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Hope from chaos: could political upheaval lead to a new green epoch?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) published its first major report28 years ago. This watershed document described the ominous implications of escalating emissions and the scale of the challenge in reversing this seemingly inexorable trend.

Today, despite four further IPCC reports, 23 rounds of international negotiations, and thousands of climate change papers and conferences, annual emissions are more than 60% higher than in 1990, and are still rising. Put simply, the international community has presided over a quarter of a century of abject failure to deliver any meaningful reduction in absolute global emissions.

Certainly the rhetoric of action is ramping up. Yet those who talk confidently about renewables, nuclear and “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) eventually driving down emissions in decades to come are guilty of misunderstanding the fundamental science of climate change.

We face a “cumulative problem”, with rising temperatures relating to the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Based on this, the Paris 1.5°C and 2°C commitments demand total emissions remain within a small and rapidly dwindling “carbon budget”. Time is truly of the essence. Less than 12 years of current emissions will see our 1.5°C aspiration go the way of the dodo, with the 2°C carbon budget exceeded by the mid 2030s.

Paris defines a timeframe and scale of mobilisation reminiscent of major wars, yet our collective response remains much more akin to the apocryphal tale of a gently warming frog.

Continuing with today’s ineffective “mitigation”, delusion and fear will bequeath many humans and other species decades and even centuries of climatic instability. This preference for short-term hedonism (for the few) over longer-term planetary stewardship is essentially an active choice for politically expedient incrementalism over revolutionary change. The latter is a prerequisite of meeting our Paris commitments – but can such rapid change ever be more than a “romantic illusion”?

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