No 1481 Posted by fw, October 17, 2015
“[There is an] endemic bias prevalent amongst many of those developing emission scenarios to severely underplay the scale of the 2°C mitigation challenge. In several important respects the modelling community is self-censoring its research to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm. Moreover, there is a widespread reluctance of many within the climate change community to speak out against unsupported assertions that an evolution of ‘business as usual’ is compatible with the IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets. With specific reference to energy, this analysis concludes that even a slim chance of “keeping below” a 2°C rise, now demands a revolution in how we both consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of contemporary society and is far removed from the rhetoric of green growth that increasingly dominates the climate change agenda.” —Kevin Anderson
Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and is Deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
In Naomi Klein’s words, “This Changes Everything” — with “This”, in this case, referring to Anderson’s tightly argued contention that the scientific community is self-censoring its research to conform to dominant political and economic biases. If accurate, his thesis poses a formidable challenges to people power movements hoping to shake things up at COP-21 in Paris. Short of a global revolutionary uprising, people power is unlikely to intimidate the legislative and financial power of capitalist elites, bolstered by a muted self-censoring scientific community reluctant to speak out against unsupported biased assertions of vested interests.
Speaking of unsupported assertions, I couldn’t resist adding this light touch to a serious subject —
The repost, below, of Dr. Anderson’s paper is greatly abridged. To make the paper more readable for a lay readership, most of the somewhat challenging evidence-based scientific passages have been left out, leaving intact the conclusions deriving from that evidence. In addition, subheadings have been added to highlight main points. And endnote citations have been entered as inline hyperlinks wherever possible, while others have been removed.
To read the original complete paper, including the endnotes, click on the following linked title.
Media reports on Bonn Conference deliver impression that a shift away from fossil fuels can be a more relaxed evolutionary than frantic revolutionary transition
June’s  UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] Bonn Conference reiterated the headline ‘conclusions’ of November’s IPCC Synthesis Report, which itself was heralded as delivering clear messages to policy makers. As the Financial Times noted, meeting the 2°C dangerous ‘limit’ would “only cause an annual 0.06 percentage point cut in … economic growth”, a small cost that would, according to the UK’s Guardian, rise by less than 50% even if emissions reductions were delayed to 2030. In similar optimistic vein, The US Associated Press and Hindustan Times reported that maintaining “the temperature rise below a level that many consider dangerous” may require emissions from fossil fuels “to drop to zero”, but not before “the end of this century”. The Sydney Morning Herald concluded that staying below 2°C would require “a fairly strong level of action on greenhouse gas emissions” with, ChinaDaily reporting that in delivering the requisite action “the solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development.”
Based on such reports it is easy to be left with the impression that the shift away from fossil fuels needs to be much more an evolutionary transition than an immediate revolution in how we use and produce energy. Moreover, it could be suggested that delaying action until 2030 would give more time for considered reflection of the options, yet still only have a very marginal impact on economic growth (i.e. less than a 0.1 percentage point cut) – not a bad exchange perhaps?
In fact, avoiding 2°C average global temperature rise demands “profound and immediate changes to the consumption and production of energy”
In stark contrast, this commentary concludes that the carbon budgets needed for a reasonable probability of avoiding the 2°C characterization of dangerous climate change demand profound and immediate changes to the consumption and production of energy. The IPCC’s own 1,000 GtCO2 carbon budget for a “likely” chance of 2°C, requires global reductions in emissions from energy of at least 10% per annum by 2025, with complete cessation of all carbon dioxide emissions from the energy system by 2050.
Diluting the message
Anderson voices “grave reservations” about corporate media’s biased interpretations of climate science
Whilst the endeavours of the IPCC, since its inception in 1988, are to be welcomed, I have grave reservations as to how the implications of their analysis are being reported. This is not solely the failure of incisive journalism, but is also the outcome of repeated and questionable commentary from some experts engaged in the IPCC process. Even the press release for the IPCC’s Synthesis report provided an optimistic spin, with the then IPCC chair stating that “To keep a good chance of staying below 2ºC, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100” [emphasis added]. Moreover, the Co-Chair of the IPCC’s section on reducing emissions made the all-important comment that mitigation costs would be so low that “global economic growth would not be strongly affected” – echoing the conclusion of the recent and influential report from The New Climate Economy.
But does the IPCC’s own analysis support the upbeat rhetoric of evolution as opposed to the more challenging and fundamental language of revolution?
