Honesty versus the meteorite

On Wednesday 23rd September, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research hosted a panel discussion on “is avoiding dangerous climate change compatible with economic growth”?

Five white men took the platform, and came down 2 to 1 in favour of compatibility, with one “yes/maybe”and one abstention. So, no real surprises there then- the metaphorical elephant in the room is trumpeting and stamping all over the biosphere (including, ironically, on the literal elephants), but still she cannot be named. This species really isn’t going to be smart enough to get itself out of the mess created by some of its paler members. So it goes.

Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor for DEFRA, Tyndall’s Strategy Director and formerly head of the IPCC (till Bush sacked him) came out swinging, with a robust statement that you CAN have growth, with the proviso that vulnerable communities are protected. He declined to define dangerous climate change, saying this was a value judgment up to elected leaders, not scientists.

He said we were unlikely to keep to 2 degrees above pre-Industrial global average temperature, and should learn to adapt to 4 degrees.

He cited noted climate genius Tony Blair (who was in turn citing Terry Barker, economist– who was in the room) had recently been talking about the economy benefitting from the switch to low carbon. [Ed: Have our cake at eat it? Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so]

So, he called for massive Research and Development, and deployment of the new technologies, a global carbon market, an outreach campaign for behavioural change and the usual shopping list of Carbon Capture and Storage, 2nd and 3rd generation biofuels if leccy cars stall. His take on Copenhagen was that Obama is neck deep in health battles and there ain’t hundreds of billions of quid lying around waiting to be given -every year- to poor countries to help ’em adapt.

Stephen Heal, formerly of Tesco, pointed out that business leaders are demanding tough binding targets, and that they believe these are compatible with growth.

He pointed out that there was a need to decarbonise while both population and growth were increasing, and that (therefore) we need to decarbonise MUCH faster than we have so far achieved. He admitted that for all Tesco’s serious efforts recently, its total footprint had grown by 3%.[Ed: so, maybe every little doesn’t help? Just sayin’]

Andrew Goulson, director of the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, gave, “as befits a social scientist” a conditional answer.

Avoiding dangerous climate change and continued growth were compatible with some ifs.

  • If we accept the economic and techno-optimism in the forecasts
  • If we overcome the sticking points in a (low carbon) transition
  • If we are less concerned with growth than with well-being and development

And then, as befits a social scientist, he gave some evidence that would make a grown human cry.

A hundred (big) companies in Yorkshire don’t know how they use their energy, and none (or very few) has done an options appraisal of where saving are.
He wasn’t sure what would happen when all the easy wins (the “low hanging fruit”) had been done.
He pointed to the lack of consistent signals from Government- a Climate Act but also a third runway at Heathrow.
He wondered what would happen when/if government backs down once they get to 30/40 percent cuts, when the costs of further emissions reductions begin to mount

Chris Shearlock of the Co-operative Bank (who had bravely agreed to step in at very short notice for the absent George Monbiot) said that he wouldn’t answer the question because he vacillates on a daily basis, and that “we’re in the system we’re in”

He acknowledged that growth was quite clearly wrecking the ecosystems we depend upon and that priorities were wrong. He pointed out that if he went in to the office of his CEO saying “we should reduce turnover in order to reduce carbon emissions, then he might as well take his P45 in with him.” There is still, clearly, a target to sell more of things.

He pointed out that people seem more interested in earning than in saving. Only when energy costs soared had the Co-op looked at energy use systematically.

He spoke of “choice editing” over and above “green consumerism”, e.g you can’t buy “bad” (non-Marine Stewardship Council) fish at the Coop now.

He acknowledged that only absolute targets matter, and that intensity targets are nonsense. He said they got put in sustainability targets because they look good, but they don’t matter.

Saving the best for last, along came Kevin Anderson

He said that he’s an academic, a mechanical engineer by training, so he was looking for evidence based conclusions.

He cited the existing definitions of “dangerous climate change” by a temperature increase above pre-Industrial Revolution levels, and accompanied them with amounts of carbon dioxide we could put into the atmosphere. (2, 3 and 4 degrees, and the accompanying tonnage of C02)

He then looked at the emissions reductions necessary to restrict the amount of carbon emitted to those three levels, making sure that he gave the most optimistic possible scenarios, including halving emissions from food production and a massive decrease in deforestation.

The following numbers are GLOBAL

for 2 degrees, you’d be looking at 20% per annum cuts

for 3 degrees you’d need 9% per annum cuts

for 4 degrees you’d need 4% per annum cuts

That’s with a peak by 2020. If you peak sooner, 2 degrees is no longer possible, 3 degrees needs 15-20% .

He then looked at precedents for emissions reductions- the UK dash for gas and the French nuclear build. That came out at a 1% reduction (excluding shipping and aviation)

The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a 5% reduction.

