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Context: Climate overshoot and what we owe the next generation

Opinion by Laurence Tubiana, Claire Bulger | 14 September 2023

The sun sets as a wildfire burns in the village of Hasia, near Athens, Greece August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
The sun sets as a wildfire burns in the village of Hasia, near Athens, Greece August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation (ECF), an architect of the Paris Agreement and a member of the Climate Overshoot Commission, and Claire Bulger, ECF Director of Strategic Foresight.

The summer of 2023 in the Western hemisphere at times could feel like a biblical plague, from heavy rains to heatwaves and fires from one day to the next. As the planet gets closer to the 1.5°C warming threshold – which the Paris Agreement urges us to stay below – we recognize that we are in dangerous waters. This should lead to acceleration of serious action, not a delay. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, but rather need to dramatically double down on mitigation, including rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, massively expanding installation of renewable energy, and channeling finance accordingly.

As the IEA tells us, we already have the technologies and policies needed to drive this mitigation consistent with 1.5°C – even if it will be a major challenge, we know what to do and how to do it. Yet we are faced with delay, obfuscation, and greenwashing, much of it driven by the fossil fuel industries and vested interests that are overwhelmingly responsible for the climate crisis itself, and that are searching for ways to prolong their current business model. One of the current stalling tactics is dangling the promise of planet-saving future technologies. However, the climate crisis requires a sophisticated response across our economies, societies, models of governance and participation, as well as technologies. Decades of research and effort shows that there will not be a single miraculous technological silver bullet. Rather than spend major amounts of money and effort searching for one, we should focus on implementing what we can do now. One of the newer technologies that has recently been the subject of a lot of interest is Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), which in principle would cool the planet without requiring reducing greenhouse gas emissions by reflecting some of the sun's rays back to space. I, Laurence, was a member of a group of governance experts who recently examined this technology, and our conclusions were clear. This is a highly risky path. SRM could potentially have major unintended consequences, such as changing precipitation patterns and on biodiversity, on a global scale. It also would not stop major problems like ocean acidification. That is why we are calling for countries to adopt a moratorium on any type of SRM intervention with a risk of significant transboundary harm, consistent with the moratorium called for by the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Commission also agreed that any research on SRM should be conducted under a governance framework that includes full transparency on funding and results. There are precedents for such strict regulation of research and testing – genetic engineering, including research on the human genome, and nuclear weapons development have all been subject to strong oversight. Nuclear weapons are a potent example as SRM could have major security implications. It could potentially be deployed unilaterally or by a small group of countries, something the U.S. National Intelligence Council warns "will increase the risk of conflict and blowback," making the governance question all the more vital. One of the biggest unsolved problems of SRM is the potential "termination shock". SRM's effects would be very short-lived, requiring either a constant renewal or running the risk that once it was ceased, the global temperature would shoot back up and have much more damaging effects than it would have without SRM. This is a major intergenerational justice issue, as decisions we make today could lock future generations into a path they do not want to be on, setting up a major generational conflict that could lead to political unrest. The question of investigating these technologies is not just for scientific researchers and governance experts. Any type of governance of SRM, whether research or testing, needs to be truly global and have diverse perspectives – it cannot be left to the richest to decide. Particularly given the impact on future generations, there would need to be true consultation and inclusive decision-making. Citizens’ assemblies, which gather a representative group of citizens to debate major policy issues, could be one model, but we would need to develop novel approaches to include future generations. The transformation needed is deep but doable. This report shows that the risks are high and that the impacts of overshoot would be severe and unequal, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. We need to use all the tools we have today to avoid that fate.

This article was published by Context.

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