How did we get here? Obviously, as the IPCC describes, human activity on Earth is the single largest driver of a warming planet. That’s the reason behind climate change–– the reality. Not too long ago, these facts were not accepted as reality. Being an issue that involves so many players–– from the scientific establishment to governments to industries and, of course, the vast global public–– it is one that has always had discourse at the centre of it. Discussion surrounding the climate crisis in human history has seen four phases: Discovery, Debate, Denial, and Dismay.
The first time that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was ever studied was in 1824, when mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier inferred a fundamental truth about the Earth’s atmosphere called the “greenhouse effect.” A few decades later, physicist John Tyndall added to the greenhouse effect by discovering that gases like carbon dioxide retain heat, solidifying this basic principle of climate change: the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere could alter the climate. Yet, for many years, such discoveries stayed within the scientific sphere, and were very much considered only an issue for scientists and academics (like Fourier and Tyndall). Even when other scientists towards the end of the 1800s found out that coal burning could contribute to global warming, the public’s attention was simply not captured.
The tide shifted (figuratively and literally) more than half a century after this initial bout of scientific awareness when researchers became so alarmed by the discoveries they were making that efforts to warn the general public became seen as necessary. The end of the 1970s saw the publication of the Charney Report, the first scientific report to come to the unequivocal conclusion that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase, and that we have to do something about it. What is critical about this point in our climate discourse journey is its bleeding over into the political sphere. The Charney Report was the first to be presented to policymakers, a red flag signalling that the scientists and the public expected widespread policy action that would fight against, or at least mitigate, the now firmly scientifically-backed climate crisis.
Then things got thorny. People started pointing fingers–– namely, at the fossil fuel industries. More and more research began to explicitly call out the impact of things like coal burning on the environment, prompting the environmentally conscious portion of the public to place blame on–– and demand action from–– the companies at fault. A general consensus was finally reached by the scientific community which translated into public consciousness: climate change was real, humans were causing it, and there is evidence to prove it. It is at this point that scepticism about climate change becomes outright denial. The people fuelling the denial machine were, unsurprisingly, organisations and politicians who were backed by the fossil fuel industry. Large industry-backed groups sprung up to evoke doubt in the public about the reality of greenhouse gas emissions. They ultimately worked in exactly the way that benefitted the fossil fuel industry and hurt the environment, in that policy action and regulation became extremely thwarted.
Debates about environmental regulations have not gone away today. Just last year, Unearthed reported that authorities from countries that are large producers of meat and fossil fuels were attempting to lobby the IPCC, persuading them to tone-down messaging about plant-based diets and the restriction of coal use. Denial continues to swarm amongst the public, specifically within right-wing political circles energised by leaders in the past few years who have encouraged scepticism while pulling out of global agreements and rolling back on greenhouse gas regulations in the energy sectors. Against this landscape, the IPCC has waved the final flag of dismay–– of, as we started off this story with–– Code Red. Without a hint of doubt, they have told us that the climate will reach 2 degrees Celsius within the 21st century; further, the goals set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will be largely unattainable if we do not rapidly cut down on emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.