Last year, several alarming reports made it clear that immediate and radical action is needed to prevent disastrous levels of global warming. However, such action is nowhere to be found and we are bound to hit the tipping points of global warming that will render any further action irrelevant. As this notion spreads, 2019 could see many of us falling prey to climate fatalism and a shift in political focus towards climate adaptation. On an individual level, the question is whether people will stop leading sustainable lifestyles and how they will deal with the loss of one of today’s grand unifying stories.

Our observations

  • If no real action is taken, man-made global warming will reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050 at the latest. The 2018 IPPC report shows that it will be virtually impossible to limit global warming to this 1.5°C (i.e. requiring a 45% reduction of 2010 CO2 emission levels by 2030) and that even the 2°C “secondary target” will be very difficult to achieve (25% reduction by 2030).
  • In its 2018 World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency (IEA), has detailed a possible scenario to meet global sustainability goals. However, the IEA is quite skeptical as to whether this is a realistic scenario: there’s a clear “carbon lock-in” due to an existing (and yet under-construction) energy infrastructure that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels (e.g. coal-fired power plants in Asia are 11 years old on average and are likely to continue to operate for multiple decades to come).
  • This month’s UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland, have not resulted in any significant breakthroughs and current plans (i.e. the Paris 2015 accord) still leave the world heading for a 3-4°C scenario of global warming.
  • Since October this year, the Netherlands is host to the Global Center on Adaptation, which is to become the leading center of expertise for solutions to help nations become more resilient to climate change.
  • Several self-reinforcing feedback loops of global warming are likely to take effect, and hence accelerate warming, once global warming reaches a tipping point of 2°C. For instance, as icecaps and glaciers melt away, they will reflect less sunlight and more heat will be absorbed on earth and as permafrost layers start to defrost, large quantities of the powerful greenhouse-gas methane will be released.
  • In the Netherlands, climate negotiations between a wide range of stakeholders have led to a national plan of action (yet to be approved by Parliament). Environmentalists argue that the proposed measures are not sufficient to meet national targets, while others have argued that the plan is too costly and will hit low-wage families the hardest.

Connecting the dots

Recent warnings from the IPCC and the IEA have not led to significant breakthroughs during the latest climate conference in Katowice and global warming is still racing towards the critical threshold of 2°C. Once this threshold is crossed, there may be no stopping climate change and global temperatures may rise by as much as 4°C or more. So far, even though there have always been “non-believers” and many countries were reluctant to make all too stringent commitments, the global consensus was that all of our efforts should be geared towards preventing further warming. Now that this goal is further out of reach than ever, as time is running out, we are likely to see a shift in political focus (towards adaptation) and a changing mindset regarding sustainability and sustainable lifestyles.
Individual nations may give up the fight against climate change because it is costly (in the short run) and because it only “works” when everyone joins the effort. That is, in a stable, developed economy, the fight against climate change may be embraced as a business opportunity, but for many other nations the fight may stand in the way of economic growth (not least because reducing overall emissions is virtually impossible for a fast-growing economy). Moreover, potential climate salvation in the long run can only be realized when (almost) all nations make their contribution. A growing sense of fatalism could easily lead to more “waiting games” between nations and others will withdraw altogether from climate negotiations (even “believers” may do so) and focus on measures of adaptation (e.g. protecting coastal areas and building heat-resilient cities). Though not mainstream yet, Western populists already use this kind of fatalist rhetoric when they argue that (costly) measures will only contribute marginally to limiting climate change (“as no one else is doing anything”). These sentiments are bound to become more widespread over time and further increase tensions between traditional politics (which generally argues in favor of climate policies) and populist parties (cf. Yellow Vest protests in France and elsewhere).

On a more personal (and cultural) level, the question is how individuals (and societies) will deal with this loss of “faith” in our ability to prevent disastrous climate change. Whether or not we have really adjusted our lifestyles, sustainability is engrained in public discourse and our everyday lives, to the extent that it has even become somewhat of a secular religion. One possible, although unlikely, response to climate fatalism is a post-climate, kind of hedonism and a return to highly unsustainable lifestyles (e.g. re-embracing gas-guzzling cars and never turning off the lights). Another, more likely response is that instead of focusing on climate change, we will re-direct our attempts to satisfy our longing for the “good life” towards other, more attainable, objectives such as personal health, care for others or environmental issues that are not (directly) related to global warming (e.g. biodiversity or water pollution). Moreover, in light of the effects of climate change (rising sea levels, extreme weather), some of these objectives will gain prominence. Extremely hot summers, for instance, will make life more difficult for the elderly and others will have to come to their aid.
Fighting climate fatalism will be difficult, but this does not mean that all climate change policies (e.g. the recent Dutch national plan) will be thrown overboard. Unwavering believers will stress alternative rationales for the same kinds of policies. They will increasingly refer to air quality as another good reason to, for instance, shut down coal-fired plants and do away with non-electric vehicles. In addition, the growing of green industries and thus job creation (e.g. in the installation businesses for solar panels, insulation and heat pumps) and the importance of (green) energy independence will be stressed more often. The latter has always been a major driver for investments in sustainable energy technologies in the U.S., but the rise of shale oil and gas has flipped this argument in favor of these fossil fuels. Yet, in many other (European and Asian) countries, the argument of energy independence could still provide a solid, populist-proof foundation for sustainability-oriented politics.

Implications

  • We will see a shift from preventing climate change to adapting to (and battling) the effects. Much of this will entail engineering, to build dams and extreme-weather-proof buildings, for instance. It’s likely that governments will shift funding from preventive measures to these kinds of adaptive solutions.
  • As we have noted before, several northern areas will become more livable and more attractive and natural resources will become available (e.g. Alaska Oil) and, possibly, less contested.
  • International negotiations about preventing climate change may not have yielded the needed results, but at least they were part of a truly international effort. That is, prevention really calls for collaboration, but adaptation, by contrast, is something most (wealthy) countries can do on their own. Consequently, the international community will have less of a common interest and this may lead to a broader decline of international cooperation.