Citizen Action Monitor

Who you gonna trust? Same science, widely different interpretations from competing factions

Choose wisely. Your life may depend on it

No 1209 Posted by fw, December 11, 2014

redflag 2“I would argue that the 2°C target is underpinned by what may be termed a political and scientific creed rather than by an updated consideration of the climate science. The prevailing orthodoxy that informs policy-makers is couched in a ‘can-do’ language, far removed from the reality we are facing.” Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

In this, Part 7, Anderson compares and contrasts radically different interpretations of the same science from different sources, each reflecting its own biases. And in an enlightening piece of analysis, he examines the extent to which these so-called “established” models stack up against his own research findings in terms of a set of eight criteria of his own choosing.

Part 7, is one of a multipart series extracted from Kevin Anderson’s incisive, fact-filled, 2012 24-page article. To access the preceding six parts, click on these links — Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, and Part 6

To read Anderson’s original, complete 24-page paper, click on the following linked title. Alternatively, below is a reposting of the excerpted passages selected for this comparatively short post, Part 7, with some added hyperlinks.


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)

2°C – a political and scientific creed?

[creed (noun) – an authoritative, accepted system of religious or other belief]

I would argue that the 2°C target is underpinned by what may be termed a political and scientific creed rather than by an updated consideration of the climate science. The prevailing orthodoxy that informs policy-makers is couched in a ‘can-do’ language, far removed from the reality we are facing. There are many examples:

  • ‘It is possible to restrict warming to 2°C or less…with at least a 50% probability.’ — The AVOID programme (AVOID, 2009)
  • ‘[For 2°C it is necessary that] the UK cut emissions by at least 80%…by 2050. The good news is that reductions of that size are possible without sacrificing the benefits of economic growth and rising prosperity.’ — UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC, 2008: p.xiii & 7)
  • ‘…a low stabilization target of /” ppm CO2e can be achieved at moderate cost…with… a high likelihood of achieving this goal.’ — Adaptation and mitigation strategies: supporting European climate policy, (ADAM) report (Hulme et al., 2009: p.19)

But using the same science, very different conclusions can be drawn, as I have pointed out in a paper co-written with Alice Bows. As a contrast, we state:

  • ‘…it is difficult to envisage anything other than a planned economic recession being compatible with stabilization at or below 650 ppm CO2e.’ [i.e. ~4°C] — (Anderson and Bows, 2008)

In a more recent paper we conclude:

  • ‘…the 2015-16 global peaking date (CCC, Stern & ADAM) implies…a period of prolonged austerity for Annex 1 nations and a rapid transition away from existing development patterns within non-Annex 1 nations.’ — (Anderson and Bows, 2011)

These are radically different interpretations of the same science. In summary, the ‘established’ models differ from ours in terms of:

  • The understanding of/accounting for historical emissions. These have sometimes been mistaken or, worse, possibly massaged, to provide acceptable data and trends for the more orthodox analyses. (Factoring 20th century emissions from Annex 1 nations into calculations of the ‘fair’ emission space available for Annex 1 in the 21st century would leave Annex 1 nations already in ‘emission debt’. Whilst such an outcome may have [some] moral legitimacy, it evidently would not provide for a politically consensual framing of emission apportionment. However, the implications of including 20th century emissions and the concept of emission debt may guide the scope and scale of climate-related financial transfers (arguably as reparation) between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations).
  • Short-term emission growth is seriously downplayed within virtually every single low-carbon model.
  • The choice of peak year is Machiavellian at worst, but even at best, the idea that the peak will take place as early as projected is dangerously misleading.
  • The assumed reduction rates are dictated by economists, and this is pivotal to why the early years of these analyses are unrealistic.
  • The emission floors – that is to say, the emissions from food – are poorly understood, although some analyses, such as the UK Committee on Climate Change, deserve credit for seeking to embed this dimension in their work.
  • Deploying geoengineering schemes to reduce carbon emissions is assumed to play a role. It may be that some of these technologies end up being viable options in the future, but to embed them in almost all low-carbon analyses is unacceptable. At the moment these are at the fringe of our understanding and very risky and speculative, at best. It’s unreasonable and irresponsible to have these as ubiquitous and unquestioned in our carbon models.
  • The split between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 countries, between the industrialized and the industrializing world, is neglected or hidden in many analyses.
  • There are many optimistic assumptions about ‘big’ technologies coming forward. Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, I see engineering as a solution to a number of issues, but I also recognise that we cannot deploy large-scale technological schemes fast enough, and that large-scale technological schemes are always associated with social, cultural and ecological realities on the ground that necessarily take considerable time to deal with in a fair and sustainable manner.

Lastly, the linear understanding of the problems held by many – for example, the idea that 4°C means a doubling of the impacts of 2°C, and that if we do not act now, it is ok because we can do so in the future – is scientifically unfounded. This does not work with a complex, dynamic system such as the climate system. Global warming is a cumulative problem – if we do not act now, we are committing the future to certain levels of climate change.

End of Part 7

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

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