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Finding ‘Sensitive Intervention Points’ Could Help Find Solutions for Climate Change

Patrick Grubbs headshotWords by Patrick Grubbs
Energy & Environment
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For decades, since the very first World Climate Conference in 1979, we’ve promised to fix climate change, reduce emissions and switch to renewable energy. These promises were renewed every few years with a new panel and a new international agreement.

Not a whole lot has changed since then, other than our understanding of the scope of the problem. Many signatories of the 2015 Paris Agreement are still not on track to meet their emission goals. And last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have 12 years left to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Greater increases could be enough to tip us over the edge into irreversible and far-reaching effects of climate change, say authorities like IPCC and NASA.

If the current way of taking on this problem isn’t working, it may be time to try another strategy.

A recent commentary published in the journal Science offers a solution that could change the way we approach climate change mitigation and reduction. Instead of trying to topple entrenched industries with small subsidies to their opposition, Oxford Martin School researchers suggest investing those resources into key social and political movements they describe as “sensitive intervention points.”

The idea is simple: Find an existing opportunity, such as a politician fighting to legislate carbon emission limits or someone like Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish student who is striking until the government takes action on climate change. Use money, talent and experience to nudge that moment further, to propel it to a stage where it can’t be buried by the next article in your newsfeed and forgotten.

The Oxford researchers illustrate the plan’s potential with a potent historical example: the author of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which helped catalyze public opposition to slavery in 1850s America. “If the school strikers keep gaining momentum, Greta Thunberg could become the Harriet Beecher Stowe of our time,” wrote Dr. Matthew Ives, a senior researcher at the Oxford Martin Program on the Post-Carbon Transition.

“But such dramatic, nonlinear shifts can’t easily be incorporated into traditional economic models, as we saw with the global financial crises, so climate strategies aren’t designed to take advantage of them. A variety of examples from very different fields, however, suggests that modest, highly-targeted policies could have oversize effects to mitigate climate change—what you might describe as economic butterfly wings creating a climate action tornado.”

In other words, all these climate change temperature charts and predictions about mitigation are measuring our current economic trajectory. They can’t take into account the impact of social and political movements since they are composed of primarily qualitative traits rather than quantitative.

Therefore, Ives and his research team recommend we approach climate change not solely from a financial point of view, but also from an emotional one.

That does not mean advocates for climate action should dismiss any economic case for doing anything possible to limit global warming. For example, the researchers describe financial measures mandating companies to disclose climate-related risks as a possible sensitive intervention point.

But of course, such a change could dramatically alter the valuation of companies committing to long-term performance claims. Such a tactic could also conflict with the goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement—and even lead to an overhaul in the pricing of fossil fuel assets. The researchers further suggest that an upending of current accounting standards could make renewables a more attractive investment, decreasing the possibility of stranded assets.

These sensitive intervention points could appear at any time, in any place and in almost any form. Instead of simply throwing cash at climate change risks, a more subtle and intentional effort should be made to amplify these efforts to galvanize people and governments into action.

On that point, Jules Kortenhorst, the CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute, said: “The important point from this research on sensitive intervention points is that we stick the needle precisely where it can have the most immediate action. We know that time is of the essence and our resources are just barely up to the task. So, we have to be very precise in how we allocate those scarce resources to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future.”

The Oxford researchers are suggesting a major paradigm shift, but it’s important to note that it’s not a total departure from the previous strategy of slowly transitioning into a carbon-neutral or post-carbon economy. It’s an addendum that depends on an appeal to our collective pathos to drive the necessary change.

It won’t be easy, but it can’t be any harder than limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. I say the private sector, nonprofits and governments work together and give this approach a try.

Image credit: Pixabay

Patrick Grubbs headshotPatrick Grubbs

Patrick Grubbs is an environmental writer with a keen interest in the interactions between people and ecosystems. Past work includes projects to integrate permaculture into architecture, community education of urban agriculture, and published research in aquatic ecology. He is currently based in Philadelphia, but spends most of his time traveling abroad.

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