WHY WE RESIST THE TRUTH ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE
p. 138: Faust: Part One by Johann Goethe, translated by Philip Wayne, Penguin Classics, 1949. Reproduced by permission of Penguin. p. 151: 'Australia 1970' from Judith Wright Collected Poems, 1942-1985, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 2002. With permission.
First published in Australia in 2010 Copyright © Clive Hamilton 2010
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1 No escaping the science 1
2 Growth fetishism 32
3 The consumer self 66
4 Many forms of denial 95
5 Disconnection from Nature 134
6 Is there a way out? 159
7 The four-degree world 190
8 Reconstructing a future 209 Appendix: Greenhouse gases 227 Notes 230 Index 274
In preparing this book I have been more than usually reliant on the expertise of others. Drafts of the first chapter have been read by a number of experts in climate science—Alice Bows, Graeme Pearman and Mike Raupach. David Spratt also provided very helpful insights. As the argument of the book depends on the science reported in Chapter 1, I am greatly indebted to them.
Chapter 4, on forms of denial, has benefited greatly from comments provided by Tim Kasser, Robert Manne, Tony Leiserowitz and Scott Cowdell.
Chapter 5, on our disconnection from Nature, has been thoroughly enriched by comments from my colleagues Wayne Hudson, James Haire and Scott Cowdell, as well as from participants in seminars at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. I also benefited from discussions with Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grimm.
Chapter 7, a report on a conference at the University of Oxford, has been improved after comments on a draft from Peter Christoff, David Karoly and Mark Stafford Smith.
Chapter 8, the most difficult to write, has benefited from comments provided by Scott Cowdell and David McKnight.
I would like to extend special thanks to Andrew Glikson, who provided helpful advice throughout, particularly on the science, and Cordelia Fine, who generously devoted time to reading most of the manuscript and providing feedback.
I'm grateful to Gus Speth for facilitating a visit to Yale University where a large portion of the book was written. Charles Sturt University has shown an admirable commitment to promoting public debate by providing me with the freedom to research and write this book unencumbered by other obligations.
As always, Elizabeth Weiss at Allen & Unwin has been a fount of support and good advice. The teams at Allen & Unwin and Earthscan have been a pleasure to work with.
Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the world only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global warming. Apart from the climate 'sceptics', most people do not disbelieve what the climate scientists have been saying about the calamities expected to befall us. But accepting intellectually is not the same as accepting emotionally the possibility that the world as we know it is heading for a horrible end. It's the same with our own deaths; we all 'accept' that we will die, but it is only when death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of our mortality.
Over the last five years, almost every advance in climate science has painted a more disturbing picture of the future. The reluctant conclusion of the most eminent climate scientists is that the world is now on a path to a very unpleasant future and it is too late to stop it. Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming that will this century bring about a radically transformed world that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life. As I will show, this is no longer an expectation of what might happen if we do not act soon; this will happen, even if the most optimistic assessment of how the world might respond to the climate disruption is validated.
The Copenhagen Conference in December 2009 was the last hope for humanity to pull back from the abyss. But a binding commitment from the major polluting nations to shift their economies immediately onto a path of rapid emission cuts proved too hard. In light of the fierce urgency to act, there was a sense at the Copenhagen conference that we were witnessing not so much the making of history, but the ending of it.
Some climate scientists feel guilty that they did not ring the alarm bells earlier, so that we could have acted in time. But it's not their fault. As I will argue, despite our pretensions to rationality, scientific facts are fighting against more powerful forces. Apart from institutional factors that have prevented early action—the power of industry, the rise of money politics and bureaucratic inertia—we have never really believed the dire warnings of the scientists. Unreasoning optimism is one of humankind's greatest virtues and most dangerous foibles. Primo Levi quotes an old German adage that encapsulates our psychological resistance to the scientific warnings: 'Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.'1
In the past, environmental warnings have often taken on an apocalyptic tone, and it is to be expected that the public greets them with a certain weariness. Yet climate change is unique among environmental threats because its risks have been systematically understated by both campaigners and, until very recently, most scientists. Environmental campaigners, naturally optimistic people, have been slow to accept the full implications of the science and worry about immobilising the public with too much fear. With the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions now exceeding the worst-case scenarios of a few years ago, and the expectation that we will soon pass tipping points that will trigger irreversible changes to the climate, it is now apparent that the Cassandras—the global warming pessimists—are proving to be right and the Pollyannas—the optimists—wrong. In the Greek myth Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but when she failed to return his love Apollo issued a curse so that her prophecies would not be believed. I think the climate scientists, who for two decades have been sending warnings about global warming and its impacts, must sometimes feel like Cassandras cursed by Apollo, and never more so than now.
There have been any number of books and reports over the years explaining just how ominous the future looks and how little time we have left to act. This book is about why we have ignored those warnings. It is a book about the frailties of the human species, the perversity of our institutions and the psychological dispositions that have set us on a self-destructive path. It is about our strange obsessions, our penchant for avoiding the facts, and, especially, our hubris. It is the story of a battle within us between the forces that should have caused us to protect the Earth—our capacity to reason and our connection to Nature—and those that in the end have won out—our greed, materialism and alienation from Nature. And it is about the twenty-first century consequences of these failures.
