric. Especially in cities we need to completely switch to car sharing and public transportation.
A progressive tax on unsustainable products will be introduced.
Climate crime will be included in criminal law.
No one would imagine it will ever come to this. But that’s what we thought too, two years ago, when it comes to face protection and lockdowns.
All of us have to act within our power to contribute: stop using fossil fuels, eat less meat, or none at all, consume less and sustainable only.
It we don’t, it will mean the end of our current civilisation. Unfortunately there is no more convenient truth.
Peter van Vliet
chief editor of iNSnet.org and Duurzaamnieuws.nl