Blog: 1.5°C is way too high – Thoughts from a flood-stricken German valley

Two firefighters in Dernau near Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, western Germany, on July 22, 2021, days after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. (Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images)

We are fine and glad to live up a hill, but in shock, with the region around us devastated by the heaviest and longest lasting rain I have ever experienced and unprecedented floods.

At least 160 people are dead here, more in neighbouring Belgium, and many more missing. This is in Germany, one of the wealthiest and most highly developed countries in the world. Dams bursting, houses collapsing, bridges swept away, communications down, helicopter crews desperately trying to rescue people. Hope against hope that missing friends and relatives whose homes were destroyed might still turn up alive. A neighbour asked me how I felt after writing about the dangers of climate change for umpteen years and now…

When the message hits home

Another friend told me this was all to do with the jet stream and climate change. Yes. A warming Arctic. Yes. People are making connections. As if this was a new revelation. What have we journalists – not to mention all the scientists – been writing about for the past 30 or more years? I admit: my personal vanity is a little dented. And I feel an overwhelming sense of failure and inadequacy. But the sad fact is that it takes disasters close to home to make people really understand the reality and the danger of climate change.

Will this help society make the next connection between this and what we can and must do about it?

Canada and the USA have been battling extreme heat. Siberian forests are burning. Parts of New Zealand have been hit by extreme rainfall. A study published this week says we have ten years to save the planet’s coral reefs. UNESCO sees Australia’s great World Heritage status Great Barrier Reef endangered – and the country’s government carries on regardless as a coal champion par excellence.

We are not prepared

Forgive me if I don’t go into the disastrous climate impacts already hitting people in the developing world here – sea level rise, floods, and droughts. They are no less dear to me than the people drowned in their sleep a few kilometres away in the Ahr valley last week. But we are now seeing impacts in areas with the wealth, the resources, the technology you would expect could offer the maximum degree of protection – and the very countries which emit most of those greenhouse gases responsible for the destruction. That shows the extent of our vulnerability – and the need to take action – right here, right now.

Here in Germany, we had a landmark court-case last month, in which the government was obliged by the highest court in the land to improve its climate legislation. The court agreed that several provisions in the country’s Federal Climate Change Act of 2019 to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030 were insufficient, and violated freedoms in the country’s constitution, the Basic Law. The court also ruled that the act fails to create emissions reduction responsibilities after 2030.

The German government rushed to respond by preparing changes to the flawed climate legislation (for which, of course, it bears the responsibility), in the run-up to a September general election, where climate issues are high on the agenda and the country’s Green Party has for the first time set up its own candidate for Chancellor.

The European Union announced its Green Deal “Fit for 55” policy package last week. “This proposal is a big deal – there’s no turning back now“, commented climate economist Ottmar Edenhofer, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).

“The EU’s policy package for stabilizing our climate is the most comprehensive of its kind to date, and it builds on much that research has developed. (…) Weather extremes around the world clearly illustrate that strong action is key now if we want to limit costs and risks, and secure a safe future for all.”

The problem is – putting this into action will take way too long, given that the world is already reeling from the effects of temperature rise to date.

A vicious circle

We talk a lot about climate tipping points. Could it be that “points” is a misleading term? Have we not tipped into a vicious circle of impacts, triggers, new impacts? We have to stop emitting greenhouse gases – now. The extreme weather around the globe, the unprecedented amount of rainfall we have experienced in this part of the world is happening because there is too much CO2 in our atmosphere. I was – still am – sceptical about CDR – Carbon Dioxide Removal – but given the conditions we have now reached, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion we have no choice but to start removing carbon from the atmosphere a.s.a.p. alongside speeding up emissions reduction measures dramatically.

Why have I always been sceptical about interfering with the workings of nature? Firstly, we don’t know what the side-effects or knock-on effects will be, if we use untried or little-tried technologies – and our record in (albeit inadvertently, to give us the benefit of the doubt) interfering with nature so far has brought us to the state we are in now. And if we use technology to take carbon out of the air, where can we store it safely? Secondly, removing carbon could – and will, undoubtedly, for some – be an excuse for continuing to use fossil fuels. That must not happen.

Earlier in the year, I followed a set of digital dialogues organised by the Permafrost Carbon Feedback Action Group. The discussions over whether we need – and are ready for – measures to intervene in the climate or actively take CO2 out of the atmosphere were prompted by the threat posed by thawing permafrost as the climate warms. The events were joined by a large group of leading academics, government policy makers, technology investors, climate change activists and media.

Mindset of climate action

In the last event in the series, John Holdren, Professor of Environmental Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and former Director of the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, summed up: “We already know enough to know what to do.” We know, categorically, that humans have triggered a planetary warming trend that demands an urgent global campaign of decarbonization, he said. “We simply need to get on with it.”