For some years I could see intellectually that the gap between the actions demanded by the science and what our political institutions could deliver was large and probably unbridgeable, yet emotionally I could not accept what this really meant for the future of the world. It was only in September 2008, after reading a number of new books, reports and scientific papers, that I finally allowed myself to make the shift and to admit that we simply are not going to act with anything like the urgency required. Humanity's determination to transform the planet for its own material benefit is now backfiring on us in the most spectacular way, so that the climate crisis is for the human species now an existential one. On one level, I felt relief: relief at finally admitting what my rational brain had been telling me; relief at no longer having to spend energy on false hopes; and relief at being able to let go of some anger at the politicians, business executives and climate sceptics who are largely responsible for delaying action against global warming until it became too late. Yet capitulating to the truth initiated a period of turmoil that lasted at least as long as it took to write this book. So why write it? I hope the reasons will become apparent.
Accepting the reality of climate change does not mean we should do nothing. Cutting global emissions quickly and deeply can at least delay some of the worst effects of warming. But sooner or later we must face up to the truth and try to understand why we have allowed the situation that now confronts us. Apart from the need to understand how we arrived at this point, the main justification for the book is that by setting out what we face we can better prepare ourselves for it.
Undoubtedly I will be accused of doom-mongering. Prophecies of doom have always been of two types. Some, like those of doomsday cults, have been built on a belief in a 'truth' revealed by a supernatural force or the delusions of a charismatic leader.
Sooner or later the facts assert themselves and the prophecy is proven wrong. The second type is based on the possibility of a real disaster but one whose probability is exaggerated. Survivalist communities sprang up during the Cold War because those who joined were convinced that nuclear war would break out, leading to the end of civilisation. There was indeed a chance of that happening, but most people believed it was lower than expected by survivalists and the latter were legitimately accused of doom-mongering. The same may be said for a number of real but small risks that have led some to forecast the end of the world—the Y2K bug and a collision with an asteroid come to mind.
Until recently, catastrophic global warming fell into the latter category, and anyone predicting the end of modern civilisation was arguably guilty of exaggerating the known risks because the prevailing warming projections indicated there was a good chance that early action could prevent dangerous climate change. But in the last few years scientists' predictions about climate change have become much more certain and much more alarming, with bigger and irreversible changes now expected sooner. After a decade of little real action, even with a very optimistic assessment of the likelihood of the world taking the necessary action and in the absence of so-called unknown unknowns, catastrophic climate change is now virtually certain.
In these circumstances refusing to accept that we face a very unpleasant future becomes perverse. Denial requires a wilful misreading of the science, a romantic view of the ability of political institutions to respond, or faith in divine intervention. Climate Pollyannas adopt the same tactic as doom-mongers, but in reverse: instead of taking a very small risk of disaster and exaggerating it, they take a very high risk of disaster and minimise it.
The book has three goals. The first, set out in the opening chapter, is to lay out the facts that lead to the conclusion that it is too late to prevent far-reaching changes in the Earth's climate. The book's conclusions hang on this analysis, which is a faithful rendering of the best climate science, and those who want to argue that I am too pessimistic must explain where the analysis goes wrong. Wishful thinking will not do. Although I have tried to minimise the use of numbers and jargon, the chapter is more technical than the rest of the book while remaining, I hope, well within the comprehension of lay readers.
The second goal, occupying the next several chapters, is to explain why humanity failed to respond to the existential threat posed by global warming. These chapters consider the modern preoccupation with economic growth and the enormous symbolic significance of GDP, the way in which consumption has become inseparable from the construction of personal identity in affluent societies, and our penchant for various forms of denial and avoidance to soften unpleasant truths. I also consider how, beneath these forces, modern humans became disconnected from the natural world so that our perspective on what matters was lost.
The final goal of the book is to help the reader come to terms with the implications of the great climate disruption that will unfold this century. The groundwork will have been laid in the middle part of the book, where I expose the strategies of denial and dissociation which we deploy so expertly. We all face a choice: in confronting the reality of a transformed climate we can cope by using strategies that are adaptive or ones that are unhealthy. In the last chapter I argue that to despair is human, but sooner or later we must accept the new situation that now confronts us and begin to act in ways that can make the best of it. It is also a call to arms, because we don't have to take it lying down.
It is important to stress that, while the focus of the analysis is on underlying causes, the most immediate reason for 'our' failure to act on global warming has been the sustained and often ruthless exercise of political power by the corporations who stand to lose from a shift to low- and zero-carbon energy systems. The story of the influence of the carbon lobby has been told by a number of authors and journalists.2 We can all see what has been happening and if anyone deserves to be cast into the eternal flames of hell it is the executives of companies like ExxonMobil, Rio Tinto, General Motors, Peabody and E.ON, along with their lobbyists and PR operatives. All of this goes without saying, at least in this book. What is more perplexing is why we have allowed these people to stop our governments acting on global warming. We could have surrounded the parliaments, occupied the coal-fired power plants and shut down the CBDs demanding that our representatives pass strong laws to protect our children's future. But we didn't. Why? I hope to give some persuasive answers.
No escaping the science
One of the most striking features of the global warming debate has been how, with each advance in climate science, the news keeps getting worse. Although temporarily slowed by the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, the world's greenhouse gas emissions have been growing much faster than predicted in the 1990s. In addition, since 2005 a number of scientific papers have described the likelihood of the climate system passing significant 'tipping points' beyond which the warming process is reinforced by positive feedback mechanisms—small perturbations that cause large changes.1 This new understanding has upset the comforting idea of a 'dose—response' relationship between the amount of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere and the amount of global warming that follows. That idea has allowed us to believe that, although we may be slow to respond, once we decide to act we will be able to rescue the situation. In truth, it is likely that in the next decade or so, beginning with the melting of the Arctic's summer sea-ice, the Earth's climate will shift onto a new trajectory driven by
'natural' processes that will take millenniums to work themselves out.
