Feel the Heat
Climate Change Earth Science EarthSphere Blog Environment Repost Science

No Global Warming Surprises This Week

The 1.5°C Goal is Only Theoretically Obtainable

NPR recently reported on research indicating we may reach the 1.5°C global warming threshold in ten to twelve years. You will recall that the 2015 Paris Agreement sought to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels. Researchers are not disputing the theoretical possibility of obtaining the Paris Agreement goals. They only point out that it is not practically plausible and we may soon blow past our first marker.

The difference between theoretical and probable outcomes reflects the inclusion of human behavior in the calculations. Wealth, power, and comfort are all potent drivers of human behavior. The science is clear, all we must do is cut fossil fuel emissions. The barrier to this goal is human behavior. Making sacrifices regarding wealth, power, and comfort takes tackling climate change from a theoretical proposition to a personal concern.

November 2021 poll of USA residents by the Washington Post and ABC News sought responses to the question: Do you think global warming, also known as climate change, is a serious problem facing this country, or not a serious problem? A majority of adults (67 percent) said climate change was a serious problem, but this number has stayed the same since 2014. The results were revealing, with 95 percent of Democrats affirming climate change is a serious problem but only 39 percent of Republicans agreeing. Interestingly, between 2014 and 2021, concern by Democrats increased by 10 percent, and Republican concern dropped by 10 percent.

In a separate Pew survey, 8 in 10 Americans believe Anthropocene activity has created significant climate change issues. Still, only about 50 percent of those polled thought they would need to make personal sacrifices to resolve the problems. This decoupling of personal sacrifice from limiting global warming is problematic. Neither corporations nor individuals want to make the necessary sacrifices.

Self Preservation

Without serious commitments from the world’s nations, the Paris Agreement goals cannot be reached. From an industry perspective, companies will not be the engine of change. Most major corporations are large public companies responsible to their shareholders. Their raison d’être is the generation of wealth, and there is one clear historical principle spanning the history of civilization, wealth is power. In general, neither companies nor individuals will sacrifice wealth and power.

Self-preservation runs deep in both individuals and companies. But it would be reasonable to ask, “Isn’t limiting global warming a matter of self-preservation?” The answer is nuanced. For a child of fifteen, the answer is probably yes. But for retired adults, the answer is no since they will probably not live long enough to feel the sharp end of the climate change stick. It is important to understand that self-preservation and species preservation are two different issues, and self-preservation is built into our genes.

Our distant hominid ancestors climbed out of the trees and started roaming around on two legs about five million years ago. After about 2.5 million years of hard-fought progress, they started flaking rocks to make crude tools. Another 2.5 million years passed before our ancestors gathered in organized tribes doing clever things like driving large land mammals into extinction. Civilization soon followed. The point is that we have five million years of genetics honed to help us focus on surviving until tomorrow morning. When suddenly faced with the question of surviving another hundred years, our tendency is to still focus on tomorrow morning.


In principle, the Paris Climate agreement should have bypassed the need for corporations and individuals to bear the direct responsibility of countering climate change. The agreement was between sovereign nations, and their pledges to reduce emissions were used for its foundation. Unfortunately, talk and pledges are cheap when there is no enforcement mechanism. So the probability of realizing any of the Paris Agreement goals is directly linked to the credibility of the pledges.

The Brookings Institution pointed out in a 2022 paper that:

“About 70 percent of world emissions come from countries that have made long-term pledges to cut emissions to net zero, in most cases by 2050. But bold non-binding pledges only work if they reflect true intentions and effort – — what political scientists often call credibility. Credibility is the key currency in international diplomacy whenever there is no practical way to enforce compliance, which is nearly always.”

So the theoretical ability to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is dependent on nations fulfilling their pledges. Another way to express this is that success is driven by politics, not science. We only need to look at USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement under the bumbling Trump administration to see the cracks in the plan. This is why climate modelers see the Paris Agreement goals as theoretically possible but not practically plausible.

Where to now?

The Paris Climate Agreement was a bold vision of the future. However, virtually all nations have failed to deliver their full commitments eight years on. The knowledge required for climate change mitigation is at our fingertips, but implementation is not cheap. The past eight years have demonstrated how the cost of meeting the Paris Agreement is too high, and society is not yet willing to pay the price.

Failure to deliver on the Paris Agreement promises does not mean zero progress. Four of the top ten global emitters reduced carbon emissions between 2010 and 2020 (United States, Russia, Japan, and Germany). The two largest polluters are China and the USA, and they have mixed results. The USA saw a 16 percent drop in carbon emissions over a decade, but China increased emissions by about 25 percent over the same period.

Thanks to COVID-related industrial slowdowns in 2020, global CO2 emissions dropped from 35.5 to 34.8 gigatons between 2015 and 2020. But the 2021 emissions rose again to 36.4 gigatons. So, in reality, we have seen little progress since the signing of the Paris agreement. The only glimmer of hope lies in the flattening of the emissions curve.

We need to embrace a difficult reality. Aspirations of holding the rise in global temperatures to 2°C are quickly fading, and the current consensus focuses on possibly limiting the increase to 3°C.

Most likely warming

Future projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA) show a “likely” case supporting a 3°C rise over the next 80 years. Not great, but the earth avoids the more severe conditions that come with a 5°C temperature rise, the higher end of the modeled outcomes

The IEA modeling shows a range of global warming outcomes ranging from 1.5°C to 5°C. Continued work in improving data quality and refining modeling techniques may allow greater confidence in environmental research as time passes. But, for now, planning for a rise of 3°C seems to be a reasonable approach.

Keeping the rise of global temperatures to under 3°C requires that nations become more proactive in combating fossil fuel emissions. But politics, being what it is, requires that this path be supported by a ground-swell of social activism that is currently lacking. If you are fortunate enough to live in a country where voters elect their leaders, then do your part and vote for the future you want.

The Future

There is still some hope that engagement at a Federal level is achievable. The Biden administration has outlined an ambitious plan for the USA to move to carbon-free electricity by 2035. Such a move is not without challenges, but economists point to the potential for robust job creation and the fact that clean electricity already competes price-wise with fossil-fuel-generated power in many regions.

Despite its admirable goals, the Paris Agreement will probably fail to meet the goal of reducing fossil fuel emissions to zero by 2050. But this does not mean solving the climate crisis is hopeless. The Paris Agreement relies on top-down solutions, but what we see emerging in many regions is more of a bottom-up approach. States and localities are adopting damage mitigation policies — legislative and regulatory changes, which can bring about meaningful change in ways that improve our economy and benefit our environment. As the flood water encroach on Florida, even the Republicans have started talking about climate change as a relevant issue.

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.