The Paris climate agreement will be officially signed in New York today, whereby countries commit to keep global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The aim is in fact 1.5 degrees. This target is still a source of concern and debate in the scientific community, with many scientists saying there is a gap between the stated ambitions and the actions laid out in the document. At the same time, scientists are being asked to provide clarity via a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that will look at impacts of 1.5 degree warming and ways to stay within that limit. “This could be a highly political report, being used as a justification of loss and damage and climate finance,” warns Glen Peters, senior researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. “Further, the special report may find that 1.5 or 2 degrees are no longer feasible temperature targets, which would be in conflict with the Paris Agreement.”
So how can the scientific community manage the demands of a political process and contribute to making the Paris agreement operational? This is what Peters and two other researchers told us.
1. Acknowledge the politics, be guided by science
“Scientists need to acknowledge the potentially politicized nature of the process and ensure they are guided by the scientific process even if their research is motivated by the political process,” explains Peters. “Scientists should be encouraged to participate in the public debate, not to take this side or that, but to ensure science is used correctly.”
2. Focus on the goal that leads to action
Peters believes it is important to have an aspirational goal, but this needs to be kept in context. “If you cannot achieve the goal, it may mean there is less emphasis on adaptation or enabling a transition.” He argues that the goal needs to be broken down into sub-goals that are more actionable. In a recent article in Nature Geoscience, Oliver Geden, head of EU research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says that in the future the focus should not be on temperature increases, “but on the target with the greatest potential to effectively guide policy: net zero emissions.” This is a goal the Paris agreement aims to reach by the second half of the century.
3. Measure national efforts
There is demand for better measurement, reporting and verification of national commitments, notes Geden. “Researchers should rigorously scrutinize countries’ efforts and the functioning of the 5-year review mechanism,” he says. Geden believes that only if significantly strengthened, the voluntary mitigation pledges that underpin the Paris agreement will be compatible with the temperature targets. Kimberly Nicholas, Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University, adds: “Researchers have a critical role to play in shaping the development of the national climate pledges, which are ultimately where the Paris agreement will succeed.”
4. Lead by example
Nicholas stresses the responsibility scientists have in personal life too. “The Paris agreement was a call for everyone to ask: how can I be part of the solution to climate change? We need leaders throughout society to play this role, in business, finance, government, civil society, education, science, the arts,” she says. “It is really powerful for researchers to lead by example in lifestyle choices, to show that a lower carbon lifestyle is possible and desirable, as well as necessary to meet the Paris agreement targets.” She refers in particular to choices about family planning, air travel, driving cars and diet: “I think it is important to put our money where our mouths are.”
5. Ask social scientists to step in
The scientific community has traditionally been weak on the implementation of policies and understanding the barriers that inhibit society from moving to more sustainable lifestyles, notes Peters. “We know what emissions have to do to get to 1.5 or 2 degrees, but we do not know how to get society to follow those pathways,” he comments. “Social scientists should play a bigger role in the future as we move from understanding the problem to finding solutions.”