When the IPCC launched its assessment of the physical science of climate change in August 2021 it was called a “code red for humanity”. The new IPCC report, which reviews the evidence on impacts of climate change and our society’s ability to adapt, sends even stronger messages on the severity of climate change and the urgency of both substantial reduction in emissions and ramped up efforts to adapt.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres described the new report as a “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of climate leadership.”
The overwhelming message from the report is that “climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet.” The findings confirm again and again that human health and wellbeing is dependent on the health of nature, ecosystems, and the planet itself. The crisis is happening now, and if we don’t act to protect ourselves, the effects will be increasingly devastating.
The scale of the challenge, the speed of necessary change and the limited impact of changes so far makes it clear that technical efficiency improvements, incremental policy shifts and building more renewable infrastructure will not be enough. We need to transform the way we live, organise our societies and run our economies if we want a chance of good lives, in a fair society, within ecological limits.
What change could look like
The findings of the new report confirm how fundamentally our world will change in the coming years as the impacts of climate change become more frequent and severe. The IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair Debra Roberts clearly stated that “the world we live in today is not the world we will live in five, ten or twenty years from now. And therefore, we have to be more vigilant about our actions.”
The magnitude of the challenge we face will require a foundational transformation in our values, systems and infrastructure if we are to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
We can no longer afford to focus purely on economic growth, we have to build a framework that focuses first and foremost on wellbeing, and we have to eliminate the lock-ins that are preventing a swift transition to sustainable lifestyles and societies. Such lock-ins exist at all levels from international trade rules that tie the hands of governments and hamper effective environmental policymaking, to fossil fuel subsidies that increase the use of these energy carriers, and to city planning and zoning regulations that create car dependency.
We need to put our money where our mouths are on the climate transition. Governments, the finance sector, and the wider business community continue to pump money into high-carbon projects and infrastructure. If we really considered climate change a crisis, there would for example be no investments in anything related to fossil fuels, no new highways or airport expansions, no new buildings that do not meet passive house standards, and no new plantations on natural land. But around the world, with a few exceptions, carbon-intensive projects are allowed to go ahead – sometimes even falsely labelled as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investments.
To speed up the transition, we need to tackle mass consumerism and the high-carbon lifestyles of wealthier nations and communities. We know that the wealthiest 10% of the global population are responsible for around 48% of emissions, but the consumption habits of this critical group won’t change without structural change. Individual behaviour change has tended to be slow and patchy, and we need to transform the choice architecture that shapes lifestyles and consumer habits. This can involve choice editing, where high-carbon products, such as SUVs, are removed from the market. Schemes that incentivize excessive consumption, such as frequent flyer programmes, could be abolished. Advertising, especially of carbon-intensive products and services could be restricted. Cities could shift investments from infrastructure for cars to public transit and systems for safe non-motorised transport. Tax systems could be revised to discourage high-carbon consumption patterns and lifestyles, for example through progressive taxes on large homes and motorboats.
These are all examples of policies that are technically straightforward and could easily be implemented by a political majority. They are the first steps in towards a transformational transition that are also mainly targeted at higher income groups, not placing unfair burdens on those who are struggling to make ends meet. We must collectively build the scaffolding that can make us converge towards a fair consumption space where basic human needs are met while we are free from excessive consumption.