In my last blog post, I have discussed why climate change is not just a wicked but a super wicked problem. In addition, I have introduced the concept of the wicked trinity which I have argued lies at the heart of the climate change mitigation debate. The wicked trinity is composed of (i) the target to contain the rise in global warming within the threshold of 2oC compared to the pre-industrial levels; (ii) the “carbon majors” who collectively have contributed most of the anthropogenic GHG emissions and presently own/control the majority of the fossil fuel reserves; and; (iii) the prospect of imposing the risk of stranded carbon assets on the carbon majors to stay within the global warming threshold of 2oC.

In this post I will focus particularly on one of the three elements of the wicked trinity. I will briefly discuss the history, science and politics behind the 2oC target, which has become the cornerstone of global policy advocacy on climate change.

In 1977 William D. Nordhaus from the Yale University was the first to propose the 2oC as a benchmark threshold to control the rise of GHG emissions. Subsequently, in 1990 the Stockholm Environmental Institute advocated for the 2oC as the basis for climate change policy making. Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change drafted in 1992 stated that the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” is the objective of the convention. However, it did fall short of linking 2oC explicitly to the dangerous level of atmospheric GHG concentration. The European Union Council did so as the first political body in 1996. Since then the 2oC remained as a benchmark policy advocacy tool in all international climate change negotiations. The first formal recognition was granted in the text of the Copenhagen Accord drafted at the Conference of Parties’ (COP) 15th meeting in 2009. This journey finally culminated at the COP21 in Paris when nearly 200 nations made the 2°C target as the cornerstone of the Paris Agreement.

While in politics there is a consensus around the 2°C target, the scientific community provides a contrasting position. There is no scientific consensus on one unique point of irreversible climate change (or tipping point). One of the key issues in the ongoing debate in identifying the tipping point is the issue of climate sensitivity. Climate sensitivity determines the rise in temperature corresponding to a doubling of the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere. According to a review of the climate sensitivity studies published in Nature magazine this figure varies from 2°C to 4.5°C.

How can these two contrasting positions between the scientific and the political communities be explained? A starting point could be a moral argument. To err is human and to err on the lower end of the spectrum of the 2°C to 4.5°C can be considered a safer bet from the point of view of the precautionary principle. But there is more to it than this simple argument. Some experts feel that the political consensus around 2°C is counterintuitive. It actually masks the political unwillingness to take any decisive action against climate change. Oliver Geden at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs warns that the whole discourse around the 2°C target obfuscates action. The 2°C is a target for humanity, hence the responsibilities of individual countries are diffused. Mike Hulme from the King’s College London terms this diffusion of responsibility as “ambiguity” and identifies two more qualities of being “abstract” and “distant” as the reason for 2°C target’s popularity among the politicians. It is “abstract” as global temperature does not resonate with our normal day to day living. It is “distant”, because global warming is predicted over the course of the 21st century. These features give politicians plenty of room to wiggle around and allow them the possibilities of evading from taking real actions against climate change in the short term.

We can sum up the situation by saying that the 2°C target raises more questions than answers in finding real solutions to mitigate the climate change.

Photo: Photo taken during Mark Dixon’s journey to the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, France: CC BY 2.0