The climate progress narrative is the newest tactic of global warming denialists
Suggesting that we’ve made significant progress when we are nowhere near on track is climate colonialism in action
According to a paper published by the journal Nature at the beginning of this month, just a few days after the most recent IPCC report, if every country met both its Paris Agreement commitment for 2030 and the 76 longer-term pledges that have been submitted (“net zero” pledges), the world may limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.
This isn’t the first paper to quantify commitments and assess the state of climate negotiations. But because of its release alongside the IPCC report, it’s been leveraged by centrist pundits to aggressively promote a “good news” narrative specifically designed to disarm and dismiss the more radical demands of the climate movement.
Some of this narrative-building has reached the point of caricature (one pundit posted a graph of global emissions that left out the 2021 post-pandemic recovery) but some of it is more subtle, and this latest round builds on a more long-lived story that re-emerges more or less every time there is a major climate disappointment that might serve to galvanize the public into more aggressive action.
The recurring story goes something like this: the “worst case scenarios” of climate modelers in the past—what are commonly but not always accurately called “business as usual” scenarios—were much worse than what modelers predict the “worst case scenarios” are now. Therefore, the story goes, progress has been made.
It’s worth looking first at an earlier occurrence of this story and how, and by whom, it was spread. In its Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2014, the IPCC modeled four different “Representative Concentration Pathways” (RCPs). Each pathway was created by building a suite of policies and energy mixes that would yield a given atmospheric greenhouse gas context. These RCPs have been used for all sorts of things including, importantly, modeling the global impacts of climate change in different emissions scenarios.
Without getting too into the weeds, what’s important is that the RCPs were built using specific energy and policy mixes, but research that used these pathways to model the impacts of climate change were based solely on the greenhouse gas concentrations, not on the energy mix that was used to create the scenario.
It’s a subtle distinction which is what allowed opponents of the climate movement like Michael Shellenberger to declare that RCP8.5, the highest warming scenario, had no basis in reality because global energy use didn’t match the specific mix used to create the pathway.
Shellenberger made this argument in his book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. As he almost certainly intended, the argument gained momentum and spread from climate denial circles right into traditional media, muddying the waters and making it much easier for supporters of the status quo to dismiss more radical demands made on the grounds that our future looks apocalyptic.
The Earth system, of course, doesn’t care whether greenhouse gasses are emitted in exactly the way a specific scenario predicted they would be—it only cares about the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
The mix of energy use we see today has changed, but emissions haven’t. In 2020, a group of scientists found that RCP8.5 remained not only the closest match for the world’s emissions to date, but also the closest match for global emissions projected through 2050 based on stated climate policies. In other words, they made a case that not only was the “worst case scenario” still quite bad, but that it was exactly the path we are following.
Today’s rendition of this story differs in that it focuses on modeling the outcomes of the non-binding commitments made by nation states (or, depending on the circumstance, businesses and other non-state actors). “For the first time,” they tell us, climate commitments are on track to achieve some slightly less apocalyptic future.
What the recent Nature paper actually found is exactly that, and nothing more. It’s mixed news at best: international (non-binding) climate commitments are finally approaching a level compatible with the warming target the same countries agreed to work towards seven years ago in Paris. Viewed through another lens, though, it’s been seven years since the Paris Accord and they still haven’t set goals that could actually achieve its target—let alone made any progress towards those goals.
And, unfortunately, there’s no evidence that the vast majority of countries (particularly, the world’s largest emitters) are on track to meet these inadequate commitments. Many of the targets quantified by the paper are not for 2030—they are “net zero” commitments offered by countries like the United States and Canada, pegged to 2050 or even later.
Which speaks to the many issues with the broader good news narrative that has been spreading since COP26 and with renewed vigor since the latest IPCC report came out.
First of all, net zero is decidedly not zero. A report in 2021 found that 61 percent of emissions were now covered by net zero pledges. Good news! But the same report analyzed the pledges and found that barely 20 percent of them met a basic set of robustness criteria that suggested they may actually be plausible.
The fact that Shell has made a net zero commitment tells you most of what you need to know about both the seriousness of net zero commitments and about the social function they are designed to perform.
Second, even if our “worst case scenario” has genuinely improved from five degrees of warming to three—and I don’t believe it has—does that actually make any difference in human terms? Yes, the Earth system impacts are less horrific on paper, but at some point we cross a social and ecological threshold our society and infrastructure won’t be able to withstand.
Based on how we’re handling 1.2 degrees of warming, that threshold looks a lot lower than most “worst case warming” scenarios. The marginal differences for humans above that threshold—when cascading climate disaster-triggered, fossil-fueled nuclear war wipes us all out, for example—aren’t really something to celebrate.
Third, this story entrenches the perennial Global North idea that getting close to two degrees of warming would be “ok” in some sense; that it wouldn’t be a genocidal disaster unmatched by anything in human history.
Recall that the strongest Paris target, 1.5 degrees of warming, wasn’t on the table until activists from the Global South led a coordinated campaign to put it there. The protest mantra “1.5 to stay alive” isn’t hyperbole, and the research that it spurred, including the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 C, made it clear: accepting anything warmer means creating a virtually unlivable world for billions of people. Suggesting that we’ve made progress when we are nowhere near on track is climate colonialism in action.
Finally, this good news story is simply wrong: after the pandemic’s short-lived and surprisingly small reprieve, emissions are rising again—even emissions from fossil fuels, the metric many of these optimists insist we’re making progress on. If anything, it looks like fossil fuel use may accelerate as countries like ours double down on expanding production, building infrastructure that is intended to produce and export fossil fuels well past the 2050 mark.
I didn’t write this piece in an effort to dispel climate hope. A better world is possible. But claiming that we’ve made progress when we’ve done anything but serves primarily as a discourse of delay, a new form of climate denialism designed for an era when open science denial is no longer palatable. This narrative is a political tool aimed at silencing the climate movement and mollifying a public that is increasingly concerned about climate catastrophe.
Our governments are very publicly betting against climate mitigation. Hell, the secretary general of the United Nations called our leaders “dangerous radicals” for this behaviour. Emissions are higher than they’ve ever been, the Earth is warmer than it’s been in 125,000 years, and atmospheric carbon dioxide is higher than it’s been in four million years.
The idea that this is climate progress does nothing but justify the status quo, a status quo that is accelerating the destruction of all life on our only home planet for no reason other than to further enrich a powerful few. We have to demand better.
Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in Squamish, BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.