Why we should not give up on 1.5 C because it has become seemingly “impossible” to achieve

Young-jin Choi
3 min readNov 16, 2022


Photo by Martin Wyall on Unsplash

First and foremost, 1.5 C is a physical limit, a margin of safety. We cannot abandon a physical limit. Furthermore, 1.5 C is a moral responsibility. We cannot escape our moral responsibility.

That said, 1.5 C is also a promise we have made to our children, to vulnerable populations, and to future humans, that we are currently utterly failing to keep. That’s obvious. But there is no excuse for this failure — it was not and is not inevitable. We could have started 30 years ago. We could still start now with determined and collaborative emergency measures if we began to recognize and treat the climate crisis as the global existential threat to our civilization that it is.

If keeping our promise seems increasingly “unrealistic” now, then this is not because of some kind of natural law, or human nature, but due to design flaws in social constructions, systems and institutions that did not (and still do not) have to remain this way:

  • A failure of markets to price immense climate risks and damages, causing perverse incentives for continued and profitable fossil fuel exploration. At the same time, climate mitigation services are not sufficiently profitable considering their immense value to society. Market failures are social system design flaws that can be fixed through proper laws, policies, regulations, international agreements.
  • A poverty of current leadership, characterized by a severe shortage of imagination, wisdom, scientific literality and almost no sense of historic responsibility. Our current political systems have a worrying tendency to bring the most incompetent, ignorant fools into positions of power at the worst possible time.
  • Another failure of the current political system design is the inability to control relentless fossil fuel lobbyism and misinformation. At a time when we need an “entrepreneurial state” and international collaboration more than ever, obsolete ideologies of “small state”, “unfailing markets” and radically nationalist militarism continue to dominate.
  • A widespread inability to sufficiently comprehend the urgent warnings of the climate science community in an increasingly polarized, post-truth world. Large social groups are living in self-made subjective realities, some of which are clearly delusional and out of touch with the actual, physical world that is being meticulously studied and revealed by the natural sciences. The fracture of our shared consensus reality has been amplified by the rise of “anti-social media”, algorithmic misinformation, and the failure of our education systems to properly train the general population in basic media literacy, science literacy and critical, reflexive thinking.

What we need to do in such a situation is to keep doing everything we can to get at least as close as possible to 1.5 C, and as much as possible below 2.0 C, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement. But we need to start addressing social system design flaws. Lending a concept from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dawid Juraszek describes the term “climate anti-fragility” as “a perspective that allows us to engage in environmentally and socially vital initiatives not less but more decisively even as the planetary conditions in the coming decades inevitably deteriorate”. The more difficult stabilizing at 1.5 C by the end of this century appears, the greater our resolve and determination should be — not because we are motivated by the probability to succeed, but because we are intrinsically motivated to keep doing the right thing, regardless of probabilities. We owe this much at least to today’s children.

Paradoxically, this might be the only way we can possibly succeed after all. The overarching key objective is to achieve net-negative GHG emissions at scale as early as possible, before it’s too late, and to start cleaning up the atmosphere and restore the safe climate conditions that characterized the Holecene — even if this should turn out to take centuries.