The paleoclimate record shows the Earth's climate often changing abruptly, flipping from one state to another, sometimes within a few years.2 It now seems almost certain that, if it has not occurred already, within the next several years enough warming will be locked in to the system to set in train feedback processes that will overwhelm any attempts we make to cut back on our carbon emissions. We will be powerless to stop the jump to a new climate on Earth, one much less sympathetic to life. The kind of climate that has allowed civilisation to flourish will be gone and humans will enter a long struggle just to survive.
It is hard to accept that human beings could so change the composition of Earth's atmosphere that civilisation, and even the existence of the species, is jeopardised. Yet that is what some climate scientists now believe. Scientists are naturally reticent; except for a few mavericks, they stick to what they know with a high degree of certainty, which in most circumstances is appropriate. Yet after a massive research effort over the last 20 years scientists are beginning to express the fear that now haunts them— that the consequences of global warming are much worse than we thought and the world will almost certainly not act in time to stop it. These fears were cemented by the agreement reached at Copenhagen in December 2009 which locked the world into only modest abatement action for the foreseeable future.
In 2007 James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world's foremost climate experts, wrote of the traditional caution of scientists that has led them to understate the risks of a sea-level rise of several metres due to the possible collapse of the West Antarctic and Greenland icesheets.3 He argued that scientists are more worried about being accused of 'crying wolf' than they are of being accused of 'fiddling while Rome burns'. There are, of course, institutional and cultural barriers that interfere with the process of communicating science to political decision-makers. Scientific journals are more likely to publish papers if they are cautious and filled with caveats. And, for all of its virtues, the consensus process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the basis for the official response to global warming, naturally favours conservatism and understatement of the dangers. Hansen wrote: 4
There is enough information now, in my opinion, to make it a near certainty that business-as-usual climate forcing scenarios would lead to a disastrous multi-metre sea level rise on the century time scale.
The accelerating rate of melting of the Arctic sea-ice has shocked the scientists studying it, with many believing that summer ice will disappear entirely within the next decade or two.5 Some expect it to be gone even sooner. Mark Serreze, director of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, has declared that 'Arctic ice is in its death spiral'.6 The dark water surface that will replace the reflective white one in summer will absorb more solar radiation, setting off a positive-feedback process of further warming. This is expected to initiate a cascade of effects as the patch of warmth over the Arctic spreads in all directions, warming the surrounding oceans, melting the Siberian permafrost and destabilising the Greenland icesheet. In December 2007, after a summer that saw a dramatic decline in Arctic sea-ice, NASA climate scientist Jay Zwally said: 'The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming. Now, as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines.'7 Another resorted to a biblical metaphor: 'Climate scientists have begun to feel like a bunch of Noahs.'8
The world's top climate scientists are now ringing the alarm bell at a deafening volume because the time to act has virtually passed, yet it is as if the frequency of the chime is beyond the threshold of human hearing. While the scientists are becoming more desperate, the world's emissions of greenhouse gases have been going through the roof. In the 1970s and 1980s global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels increased at 2 per cent each year. In the 1990s they fell to 1 per cent. Since the year 2000, the growth rate of the world's CO2 emissions has almost trebled to 3 per cent a year.9 At that rate annual emissions will double every 25 years.
While rates of growth in rich countries have fallen below 1 per cent, they have expanded enormously in developing countries, led by China where fossil fuel emissions grew by 11—12 per cent annually in the first decade of this century.10 By 2005 China accounted for 18 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions; by 2030 it is expected to be responsible for 33 per cent.11 The Chinese Government takes climate change seriously—much more so than the United States under the Bush Administration— and has implemented a number of policies designed to cut the emissions intensity of electricity and transport, but the sheer expansion of the economy is swamping all attempts at constraining the growth of carbon pollution.
The hope in the 1990s that greater energy efficiency and a gradual shift to low-carbon sources of energy in the West could head off global warming has been battered by the extraordinary growth of China's economy, compounded by that of India, Brazil and a couple of other large developing economies. The energy that powers this growth has come predominantly from burning coal. In the years after 2000, coal consumption by developing countries rose by 10 per cent annually.12 Rather than decarbonising the world is carbonising at an unprecedented rate, and it is doing so at precisely the time we know we have to stop it.
The recession that arrived in late 2008 slowed, and in some countries reversed, growth in annual carbon emissions, but the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continued to rise,13 just as reducing the flow rate of tap water does not stop the bath filling up. Even if annual emissions stopped dead, the fact that most of past carbon emissions remain in the atmosphere for a long time would mean that the elevated global temperature would persist for many centuries.14 There is every reason to expect that, without policy intervention, emissions will revert to pre-recession rates for some decades. As the pace of China's economic expansion inevitably slows over the next two decades or so, growth in other large developing countries is likely to accelerate. Over the last two centuries some 75 per cent of increased greenhouse gas emissions have been put into the atmosphere by rich countries;15 over the next century more than 90 per cent of the growth in global emissions is expected to occur in developing countries.16 It is little wonder that, according to one newspaper survey, more than half of climate scientists now believe that cutting emissions will no longer be enough to avoid the worst and we will be forced to pursue the radical and dangerous route of engineering the global climate, a prospect considered in Chapter 6.17
The headline of the IPCC's Third Assessment Report in 2001 was that average global surface temperatures are projected to increase by anywhere between 1.4 and 5.8°C above pre-industrial levels over the period 1990 to 2100. Climate 'sceptics' attacked those who emphasised the upper limit as alarmist and scoffed at the possibility of 6°C of warming, suggesting that the width of the range was a measure of the lack of confidence of the IPCC in the science. In truth, most of the variability in the range was due not to uncertainties about how much warming is associated with a given concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmos-phere,18 but to the difficulty of forecasting the future path of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. The models of the economists rather than those of the scientists were to blame.
