"The report shows that we only have the slimmest of opportunities remaining to avoid unthinkable damage to the climate system that supports life as we know it."
– Amjad Abdulla, board member, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The New York Times/Reuters, Oct. 7
It's undoubtedly happenstance that the release of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change coincides with Monty Python veteran Eric Idle's book tour for his Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Idle wrote the mordant song that became the title of his memoir, featuring the unforgettable lyrics: "Life's a piece of shit/ When you look at it/ Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true/ You'll see it's all a show/ Keep 'em laughin' as you go/ Just remember that the last laugh is on you."
While reading just the official summary of the IPCC report, it was difficult to keep Idle's lyrics from insistently replaying in my head. Yet despite the foreboding headlines, the report is actually an attempt at somewhat good news. It makes the case, in highly technical and somewhat politicized language (it's a multigovernment report, after all), that if we make global, concerted efforts over the next decade, we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change that will occur at increased global temperatures (above preindustrial times) of 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), as opposed to 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).
This particular report's background is instructive. Amjad Abdulla (who provides this column's epigraph) is also chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, some three dozen urgently threatened countries. Those places – Bahamas, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, et al. – asked for this specific research, because for their countries, the official 2.0-degree target of the Paris Accord will likely mean extinction. That also means, if the world can find some consensus on heeding the warnings of this latest report – warnings like so many before it – we still have practical and achievable ways of saving the planet, and ourselves.
Katharine Hayhoe, the Texas Tech climate scientist who has advised Austin on its sustainability programs, compared the report to a doctor's grim diagnosis. "The doctor, the IPCC in this case, then explains possible treatment options to ensure our future health. We (the public) decide which option to follow." (National Geographic, Oct. 7).
So, where does Austin stand in our self-medication? Ours is among the many international city governments that have remained committed to the Paris Accord goals – despite the explicit opposition of the Trump administration and that of our Republican state government. Asked about the current local programs, the city's Sustainability Office provided some encouraging feedback. The city's existing emission reduction goals, for example, mirror the latest IPCC recommendation of "45 percent reduction from 2010 baselines by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050."
City staff also points to local progress, e.g.: "Austin/Travis County greenhouse gas emissions decreased by approximately 7% between 2013 and 2016, even as the population increased by 10% with an associated 52% rise in GDP." On the whole, the city and county are institutionally committed to reducing emissions in their own operations, although given more political will, the pace could undoubtedly be faster.
Even then, it's not enough. "By 2030, the largest percentage of Austin's community-wide emissions will come from transportation sources," city spokeswoman Amy Petri told me. "Individual behaviors around transportation and waste diversion will have to change to meet 2050 goals for net-zero emissions."
Even setting aside what the state and the feds (let alone the rest of the world) are aggressively not doing, our great ongoing local failures are in the interconnected projects of land use and transportation. Unless we can find a pragmatic public consensus to overcome our structural, cultural, and political addiction to automobiles, as well as to slow or stop sprawling our population growth in a fossil-fuel feedback loop, we will not be able to save ourselves or our descendants from accelerating climate disaster.
As Carolyn Kormann writes in summarizing the IPCC report, "The science is settled. The only question now is whether the world can find the political – or moral – will to do anything about it." (The New Yorker, Oct. 8). If we fail to act urgently, and allow the increasing temperatures to rise above that 1.5-degree target, "1.5 to Stay Alive" will have become not just an islanders' musical slogan, but an epitaph.
It's undeniably difficult to be sufficiently optimistic that we can reverse course and do what must be done to save our common future. Indeed, we may all be whistling past the graveyard – "For life is quite absurd/ And death's the final word" – yet whatever the odds, we must try as best as we can to preserve the absurdly lovely world we have been given, unearned.
Copyright © 2019 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.