Climate activists have been written into a corner. Can they write themselves out by constructing a new narrative?

Karl Burkart
Mar 21 · 6 min read

I always marvel at the ability of Hollywood writers to create situations for characters that seem impossible to escape. If you managed to binge-watch all 7 seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. during lockdown (like me), you can see the pros in action. The final two episodes — “The End is Near” and “What We’re Fighting For” — are worth all 100 hours.

The characters are given impossible odds with all routes of escape blocked, and the enemy, equipped with far superior weaponry, is fast approaching. The fate of humanity and the survival of the planet is hanging by a thread. Yet somehow, through the ingenuity of the writers, a last-minute twist is introduced that gives everybody a way out. Apocalypse averted.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. promotional still.

In 2021, we climate activists find ourselves in an extremely tricky position and are in need of a brilliant writers’ room. With just months before the climate summit in Glasgow, people working on the frontlines of the climate movement face the emergence of three massive narrative challenges. The stakes couldn’t be higher but, as of yet, no “north star” narrative or plan of action has emerged to bring the climate movement together in what is arguably the most important year for climate action.

Before discussing some ideas on how to move forward, let’s dive in to the first of three big narrative problems facing the climate movement.

Massive Challenge #1: The 1.5°C goal line is in jeopardy
In just a few months we will have final results from the sixth Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (or CMIP6, which Zeke Hausfather does a great job of explaining for Carbon Brief). This will result in a new ‘carbon budget’ for the upcoming sixth Assessment Report (AR6) to be released by the IPCC (Working Group 1) late summer.

Let’s just state clearly that CMIP6 will not deliver good news. The window to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C (above early industrial levels, c. 1880) was already narrow, but the chance to achieve this goal will get slimmer, pressured on all sides.

First, the models will show increased climate sensitivity, measured as a theoretical doubling of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from 280 to 560 ppm in CO2 (a point lost on some journalists who have misreported these models as dire emissions projections). In other words, each tonne of CO2 emitted will heat up the planet a bit more than we previously thought.

Second, the baseline just moved. A more accurate rendering of historic carbon emissions from 1880 indicates that the world is already at around 1.3°C (not 1.1°C). And third, we’ll have to add in “biosphere feedback” emissions from natural processes resulting from climate change, such as increased wildfire and permafrost collapse (One Earth is currently funding a peer-reviewed paper on this).

Canadian coastline. Benjamin Jones. U.S. Geological Survey, 2017.

So it’s not good news, but is this the right time to abandon the 1.5°C goal?

The fossil fuel industry and their petrostate allies have wanted to take 1.5°C off the table for a long, long time. But in 2021 we are seeing some environmental NGOs and climate foundations getting skittish about the target as well. Even with the hugely important release of SR1.5 in 2018 (the IPCC’s Special Report on the 1.5°C goal, which shows that it’s possible to achieve the target largely through currently available technologies) and decades of investment by movement leaders, foundations, NGOs, high-ambition governments, and even Fortune 500 companies, it seems that some in the climate movement are starting to walk back the 1.5°C goal, quietly joining the “it’s too late” crowd.

I understand why. If there is one thing the liberal class (of a certain age) fears most, it’s reputational risk. And sticking your neck out to back Gen Z activists who are vociferously demanding a 1.5°C redline feels risky, especially as so many climate peers and colleagues are indicating that it’s too difficult, or even impossible to achieve. Some in the climate movement are feeling pressured to move on.

But it’s not time to move on.

Every week brings a slate of new scientific papers (soon to be compiled in the IPCC’s upcoming Working Group 2 report), which present a grimmer picture of life above 1.5°C — more ice melting, faster sea level rise, rapid cropland desertification, collapsing tropical forests, slowing ocean currents, intensifying mega fires, more storm-surge flooding, massive human migrations, increasing infectious disease and heat-related deaths.

1.5°C is still the political football in the climate negotiations, and if we were to take it off the field now, what is the new ball? And how does one score?

Climate Action Tracker just completed a recent tally of NDC pledges and found that if implemented and funded, they could put us on track for 2.1°C. And that was before Biden took office. We expect that after the U.S. climate summit in April, the NDC’s from the second largest emitter will get significantly more ambitious. By the time the UN climate conference is wrapped up in Glasgow at the end of the year, the world could officially be on track for 2°C (at least on paper).

Therefore, we must double down on 1.5°C. We need to keep the Overton window open. Greta Thunberg, Fridays for the Future, Climate Action Network (with over 1,000 NGO members) and a growing chorus of climate experts, scientists, and yes celebrities, have called for governments to #facetheclimateemergency and deliver a “good” chance (i.e. 66% or better) of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

We need to heed their call.

‘Face the Climate Emergency’ open letter to the EU Commission calling for 66% chance of 1.5°C.

High school students who are currently enduring the agony of endless Zoom lessons (due to a pandemic that may have been driven in part by climate change) are the ones that are going to have to live with the epic mess created by the Boomer generation. Whatever their demands are, they should be ours as well.

And we know that it is technically feasible to achieve 1.5°C. This has been proven many times over (including by APCAG, the major modeling effort One Earth funded with German Aerospace, University Technology Sydney, and other leading climate scientists).

It won’t be cheap.. we have a gap of about $1.5 trillion per year over the next decade to get us on track, but this is less than 1/3 the cost of total annual fossil fuel subsidies and costs, according to the IMF. This is a small price to pay to give our kids and grandkids a shot at a livable future.

And if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that wealthy countries are capable of spending humongous sums of money when they need to. The U.S. alone is spending $6 trillion on pandemic relief. So as always, what we have is a lack of political will. And if the demand from civil society gets unfocused, political ambition will wane. This is a time to turn up the heat, not turn it down.

Critiques of 1.5°C as the center point of a climate narrative are understandable. It is indeed quite a complicated target to explain, especially as there are dramatic regional variances in temperature, and journalists often misreport scientific findings regarding land surface temperature as evidence that we’ve already passed the 1.5°C limit (land temperature is always higher than combined sea + land). We also know that major media outlets love to magnify “doom and gloom” narratives; drama = clicks.

As AR6 is released, undoubtedly there will be an onslaught of “it’s too late” articles being published, and that will be hard to combat. So it’s not surprising that many have suggested we ditch the 1.5°C football and replace it with a more amenable target — “net-zero” emissions.

So let’s dive into the Massive Challenge #2: the Net-zero sum game.


Science-based philanthropy to solve the climate crisis