In the 1990s the IPCC developed a number of scenarios to reflect future influences on emissions and associated warming. Of the half-dozen or so main IPCC scenarios, the 'worst-case scenario' is known as A1FI. This scenario, the one that has given the highest estimates of warming in the IPCC reports, assumed strong rates of global economic growth with continued high dependency on fossil fuel-based forms of energy production over the next decades.
It is worth noting here that climate deniers and conservatives have frequently accused the IPCC of exaggeration and ridiculed environmentalists for fear-mongering when they refer to the possibility of warming reaching the upper boundaries of the IPCC projections. Bjorn Lomborg, whose book The Skeptical Environmentalist made him the darling of right-wing think tanks and newspaper columnists, declared in 2001 that the A1FI scenario was 'patently implausible' and that carbon emissions are much more likely to follow the lowest paths suggested by the IPCC.19 On this basis, he extended the argument of his book to conclude that: 20
global warming is not an ever-worsening problem. In fact, under any reasonable scenario of technological change and without policy intervention, carbon emissions will not reach the levels of A1FI and they will decline towards the end of this century . ..
Lomborg made this confident declaration just at the time it was becoming apparent that growth in global emissions had risen so high that the world had shifted onto a path that is worse than the worst-case scenario imagined by the IPCC. In its worst case the IPCC anticipated growth in CO2 emissions of 2.5 per cent per annum through to 2030, yet we have seen that from around 2000 global emissions began growing at 3 per cent a year.21 This worse-than-the-worst-case scenario should now be regarded as the most likely one in the absence of determined intervention.22 It is not often in the history of public debate that a commentator has been proven as emphatically wrong as Bjorn Lomborg has been.
What are we facing under such a scenario? The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, published in 2007, narrowed the likely range of warming to 2.4 to 4.6°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 if we do nothing.23 The upper limit of 4.6°C became the most likely outcome for the A1FI scenario.24 Climate scientists believe that the temperature threshold that would bring about the melting of the Greenland icesheet is between 1°C and 3°C, in other words well below the 4.6°C warming level expected under A1FI. As
I will argue next, the numbers show that even with urgent and sustained global action it seems unlikely that we will be able to keep the Earth's temperature from rising by anything less than 3°C. Melting of the Greenland icesheet would eventually result in the world's oceans rising by around seven metres, dramatically redrawing the geography of the Earth.
To understand the significance of the latest climate science we need a rudimentary understanding of the carbon cycle. The natural carbon cycle forms the core of the Earth's living system. Carbon circulates through the biosphere via the growth and death of plants, animals and microbes. It is also buried in sediments as fossil carbon (coal, oil and natural gas) and is absorbed in the oceans in the form of dissolved CO2. Some of the ocean's CO2 is taken up by marine life and eventually buried in sediments on the ocean floor. Carbon also occurs in the atmosphere as the gases CO2 and methane (CH4). The terrestrial biosphere forms a thin carbon-rich layer on the Earth's surface through which this element is exchanged between sediments beneath and the atmosphere and ocean above.
For nearly three million years the natural carbon cycle has ensured the atmosphere has contained less than 300 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, just the right amount to keep the planet at a temperature suited to the flourishing of a rich variety of life. But human industrial activity over the last two to three centuries has disturbed this balance. When we dig up and burn coal, over half of the CO2 released is absorbed by land and ocean sinks. The rest stays in the atmosphere, some of it for a very long time. A quarter will still be affecting the climate after a thousand years and around 10 per cent after a hundred thousand years. As David Archer, professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, points out, the effects of carbon we emit now will last longer than that of nuclear waste created today.25 Throughout its history Earth has passed through long warm greenhouse periods and shorter ice age periods in response to changes in the distribution of continents and oceans around the globe, the rise and erosion of mountain ranges, the long-term increase in the brightness of the sun, and cyclic variations in solar radiation associated with changes in the Earth's orbital position relative to the sun. If humans were to put all of the economically recoverable fossilised carbon back into the atmosphere over the next couple of centuries, then the eventual impact on the Earth's climate would exceed that of an orbital shift. So humans have become a 'natural' planetary force comparable to those that have driven the great glacial cycles that define geological time.26
Climate scientists now know that increases of atmospheric greenhouse gases raise the heat-trapping potential of the atmosphere, which in turn interferes with the natural carbon cycle in ways that tend to amplify the greenhouse effect. This is known as a positive-feedback effect. Through global warming, changes in atmospheric carbon alter the rate of absorption and release of carbon from natural sinks in the oceans and land. Climate— carbon cycle feedback mechanisms include the reduced ability of warmer ocean waters to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and the decline in deep-ocean mixing and thus the transport of carbon into the deep ocean from the carbon-rich surface layer. In addition, warming is expected to cause more deforestation through droughts, fires and high temperatures inhibiting plant growth. A recent study concluded that a 4°C rise in the Earth's average temperature would kill off 85 per cent of the Amazon rainforest, and that even a 2°C rise, now seen as unavoidable, will see 20-40 per cent of it die off.27
When ocean and land sinks take up less carbon, a greater proportion of the CO2 put into the atmosphere by humans stays there, strengthening feedback effects and causing more warming. Perhaps most worrying, the threshold for release of methane and CO2 from the vast permafrost of Siberia is approaching, driven by temperature rise in the Arctic, which at nearly 4°C is three to four times the global average.
