Citizen Action Monitor

“I think there’s a 95% chance that we’ll go to hell in a handcart with about 4°C warming” – Kevin Anderson

“We have tried our leadership and it has fundamentally failed on climate change.”

No 2111 Posted by fw, December 1, 2017

Kevin Anderson

“I wouldn’t work in this area if there’s a chance [of success]. Now that my colours are to the mast, I think there’s a 95% chance that we’ll go to hell in a handcart with about 4°C or something like that. But there’s a 5% chance we will succeed. And that 5% chance isn’t random. That 5% chance is a choice. So we can choose to fail, or we can choose to succeed. I work in this area because I think we can still choose to succeed. The sorts of things I’m talking about here are the sorts of things that might help us to move in the right direction. Of course the signs are not looking particularly good. We’ve got the whole established power structure … We like the status quo. Senior people like the positions they’re in. They like their comfortable lifestyles. We’ve got the hydrocarbon industry which is incredibly powerful and undermines everything it possibly can to bring about its demise. And we’ve got generally weak politicians in terms of responding to some of these challenges.”Kevin Anderson

Below is a 27:25 minute embedded video of a “sparring” discussion featuring climate scientist, Kevin Anderson, and Dr. Hugh Hunt, with the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, UK. The event took place in Bonn, Germany during COP23. It was hosted and moderated by Stuart Scott, as part of his Climate Matters show, which he describes as “a hybrid between a press conference and a very serious Talk-TV program.”

Stuart called this show between Anderson and Hunt, “Quit the Loose Talk, Let’s Get Serious!”

To whet your appetite, here’s a preview of some selected text from the “sparring match” —

  • What’s the “loose talk” referred to in the title?
  • What’s the difference between 1.5 – 2.0 degrees? Is that loose talk?
  • Does it matter whether sea level rise wipes out Greenland in 70 or 700 years?
  • We’re talking here about hundreds of billion tons of carbon dioxide we have to capture and shove somewhere deep under ground and store it there for a few thousand years
  • What we’ve got to be doing is imposing lower carbon lifestyles on the generation above them, in other words – us!
  • Is it loose talk to think technology will fix everything?
  • The first thing we can do almost immediately is change our behaviour
  • I expected a lot more dire forecast from you. I’m hearing optimism
  • Is geoengineering loose talk on technology?
  • It’s worrying that a discussion on geoengineering is happening in Washington
  • You talk about what we “should be doing” but are we doing it?

In addition to the embedded video, I have also included my abridged transcript of the discussion. I omitted a section where the conversation went off topic. And I also edited the transcript to improve readability.

Some of Kevin Anderson’s blunt admissions were stunning. The quality of other parts of the discussion was uneven.

After watching this video a few times, and in preparing the transcript, I came away quite pessimistic about our chances of “quitting the loose talk and getting serious about climate change” — especially from the Trudeau government.

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Kevin Anderson & Hugh Hunt – “Quit the loose talk on climate change and let’s get serious!” Published on You Tube by United Planet Faith and Science Initiative (UPFSI), November 17, 2017

ABRIDGED TRANSCRIPT

Stuart Scott – Thanks you all for coming to another Climate Matters show, a hybrid between a press conference and a very serious Talk-TV program. My name is Stuart Scott. I’m the host today and we’re coming to you live from COP23 in Bonn, Germany.

Today’s guests – I have with me Professor Kevin Anderson. Kevin is with the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. He is also Deputy Director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Research, University of Manchester, UK. Also with us, Dr, Hugh Hunt, who is with the Department of Engineering, University  of Cambridge, UK.

These gentlemen know one another well. They have sparred over these subjects for years and we always have very entertaining conversations. I say “sparred” because they have some differences of opinion.

Today’s show we’re calling “Quit the Loose Talk, Let’s Get Serious!” Let’s start out by my asking you, Kevin, what’s the loose talk?

Anderson – As I see it, we’ve actually committed very clearly in Paris to what we need to deliver at the global level. We’ve committed to reduce emissions in line with delivering 2°C [2 degrees Centigrade or Celsius], not just as if it’s a target or a goal but as it’s commitment, a duty, an obligation. But yet when we talk to people, whether it’s the policymakers or some of the social scientists, or, indeed, some of the engineers and scientists involved, they talk about it in a way that… so, an engineer might talk about,

“Oh, we can solve it all with nuclear power.”

And you say, “Well, what do you mean by it?

“Well, climate change.”

“Well, what do you mean by climate change?

And they’ve never thought to quantify this through. What is the “it” they’re trying to solve? Which you’d really think they would need to know to make a coherent, quantitative comment about, for instance, whether nuclear power has a big role or a small role to play. But they haven’t really thought that through. It’s a very loose form of language. Quite often scientists and engineers, who quantitatively should know better.

But then, on the other side, you get policymakers say, “Oh, we’re fine. As long s you put a high enough carbon tax on this, we’ll get emissions down.” Down by what amount? By when? What sort of level of tax will it have to be? Will there be regressive implications for equity?

So people don’t think the systems through – the system implications through this very sort of loose language that is used. And this language is used across 90% of the discussions on climate change. There’s no real coherence.

Hunt — Is that loose language used just in the context of the COP23 or is that used in the context of when people are just having conversations about climate change – if they ever do? Is the loose talk at a high level or…

Anderson – I think it’s at every level. Everyone seems to be an expert on climate change. And they seem to know what it is that we need to do about it. And so far we’ve failed fundamentally. So, I don’t think we have any experts on climate change – from that point of view. I do expect some at least… people that think that these issues, within COP, within universities, and within NGOs, and within businesses – I do expect some coherent thinking. I don’t expect them just to be eloquent. That’s what you often find. A lot – particularly people who are educated — they somehow think that a good education and an eloquent use of language is adequate.

