Climate Action — a two-part sketch

This two-parter was written in January 2020 for a meeting to launch a local Climate Action Group in northwest London. The sketch was written as an introduction to the subject for a mixed audience.

Anyone can use this sketch, update it for more recent content, or amend it for a specific audience. It would be appreciated though, if you use it, that you’ll let me know how, where and when please.

There are two people involved:
· The “presenter”, originally the Coordinator of the new Climate Action Group, whose words are in italics.
· A “professor”, whose words are in regular text.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Once I started to organise this meeting, I realised that there were things I needed to understand better myself, to provide context for the meeting. Naturally we tried to invite a Climate Scientist, but they were all too busy writing reports.

So may I please introduce <professor>, who will play the part of a Climate Scientist, and I will play the part of someone who’s even more confused than I was. Over to you, may I call you Professor?

Thank you, <presenter>. As I expect most people here tonight will already know, climate change is caused by gases like carbon dioxide, from burning coal, oil and gas, collectively known as fossil fuels. These gases stick around in the atmosphere, and create an extra barrier to absorb heat that would otherwise escape. So the earth’s temperature is slowly but surely increasing.

What I don’t understand is this. This must have been happening for years, so why is everyone talking about it now like it’s suddenly started happening but it’s too late to stop it?

The trouble is that the earth’s climate is really complicated. Most climate scientists have believed for years that we are causing the atmosphere to heat up. But for a long time it was easy to argue that the changes being observed could just as easily be caused by natural cycles going back centuries.

So that’s exactly what people with vested interests in exploiting fossil fuels did. The world was allowed to think that everything was OK, and leaders focused on short-term policies that did nothing to help. Meanwhile things gradually got worse.

So what changed?

Well, as the climate models improved, scientists could demonstrate that the natural cycles didn’t come close to explaining what was actually happening, and that a lot of damage had already been done that can’t be undone.

What about that big meeting in Paris a few years ago? Wasn’t that supposed to sort everything out? Everyone seemed highly delighted with it at the time

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, No 21, held in Paris at the end of 2015, was indeed a turning point. For the first time, almost all countries agreed to take measures to limit emissions, to keep the increase in temperature since pre-industrial times to well below 2°C, and as close as possible to 1.5°C.

That should have got it all sorted then, shouldn’t it?

It certainly achieved more than the previous 20 conferences, but there were big weaknesses. Firstly, none of the targets were mandatory, and secondly most countries are already failing to meet the targets they did set.

So what happened next?

The next real landmark was the IPCC report in October 2018.

Yes, I sort of remember hearing about that. What was that about? What’s the IPCC?

The IPCC is the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These guys are the top scientists from a wide variety of disciplines.

They produced a paper looking at the impact of a 2°C temperature rise, which had been the original target in Paris, and the 1.5°C rise which had been, if you like, the aspiration of Paris. It made pretty startling reading.

OK, give me a summary.

Their conclusion was that 1.5°C will be pretty unpleasant, but that’s about the least we can expect, given we’re past 1°C already. But at 2°C they write about “massive ecosystem loss; potentially irreversible melting of ice sheets triggering sea-level rise affecting millions”. It was unexpectedly bad, really.

So what are we on course for now if we don’t do anything?

Even if all countries meet their current Paris pledges, something like 3.5°C by the end of the century.

Right…OK, did these experts tell us we’re doomed, or did they suggest solutions?

To keep it simple, they said two main things. One, that to keep below 1.5°C, we need to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and two, that we need to be down to about half present levels by 2030. That was interpreted as giving us 12 years, from the end of 2018, to make unprecedented changes.

So, what exactly is “net zero”. Why not just zero?

Well, plants essentially “breathe in” carbon dioxide, so we need to plant many more trees, and stop chopping them down, or letting them burn down. Easier said than done, but that would absorb some of the extra carbon dioxide that we’re creating.

Isn’t there anything else we can do to absorb these gases?

We can try to capture carbon dioxide from industrial processes, and store it so that it’s not released into the air. The trouble is, no-one is close to doing it yet at a scale that will achieve very much. It needs vast investment.

OK, but haven’t the Government said they have a target of net-zero by 2050, so at least this country is on track, aren’t we?

Well, it’s all very well having a target, but is there yet a clear plan for achieving it? A plan for starting now and moving very fast?

Yes, I take your point.

Bear in mind too that scientists are also discovering that some impacts are happening faster than anticipated, such as thinning of the Greenland icecaps. But also, perhaps developed countries need to reach net zero more quickly than 2050, so that developing countries are given some leeway.

I guess that makes sense too. After all, it wasn’t developing countries that got us into this mess. But many people I talk to say that it’s all very well us doing our bit, but what about countries like China, let alone what’s happening in the United States?

That’s a complicated one. China’s still far too dependent on coal, but it’s leading the world in renewable energy investment. Of course, the Chinese are using vast amounts of energy producing plastic novelties and such for the West. As for the US, you’d be surprised how much has been happening at the state and city level, even under Mr Trump.

So should we be optimistic or pessimistic?

Well, it’s a bit pointless being too pessimistic, or you admit defeat. The interesting thing is that, since the IPCC report, climate change has jumped from being something that hardly registered on people’s radar, to being talked about, and worried about, by nearly everyone. But talk doesn’t achieve much; action is needed instead, and fast.

So where would you say we need to go from here?

Probably the most important thing is for everyone to understand not just how bad the problems are, but how they can be overcome. Then they can look at what they can change individually, but even more important, they can work together at a local level to spread that understanding, and to encourage broader changes.

Thank you, Professor, I think that’s a really good introduction to the rest of the evening.

A retired IT professional living in NW London, I am a climate activist and have had magazine artcles published, so I am trying to combine the two.