In the terrestrial biosphere the feedback effect works as follows. An increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere stimulates the growth of plants which draw CO2 out of the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis. However, this so-called fertilisation effect—an offsetting or negative feedback— works only up to a point. Changes in rainfall patterns and higher temperatures associated with global warming will begin to work in the opposite direction, reducing the absorptive capacity of vegetation. So boreal (northern) forests will extend further north, while tropical rainforests burn. The processes are complex and not fully understood but the weight of evidence indicates that, taken overall, the detrimental effects of climate change on the absorption of CO2 by the biosphere will outweigh the beneficial effects (including plant growth stimulated by higher rainfall in northern latitudes), and more so as temperatures rise. Overall, the effectiveness of natural sinks at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has declined by 5 per cent over the last 50 years, and the decline will continue.28 Unless offset by some other process, warming amplified by positive-feedback effects will, over centuries and perhaps much sooner, melt all of the ice on Earth, causing the seas to rise by some 70 metres.
So humans are increasing atmospheric CO2 both directly by burning fossil fuels and clearing forests and indirectly by interfering with the natural carbon cycle. If we are to achieve the goal of all international efforts and stabilise greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at a level considered 'safe', the presence of climate— carbon cycle feedbacks means we must reduce our direct emissions by more than we would need to if we had to contend only with direct effects. The IPCC estimates that, in order to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm), the presence of carbon cycle feedbacks means that we will have to reduce our total emissions over the twenty-first century by 27 per cent more than we would otherwise.29
I am trying to keep the use of numbers and abbreviations to a minimum, but to get a true sense of what we are up against a few more figures are needed. Note here too that carbon dioxide is only the most prominent greenhouse gas. In order to analyse the effects of all greenhouse gases, the others—methane, nitrous oxide and a number of 'trace gases'—are converted into their 'global warming potential' and measured in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e). When I refer to 'greenhouse gases' I mean all of them, not just carbon dioxide. This is explained in the appendix on page 227, where there is also a table showing the correspondences between CO2 concentrations and CO2-e concentrations.
It is widely accepted in international negotiations that if global average temperatures increase by 2°C above the pre-indus-trial average then we will pass into the danger zone.30 Warming of 2°C is the most likely outcome if greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere are allowed to increase to 450 ppm, as long as we exclude the effects of positive feedbacks. Resolved to decide what is meant by 'dangerous' warming in the Framework Convention, the European Union adopted 2°C as the target level below which warming must be kept.
As I will argue, the chances of stopping warming at 2°C above pre-industrial levels are virtually zero because the chances of keeping concentrations below 450 ppm are virtually zero.31 In fact, in 2007 the concentration of greenhouse gases reached 463 ppm, although when the warming effect is adjusted to account for the cooling effect of aerosols the figure falls to 396 ppm.32 Only air pollution is protecting us. The Earth's temperature is already 0.8°C above its long-term average, and existing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere mean that another 0.7°C of heating is in the pipeline and unavoidable, even if emissions fell to zero tomorrow.33
Most leading climate scientists now believe that 2°C of warming would pose a substantial risk both because of its direct impacts on climatically sensitive Earth systems and because of the potential to trigger irreversible changes in those systems. The latter include the disappearance of Arctic summer sea-ice and melting of much of the Greenland and West Antarctic icesheets.34 James Hansen has declared the goal of keeping warming at 2°C 'a recipe for global disaster'.35 He believes the safe level of CO2
in the atmosphere is no more than 350 ppm. The current level of CO2 is 385 ppm, rising at around 2 ppm each year, so that we have already overshot our target and must somehow draw down large volumes of CO2 from the atmosphere.36
In the history of life on Earth there have been ice-free eras—a planet with no glaciers and no polar ice caps. In these times sea levels have been some 70 metres higher than they are today. Paleoclimate studies of sediments and ice core records indicate the Antarctic icesheet started to form once atmospheric CO2 levels fell below about 500 ppm, and the Greenland and West Antarctic icesheets formed when levels fell below about 400 ppm.37 Once melting commences there is little humans can do to arrest it, except perhaps by simulating volcanic eruptions (an approach considered in Chapter 6). It is on this basis that Hansen and his fellow researchers conclude that 'if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed . . . CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm'.38 Who could have predicted that at the beginning of the twenty-first century humanity would have to ask itself whether it can preserve a planet fit for civilisation?
Despite these serious doubts about the semi-official target, is aiming to limit warming to even 2°C a feasible goal? What do we have to do to stop emissions pushing temperatures above this level? Just before the Bali Climate Change Conference at the end of 2008 climate scientists released a new assessment arguing that, in order to have a good chance of avoiding the 2°C threshold, rich countries must by 2020 reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels.39 The 25 per cent target quickly became entrenched internationally as the benchmark against which the commitment of rich countries is judged.
The fact that aiming for 25 per cent instead of 40 per cent means developing countries will have to do a lot more was conveniently passed over.
We have seen that, rather than declining or even growing more slowly, global emissions have in fact been accelerating over the last decade. To have any hope of avoiding catastrophes, emissions must peak within the next few years and certainly no later than 2020, then begin a rapid decline to the point where all energy generation and industrial processes are completely carbon free. James Hansen has put it bluntly: 40
Decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation . . . Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects.
Meeting in March 2009, the world's leading climate scientists reached a similar conclusion: 'immediate and dramatic emission reductions of all greenhouse gases are needed if the 2°C guardrail is to be respected.'41
The urgent question we must now ask ourselves is whether the global community is capable of cutting emissions at the speed required to avoid the Earth passing a point of no return beyond which the future will be out of our hands. It is this irre-versibility that makes global warming not simply unique among environmental problems, but unique among all of the problems humanity has faced. Beyond a certain point it will not be possible to change our behaviour to control climate change no matter how resolved we are to do so.
