The Problem with our 1.5 Degree Target

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The 'Paris Agreement' in 2015 is when the nations of the world agreed that their target was to keep the average surface temperature no more than 1.5 degrees C above the pre-industrial figure. There are a number of problems with this target.

  • It is an arbitrary figure: there is no scientific reason why the target could not be 1.4 or 1.6 degrees.  But, for many reasons, we need a target to aim for, so 1.5 degrees was chosen.
  • It is the result of educated guesswork.  We don't know what the consequences of 1.5 degrees warming will be, and we cannot know in advance.
  • But it is looking increasingly likely that 1.5 degrees warming will be a disaster - for many ecosystems and, as a result, for the millions (perhaps billions) of humans who depend on them.  If the average temperature rise is 1.5 degrees, we know the result will be dreadful.

Many people know these things, even if we don't act accordingly.  But there are two other problems which needs to be understood.

  • The Paris Agreement did not specify how the 1.5 degree target would be measured.  A target without a measure is... not exactly a target.
  • The surface temperature, even averaged over a year, varies considerably from year to year.  The standard scientific measure of a change in average surface temperature involves taking the average over a period of 20 years.  We will only know that we have missed the target years after the average temperature rise goes above 1.5 degrees - quite possibly 10 years after, and maybe more.

With so many voices arguing against the reality of climate change, and blocking the urgent responses we need to make right now, it seems very likely that people will be assuring us that we can still hit the target, years after we have sailed right past it.

So let's forget the 1.5 degree target, and simply do everything we can, as urgently as we can, to limit climate change.  We cannot afford to be aiming to hit targets in 2040 and 2050, when the glaciers are melting and peoples' lives are being ruined today.


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