What does 1.5 actually mean?

It’s good that there’s been conversation, both inside COP21 and outside of it, about the maximum temperature rise that we can tolerate. However, what actually is the difference between a 1.5 degree rise and a 2 degree rise in temperature, for the average person?

First of all, it’s important to note that any temperature rise represents the average. This means that different regions around the world will be impacted differently, and some regions (such as the poles) will most likely be drastically more affected than others. A bunch of UN experts recently published a report outlining key findings from their discussions about global warming. It’s lengthy, but it summarizes data about food availability in particular regions- and food’s nice.

Right, so one thing we know (and here comes the emotional impact) is that many of the low-lying Pacific islands will not exist with a 2 degree rise. Literally, water levels will rise, flood the islands, and submerge them. That’s not very convenient if you live there. Reports show that something around 80% of the Marshall Islands area will be under water with only a 1 meter rise of the ocean. That sucks.

2 degrees
Effects of a 2 degree rise. Picture from this Guardian article.

Apart from millions (in some cases, billions) of people suffering all kinds of different catastrophes, a two degree rise also means high risks of species being unable to adapt to higher temperatures, thus dying out, melting of Arctic ice caps, and (this one might hurt) economic losses. Large ones.

However, do the terrible effects of a 2 degree rise indicate that 1.5 degrees are perfect? No, you’re grown-ups and you should know the world doesn’t work that way.

A temperature rise of 1.5 degrees is really only a 0.5-0.8 degree rise from the current state, as throughout industrialization we’ve already risen temperatures by around a degree. This means that, regardless of what the consequences of 1.5 degrees are, we first need to figure out whether the goal is actually feasible, scientifically and politically.

A bunch of vulnerable countries (led by Pacific islanders) have been exerting a lot of pressure for a limit at 1.5 degrees. This is great. However, in order to exercise the political will needed to reach the goal, countries need to start drastically reducing emissions right now. They also need to reduce emissions by a lot (the sciencey talk says our maximum carbon budget would be somewhere around 1000 billion tons). Countries, thus, need to give up consumerism, oil, and many of life’s commodities in order to do so. That sucks! Additionally, rapid and drastic changes such as this one cost money. People like money, and do not like giving it away- not even when lives are at stake. Reaching a 1.5 degree goal would cost approximately 50% more than going for the 2 degree thing (although it would prevent a bunch of spending on rebuilding stuff after it has been destroyed from climate catastrophes, but let’s not talk about that).

I’d be very ignorant, however, if I didn’t include reasons countries give when they set the limit at 2 degrees. Obviously, not everyone is at the living standard the US has achieved, and many aspire to. This growth and economic development (particularly on the side of India and China- two huge countries) emits carbon. Thus, in order to keep their economic growth, they don’t want to stop emitting just yet. Maybe in a decade?

And it’s difficult. Is it fair to reduce someone else’s growth, just because they happened to start growing at an inconvenient time? Then again, is it fair to let someone grow at the expense of the homes and lives of millions? I don’t know man, I’m just a 17 year old with no moral legitimacy whatsoever.

In conclusion, it’s going to be hard. Negotiations are probably going to go over the Friday deadline, and there’s going to be a lot of pressure on everyone. The most likely scenario at this point seems to be some funding, and some legal ‘bindingness’, accompanied by some future catastrophes. We’re unlikely to get a perfect agreement, but we’re also unlikely to just give up on the world. Whether we get 1.5, 2, 2.7 or somewhere in between will largely be decided by the Paris agreement, but also on the actions on individuals. For me, personally, imagining my friend from the Marshall Islands drowning suddenly makes beef seem the slightest bit less tasty.




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