For decades, researchers have been sounding the alarm on climate change: it’s happening, we’re causing it, it’s bad. The message from IPCC and elsewhere has long been that solving the climate challenge is technically feasible, and what’s missing is political will. With the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the world finally has its mandate of political will. In total, 195 nations confirmed that climate change is a “common concern of humankind” and adopted the target to limit warming well below 2° Celsius, aiming for no more than 1.5° above preindustrial levels. For the first time, these temperature targets are linked with mechanisms to achieve them, which sends a powerful signal that society is ready to act on climate change.
What does this mean for scientists? I see this as a clarion call for more researchers (including myself) to reorient our work towards further exploring and creating solutions to meet the social mandate to live in a world where many of the worst impacts never happen, while understanding the impacts that are already here and those expected under the new target. The first is necessary to meet the ambitious but essential target; the second, to determine the magnitude of the investments in resilience, and flows of both technology and finance, that will be required to manage the impacts.
There’s no question that meeting the 1.5° target is a monumental challenge. A recent analysis by Rogelj and colleagues found it will require “rapid and profound decarbonization of energy supply,” from its current 81% of fossil sources, in order to reach net zero carbon emissions as early as 2045 (recognized by the long-term goal in the Paris Agreement to balance greenhouse gas emissions and removal). Further, they found that meeting the target would ultimately require actively removing carbon from the atmosphere, through means that have yet to be widely tested or implemented.
This is a sobering prospect, but also a call for overcoming the battle-weary lack of imagination and entrenched groupthink that hinder us from seeing and seizing the opportunities at hand to help make a 1.5° world a reality, in line with the social mandate to do so. It’s precisely because meeting the target will be so challenging that we need a wide range of minds focused on every aspect of the issue to find a sufficiently innovative range of solutions beyond our current incremental focus.
Regional governments, businesses, investors, and civil society leaders are running full speed ahead to take the signal from Paris and turn it into policies and projects on the ground. More researchers need to recognize this inflection point and see it as an opportunity to do their flat-out best to help guide the transformation to a 1.5° world, before becoming a source of drag as the world moves ahead.
Nearly every country has already submitted its first climate pledge, briefly outlining its national goals for emissions reductions. These bottom-up promises, which let countries account for their own national circumstances (whether their constraints are as a low-income, low-lying island nation, or a major emitter with a climate-unfriendly Congress) are an innovation that enabled the Paris process to succeed politically.
We know that previous and current pledges aren’t sufficient to meet the temperature targets. What will make the Paris agreement succeed scientifically and stabilize the climate is rapidly implementing the current pledges, and building on this success to decisively increase our collective ambition beyond what seemed possible in the old, gridlocked climate paradigm in which they were created, which ended with a gavel bang on the 12th of December.
As societies tackle the transformations ahead, researchers from all disciplines have a critical role to play in applying their expertise and forging new collaborations to help turn ambition into reality. We need critical, creative thinking and analysis to propose and evaluate a wide range of ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to protect and restore the forests and other ecosystems that store carbon as well as harbor biodiversity, and to prepare for and adapt to the consequences of the changes we cannot avoid. We need to find ways to provide, deliver, and store energy, water, and food for all the people on earth with net zero greenhouse gas emissions. We need to figure out what works to govern societies fairly and well, to inform effective institutions and policies, and to shape the individual behaviors, values, and norms that can bring a 1.5° world into existence.
I believe more researchers can contribute towards making this happen, whether it’s in encouraging our universities to align their investments and policies with the 1.5° target, igniting the creativity of our students in finding solutions, or in designing our research and collaborating with stakeholders to help our cities, regions, and countries to set and meet ambitious climate targets.
But if we’re going to succeed, we need to start today. The Paris agreement asks the IPCC to deliver a special report in 2018 on the impacts and pathways to a 1.5° world. The IPCC mandate is to synthesize existing research rather than conduct original analysis, which means researchers need to produce these new analyses starting right away. In a very real sense, the possibility to achieve the 1.5° target relies on creative, deep, broad, integrated, and very quick thinking. Of course, the best time to have committed to solving climate change and dive headfirst into doing so was decades ago, but the second best time is now.