Dealing With Unwelcome Messages

Illustration on the false prophets of climate change by Linas Garsys/The Washington Times 

If you read this you could be better-liked, better looking, famous, wealthy, a winner in life. I envy communication people working in the traditional marketing and PR industries. They don’t have to tell the truth.

In science communication we tell the truth as we understand it, based on what we currently know from a rigorous and objective evidence base. As a result, few people welcome our messages, and this is why climate change is one of the most scrutinized areas of public policy science.

Since the mid-1990s, climate policy was working towards limiting global warming to two degrees. Unfortunately, ever-rising global emissions have moved the two degree goal post so near that that target is now almost behind us. No-one, in particular hard-working policy people in the UK, EU and UN welcomes that uncomfortable message.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just stated that to have a good chance to stay below two degrees the limit for CO2 emissions is about half of what has already been emitted since the industrial revolution began. This means that the world’s carbon budget – the amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted without exceeding two degrees of warming – could be used up entirely by 2040.

It is untrue that most CO2 taps could be turned off tomorrow and therefore global temperature rise will be kept below two degrees by the end of this century. More likely, if fossil fuels continue to be burned at the current rate, then global temperature by the end of this century will be between 3.4 and 5.4 degrees. To help show what this means to you and me, the Guardian have published the excellent ‘How hot will it get in my lifetime

My colleagues and others are now suggesting in public that it is time for climate and energy policy people to seriously discuss the alternatives to the two degree target. Professor Andy Jordan specialises in environmental politics at the University of East Anglia. He says;

Those concerned about climate change should now take the seemingly uncomfortable step of exploring the risks and opportunities associated with alternative goals and targets

He and others have scoured the existing literature and suggest four ways to begin this uncomfortable discussion around a new achievable target for climate change policy. They’ve published their thoughts in the journal Science Policy in a paper title ‘Going Beyond 2 Degrees? The risks and opportunities of alternative options

They recommend a shift of focus of climate policy discussions:

• Adapt climate policy to an amended goal of ‘Mitigate for 2 but adapt for 4’, thereby ‘hedging our bets’ by taking steps to adapt to higher temperatures whilst stepping up to a higher level of ambition regarding mitigation.

• ‘Adopt new goals’: since the two degrees target appears unable to stimulate significant decarbonisation in the short-term, more specific near-term targets should be adopted.

• ‘Be politically more pragmatic’: society should accept that science-informed targets such as two degrees have failed to drive social change and instead concentrate on taking politically achievable steps in the short term without an explicit and overarching ‘target’.

• ‘Re-commit to staying within 2 degrees’: the growing likelihood, recently confirmed by the IPCC, of high rates of warming makes it even more important to recommit to achieving what it referred to as “substantial and sustained reductions” in emissions.

Unwelcome and doomladen messages from climate change communicators are not new, but science communication has to be truthful as best it can. The first unwelcome message for communicators to the public is that climate change is science (and economics) and so is not easily sold with a slogan or a soundbite. (Attempts have been made by brand specialists to brand climate change, but that is a topic for another day). Second, climate change is distant not immediate, and affects someone else in the future living in another country. Third, climate change is a killjoy – to avoid the worst I can’t drive, fly, buy or wear anything that used energy in its manufacture or transportation, and I need to eat a lot less, and only vegetables. Fourth, climate policy is about altruism – the worst can only be prevented if everyone makes the same lifestyle sacrifices everywhere.

And the new unwelcome message – ever-rising global emissions have moved the goal posts so near that the target is now almost behind us. Dealing with unwelcome (and truthful) messages are what science and climate communicators could be thinking upon. The IPCC has two more reports in early 2014 – there are more unwelcome messages to come.