He then looked at reductions consistent with growth- citing Nicholas Stern and the Climate Committee saying you might just about get 3%.

So, his conclusion was that there was an infinite gap between growth and the emissions reductions needed to avoid even the most fingers-crossed definition of Dangerous Climate Change.

The floor was then opened for questions. (The following is by no means a complete record!)

In response to a question by Bronwyn Harwood, who works with Tim “Prosperity without Growth” Jackson about the social and resource consumption implications of economic growth/endless quest for novelty, Bob Watson said he believed that it can ALL be zero carbon, that he was not convinced of the need to move away from consumer(ism) society.

In response to a question about the bleakness of his message, Kevin Anderson insisted that hope comes from honesty. He gave the example of Neville Chamberlain (British PM just before the war). He said that if we start form kidding ourselves (here he cited the Earth Summit in Rio), then we get nowhere. He asked how far we are removed from the dictionary definition of genocide we are with our obsession with economic growth.

He called for regulating companies stringently, personal carbon allowances with strict caps on how much can be traded. He pointed out hat “role models” in society all have carbon footprints the size of Ghana.

He pointed out that the so-called good news of reduced emissions because of the recession is not good news, because those emissions are still in the atmosphere for our great grandchildren to deal with.

He pointed out that the carbon footprint of Joseph Stiglitz, and everyone on the panel, were very high.

He said it is not an “information deficit” that we are suffering.

He said we cannot get the cuts we need by technology (by 2020) and therefore behaviour change is essential.

Poor countries need to grow, up to a point. To a certain threshold, growth is good.

A cut in UK emissions might lead to life being like in the 50s and 60s, which weren’t that bad.

Terry Baker, cited by Bob Watson, called Kevin’s economics “hairshirt economics” and accused him of recommending bankruptcy.

In response to a question about making energy more expensive to drive behaviour change, Kevin Anderson pointed out the problem with a price rise is that the rich (I.e. us) can afford it, but the poor all get screwed. He said that 50% of emission come from 1%, and that if we get them down, others will fill their shoes, but it will take 20 years.
With strong caveats he said there were indeed a few geo-engineering proposals worth looking at.

Neil Adger asked the panel what they thought the worst impacts of a 4 degrees temperature increase would be.

Bob Watson chipped in with “lots of conflict”, musing that the UK might- at a push- be able to grow all its own food.

Andy Goulson said that as the impacts from climate change kick in, the blame game will get moving, and collective action will therefore be harder.

Kevin Anderson’s take was that 4 degrees was the collapse of humanity (but not its extinction). He pointed out that to destroy so much beauty in half a second of time- to act like a meteorite- was very very arrogant.

Noel Castree asked about leadership in the West, and whether democracy was compatible with the necessary changes, but your MCFly reporter’s front leg was aching, so he can’t tell you the replies the panellists gave.

Phil Korbel of RadioRegen asked “Given the stress on the need for big behavioural change did any of the panel have a ‘magic bullet’ on that issue?” No one had an answer to speak of…

The chair of the meeting then gave the panellists the chance to sum up

The Tesco chap emphasised the need for hope, and galvanising the market place

Kevin Anderson said that a scientist must be dispassionate and honest. He advocated sharp caps on people’s personal emissions. “15 tonnes this year, 10 next, 5 the year after that. More than that and it’s off to the clinic in Switzerland.” He emphasized that the world would be different, soon, and that Copenhagen was still up for grabs “if civil society kicked the right butts”

Andy Goulson said that there was a balance between stark assessments and politics as the art of the possible. One without the other not helpful. Importance of articulating a vision, viable partnerships.

Chris Shearlock said “let’s be positive, it’s a political problem, not an economic one. ‘More regulation please’”

Bob Watson agreed with Chris Shearlock- it’s “totally a political issue.”

Conclusion/petty sniping

This was followed by the leisure of the theory class– a buffet meal, complete with … meat. You’d think the Tyndall could at least set an example by “choice-editing” the dead animals for an single evening, given what Rajendra Pauchauri has said. ‘pparently not

Overall- only one of the five panellists took a rigorous and scientific view of the issue. Others might have done so and still come to the same conclusions, but hmm. To be fair to Andy Goulson, he was coming at this from a social sciences framework.

Once again, Kevin Anderson’s compelling and terrifying logic was ignored. It reminds me of the reaction to him at the Manchester Evening News “debate” at the beginning of 2008 (Nick Clegg, Paul Monaghan, some Volcano guy). There he was ignored or cheap shots directed at him with no chance for him to reply. It wasn’t much better this time round. He is an Enemy of the People.


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
This entry was posted in Bob Watson, Growth, Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Centre. Bookmark the permalink.

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