IPCC scenarios are flawed, yielding findings that meet “business as usual” expectations of evolutionary rather than revolutionary rates of emission change
In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of 2°C assume either an ability to travel back in time or the successful and large-scale uptake of speculative negative emission technologies. A significant proportion of the scenarios are dependent on both ‘time travel and geo-engineering’.
Fact-checking the validity and reliability of the IPCC model scenarios yields a “profoundly different” outcome
[Note: the scientific evidence that appears at this point in Anderson’s paper has been omitted. However, access to his ten-point fact-checking evidence is available by clicking on the following linked title, On the duality of climate scientists: how integrated assessment models are hard-wired to deliver politically palatable outcomes, and scrolling down to page 2].
With IAM outputs typically clustering around evolutionary rather than revolutionary rates of change, there is clearly merit in undertaking some basic arithmetic to sense-check the model outputs, the consequent framing of policies, and the timeframes for delivering deep cuts in emissions. Building on the concept of carbon budgets [it is possible to arrive at] a sequence of reasoning and transparent assumptions that suggest a profoundly different challenge to that dominating the current discourse on climate change.
It appears that “vested interests and the economic hegemony may be preventing scientific openness and freedom of expression”
Applying simple arithmetic to the headline data within the IPCC’s Synthesis Report raises fundamental questions as to the realism of both the content and the tone of much of the reporting that followed its publication. Moreover, the failure of the scientific community to vociferously counter the portrayal of the findings as challenging but incremental suggests vested interests and the economic hegemony may be preventing scientific openness and freedom of expression.
The implications of the rigorous fact-checking results are clear: “profound and immediate changes to how energy is both used and produced”
The carbon budgets aligned with international commitments to stay below the 2°C characterization of dangerous climate change demand profound and immediate changes to how energy is both used and produced. The IPCC’s headline budget of 1,000 GtCO2, even with highly optimistic assumptions on curtailing deforestation and cement emissions, requires global reductions in energy-CO2 of at least 10% per annum from 2025, transitioning rapidly to zero emissions by 2050. The severity of such cuts would likely exclude carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a dominant post-2050 technology. Only if the life cycle carbon emissions of CCS could be reduced by an order of magnitude from those postulated for an efficiently operating gas-CCS plant (typically around 80g CO2 per kWh), could fossil fuels play any significant role post-2050.
The fact-checking evidence demands a rejection of claim that “global economic growth would not be strongly affected”
Delivering on such a 2°C emission pathway cannot be reconciled with the repeated and high-level claims that in transitioning to a low-carbon energy system “global economic growth would not be strongly affected”. Certainly it would be inappropriate to sacrifice improvements in the welfare of the global poor, including those within wealthier nations, for the sake of reducing carbon emissions. But this only puts greater pressure still on the relatively small proportion of the globe’s population with higher emissions. The strains that such 2°C mitigation puts on the framing of our lifestyles cannot be massaged away through incremental escapism. With a growing economy of 3% p.a. the reduction in carbon intensity of global GDP would need to be nearer 13% p.a.; higher still for wealthier industrialized nations, and higher yet again for those individuals with well above average carbon footprints (whether in industrial or industrializing nations).
Many in the scientific community are ultimately choosing to censor their own research
The IPCC’s synthesis report and the scientific framing of the mitigation challenge in terms of carbon budgets was an important step forward. Despite this, there remains an almost global-scale cognitive dissonance with regards to acknowledging the quantitative implications of the analysis, including by many of those contributing to its development. We simply are not prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly. Instead, my long-standing engagement with many scientific colleagues, leaves me in no doubt that whilst they work diligently, often against a backdrop of organized scepticism, many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.
“It is incumbent on our community to be vigilant in guiding the policy process”
Explicit and quantitative carbon budgets provide a firm foundation on which policy makers and civil society can build a genuinely low-carbon society. But the job of scientists remains pivotal. It is incumbent on our community to be vigilant in guiding the policy process within the climate goals established by civil society; to draw attention to inconsistencies, misunderstandings and deliberate abuse of the scientific research.
“It is not our job to be politically expedient with our analysis or to curry favour with our funders” lest we do society a grave disservice — one for which the repercussions will be irreversible
It is not our job to be politically expedient with our analysis or to curry favour with our funders. Whether our conclusions are liked or not is irrelevant. As we massage the assumptions of our analysis to fit within today’s political and economic hegemony, so we do society a grave disservice – one for which the repercussions will be irreversible.
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