What’s the point of being ambitious? Isn’t it too late?

In light of the last blog on Biden and the Paris Agreement which highlighted the importance of how ambitious Biden is on climate change, a friend asked me, is it too late? Are we too late to tackle climate change? This is a really important and somewhat confusing question, a lot seems to hang on it. If we are really too late then why would we concern ourselves with climate change policy? In answering my friend’s question, my mind moved between yes, no, maybe, it depends at an unpleasant speed. I shall try to make sense of this question and say why we are late, but not too late.

The answer to this question seems to hinge on how too late is understood. We could understand too late to mean, are we too late to prevent harms from climate change? Yes, we are already witnessing harms from climate change, such as increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, we cannot prevent these weather events.  

Well, what is the point of mitigation efforts if we are already experiencing harms from climate change? The severity of these harms are affected by our mitigation efforts. We do not mitigate to prevent all harms from climate change, we know we are too late for that, but we can still reduce the severity of and prevent some harms via mitigation and adaptation activities. This is why international agreements on climate change set targets of limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees. This is to prevent the devastating impacts of a world in which there are more than 2 degrees of warming, such as sea level rising and removing countries from the map of the world.

 When trying to make sense of why we should be performing mitigation efforts despite the fact that harms from climate change will still occur, one is reminded of this Sirius Black quote, just substitute the threat of evil wizard (Voldemort) for climate change, “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard that ever existed [climate change]?” said Black, with a terrible fury in his face. “Only innocent lives, Peter!” Innocent lives, protecting them is exactly what we stand to gain from mitigation efforts.

It is an unfortunate fact that whilst we continue to emit carbon, we are committing the future to more significant harms. Whilst we are not too late to prevent some of these, each year we keep emitting we commit the future to greater harms. So whilst there is a set of harms which is not too late to prevent, this set of preventable harms gets smaller and smaller as time and emissions go on. Whilst we may not be too late to avoid these harms, action now is essential in order to do so. 

Are we too late to prevent harms from climate change? Yes. Does this mean we should not do anything about climate change? No. Our actions now in regards to climate change will be informative of the severity and extent of these harms. Protecting innocent lives; we owe it to those who will be subject to these harms to do what we can to minimise the impact of climate change. This is why ambitious climate change policy matters.