Merritt Turetsky, Director of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, received a lot of support (including mine,) for her view: “Our best chance of saving permafrost or keeping permafrost carbon in the ground and out of the atmosphere is to decarbonize, full stop!”

I am still with Dr. Turetsky on that. I also share her attitude: “I’m not in a mindset of gathering more information. I’m in a mindset of climate action.”

We have to speed up the process of reducing emissions. There must be no concessions on that, and technologies to remove carbon must never be allowed to detract from that.

“The worst option is to focus on carbon removal technologies that don’t exist at any meaningful scale yet,” Turetsky told the participants. If by ‘focus’ you mean rely on while neglecting other forms of decarbonization, I agree wholeheartedly. But given the stage we have now reached, it could be high time to scale up these technologies. It is not an ‘either or’.

Can we turn the heat down?

We have to actively acknowledge and implement the conclusions which are there in the reports of the IPCC, the body of scientists we have entrusted with assessing the state of the climate and the prospects for the future. In their report on keeping global warming below 1.5C, they write:

“Such mitigation pathways are characterized by energy-demand reductions, decarbonization of electricity and other fuels, electrification of energy end use, deep reductions in agricultural emissions, and some form of CDR with carbon storage on land or sequestration in geological reservoirs. “

The report goes on:

“CDR deployed at scale is unproven, and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming to 1.5°C. CDR is needed less in pathways with particularly strong emphasis on energy efficiency and low demand.”

“Limitations on the speed, scale and societal acceptability of CDR deployment also limit the conceivable extent of temperature overshoot. Limits to our understanding of how the carbon cycle responds to net negative emissions increase the uncertainty about the effectiveness of CDR to decline temperatures after a peak”, the report concludes.

But in the light of the most recent developments, perhaps we have to look at it differently. Not as a way to correct our overshoot in the future, but to correct the increases already resulting from past behaviour, while we continue to move full-speed towards carbon neutrality by mid-century at the latest.

Planetary disruption

The status quo is costing lives, destroying ecosystems and completely disrupting planetary mechanisms. We have a responsibility to the rest of life on the planet to try to make good some of the damage we have done.

The World Resources Institute has come to the conclusion:

“While strategies to reduce emissions — such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and avoiding deforestation — remain critically important, they will not be enough on their own. Reaching net-zero requires strategies that actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.” They quote figures: “Globally,the carbon removal need is about 10 GtCO2 per year by 2050 and 20 GtCO2 per year by 2100.”

The Institute mentions “natural strategies like tree restoration and agricultural soil management; high-tech strategies like direct air capture and enhanced mineralization; and hybrid strategies like enhanced root crops, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and ocean-based carbon removal.”

If you can’t take the heat…”

The global temperature has risen around 1.2°C since the onset of industrialisation and things are already getting out of control. We have already gone way too far. There are scientists enough who agree that 1.5 is still doable if we – our governments, administrations, and ultimately society as a whole, make basic changes to the way we live, eat, heat, travel. That applies especially to us, in the developed world, who emit, pollute, consume to excess. But it is becoming increasingly and dramatically clear that even keeping to 1.5C will not be enough. We have to stop thinking we can carry on with business as usual and let somebody else try drastic measures when we get past 1.5C.

I have been working on climate change for the last 30 years or so. The floods in my backyard have shocked me to the core. There is no point in saying “I told you so”. We need to do more now. Get on the wellie-boots and get out the shovels to deal with the present. Rebuild our infrastructure to cope with changes we cannot avert in the near future. Improve our early-warning systems. Speed up those emissions cuts. They say if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. But when the kitchen is the whole planet? Let’s get going on taking some of the heat out of the place.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Arctic community in northwestern Canada sets temperature record amid 2nd summer heat wave, CBC News

Greenland: Tipping points: can a leaked report tip the scales to climate action? Blog by Irene Quaile

Norway: Polar bears face extinction in Svalbard and Arctic Russia says scientist, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Record breaking temperatures recorded in Arctic Russia, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sweden’s wildfire season later than usual, Radio Sweden

Irene Quaile

Scots-born journalist Irene Quaile has been specialising on the Arctic since 2007, when she made her first visit to Svalbard as part of an international media project for the International Polar Year and found herself “hooked” on the icy north. As environment and climate change correspondent for Germany’s international broadcaster until November 2019, she has travelled to the Arctic regions of Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland, making radio and online features on climate change and its impact on ecosystems and people, and on the inter-links between the Arctic and the global climate. Irene has received several international awards, including environment gold awards from the New York International Radio Festivals and the United Nations. During a trip to the Alaskan Arctic in 2008, she created The Ice Blog. Read Irene Quaile's articles

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