Rather than setting climate targets that become the minimum politicians strive for, it’s time to adopt a “maximization” strategy to get the climate emergency under control, argues British author and activist George Monbiot, in a post for The Guardian that points to the UK’s widely-cited Committee on Climate Change (CCC) as an example of failed incrementalism.
“Several governments and parliaments, the UK’s among them, have declared a climate emergency,” Monbiot writes. “But no one in government acts as if it is real. They operate within the old world of incremental planning for a disaster that has yet to arrive,” even though this disaster is already here.
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While the CCC was launched with the “hope and promise of holding the government to account”, he adds, it “now seems to have abandoned scientific realities in favour of political priorities,” with a new land use report so unambitious that it would take the UK backwards.
Monbiot goes into detail on the shortcomings he sees in the report—its call for only a 10% reduction in livestock over the next 30 years when numbers have fallen 20% over the last 20, its failure to mention options like rewilding or natural regeneration, its “feeble” approach to reforestation, and “its preposterous assumption that if land is unsuitable for commercial forestry, it’s unsuitable for trees.” Throughout the report, “business appears to come first; nature and climate last,” he writes.
But the bigger problem is the committee’s willingness to settle for targets consistent with the 2015 Paris Agreement, despite a World Meteorological Organization report late last year calling for a 7.6% annual reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions—a far steeper target than the CCC’s.
“The committee has set the wrong target, for the wrong date,” Monbiot writes. “But I think the problem runs deeper than this. It’s not just the target that’s wrong, but the very notion of setting targets in an emergency.”
When a house is literally on fire, he adds, firefighters don’t arrive at the scene and “set themselves a target of rescuing three of the five inhabitants. They seek—aware that they may not succeed—to rescue everyone they can. Their aim is to maximize the number of lives they save. In the climate emergency, our aim should be to maximize both the reduction of emissions and the drawing down of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. There is no safe level of global heating: every increment kills.”
While maximizing “is implicit in the Paris Agreement,” the below-2.0°C target “has supplanted the ultimate objective, which is to respond appropriately to the climate emergency,” he adds—despite the known absurdities of a “target” culture in which hitting the fixed number and checking the box becomes the task, real-world impacts be damned.
“Less discussed is the way in which targets can encourage officials to underperform,” Monbiot writes. “As soon as you set a target, you pull back from maximization. Even if you say ‘this target is the minimum’, as the CCC does, politicians treat it as merely the line they need to cross. At this point, they fulfil their legal duty, even if they fail to fulfil their wider duty of care.”
The alternative, he says, is to entrench “a legal duty to maximize climate action.” For the UK, that means the CCC board “should be disbanded and replaced by people whose mandate is rigorously to explore every economic sector in search of the maximum possible cuts in greenhouse gases, and the maximum possible drawdown. We have arrived at the burning building. The only humane and reasonable aim is to rescue everyone inside.”
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