There are in fact two types of threshold beyond which the inertia of the system takes over. The usual thresholds are scientific; once the melting of Greenland is well underway no reduction in anthropogenic emissions will be able to stop it. But political inertia is also a barrier. Except in times of war, political institutions take time to respond to changed circumstances even if the problem is serious and urgent. The main players first have to be persuaded there is a problem. Then meetings must be called, inquiries held, objections accommodated, opposition overcome and public support won. Legislation has to be drafted, debated, amended and enacted, at which point policies can be implemented, a process that can take years even without serious resistance.
If the scientists are right, global emissions must reach a peak within five to ten years then decline rapidly until the world's energy systems are all but decarbonised. Are the institutions of government in the major nations of the world capable of recognising and responding to the urgency of the problem in time? Are the international institutions that must agree on a global plan sufficiently responsive to agree to, implement and enforce the necessary measures? These are questions on which climate scientists have little useful to say; they are in the domain of political and behavioural scientists.
One way to think about the task of protecting the climate is to work out how much additional carbon we can put into the atmosphere in order to keep the concentration of greenhouse gases below an agreed target such as 450 ppm. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows from the United Kingdom's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (one of the top such centres) have set out the task we face in the most striking way.42 It is the most important and confronting paper on climate change I have read. The authors present a range of possible global emission reduction paths and work out their implications for greenhouse gas concentrations and associated warming.
There are two ways of thinking about the task. First, we can set a particular target, such as stabilisation at 450 ppm, and work out how soon global emissions must peak and how quickly they must fall thereafter to meet it. Then we must ask whether the path so defined is politically possible given the national and international institutions that must decide on and implement the plan. Alternatively, we can make the most hopeful judgment about the emissions reduction path the world is likely to follow then ask how much warming it will entail. Anderson and Bows analyse the task both ways, but here I will focus on the second approach. In other words, we will make some optimistic assumptions about how soon and how quickly emissions can be reduced over the century and see what sort of world we would be left with.43
There are three broad types of activity that determine the volume of greenhouse gases that go into the atmosphere: emissions of CO2 from burning fossil fuels for energy and in industrial processes; CO2 emissions from cutting and burning forested areas; and emissions of greenhouse gases other than CO2. Anderson and Bows first make some simple but plausible estimates of what we can expect from the second and third of these. Having made these estimates we can then concentrate on the big one, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
Deforestation currently accounts for 12—25 per cent of the world's annual anthropogenic or human-induced CO2 emissions.44 Reducing deforestation will need to be a major focus of efforts to minimise climate change. If the world's decision-makers adopt a resolute attitude to tackling climate change then an optimistic assessment would see deforestation rates peak in 2015 and fall rapidly thereafter, to around half their current levels by 2040 and close to zero by 2060. If this happens then the total stock of carbon dioxide locked up in the world's forests will fall from 1060 billion tonnes45 in the year 2000 to around 847 billion tonnes in 2100, a decline of 20 per cent. Over this century, then, deforestation would add 'only' 213 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. (A less optimistic scenario would see deforestation add 319 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.)
What about non-CO2 greenhouse gases? What can we expect from them? Methane and nitrous oxide are the two main non-CO2 greenhouse gases. In 2000 they accounted for about 23 per cent of the global warming effect of all greenhouse gas emissions.46 They are mostly emitted from agriculture—methane from livestock and rice cultivation and nitrous oxide from the use of fertilisers. Emissions from agriculture are growing rapidly as more land is turned over to crops and pasture and diets shift to more meat as people in countries like China become better off. Population growth will make the task of reducing non-CO2 emissions much harder because food is the first item of consumption humans must have. Like emissions from deforestation, agricultural emissions must peak soon then decline. Unlike emissions from deforestation they cannot be reduced to zero because of the nature of food production.
If the world's leaders take resolute action an optimistic assumption would be that non-CO2 emissions will continue to rise until 2020, up from 9.5 billion tonnes annually (measured in CO2-e) in 2000 to 12.2 billion tonnes, then fall to 7.5 billion tonnes by 2050, the level at which it stabilises.47 If, as expected, the world population increases to a little over nine billion by the middle of the century, these 7.5 billion tonnes of CO2-e allocated to food production must be spread across an additional 2.6 billion people,48 which means that the emissions intensity of food production must be approximately halved over the next four decades.
Putting together these optimistic scenarios for deforestation and non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, Anderson and Bows calculate that the total cumulative emissions from these sectors over this century will amount to just under 1100 billion tonnes of CO2-e that will be emitted into the atmosphere. This provides the floor on which can be constructed emission scenarios for energy and industrial CO2 emissions, the main game in tackling climate change. Two critical parameters will determine our fate—the date at which global emissions reach their peak and the rate at which emissions fall thereafter. These will determine the total amount of greenhouse gases that go into the atmosphere over this century, the resulting increased concentration of greenhouse gases, and the global temperature rise that follows. The later the peak, the more quickly emissions must fall to keep within an emissions budget.
A very optimistic assumption is that global emissions will peak in 2020.49 Stopping global emissions growth will require that, from that year onwards, any increase in emissions from developing countries must be more than offset by decreasing emissions from developed countries.
