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The Danger of Embracing Climate Deadlines

Can having too many “last chances” stifle attempts to enact real change?
April 21, 2022

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The IPCC’s report this month on mitigating climate change came with an all-too predictable warning: Humanity is recklessly burning through its carbon budget, and needs to start dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 to limit warming to 1.5C. Media reporting took a familiar tone: IPCC Scientists Say It’s ‘Now or Never’ to Limit Warming, Earth Hurtling Towards Dangerous Temperature Limit, Slash Emissions Now and World Can Avoid Worst Effects.

While the report’s scientific content is largely undisputed, some question the wisdom of setting dire deadlines we seem destined to miss. Are doomsday clocks the best way to motivate people and politicians to tackle climate change, or are there more effective strategies?

• • •

Deadlines Get Results

1.  Humans seem hard-wired to hit deadlines. There’s even a Yerkes–Dodson “Law” in psychology that notes we generally achieve very little unless we’re facing some time (or other) pressure.

2.  Climate science is no exception. Following an IPCC report in 2018, Patrice Kohl at the University of Central Florida embarked on a fascinating study. She recruited a thousand people and had them read two climate change news stories: one with a stark deadline; the other offering a continual process for climate mitigation over a longer period. The group given the deadline story supported more political action to tackle climate change.

3.  The IPCC has baked in deadlines for the above reasons. After years of climate policy and communication, milestones and annual targets now form the bedrock of almost all climate science. It’s hard to imagine an IPCC report without deadlines.

• • •

Deadline-ism Is Counterproductive

1.  Evolution doesn’t have deadlines. For better or worse, societies muddle through problems with incremental changes and make many missteps along the way. In a climate context, having too many deadlines can hamper creative course corrections. Ted Nordhaus unpacks this eloquently in an article on adapting to forest fires near his Bay Area home.

2.  A confusion of clocks. The latest IPCC report gives 2025 as a hard deadline to get emissions under control. Concordia University’s Climate Clock suggests we have at least 10 years to stay within 1.5C of warming, while the Carbon Clock at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change still has a quarter of a century left to run. Deadline confusion and fatigue make taking effective and coordinated action harder.

3.  Deadlines breed “Hail Mary” policies. Professor Mike Hulme at the University of Cambridge makes a good case that deadline-ism is ineffectual and self-defeating. Setting a tight deadline could encourage politicians to shift the goalposts, or to consider controversial policies like solar geoengineering. Time borrowed with geoengineering can only be paid back by large-scale carbon removal later.

4.  An illusory cliff edge. What happens if the world misses the IPCC’s 2025 deadline and doesn’t suffer a climate catastrophe immediately? Hulme suggests that could incite cynical, cry-wolf responses and undermine the credibility of climate science. Rather than a one-off issue to be solved by a deadline, he notes: “Climate change is a wicked social problem that must be resolved and renegotiated, over and over again.”


• • •

What to Keep an Eye on

1.  Who thinks we’ve missed the boat. A 2021 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that only 12 percent of Americans think it’s already too late to do anything about global warming, with 67 percent disagreeing. Will those numbers change if the world continues to miss “deadlines” for climate action?

2.  The climate generation gap. While younger activists like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have embraced (sometimes apocalyptic) climate deadlines, a big study out of New Zealand showed concern about climate change seems to be converging among younger and older people. Climate opinions aren’t set in stone, and how they progress will be crucial to future climate change mitigation.

3.  Has the IPCC had its day? Will the next report double down on deadlines or take a different approach? In a book coming out later this year, Hulme promises to give the first in-depth look at the evolution of the IPCC’s science and policies, and its influence around the world. As global institutions start to put their money where IPCC’s mouth is, such an analysis seems timely.


Parking Meter Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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