Targets are the lingua franca of policy making. Education, health care, social care, economic performance; these are just some of the areas of public life subject to the logic of targets. It was therefore inevitable that as soon as climate change came to the attention of policy makers it would be defined as a phenomenon which could be controlled by a target based approach. This belief has informed all discussion of climate change, from whatever quarter - government, scientists, business or campaigners. But what if they were all wrong? What if there are some issues that simply cannot be made to fit into the targets box? What if it isn't simply that the chosen targets are wrong, but that the very idea of thinking about climate change in the form of targets is wrong?
Prominent climate scientists and politicians I have spoken to, all very worried about the impacts of climate change, have described the targets as 'meaningless' and a 'deceipt'. Read on to find out more about why it is time to abandon the language of limits.
Targets promote an erroneous sense of control over the climate
The language of targets assumes there are certain impacts we want to avoid and that these impacts can be traced with particular amounts of warming. At x amount of warming these things will happen. However the models used to make these assumptions have been too conservative and are too abstract, can only deal with large scale average changes. They did not predict the 2003 European heatwave or the exceptionally cold winter of 2009-2010. The relationships between weather and warming are simply not as neat and tidy as the models suggest. This is not the fault of science, but the expectation of policymakers that the science can provide usable predictions.
There is little agreement on the relationship between the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere and the consequent changes that will arise. The hope is that a certain increase in the amount of GHG can be related to a certain increase in temperature which in turn can be related to a certain series of impacts. From such assumptions arises the belief that an atmospheric concentration of GHGs of 400 parts per million (ppm) will lead to two degrees of warming, which is a dangerous limit. Such simplistic assumptions are naive and misplaced.
Who decides on the targets?The most important target concerns how much warming we will all have to live with. Do you remeber getting the chance to vote on this? Policy leaders in Europe and elsewhere have decided that there is a dangerous limit to warming and that limit is two degrees of warming above the pre-industrial average. Others have argued 1 degree is the dangerous limit, whilst the Association of Small island States alongside other developing nations have sought to argue for 1.5 degrees of warming as the upper limit. These controversies show that there is little science behind the targets discourse, and that essentially deciding what is dangerous is a value based decision. Different people live in different circumstances and have different values and vulnerabilities to danger. How is it then possible to imagine one single dangerous limit for all the people of the world?