Testing the Reach of Warnings about Climate Change

In early August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a Special Report on Climate Change and Land. The report highlights the long-known problems relating to land use, such as deforestation and agriculture, on climate change and vice versa.

For those who have been following and monitoring climate issues closely, this is hardly a new finding. That deforestation and land use change contribute greatly to greenhouse gas emissions is an established fact. The Climate Watch data recorded that between 1990 and 2014, agriculture, land use change and forestry combined were the second largest source of emissions after the energy sector.

The IPCC report also highlights the dilemma between conserving forests for the purposes of climate change mitigation and the potential negative consequences on food production. This, again, is a known reality since the tension be-tween saving the planet and providing for human needs is central to the debates and reluctance surrounding efforts to address climate change.

In October last year, in the lead up to the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, the IPCC released a Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. The report advances that the Earth may get warmer by 1.5°C above pre-industrial level anytime between 2030 and 2050. The real emphasis of the report is we may only have 12 years left before hitting the 1.5°C mark. It is imperative for countries, more than ever, to make concerted efforts to reduce green-house gas emissions and slow down the rate of global warming.

This seemingly alarming message, how-ever, did not come as a big surprise to climate change observers. The Climate Tracker Action noted that emissions pathway based on the Nationally Deter-mined Contributions (NDCs) pledge submitted as of November 2017 alone has 90 per cent likelihood to exceed 2°C by 2100. At the current going rate from the time the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed, it is already projected that the world is going to miss the 2°C mark at the end of the century.

The latest reports undoubtedly contain better scientific facts and more rigorous analyses that render predictions and projections more certain compared to earlier climate-related reports. However, at its core, why does the IPCC repeat familiar messages? Considering that the primary audience of the reports is the policy-makers, this presents a puzzling phenomenon since governments have been sensitised to this issue since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

Addressing a lack of knowledge does not seem to be the main reason; rather maintaining the gravity of the problem provides a better explanation. Given its authoritative position, the IPCC has the authority to raise alarms over climate concerns. Releasing reports on a regular basis can be translated as an effort to perpetually securitise climate issues by keeping them on top of the agenda. In addition, climate activists and other members of society use them as authoritative sources to pressure governments and the private sector to seriously combat climate problems.

While all these warning efforts are normatively justified, the real question is this: How far is their reach in effecting real behavioural transformations? At the time of writing, the prospect is rather gloomy. The re-lease of the Special Report on Cli-mate Change and Land ironically coincided with the incidences of blazing forests in different parts of the world including Brazil’s Amazon, Spain’s Canary Islands, Alaska, and Siberia.

In Southeast Asia, the smoke of the forest fires that have been raging savagely in Sumatra since July 2019 have begun traversing national boundaries and reached Malaysia, and started making news headlines in Singapore early this month.

Have alarmist strategies fallen on deaf ears and reached their limits? Do we need to find a better way to communicate messages and en-courage learning that will lead to true behavioural changes? Or is it in human and institutional natures to take time for transformations to take place? These are some follow-up questions that are worth further investigations.