This is a time for serious humility. That's my feeling about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's newly published Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C.

The effects of climate change are already upon us. Huge change is hard-baked into our future. There is no escaping from this. But it is within our grasp to avoid far greater harms, to humbly retreat from the causes of this slow-motion catastrophe. By reminding us what's at stake, the IPCC report should be a call to action, not despondency.

It is daunting, no doubt. Even if we stabilise global warming at 1.5C — which is politically difficult but technically feasible — the world is expected to lose between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of its coral reefs. If we stabilise at 2C, we lose more than 99 per cent.


Think about the flow-on effects for fish stocks, then for the people who rely on these for sustenance. Then consider that the Paris Agreement pledges, even if we fulfil them, commit us to 3C warming. Economic analysis can't do justice to this harm.

It is easy to offload responsibility on to others. It is easy to think someone else will sort this out, that a technological fix is around the corner, that human ingenuity will reverse the problem. But that "someone else" is us. It always has been. Technology and ingenuity will help us, but that depends on us too, on our ongoing choices about research and investment.

I don't mean to dump all the responsibility on individuals, which we've heard a lot of in recent years. Change your light bulbs. Buy local. Get on your bike. This is important stuff, and worth doing as far as it goes. But it is abundantly obvious this isn't enough.

As individuals, we participate in a number of complex systems — energy systems, transport systems, systems of production — that we can't easily opt out of.

As individuals, we also can't reorganise these systems ourselves, even when they're killing us. Deep systemic change, the kind that the IPCC report calls for, requires us to act through our communities, our businesses, our Governments.

This is the greatest challenge in coming years. It is more social than technical. As voters, employees, consumers, shareholders, taxpayers, ratepayers and citizens, we need to encourage and compel our political and business leaders to make some tough choices.

In particular, we need to support our leaders when these choices involve intergenerational investment, when present people carry the cost for long-term benefits. Climate policy won't always involve sacrifice — there are environmental-economic win-wins out there — but it would be naive to think that we can avoid sacrifice entirely.

Post-war generations in industrialised nations, from the baby boomers to the millennials, have been extraordinarily fortunate. Some of us have enjoyed prosperity that is unparalleled in human history.


But that prosperity has some devilish foundations, particularly our dependency on fossil fuels. This needs to be replaced sooner rather than later. This will involve disruption, but we can't forget the greater good that it serves.

This isn't to suggest that we should accept all climate policy without challenge. Like any kind of policy, climate policy can be poorly designed, or unjustly implemented. The idea of "just transitions" asks us to be vigilant about such consequences.

But we also need humility. We need to accept that we're on the wrong track. We need to retreat behind the environmental limits that we've selfishly overstepped. It isn't too late to make decisions that benefit future generations, or indeed our future selves. But we first need to recognise the influence we have, both for bad and for good.

• David Hall is a senior researcher at the Policy Observatory, Auckland University of Technology, and co-chair of the Independent Advisory Group for Auckland Council's Climate Action Plan.