Citizen Action Monitor

“We have crossed the threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change”, says Kevin Anderson

“The numbers are brutal and hard to accept.”

No 1203 Posted by fw, December 6, 2014

“A prerequisite of responding to the climate challenge is exposing the void between the rhetoric and the reality around efforts to reduce emissions (mitigation). There is certainly plenty of discussion of mitigation, but seldom does it focus on the actual gap between the claims we make as individuals, companies, nations and a global community and what is actually happening in terms of absolute emissions.”Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

This is Part 1 of a multipart series of posts extracted from a 24-page, September 2012 article that Kevin Anderson submitted to the What Next Forum, a Sweden-based organization that convenes meetings, explores new issues and catalyses alternative ideas into actions.

redflag 2We have crossed a dangerous threshold. The numbers are brutal, the situation grave. Absent an honest accounting of our situation, Anderson warns, we will continue the same ineffective policies. In place of honesty we get reassurances that everything is going to be all right. Pivotal to any candid, informed discussion, is an “understanding of the probability of staying below (or of exceeding) 2°C…. An absence of clarity on this issue risks confusion and inappropriate policies.” And an absence of clarity is exactly what we are getting: of late, policy-makers are proposing policies that imply a very high chance of exceeding 2°C.

Below is a reposting of the introductory paragraphs of Anderson’s penetrating 2012 analysis that remains, sadly, as true today. Alternatively, the full 24-page article is accessible by clicking on the following linked title.

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Climate change going beyond dangerous – Brutal numbers and tenuous hope by Kevin Anderson, Published in What Next Volume III: Climate, Development and Equity, September 2012 (24 pages)

(This article is based on a transcript of a public presentation at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in July 2011, available at http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professor-kevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyond-dangerous.)

We have crossed the threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change

I have called this article Climate Change going beyond dangerous, as in my view and that of many of my colleagues, we are now in the process of going beyond what has traditionally been defined as the threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change.

The subtitle of the piece, Brutal numbers and tenuous hope, refers to the maths and the quantification underpinning the analysis. The numbers are brutal and hard to accept, begging fundamental questions about how we live our lives – they are not numbers we want to hear. Translating the analysis into repercussions for society, it is evident there is now only a tenuous hope of making the substantive mitigation necessary in the rapidly diminishing time frame available.

Given the grave situation we have (knowingly) got ourselves into, we need to be honest, direct and clear as to the implications of our analysis. Only if we strip away the rhetoric and naive technological optimism surrounding climate policy can we have some hope of responding appropriately to the scale of the challenges we face. If we are not honest about the situation we will continue to do nothing substantive. Instead we will carry on with the same ineffective policies we have pursued for the past two decades – what I refer to as ‘cognitive dissonance’ (an academic disguise for hypocrisy – sticking our head in the sand and, despite the science and data, convincing ourselves everything is going to be all right).

The evidence however, is that we have been heading in the wrong direction for years and, more disturbingly, the situation is worsening rather than improving. Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, where the climate convention was brokered, we have witnessed a rise in emissions year after year – not only that, but the rate of growth of emissions has also increased. If we are to turn this situation around we have first to acknowledge that despite numerous climate conferences, political soundbites and optimistic discussion of low-carbon technologies, we have abjectly failed to secure any control over emissions.

The void between rhetoric and reality

A prerequisite of responding to the climate challenge is exposing the void between the rhetoric and the reality around efforts to reduce emissions (mitigation). There is certainly plenty of discussion of mitigation, but seldom does it focus on the actual gap between the claims we make as individuals, companies, nations and a global community and what is actually happening in terms of absolute emissions. Buying a slightly more efficient car or improving the performance of supermarket refrigerators has nothing to do with solutions to climate change if we subsequently drive further or chill more of our food.

So what is climate change about? What are we responding to?

Internationally, there are a range of statements and declarations framing climate change and our agreed responses to it. First and foremost, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) states in its Article 2 that:

The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

The more recent Copenhagen Accord (UNFCCC, 2010) states the goal as to ‘hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity’ (it even recognises the need to consider strengthening the goal to 1.5°C). This is a very clear statement – reiterated in the Cancun Agreements (UNFCC 2011) – and an important backdrop against which to examine and quantify the scale of the policy challenge.

Looking to the EU, the European Commission (2007) reiterates the need to ‘ . . . ensure that global average temperature increases do not exceed pre-industrial levels by more than 2°C and states that we must adopt the necessary domestic measures…’ to ensure that this is the case. Likewise, the UK’s Low Carbon Transition Plan (DECC, 2009) states that ‘average global temperatures must rise no more than 2°C.

This language is not about accepting a 50:50 chance of keeping to 2°C. The Cancun Agreement, the EU and the UK, all categorically state that temperatures must rise no more than 2°C. Understanding the probability of staying below (or of exceeding) 2°C is pivotal to any informed discussion of mitigation – an absence of clarity on this issue risks confusion and inappropriate policies. As it is, policy-makers (along with many academics and climate specialists) repeatedly make statements, emphasizing the importance of staying below 2°C whilst at the same time proposing policies that imply a very high chance of exceeding 2°C. It is from here that much of the void between climate rhetoric and actual mitigation policies emerges.

End of Part 1

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