Op-ed: On climate change, we don’t have time to wait

Extinction Rebellion’s Jemima Turner speaks out on the need for climate action, now

In 1912, a newspaper article suggested that human emissions of carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels could affect the world’s climate. At the time, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was just under 300 parts per million (ppm).

In 1992, after decades of emerging evidence on human-induced climate change, the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity was published, outlining the grave threat human activity posed to the climate and the natural world. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 at this time was 356 ppm.

Today, climate change is recognised as being one of the greatest threats facing us. Report after report has been published, outlining the catastrophic consequences of a rise in greenhouse gases and the global temperature rise which accompanies these emissions. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 hovers around 415 ppm, the highest it has been any time in the past three million years. Global average temperatures have already risen by 1ºC compared to the pre-industrial era.

In October 2019, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report on a global warming of 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial temperatures. This report compared the effects of a 1.5ºC temperature rise to a 2ºC temperature rise – although it may seem small, the difference is drastic. The difference is whether island nations home to 60,000 people will be lost to rising sea levels. The difference is 10.4 million people being exposed to severe flooding. The difference is 1.7 billion people being exposed to extreme heatwaves. The difference is entire ecosystems being lost.

Much of the current discussion on climate change is about how it will affect our future. This is to ignore the reality that, for people in developing countries – those who have done the least to cause this catastrophe we find ourselves in – climate change is not about tomorrow, it’s about today. The impacts of climate change are already making themselves apparent through crop failures, droughts, flooding, and in the conflicts fuelled by these events. 

In the coming years, if we continue on our current trajectory, we will see these impacts on a colossal scale. Millions of people will die of disease, conflict, famine, or of any other countless natural disasters. Hundreds of millions of people will be displaced, creating a refugee crisis to dwarf any we have seen before.  At some point we must step back and ask ourselves if this is the world we want to create.

What is important to note is that, under current climate policy, a 2ºC temperature rise very much represents a best-case scenario. This is the goal enshrined in the Paris Agreement, but we’re nowhere near on track to reach this target. Current emission trajectories put us on course for at least a 3ºC temperature rise, likely more. How much more depends, to a great extent, on so-called tipping points – irreversible processes triggered by rising global temperatures that release vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus creating a cycle of positive feedback that will lead to much greater heating. Critically, it will lead to a cycle we will no longer be able to control. 

It’s impossible to estimate at what temperatures these events – such as the melting of permafrost and the burning of rainforests – could happen, but they could start to occur at temperatures well below a 2ºC rise. Common sense tells us that, with so much at stake, we must take all possible precautions necessary to prevent avoid these tipping points. And yet, despite being fully informed on the consequences of climate change, and despite overwhelming scientific consensus that it is being caused by human activity, our governments are not acting. Emissions continue to rise. Even if the science is widely accepted, the action that must follow this acceptance is missing. 

“Civil disobedience is needed to persuade governments to take real, meaningful action on the climate and biodiversity crisis.”

When governments refuse to act on the warnings of scientists, we can no longer be silent. Throughout history, non-violent civil disobedience has been used successfully to bring about change in society, which is exactly why Extinction Rebellion uses the methods it does. Civil disobedience is needed to persuade governments to take real, meaningful action on the climate and biodiversity crisis. Extinction Rebellion Ireland has three demands: that the Government communicates to the public the nature of the climate and biodiversity emergency, and the need for immediate action; that the Government acts now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030 and to halt and reverse biodiversity loss; and that there is a just transition to a zero-carbon society, where the poorest and most vulnerable are not left behind. In less than a year, Extinction Rebellion has already shown that civil disobedience works. Following the blocking of O’Connell Bridge in April, the Irish government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. Now, the Government needs to act on its words.

“The most important thing to remember is that we still have time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

The most important thing to remember is that we still have time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. By acting now, we still have a chance of keeping the temperature rise below 1.5ºC. It will be incredibly challenging, and will require collective action from every nation. But it’s possible, and the IPCC report outlines how it can be achieved. However, crucially, the longer we wait to act, the less time we will have, the steeper the emission reductions will have to be and the more difficult it will be to reach these targets.

“Now is the time for us to decide the future for life on this planet.”

The coming decade will be one of the most important times in human history. It will be the time when we decide whether the relentless drive towards unsustainable mass consumption is worth more than peoples’ lives, livelihoods and homes. It will be the time to decide whether we will come together to address this enormous crisis of our own making, or to let inaction threaten our survival. Now is the time for us to decide the future for life on this planet.

Nobody should be under any illusion that this will be easy. This will be one of the most difficult things we ever do – transforming our society in a matter of years. But at XR we call you to action, because there has never been more at stake.