The Case for 1.5 Degrees

Opinion article: The opinion of this article belongs exclusively to the author and is not necessarily reflective of this publication.

Why we cannot afford to miss 1.5 degrees.

“Qu’est-ce qu’on veut ? La justice climatique ! Quand est-ce qu’on la veut ? Maintenant !” During the international climate strike on September 20, thousands of protesters around the world, largely students, took to the streets to demand government and business leaders to take action regarding climate change and deliver ‘climate justice’ as the French slogan implores. Despite a scientific consensus since the 1990s that human greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, land use, and waste are the principal cause of a warming climate, policymakers and business leaders have taken minimal action to address the issue. [1]

Climate change, as we well know, poses an unprecedented threat to the world economy. By 2030, climate change could plunge more than 100 million people in developing countries into poverty. By 2050, agricultural yields may decline by up to 30 percent, the number of people who lack sufficient water may increase from 3.6 to 5 billion, and sea-level rise coupled with storm surge may force millions from their homes.[2] According to the United Nations’ most recent biodiversity report, 1 in 4 species risk extinction in the coming decades. [3]

A Market Failure like No Other

Climate change represents the most significant market failure the economy has ever faced. The failure of markets to account for the social cost of carbon, estimated at $54.70/tonne of CO₂, will increase scarcity and harm equity. [4] Because climate change’s effects augment over time, carbon’s social cost will continue to rise to $4,500/tonne of CO₂ by 2100. [5]

Increased severe weather events pose a severe threat to human capital, particularly to the poor and vulnerable. In parts of Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “country-wide exposure to extreme heat stress may increase 7 to 269 fold over current levels.”[8] Climate change-inflicted scarcity may increase conflict and further the poverty cycle in which low productivity leads to low real incomes, low savings, and low investment. Climate justice refers to the disproportionate costs that developing, and largely agrarian, economies will bear from climate change, caused by their wealthier counterparts. 

Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Credit: OCHA/Saviano Abreu
An unprecedented tropical cyclone hits Mozambique from April 28-29 with 168.7 mm of rain falling in 24 hours. -World Meteorological Organization

Although developed countries possess the resources to mitigate some economic implications of climate change and adapt, more or less, to the inclement economic environment, climate change threatens their economies as well. According to scientists, Japan’s 2018 fatal heatwave, which took 1,000 lives,, occurred as a direct result of “man-made” climate change. [7] Similarly, climate-related weather events cost the United States economy $91 billion in 2018, including the California Camp fire, which was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.[8] 

The Case for 1.5 °C

To address climate change, policymakers, business leaders, and individuals must consider the costs and benefits of both climate mitigation, entailing the reduction of emissions, and climate adaptation, changing practice to address unavoidable impacts of climate change. 

Mitigating emissions to reduce planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would reduce positive temperature feedback in the Arctic, caused by diminished ice extent and avoid “the melting of 2 million square kilometres of permafrost relative to 2 degrees of warming.” Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius could also reduce coastal flooding in the Eastern United States and Europe by 50%. Furthermore, holding global warming to 1.5 degrees would save the earth’s coral reefs, that are now slated to go extinct by 2100 if global emissions raise temperatures by more than 2 degrees.[9] The cost of inaction, or delayed action, thus remains significantly high as the initiation of arctic feedback loops could render impossible even a goal of 2 degrees.[10]    

In Latin American countries, land use, namely deforestation for agricultural purposes, accounts for 42% of global emissions. In 2017, the Pacific Alliance of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru agreed to increase reporting of carbon emissions and strengthen their regional carbon market.[11] While such actions may not hold the involved countries to their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the 2015 Paris Agreement, their cooperation represents how governments can employ market structures to not only account for the negative externalities posed by climate change, but encourage producers to operate sustainably.  

According to a report by the Global Center on Adaptation, investing “$1.8 trillion globally in five areas [such as climate resilient infrastructure and mangrove protection] from 2020-2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits.” Governments must finance infrastructure projects that adapt to increased severe weather, but also eliminate fossil fuels from the energy matrix. To begin to move the lion’s share of energy market power from fossil fuel companies to renewable energy companies, policymakers should implement a gradually increasing carbon tax to reflect the aforementioned increasing social cost of carbon. Such a tax would not only facilitate a structural economic shift towards decarbonization, but also finance public investment in decarbonizing electricity, transportation, land use, and waste. Institutions such as the Green Climate Fund, as well as the new phenomenon in sustainable investing can assist developing countries in mitigation and adaptation measures. Renewable energy, for example, holds not only the potential to mitigate climate change, but also to “end energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.” Despite the current and future consequences of a changed climate, regulation and taxing of carbon emissions coupled with investment in infrastructure, sustainable agriculture, and land-use, can contribute to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. In considering environmental racism and climate justice, policymakers can involve marginalized communities in developing solutions. Producers respond to signals from consumers; thusly, individuals bear climate change responsibility as well. Maybe, in the combination and coordination of the many stakeholders in the climate crisis, we can achieve climate justice. Until then, we march.


[1] Cubasch, Ulrich, et al. “Historical Overview of Climate Change Science.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, United Nations Environmental Programme, 2018,

 [2] “ADAPT NOW: A GLOBAL CALL FOR LEADERSHIP ON CLIMATE RESILIENCE.” Global Center on Adaptation, Sept. 2019,

[3] Diaz, Sandra, et al. “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.” IPBES, United Nations Environmental Programme, 4 May 2019,

[4]  Wang, Pei, et al. “Estimates of the Social Cost of Carbon: A Review Based on Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Cleaner Production, Elsevier, 9 Nov. 2018,

[5]  Dietz, Simon, et al. “The Economics of 1.5°C Climate Change.” Annual Reviews , Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Oct. 2018,

[6] Asefi-Najafabady, Salvi, et al. “Climate Change, Population, and Poverty: Vulnerability and Exposure to Heat Stress in Countries Bordering the Great Lakes of Africa.” ProQuest, Springer Nature, 21 Nov. 2017,

[7]  Dunne, Daisy. “Northern Hemisphere’s Extreme Heatwave in 2018 ‘Impossible’ without Climate Change.” Carbon Brief, 12 June 2019,

[8]  “Assessing the U.S. Climate in 2018.” National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), 12 Feb. 2019,

[9] All of the above statistics are from the source below: Dietz, Simon, et al. “The Economics of 1.5°C Climate Change.” Annual Reviews , Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Oct. 2018,

[10] Kerby, Jeffrey. “A Warming Arctic Could Cost the World Trillions of Dollars.” National Geographic , 24 Apr. 2019,

[11]  Jakob, Michael, et al. “Green Fiscal Reform for a just Energy Transition in Latin America.” Economics, vol. 13, no. 17, 2019, pp. 1-11. ProQuest,, doi:

Featured image: EinoSierpe@flickr

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