In remarks bound to frighten Northern governments, anger fossil fuel companies and hearten the world’s most vulnerable communities, UN climate chief Christiana Figueros has urged limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The current official target, agreed at last year’s climate summit in Cancun, is a 2 C rise above pre-industrial levels, which some scientists say could help humanity avoid the worst effects of climate change.
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The 1.5 C bombshell was reported in the Guardian by the excellent Fiona Harvey but, oddly, has apparently not been followed up by other mainstream news media: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/01/climate-change-target-christiana-figueres/.
This was Harvey’s second big climate scoop this week. On Monday, she broke the story that global carbon emissions rose in 2010 by a record amount, according to the International Energy Agency. The surge in 2010 emissions makes it “extremely challenging [for the world] to remain below 2 degrees,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, told Harvey.
So why is Christiana Figueres now urging an even stricter target of 1.5 C? Because, the UN climate chief explains, the latest science and the rash of extreme weather now unfolding in many parts of the world–which, let’s remember, is happening after “only” 1 C of warming–make it clear that “we are in big, big trouble” if we go beyond 1.5 C.
But if science and human survival suggest a 1.5 C target, big power politics and corporate business plans suggest something else. At the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, 112 governments representing some of the world’s most vulnerable nations likewise urged a 1.5 C target. “Anything above 1.5 C and we’ve had it,” Mohammed Nasheed, president of the Maldives and a leader of the Copenhagen effort, told me in Copenhagen. But opposition from the United States, China and other major carbon polluters blocked that initiative.
Now, perhaps anticipating the same objections that were voiced at the Copenhagen summit–that hitting a 1.5 C target is politically and economically unrealistic–Figueres admitted while appearing before the International Emissions Trading Association in Barcelona that hitting the target will not be easy. But the alternative, she argued, is to knowingly condemn much of humanity to all but certain death. “We can’t have as our goal something that we already know does not guarantee the survival of low-lying states and sub-Saharan Africa,” Figueres said.
We can’t? Certainly we shouldn’t. But the truth is that this is precisely the goal the international community is currently on record endorsing. Kudos to Christiana Figueros for being honest, and brave, enough to say so–and demand something better.