Pessimism, optimism, pt 1

There is a massive gulf between what we now know about climate change and what we’re prepared to do about it. There’s a phrase that people use at the RSA to describe the difference between what we say we want to do and what we actually do; researchers here talk about the social aspiration gap.

I caught up with this post from Bill McKibben on Grist yesterday, about Al Gore’s speech at Poznan. McKibben was there to observe and to proselytise for, the campaign to hold the allowable limit for atmospheric CO2  concentrations at 350 parts per million.

This figure is based on research by NASA scientist James Hansen’s paper released in April this year which concluded baldly: “If humanity
wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and
to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate
change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at
most 350 ppm.”

Recent research – including new reports that the thawing of Arctic permafrost is already releasing methane quantities that suggest warming feedback is already galloping away – is not  particularly good news for the UN process leading up to COP15 at Copenhagen next year. The world’s political machinery is already having a very hard time dragging reluctant governments to the target of between 445 and 535ppm, numbers which this newer research says are way too high. Our current idea of civilisation is unstustainable at the targets that the UN is already struggling to meet.

McKibben writes about the mixture of euphoria and despair, pessimism and optimism, in the response to Gore’s speech:

And then, on the last day of the talks, Al Gore gave his speech,
which drew everyone into the main conference hall. It was a good talk,
but by far the longest and loudest applause came when he formally
announced the new reality. “Even a goal of 450 parts per million, which
seems so difficult today, is inadequate,” he said, adding that we “need
to toughen that goal to 350 parts per million.” People erupted —
probably not the Chinese and American delegations, and definitely not
the Saudis and the Russians, but all the people who’d spent the last
few years struggling with the idea that their work was getting
increasingly off-the-point. It was a way of saying: We’ve been engaged
in saving the treaty, not saving the world — and we’d rather save the

Currently, projections of CO2 emissions for this century put the world at somewhere in the region of 680ppm. In RSA-speak, we’re looking at a quantifiable social aspiration gap of a whopping 680-350= 330ppm.

Photo: Villagers threatened by flooding in Munshiganj, Bangladesh, 2007. Photo courtesy of the Canary Project which uses photography and artwork to help visualise the consequences of human-induced climate change to stimulate people to action.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Blog