Nevertheless, if we assume that overall emissions growth can be halted in 2020, what rate of emissions reduction could we expect in each year thereafter? As we will see in the next chapter, growth in emissions is a product of three factors: the rate of growth of income or output per person, population growth, and the technology used to generate and use energy, including the rate at which technological change can reduce emissions per unit of output. Population growth will continue its relentless march at least until the middle of the century, when it is expected to slow and perhaps stabilise at a little over nine billion souls. Demographic change occurs slowly, so even with sustained attempts to moderate population growth it is unlikely it could be contained much under this number over the next four decades. (The UN's low estimate is 7.8 billion people by 2050.50) Recession inevitably slows the growth of emissions, and may even cause them to fall. Yet economic slumps soon pass and emissions growth resumes, now driven predominantly by the large developing countries. In the next chapter I will explain why our obsession with economic growth makes it politically untouchable in the foreseeable future.
If cutting population growth and economic growth are not feasible over the next three or four decades, a huge burden is placed on new and existing technologies to decarbonise the world economy. Instead of taking the usual path of assessing the possible contributions of various technologies and then adding them up—as in the 'wedges' approach made famous by two Princeton University professors51—historical precedents provide a better guide as to how rapidly greenhouse gas emissions could fall. The Stern report includes a short but vitally important section that provides some precedents.52 Economic collapse in the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to a decline in its greenhouse gas emissions of 5.2 per cent each year for a decade. During this period economic activity more than halved53 and widespread social misery ensued. When France embarked on an aggressive program of building nuclear capacity—a 40-fold increase in 25 years from the late 1970s—annual emissions from the electricity and heat sector fell by 6 per cent, but total fossil emissions declined by only 0.6 per cent annually. In the 1990s, the 'dash for gas' in Britain saw a large substitution of natural gas for coal in electricity generation. Total greenhouse gas emissions fell by 1 per cent each year in the decade. Depressingly, Stern concluded that reductions in emissions of more than 1 per cent over an extended period 'have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval'.54
Given that some world leaders recognise the severity of the threat posed by global warming and the need, unprecedented except in wartime, for a rapid structural change in their economies, it might be reasonable to expect that the world could agree to reduce emissions by 3 per cent per annum after the 2020 peak until they reach the floor of 7.5 billion tonnes of CO2-e set by the need to feed the world. Anderson and Bows show that, because we have already made some assumptions about rates of decline of emissions from deforestation and food production, the 3 per cent rate of decline of emissions overall will require a 4 per cent rate of decline in CO2 emissions from energy and industrial processes.55 Given that emissions in developing countries would be expected to continue growing, although at a slower rate, for some time after 2020 before peaking and beginning to fall, this means that emission reductions in rich countries will need to be much higher than 4 per cent—perhaps 6—7 per cent, a level higher than that associated with Russia's economic collapse in the 1990s.
It is hard to imagine even the most concerned and active government—Sweden's perhaps—introducing policies that would bring about such a rapid industrial restructuring. Nevertheless, let us put ourselves in the most optimistic frame of mind we can. If global emissions do peak in 2020 then decline by 3 per cent each year, with energy emissions in rich countries falling by 6-7 per cent, could we head off the worst effects of climate change, or even keep it to 'safe' levels? The answer provided by Anderson and Bows, and backed by other analyses,56 is a very grim one indeed. If that is the path taken by the world then over the century we will pump out an extra 3000 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases,57 which would not see atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases stabilise at the 'safe' level of 450 ppm. Nor would they stabilise at the very dangerous level of 550 ppm. They would in fact rise to 650 ppm!
Can this be right?
The conclusion that, even if we act promptly and resolutely, the world is on a path to reach 650 ppm is almost too frightening to accept. That level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be associated with warming of about 4°C by the end of the century, well above the temperature associated with tipping points that would trigger further warming.58 So it seems that even with the most optimistic set of assumptions—the ending of deforestation, a halving of emissions associated with food production, global emissions peaking in 2020 and then falling by 3 per cent a year for a few decades—we have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth's climate would enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings would still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.
These conclusions are alarming, to say the least, but they are not alarmist. Rather than choosing or interpreting numbers to make the situation appear worse than it could be, following Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows I have chosen numbers that err on the conservative side, which is to say numbers that reflect a more buoyant assessment of the possibilities. A more neutral assessment of how the global community is likely to respond would give an even bleaker assessment of our future. For example, the analysis excludes non-CO2 emissions from aviation and shipping. Including them makes the task significantly harder, particularly as aviation emissions have been growing rapidly and are expected to continue to do so as there is no foreseeable alternative to severely restricting the number of flights.59 And any realistic assessment of the prospects for international agreement would have global emissions peaking closer to 2030 rather than 2020. The last chance to reverse the trajectory of global emissions by 2020 was forfeited at the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009. As a consequence, a global response proportionate to the problem was deferred for several years.
Nor does the analysis account for the effect of aerosols, the tiny particles that mask some of the warming otherwise built in to the system. The clean-up of urban air pollution in China and India, through laws requiring cars to have catalytic converters fitted and power plants to have scrubbers installed, would bring on the warming more quickly. The only good news is provided by the global recession, which may provide a couple of years of breathing space. If, due to resolute action, global emissions still peak in 2020 they will peak at a lower level, which would reduce the rate of emission reduction required. On the other hand there is a good chance the recession will erode political resolve, leading to a postponement of the peak year so that its benefits are foregone.
As if this were not stunning enough, while the analysis incorporates conventional carbon—climate feedback effects—the weakening capacity of land and ocean sinks to soak up carbon60— it does not account for the possibility of others such as the ice-albedo effects from Arctic warming that may hasten the approach of a 650 ppm world and take us well beyond it.
These facts must cause us to rethink entirely how the future will play out because the presence of feedback effects and tipping points call into question one of the most fundamental assumptions of all climate change negotiations—that we can aim to limit emissions so as to 'stabilise' climate change.
