Ultimately, how politicians “wish to interpret the science” largely depends upon where they live. For those who do not face the impending threat of catastrophic flooding with each storm surge, it is easier to rationalize limiting warming to two degrees as a “realistic” target. But for whom is this target realistic? It certainly is not practical for the individuals who will die or be forced to move from their homelands in the event that global warming surpasses the 1.5 degree milestone.
Consequently, Mr. Tong went on to argue, environmentalists and politicians cannot claim to stand in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable while continuing to view the 1.5 degree target as merely an idealistic objective that the world is likely to fall short of. It is instead our obligation to resolutely pursue this target and to reject the pessimistic outlook that political forces make the goal unattainable.
Earlier this year, President Tong remarked that “I’ve been engaged in debate with other leaders, for whom limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees centigrade was not acceptable, because it would affect their economies. For me, it’s just an argument that I cannot understand — how their reasoning could be so distorted to compare their economic prosperity as being more important than the survival of people on the other side of the world.” But it is not solely negotiators and politicians who are perpetuating this dangerous logic. Each time that groups who claim to support the marginalized communities most impacted by climate change question the feasibility of the 1.5 degree target, they are normalizing the inevitability of climatic changes that will destroy lives and livelihoods.
A recent report published by leading climate scientists, does just this by diminishing the necessity of staying below the 1.5 degree target. The article reads: “some policymakers and civil society groups advocated for a higher ambition target, and a 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels target was also included [in the Paris Agreement]...However, the 1.5°C target has almost certainly already been missed because of the lack of action to stop the increase in global GHG emissions for the last 20 years.”
By accepting the present emissions trajectory as inevitable and failing to contextualize the profound consequences that the missed target will have on human lives, this and similar statements remove additional agency from vulnerable communities. If individuals and nations truly wish to stand in solidarity with these groups, the 1.5 degree goal must be understood as an attainable objective to be adamantly pursued. Now is simply not the time to confine ourselves to “realistic” thinking. While this year’s “island COP” might not have broken out of this cynical thinking, it does not mean that the world must remain stuck in this mode of thought moving forward.
Emma Bouton is a student researcher with the Brown University Climate and Development Lab who attended COP23 in Bonn, Germany last month.