In climate policy, it can’t be “five minutes to midnight” forever

Dr Oliver Geden, Photo © MPI-M

Dr Oliver Geden, Photo © MPI-M

In a commentary for Nature Geoscience, Dr Oliver Geden, guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology (MPI-M), argues that climate scientists tend to misconceive the relevance of the remaining carbon budget for mitigation action. To communicate effectively, climate researchers need to understand policymaking processes and incentives much better.

In recent months, climate policymakers unexpectedly received a significant extension of the remaining budget of carbon dioxide emissions for ambitious temperature targets. The new approach is now broadly accepted but the specifics of the recalculation, and consequently the magnitude of the extension, have been controversial within the climate community. Equally controversial has been the assumed effect of this recalculation on policymakers.

The concept of a global carbon budget has been shaping how the broader climate community looks at the core of the climate mitigation problem today. But carbon budgets have only been able to influence climate policy talk, not decisions, let alone actions.

The recent extension of the carbon budget means that the decades-old mitigation narrative (“it’s five minutes to midnight, time is running out, but we can still make it if we start to act now”) is kept alive although emissions are still not decreasing.

To avoid that climate policymakers get used to the “five minutes to midnight” narrative, Dr Geden suggests that the climate research community adopts stricter standards for assessing the achievability of climate stabilization targets more realistically and communicates its findings in a slightly different way. For example, instead of saying “yes, meeting the 1.5 °C target is still feasible, but only if A, B and C happens”, the core message should be “no, meeting the 1.5 °C target is currently not plausible, unless governments implement A, B and C”. Shifting the communication from a “yes, if… ” to a “no, unless… ” frame would prevent climate research and advice from resetting the clock time and again. Instead it puts the pressure where it belongs — on governments.

Evidence-based policymaking in a strict sense will remain an illusion, but in order to make evidence-informed policymaking a reality, we need politically informed advice. This is not to be confused with ‘playing politics’ or acting as ‘policy entrepreneurs’, quite the contrary. Science is based on the principle of intellectual consistency, and climate researchers should do everything to preserve this foundation of their work. Politically informed advice can be an effective approach to hedge inconsistency — by communicating the evidence in a way that makes it harder for climate policymakers to evade the practical consequences of the knowledge base they already accept.


Original publication:
Geden, O. (2018) Politically informed advice for climate action. Nature Geoscience, doi:10.1038/s41561-018-0143-3.

Dr Oliver Geden
Visiting scientist at Max Planck Institute for Meteorology
Phone: +49 (0) 40 41173 370
Email: oliver.geden@we dont want