The belief that we can stabilise the climate at a specified concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with an associated increase in average global temperature, has underpinned all international negotiations over global warming. The idea that greenhouse gas emissions must be limited to prevent 'dangerous' warming is embodied in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. The official European and Group of Eight goal of aiming to keep warming below 2°C is based on this idea, as are greenhouse gas concentration targets such as 450 ppm or 550 ppm advocated in the Stern report and Australia's Garnaut report. But it ought to be clear by now that the belief that humans can adopt policies that stabilise the climate rests on assumptions that are not well founded in the science. Stabilisation requires that annual emissions be eventually reduced to 'the level that balances the Earth's natural capacity to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere'.61 The problem is that global warming is likely to trigger its own 'natural' sources of new emissions and interfere with the Earth's capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
The Earth's climate is not like a machine whose temperature can be regulated by turning some policy knobs; it is a highly complex system with its own regulatory mechanisms. Humans cannot regulate the climate; the climate regulates us. For several years climate scientists have understood that some of the relationships among variables are non-linear, so that a slight increase in warming can cause a large shift in other aspects of the climate. Paleoclimatologists have known this for a long time, but it is only in the last few years that the idea has been linked explicitly to today's global warming.62 If we look at a chart showing the climate history of the Earth stretching back over many millenniums we do not see smooth transitions from ice ages to 'interglacial' or warm periods (such as the one we are now in). The transitions are sometimes dramatic, with sharp changes in the world's climate occurring over mere decades, probably due to amplifying feedback effects. So climate states can end abruptly once certain thresholds are crossed, setting off accelerated warming that is stopped only when a natural limit is reached, such as the disappearance of ice from the Earth.63
I have already mentioned some tipping points which could induce positive-feedback effects that amplify warming and its effects, including the disappearance of summer sea-ice in the Arctic, the melting of the Greenland icesheet, the melting of the West Antarctic icesheet, the release of carbon from melting permafrost, and large-scale die-back of the Amazon rainforest.64 As they occur these changes will be effectively irreversible, at least for thousands of years. A recent paper has destroyed any idea we might have that we can take radical corrective action once things become intolerable.65 It reaffirms that a large proportion of the CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere will still be there in a thousand years, so the level at which emissions peak makes a huge difference. Both the warming and the sea-level rise associated with that peak will not decline, even if emissions fell to zero, but will stay virtually constant for more than a millennium. The authors conclude: 66
It is sometimes imagined that slow processes such as climate change pose small risks, on the basis of the assumption that a choice can always be made to quickly reduce emissions and thereby reverse any harm within a few years or decades. We have shown that this assumption is incorrect . . .
The lag between emissions and their effects on climate and the irreversibility of those effects make global warming a uniquely dangerous and intractable problem for humanity. Among other things, as we will see in the next chapter, these features of climate change render standard economic analysis of the problem hopelessly inappropriate. Indeed, it is positively dangerous.
Recognition of the non-linear nature of climate change has radically transformed the climate science debate in the last few years, although the message is still to filter out of the scientific community and into policy deliberations. It is the reason many climate scientists are no longer merely worried but panicked, although the panic is sometimes suppressed by a practised detachment. As late as 2007 the IPCC was still writing as if stabilisation were feasible, although buried in its report was a muted but ominous warning: 'The risk of climate feedbacks is generally not included in the above analysis. Therefore, the emission reductions to meet a particular stabilization level reported in the mitigation studies assessed here might be underestimated.'67
After their 2008 review of the dangers of climate tipping points, a group of leading climate scientists wrote: 'Society may be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change.'68 This is typical of the cool understatement of so much climate science. The extent to which policy-makers and their advisers have been lulled into a false sense of security is apparent from the sudden emergence of 'overshooting' strategies, now adopted explicitly or implicitly by almost every government in the world. The rot set in around 2005 when key policy advisers seem to have decided that aiming to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at 450 ppm of CO2-e, the level associated with 'dangerous' warming of 2°C, would be too difficult. The capitulation was announced by the United Kingdom's chief scientist David King, who declared that aiming for 450 ppm would be 'politically unrealistic'.69 The same conclusion was drawn by Nicholas Stern, who wrote in his 2006 report that aiming for stabilisation at 450 ppm 'would require immediate, substantial and rapid cuts in emissions that are likely to be extremely costly'.70 Instead, the world should aim to stabilise at a politically achievable 550 ppm, a target also taken up by
Ross Garnaut in his 2008 report for the Australian Government. After all, the reasoning goes, we are already at 430 ppm CO2-e, and stopping at 450 would meet fierce opposition from industry and voters. So we must aim instead for a concentration of 550 ppm and then bring it back down to 450 ppm in the following decades.
This is the path adopted by the Obama Administration too. Rich country emission cuts of 25—40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, which are necessary if the world is to aim for a target of 450 ppm, were immediately declared politically impossible by new US Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern.71 The 'most ambitious' proposal the United States could aim for would be to return emissions to 1990 levels by 2020—a 'zero per cent' reduction instead of 25—40 per cent—although the climate change legislation passed by the House of Representatives in 2009 subsequently set a nominal target of 4 per cent below 1990 levels. 'At the same time we are being guided by the science and doing the math', said Mr Stern, 'we cannot forget that we are engaged in a political process and that politics, in the classic formulation, is the art of the possible. Of course we cannot afford to be passive in our understanding of that principle—we need always to push the envelope of what is possible.' The British and American Sterns were at one.
Faith in our ability to overshoot then return to a safer climate simply fails to understand the science—whatever we do we
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