12 Years to Act: Do Climate Deadlines Work?

Extinction Rebellion protest in London, UK. Dinendra Haria/REX/Shutterstock.

Extinction Rebellion protest in London, UK. Dinendra Haria/REX/Shutterstock.


12 Years Left?

In October 2018, we were given a very narrow window of opportunity by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): 12 years to drastically reduce emissions and prevent irreversible and devastating damage to our planet. Or at least, that’s the number the media, politicians and the wider public chose to hold onto.

The young person in me was terrified at what seemed to be a self-imposed expiration date to the human race. The professional in me, however, was excited. The bulk of my time working in climate change communications is spent identifying the messaging that most effectively inspires the change we need, determining why it works, and how to best employ it. The 12-year deadline is the latest communication strategy I’ve come to analyze, taking me knee-deep into the relationship between climate action and deadline psychology.

Scientific reports come and go, but this IPCC report made a serious dent in the climate conversation. It added the metric of time and imposed a strict deadline for people to abide by: the need to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and to reach ‘net zero’ by mid-century. The report never states that we only had 12 years left, so the media did the math for us: We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN; Report: we have just 12 years to limit devastating global warming; The World Was Just Issued 12-Year Ultimatum On Climate Change.

Politicians, activists and the media presumably latched onto the narrative of a 12-year deadline (now 11) to express how quickly we are approaching a climate breakdown and how urgently we need action at speed and scale. But is it a fair characterization of the IPCC report, or of the situation at large? And does a rigid 11-year timetable energize people to act or does it lead to apathy?

A Deadline Flawed by Nature

The idea that there is only a finite amount of time to address climate change, or to prescribe a dozen years to a problem that’s already here, is scientifically questionable and misleading.

First, it is based on a set of problematic assumptions: that we have 11 years to act and that climate change is still a problem of the future. Yet we have both no time and more time. It assumes that something is going to happen at the 12-year mark on a global scale, yet the effects of climate change are already being felt. Climate change is not a cliff we fall off, but a slope we slide down, says NASA’s Kate Marvel. Finally, it assumes that there is this magic global mean temperature or level of emissions that separates ‘fine’ from ‘catastrophic,’ says NASA’s Dr. Gavin Schmidt. Between now and 12 years, however, every fraction of a degree of warming matters.

Second, it is open to interpretation: the science paradoxically falls in the eye of the beholder. 11 years can seem like a long time, just as it can seem like no time at all. If it seems like a long time, deadlines could make people more dismissive to start. If it seems like a short time, it could make people feel hopeless. Personally, and admittedly, that perception is circumstantial to me and may even depend on my mood. For people going back and forth, that volatility can be exhausting — and we don’t want to fight climate change with exhaustion.

Third, we are often motivated to meet deadlines in order to avoid the consequences of missing them. While in theory we know the consequences of missing the 11-year deadline, they still appear too abstract and distant in our minds. We’ve also been down the “11 years left” road before, and the repercussions of our past inaction have not been easily identifiable. The more deadlines or carbon budgets we miss, the more hopeless and accepting of the consequences we are, and the less we take deadlines seriously.

Fourth, a big reason why we meet deadlines is because we enjoy the individual gratification of completing a task within a timeframe. Not meeting a deadline is like ‘breaking a promise,’ it says something about your character. Climate change being a collective problem, we lose this individual motivation to meet a deadline. Finally, we are natural procrastinators. Fixing dates in people’s minds that are years away may be a less powerful call-to-action than the urgent, imminent need to mobilize.

A Harmless Misinterpretation of Science

Yet even if the hard 11-year deadline is scientifically questionable, does it really matter?

A ticking clock raises anxiety and urgency, compelling people to respond to a call-to-action. Raised urgency levels can cut through the overthinking, the confusion and the waiting. 11 is a good number because it is distant enough for people to hold out hope and not resort to fatalism, yet close enough for people to feel the urgency.

Even if the report was mischaracterized by a number, that number added fuel to the movement. It weighs heavily on the mind’s of today’s youth, such as myself, who know that their present and future are on the line if the inaction persists. It propped up youth-led movements at a global scale, Fridays for Future most notably, and energized tens of thousands of students across the world to strike and demand policy and corporate action. It also became a key talking point for politicians like 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, author of the Green New Deal, who alarmingly referred to the deadline as an expiration date.

Every day, an increasing number of cities, countries and corporations are pledging to cut emissions and all sorts of unsustainable practices by a certain percentage – if not completely – by 2030. The 11-year deadline has become a key marketing strategy for all who want to be on the right side of history. It has also became a tangible goal for governments to work towards when legislating climate action. With sweeping headlines that read “Edinburgh set 2030 carbon-neutral goal,” others are under pressure to follow suit. It’s the domino effect at play, minus the Communism.

There is no scientific consensus that backs up this deadline, and I generally would never support anything that affects the integrity of science. Yet the net benefit of heightened activism and mobilization across the world far outweighs the harmless misinterpretation of the report. What we need is concrete action, not more discussion about semantics. The deadline is a powerful communication strategy and organizational tool that is already creating urgency and inspiring change.

How to Communicate the Deadline

If you are in conversation with someone who believes nothing can be done in 11 years, tell them that history is full of examples of how we’ve achieved the seemingly impossible on a very tight timescale.

  1. World War II (1939-45): in just 6 years, the war changed almost every aspect of life in the countries involved. People used far fewer resources, came together to share, grow, build and save, and industries were completely transformed to support the war effort.

  2. The Moon (1969): it took 8.5 years from idea to execution to land on the moon.

  3. Volcanic Eruption (2010): when a volcano erupted in Iceland, it threw a massive ash cloud into the air, causing airports all over Europe to close. Aviation and the emissions that come with it had halted, but modern life kept going. Supermarkets started selling local produce, conferences were held online, and even the Norwegian Prime Minister, stranded in New York, ran his government from his iPad.

In its report, the IPCC claimed that “There is no documented historic precedent” for the action needed at this moment. I would argue otherwise — we were able to achieve all of the above without the digital literacy, technology and brainpower that we have today.

Finally, while it is important to note how much time we have, do stress the importance of acting now with your interlocutor. It’s not about having 11 years left to act, it’s about having lowered emissions to a certain threshold 11 years from now. That means every little action, every vote, every conversation counts.

Don’t forget, we are capable of just about anything when we are convinced they’re necessary. And this ticking clock is creating the urgency that we need.