Following the recent releases of the Working Group II and III contributions to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Dr Catherine Price, Amy Gibbons and Dr Justin Westgate offer some reflections.
Dr Catherine Price
The IPCC Report: Time to Stop Talking and to Start Acting
The contents of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report show just how precarious the situation is for the Earth and its inhabitants. The report emphasises the need for rapid, deep, and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. This will mean changes to: energy production with a move away from fossil fuels; consumption of goods; transport systems; diets; and lifestyles. In a BBC News article, Heleen De Coninck, IPCC lead author and Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Climate Change at Eindhoven University of Technology is quoted as saying ‘I think the report tells us that we’ve reached the now-or-never point of limiting warming to 1.5°C’.
There is a very urgent need to act now. Climate change is already altering terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. This could potentially result in species extinction, an issue that Elizabeth Kolbert discusses in the book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Biodiversity is not only threatened by climate change, but also habitat loss and fragmentation, land-use change, pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, hunting, over-fishing, water abstraction, nutrient leaching, the human introduction of invasive species, and pests and diseases. Wildfires have also been increasing due to warmer temperatures. These not only destroy ecosystems, but a feedback in carbon emissions is also created which further exacerbates climate change.
Alongside climate change, biodiversity loss is also a threat to ecosystem services. This is problematic not only for species that call these ecosystems home, but also for humans. Ecosystem services are important for human health, wellbeing, and livelihoods. Deforestation, the exploitation of peatlands, and the burning of forests, have meant these areas of land have become carbon sources as opposed to carbon sinks. Also at risk is food provisioning, water supplies, and flood risk management.
The IPCC report details how some of these fundamental issues can be addressed. The report emphasises the need for interdisciplinary scientific knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, local knowledge, and practical expertise. Using different types of knowledges will enable ecosystems to be protected and restored. However, this needs to take place alongside substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. These challenges are also set against a backdrop of a lack of citizen engagement, a lack of political leadership, and a low sense of urgency.
A news article in The Guardian stated this IPCC report is the final warning to governments around the world. In order for all the Earthly inhabitants to survive, it is time to stop talking and to start acting.
IPCC and the future for English agriculture
As another alarming IPCC report is released, with language stressing how we must act now, or that there is still time to slow this down, the sheer lack of interest from the media since the report’s release is alarming but, as always, not surprising. Risk is a central concept to this year’s report, as attention is drawn to adaptation and resilience, ultimately what this comes down to is justice. Three key principles of justice are recognized here: distributive justice, procedural justice, and recognition. I will be focusing on the latter two in relation to agriculture specifically.
The agricultural industry occupies approximately 40-50% of the Earth’s surface, resulting in the industry contributing to overall greenhouse gas emissions produced. This is on the rise, with an increase in manure production and fertilizer usage and household consumption of meat, dairy, and processed foods. Ultimately then, the IPCC recommends shifting to more sustainable food systems which include consuming more plant-based products as well as reducing food waste.
Going back to forms of justice, the new Agriculture Transition Plan for England aligns well with what the IPCC has proposed here – in theory. This new regulatory framework aims to create a baseline of appropriate environmental standards that farmers and land managers are advised to meet, ensuring the industry’s role and accountability in preserving or enhancing environmental wellbeing and human health. The key components of procedural justice are critical for achieving this, as also set out by the IPCC. This includes redistribution, recognition, and participation when mitigating the environmental harms of the industry. As the IPCC highlights, frameworks, such as the Agriculture Transition Plan, that have very clear adaption goals, responsibilities, and commitments, will provide us with the best chance of adapting to essentially save our climate. However, as pilot studies are beginning to show, there is a high level of uncertainty amongst all stakeholders with the major overhaul of policy over the next 7 years. To focus just on what this can do for biodiversity, the effects may be minimal if anything at all. The RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and Natural England have all stated their concern that the transition plan is not enough when you consider the scale of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, as well as it not tying in with England’s 25-year Environmental Plan. None of this is legally binding and so again fails to take on board IPCC advice that would result in a better chance of successful adaptation and a move towards climate justice.
As with COP26, it is hard to remain optimistic here. On paper, radical overhauls like the new Agriculture Transition plan is just what we need as recommended by the IPCC, however as it beings to be put into practice, it is not looking promising for any stakeholders in this industry, whether that be the future for businesses and family farms, or the non-human world and our planet’s future. Profits for the wealthiest, the promotion of increasingly rapid consumerist cultures, and the waste produced as a result are still prioritised here. Nothing will change until radical adaptations are implemented most effectively as recommended by those such as the IPCC. The focus needs to be more on the long-term goals and not merely short-term profits for a minority, which widen the inequality gap between the wealthy and the poor.
Dr Justin Westgate
Anthropocene loss and grieving
The recent IPCC climate change report indicates not only a failure to reduce carbon emissions but, more concerningly, that mitigation commitments by world governments are inadequate to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C or under.
As Jim Skea, professor at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the mitigation report, warns: “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
Alarmingly, this means we’ve almost run out of time to prevent a two-or-more degree world, which would have dire consequences not just for humans but all planetary life. Such a prognosis returns me to reflect on grieving and loss in the face of climate-changed futures.
Grieving is a natural human response to loss. And, we have an established psychological model which maps five emotions typically experienced during grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
World governments for the most part remain stuck in the first stage of grieving, denial, neurotically holding on to modernity’s false promises of industrial-economic growth and progress; a manifest failure to accept the life-threatening planetary impacts of global modernity, and consensus to remedy this.
For many people, however, ‘ecological grief’ is an increasing reality – grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological loss, such as the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to environmental changes. Some of the most concerned and perturbed people are climate scientists themselves given their intimate appreciation of the global catastrophe humanity has wrought.
Read through the lens of the Anthropocene, the IPCC report is a portent of loss. Firstly, it is an appeal to move beyond denialism and relinquish that stubborn grasp on the modern human world-paradigm. Secondly, and more troublingly, a failure to act ultimately portends the loss of human-habitable conditions on the planet we consider home.
Loss of home – homelessness –is a deep existential human fear. But, with planetary systems thrown into previously unknown states, we face the most profound loss we might experience collectively. We have no other home. Grief will be our guide for Anthropocene dwelling.
Dr Catherine Price is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography, University of Nottingham. Her research interests include relationships between humans and the more-than-human world, the environment, climate change, and the social and ethical impacts of agricultural technologies. She is currently working on the interdisciplinary Biochar Demonstrator project which is addressing the key deployment barriers of biochar for carbon sequestration. Details of her research can be found at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Catherine-Price-9 .
Amy Gibbons (she/they) is a second-year criminology PhD student studying within the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham conducting qualitative research into the environmental and ecological injustices resulting from animal agriculture, using Lincolnshire as a case study. Her general interests surround green criminology, rural studies, environmental harms, and the victimisation of non-human animals. Their previous dissertations explored the victimisation of non-human animals in the meat and dairy industry and the environmental and social harms perpetuated by The Coca-Cola Company in South America. Details of their research can be found at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Amy-Gibbons-6
Dr Justin Westgate is a transdisciplinary researcher and creative practitioner with research interests in cultural dimensions of creativity, human-natures, and planetary futures.