1.5 degrees celsius: a physical, moral and theological threshold

Joshtrom Kureethadam

October 27, 2018

The 1.5°C is a moral threshold. It would be the last chance to save many low-lying countries and the vulnerable populations living in coastal regions

Last August, I was in Kerala, my home state in India.

It is a long and narrow stretch of land tucked between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, a tropical paradise covered by lush green vegetation, thanks to the copious monsoon rains.

The monsoon rains were different this year, nearly double the average.

In mid-August there were some areas that received as much as 500 per cent more precipitation. The severe flash floods that followed devastated 11 of the 14 districts of Kerala. Nearly 500 people lost their lives and over a million people were left homeless.

I can vividly recall my niece’s account of those rains. She was at home on 14 August with her two little kids. Her husband was at work. At around 9 pm she noticed that flood waters were reaching their door. The children started crying. She started to panic. Collecting a few essentials and holding both children she set out in the dark for a relative’s house situated a kilometre away.

The flood waters continued to rise. Fortunately for them a fire service boat arrived to rescue them. But there was place only for the kids in the boat as it was already full of elderly and sick people. So, my niece opted to accompany them walking behind the boat. But the waters were rising dangerously and at one moment she had to start swimming.

The waters rose further, and this is what she told me: “Uncle, at one point, I thought that I was going to be swept away by the flood waters. I thought that I would never see my children again.” At exactly that time a fire truck arrived, and she was rescued.

Clear warning

Around the world we are seeing the impacts of climate change on people in terms of extreme weather like droughts and floods, rising sea levels, devastating storms, among other changes. These are the consequences of the rise in global average temperature of just above 1°C since 1850, the beginning of the industrial era. But we now know it could be much worse.

Agreed by nearly 200 countries in 2015, the Paris Climate Accord aims to keep the average global surface temperature “well below 2°C” and “pursue efforts” to limit the increase to 1.5°C. As a result of that agreement the UN’s climate science panel – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – was asked to explore the consequences of warming of 1.5°C.

Its report this week highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C, or more. A half a degree warming, in fact, will make a huge difference For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C.

That means 10 million fewer people would be exposed to related risks like increased saltwater intrusion, flooding, and damaged homes. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 per cent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all would be lost with 2ºC.

The 1.5C threshold is a crucial physical threshold. It is the last chance we have to avoid a climate catastrophe.

A Catholic mission?

The 1.5°C is also a moral threshold. It would be the last chance to save the many low-lying countries and the vulnerable populations living in coastal regions. The early and disproportionate victims of climate change are the poor and vulnerable populations who, ironically, have contributed least to causing it in the first place.

We may recall in this regard the prophetic words of Saint John Paul II who already in 1990 spoke of the ecological crisis as a “moral crisis”. It is a question of moral responsibility also towards future generations. One of the most powerful questions raised by Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato Si’ is: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?”

I believe 1.5°C is also a theological threshold.

The world that we are destroying is God’s, the very home sanctified by the Spirit of God (Ruah) at the beginning of creation, the place where God pitched His tent among us (Jn 1:14), as we read in the prologue of the Gospel of John. As Pope Benedict wrote in Sacramentum caritas: “The world is not something indifferent, raw material to be utilised as we see fit.”

It is God’s creation. As the US Bishops wrote in 2001, “if we harm the atmosphere, we dishonour our Creator and the gift of creation.”

It is the moment to be set ablaze by the “zeal for our common home” (Jn 2:17). We cannot afford to be silent witnesses of the destruction of our common home.

We cannot just sit and watch oil companies drill fossil reserves while it is clear that we will need to keep most oil reserves underground if we are to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement – as Pope Francis himself reminded the oil executives last June at the Vatican.

A personal journey

According to the IPCC report, limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.

We will all need to embrace radical change in our lifestyles, energy use, consumption, transportation, industrial production, agriculture, etc. Each of us needs to act. We also need to act together, from governments and institutions to families and individuals.

We need to come together as Churches to protect our one home (Oikoumene), we need to come together as religions – we will be more than two-thirds of humanity! – we need to work with the civil society and all people of good will to face this unprecedented challenge in human history.

The IPCC report warns that we will zoom past the 1.5°C marker by 2040. In fact, the current trajectory projects an unliveable 3°C or 4°C world! It is a question of extreme urgency and we are racing against time. To remain below the 1.5°C threshold with the current level of emissions we have hardly a decade or so.

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” said Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II on Monday at the report’s launch.

Joshtrom Kureethadam is Coordinator of the “Ecology and Creation Sector in the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development

This article appeared in THE TABLET – The International Catholic newsweekly.