“Dinosaur anguish”, generated from prompt by Midjourney
UNEP releases 2022 Emissions Gap Report
Last month, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released its 13th annual edition of the emissions gap report tracking the lack of progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, finding that the “international community is falling far short of the Paris goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place.”
The report, in its hundred-odd pages collecting and synthesizing all the best research from the previous year, employing hundreds of citations of dozens upon dozens of papers, studies and articles produced in the effort of articulating the evidence in favor of the report’s subtitle, the “rapid transformation of societies.”
The Emissions Gap Report, much like the assessment cycle synthesis reports from the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), are the gold standard for the climate reports that issue from the United Nations. The work of both the UNEP and the IPCC brings together the brightest minds to articulate how exactly we’ve come to the present climate emergency and what we need to do to get out of it.
The problem is that no one can understand what they’re saying.
What if the world ended and no one noticed?
We are already living in the era of climate change. With global temperatures having reached an average of 1° C higher than the 19th century, current international efforts — formalized by the Paris Climate Agreement — have dedicated themselves to limiting the increase to 2° C with a pinky promise to consider policies that would limit heating to 1.5° C.
1… 1.5… 2°… These numbers may appear benign at face value and the difference between them negligible, but they mask enormous ecological, economic and sociological ruptures within them. At one degree of increase, we have seen glaciers melt and sea levels rise at rate surpassing what scientists assumed was likely while heat waves lockdown India, Iran and the Pacific Northwest and wildfires burn out of control.
Our most ambitious climate policy of 1.5° would see these problems multiply.
The emissions gap in one (not-so) simple chart (Source: UNEP)
The more cautionary target of two degrees outlined in the Paris Agreement would also see these present issues increase exponentially while introducing a host of even more difficult challenges such as the drowning of dozens of island nations and the displacement of hundreds of millions across the world.
Given these stakes, one would hope that the news would show us within striking distance of the ambitious “safe” level of 1.5° of heating. Or, if not that, then at least comfortably between 1.5 and 2° of heating. Anything to show that this is being taken seriously.
Rather, the latest report shows that, based on existing policies (and pledges for further policies), we are on track to achieve a 2.8° C increase by 2100 — a level of warming that would render much of the planet uninhabitable for hundreds, if not thousands of years to come.
And this nearly three degrees of increase assumes the implementation of a range of policies across the world’s leading economies that are still largely hypothetical.
In other words, our most optimistic extrapolation of existing emissions policy results in climate annihilation.
That’s the bad news. It’s mostly bad news. What little good news there is remains largely comparative, such as the fact that this year’s report shows us updated policy commitments going forward to bring us slightly closer toward the goal of two degrees (and, obviously by extension, one-and-a-half degrees). But even this must be qualified, since emissions in 2021 increased after the drop in 2020 (itself mostly the product of a global pandemic shutting down huge swaths of the international economy at a time).
Why isn’t this being talked about more?
Changing beliefs, existing attitudes
It does not seem to be for the lack of belief. While attitudes toward climate change remain fickle and prone to a host of fallacies and public underestimation of a complex issue, public understanding and acceptance of the issue is higher than its ever been.
It just seems like that for many people, understanding hasn’t come paired with the necessary urgency required to convince people that of the scale of what is needed to stave off the worst at this point. Just prior to the United States’ most recent elections, less than one in five surveyed voters selected climate change as a top three most important issue.
If humanity is facing extinction (or at least the extinction of business-as-usual) then why aren’t more people acting like it?
The cynical answer is that people simply cannot be inspired enough to mitigate the impacts of climate change, especially when that mitigation would require enormous material sacrifices and a painful reconfiguring of everything from how we structure our electric grids to where we can sustainably spend our leisure time.
But I’m not a cynical person, and I would implore any of my readers to approach the sheer cliff of climate cynicism with caution. A collective, sustained response to trauma and conflict has reshaped the world several times before, and can do so again if required of us.
And right now, that is exactly what is required of us: a great orientation that identifies an existential threat and treats it as such.
To accomplish this great reorientation we will need more than just the scientists who research climate change, but we need policymakers to take their research seriously a body politic to hold these policymakers accountable. Artists will need to create great, gripping works that grieve for our climate losses and inspire hope in our climate future. Labor organizations will have to organize workers in all sectors of the economy — especially the fossil fuel extractors — to demand greater revenue sharing from oil and gas profits to fund retraining for workers and reparations for those whose homes and environments have been irrevocably tarnished by these extractivist practices. Banks and brokerages need to divest entirely from anyone making a profit off of burning carbon into the air, as do schools, pension funds and any other instruments of finance across the world. Debts must be forgiven in order to afford opportunities for developing countries and marginalized populations to escape poverty and build a more sustainable future.
Designers, too, have a part to play in this great reorientation.
The UX of the end of the world
The changes required to mitigate further climate change and adapt to its current expressions means new solutions will have to be constantly designed at an unprecedented pace. UX designers must identify the ways in which human-centered design can be expanded into an environmentally-conscious design framework that understands the life cycle of its solutions and divorces itself from the obsession for superficial forms of design that cap out at locking people into feedback cycles for the purpose of holding an audience captive for advertisements.
It also requires designers consider how best to communicate the science of climate change to people in a way that motivates action rather than inspires apathy.
People need an objective to work toward and a way to contextualize successes and failures within the context of this objective, something that UX designers are asked to do with every product or service launch.
What might those objectives look like? How might we communicate them more effectively?
Thanks for reading this article about designing communication strategies for climate change. If you’re interested in more, be sure to follow me and reach out to me on LinkedIn.