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We are gambling away our future with dubious climate compromises

Hans-Otto Pörtner, marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, and Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II (Climate Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability) in the 6th Assessment Period (2015-2023). Picture: Kerstin Rolfes

The World Climate Conference started in Dubai on November 30. A commentary by Hans-Otto-Pörtner on national and international climate policy.

Forest fires in Canada, around the Mediterranean and in Hawaii. Floods in China, the USA and Japan. Record temperatures and coral deaths in many places. Rain instead of winter snow in the Andes: The many extreme events this year underline the effects of climate change and the urgency of finally mitigating it and effectively protecting people and nature. However, ambitious and effective climate protection measures have been delayed for decades and Politicians are making dubious compromises at national and international level. The necessary transformation of all social systems is only making slow progress. Many of those responsible seem to lack the insight that ambitious climate protection primarily means reducing greenhouse gas emissions in good time, i.e., without delay and at a rapid pace. Nature and the climate make no compromises. Many changes and damages are already irreversible.

The debates on technological openness take up valuable time. It is right not to close off technology paths too early or completely. However, once a technology has become established - as is currently the case with the electric car due to its energy efficiency - then enforced technological openness will delay climate protection. The capture and underground storage of CO2, which is once again being discussed for COP28, is also not a silver bullet out of the crisis. It can help to make up for lost time in terms of climate protection, but is in no way a substitute for abandoning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. This is the only way to quickly and effectively achieve the emission reductions that will keep the climate targets within reach. At the same time, climate change is already increasingly depriving us of options to adapt and mitigate economic damage. Getting started now means that the measures must take effect more quickly and may also become more expensive and inconvenient.

In the past 150 years of the industrial age, mankind has achieved a great amount, but we have also made mistakes which we must now correct if we want to preserve our livelihoods. However, conservative politicians in particular do not want to see these major connections. They shy away from the difficulties and often prefer to carry on as before. It also seems that politicians do not take sufficient account of scientific findings in their compromises and allow themselves to arbitrarily ignore natural-legal relationships, with consequences that can be felt today.

One example of this is the reform of the Climate Protection Act. We have a fundamental ruling from the Constitutional Court that climate protection is not only about the interests of current generations, but also about the interests of future generations. It is a high constitutional good to secure the same degree of freedom for future generations that we still have today. What exactly that means is debatable, but de facto it means that we must leave the next generations a world climate in which it is possible to live with a high quality of life. We are currently undermining this imperative. In my view, to put it bluntly, it is unconstitutional if the revised Climate Protection Act leads to us failing to meet the climate targets due to watered-down measures.

We have no more leeway! Effective climate protection is of existential importance to us all. We are currently heading towards a world that will be 2.7 to 3.2 degrees warmer. Today’s decision-makers do not seem to understand what this means sufficiently or take it one hundred percent seriously. Our “summer of extremes”, as the WMO called June and July 2023, was just a small taste of what is to come. 

We have to fight for every tenth of a degree Celsius less warming. And if it soon goes beyond 1.5 degrees or perhaps even beyond 2 degrees at some point, then we still have to keep fighting to prevent even more damage and suffering. It will just be much more difficult than it is today, or even impossible in parts. Ultimately, climate protection is of existential importance for people and nature and therefore there is no alternative.

Prof. Dr. Hans-Otto Pörtner, marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, and Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II (Climate Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability) in the 6th Assessment Period (2015-2023)

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