Now, I expect there to be some intellect, and some coherence in their arguments as well.

Hunt – If you say we’re going to meet a 1.5 degrees target; or if we’re not going to meet 1.5, it’ll be 2, is that an example of loose talk or is it some… It seems to be very clear – this is what we’re going to do. But is it that we are not in a position to achieve that. We’re probably heading for 3 or 4 degrees. And what discussion… have we had the discussion… I mean, what is the difference 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees. What is the difference?

Anderson – To you? Or to… If you were living in Bangladesh, on the coast, you will see a big difference between 1.5 and 2.

Hunt – I mean we’re showing these pictures [on-screen image of people sitting around dinner table] of people living ordinary lives. You know, they’re sitting around, and 1.5 to these different people is going to mean different things.

Anderson – I think, for these people here, the food would be imported from a different country. But to some of the other people here, they probably won’t have any food at all. So, I think it will vary depending where you live at 1.5 degrees Centigrade. But the 2°C, more groups of people are impacted. And I think at 2°C, in actual fact, I think even the wealthy parts of the world who like to think they’re going to be insulated from the impacts will no longer be insulated from the impacts.

Hunt —  So we came up with this idea of 2 degrees as a kind of any arbitrary number? 1.5 – 2.0 degrees? I mean, the climate models tell us that at 1.5°C this is likely to happen. And at 2°C this is likely to happen. The other day we were talking about probabilities. I mean, what’s the probability of the Greenland Ice Shelf melting if A, B, and C? I mean how do we quantify these things?

Anderson – Well the probability is a big issue here. Probability and uncertainty are quite a challenge for the scientific community to get their head around, but I think for the general public that can be incredibly difficult. It’s slightly easier with Greenland because at 1.5 to 2 degrees C would be a wipe-out of most of Greenland but not within our lifetimes. Not unless there’s some fairly major medical advances.

Stuart Scott – That would commit to wiping out.

Anderson —  Yeah, We commit to wiping out most of Greenland, which is about 7 metres of sea level rise.

Hunt – And it’s nice that the science can tell us that. And that science is not ambiguous about that 7 metre sea level rise. It could be 6.5 or 7.5. But what it is ambiguous about is whether it’s going to happen in the next 70 years or 700 years.

Anderson – I think most of the analysis is not in 70 but is in the multi-century level, which to some extent makes us feel that’s a long way away, but if you live in Uppsala in Sweden or back in Manchester, you’re living in cities that have histories and have buildings and infrastructures that are often centuries old. Our roads were built by the Romans in the UK and we just put tarmac on top of them. They haven’t really changed lots of those things. So what feels like a long way away from our individual lives, from a society point of view it’s really just tomorrow.

Hunt – This is about 1.5°C. The technology that we kind of assumed is going to be there to achieve 1.5°C … OK we’ve got wind turbines and solar panels and perhaps nuclear power but buried in the COP discussions is this idea of sequestering carbon dioxide, of somehow capturing carbon dioxide either from the air or by burning trees instead of coal and capturing the carbon dioxide and putting it under ground. Is this loose talk. Here we are in the COPs. Here we are talking about achieving these targets. And yet this technology, are we really relying on this technology? What if that technology fails? Is the technology something there that we can use or ought it to be an insurance policy that we haven’t yet developed?

Anderson – Surely not an insurance policy. You expect an insurance policy to pay out if things go wrong. There’s no way that we have any real grasp that this is going to pay out. These negative emission technologies that we talk about, which we assume are going to remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere… remember, it’s not just a bit of carbon dioxide. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide. And if that doesn’t mean much to most people, we probably produce about three billion tons of municipal solid waste every year. We probably could have produced three billion tons of steel or cement. And we’re talking here about hundreds of billion tons of carbon dioxide we have to capture and shove somewhere deep under ground and store it there for a few thousand years.

Stuart Scott –  I researched that last year and I think globally we produce 15 billion tons of steel throughout the world in all countries combined in 2015.

Anderson – So it’s much larger numbers than anything else that we do. And these technologies don’t work at the moment.

Section omitted

12:40 Anderson – I think this is where we’ve got some big issues here. We always look for historical parallels. People will use the ozone layer or acid rain. And we don’t have any historical parallels for dealing with climate change, and use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are everywhere. They’re in the dyes that are in our clothes, they’re in how we travel to the COP, they’re in the lights, in keeping the screens going here, they’re probably in the material that made this mic on top of these tables. So, virtually every facet in our life now is wrapper up in the hydrocarbon industry. And the idea of transitioning away from that in just a handful of years, we just do not have precedence for this. And therefore I think we have to be very careful about saying, well, we’ve done this before. We haven’t done this before. This is a blank sheet of paper. In some ways it’s quite exciting. And the trick is, can we find other things, as we make this essential transition away from fossil fuels, can it also deliver other good things in society at the same time?

13:31 Hunt – So I get back to the idea of technology, this kind of loose talk, technology will fix everything. There are some technologies that already exist, that we can really just use a lot more and be a lot more willing to accept, to change our consumption. We can change our lifestyles a lot, can’t we? Just today.

Anderson – Things I can go on about. In the short to medium term is where we have to make some dramatic changes. The first thing we can do almost immediately is change our behaviour. I don’t want to just the focus just on the individual. The individual is important there, but the emissions themselves are… it would be great if the emissions came down but what’s important about the individual is they catalyze change in their family, within their institution, within their sports club, within their university – that can be then scaled up by other people, by policymakers, by local councils, by company leaders, and so forth.

But individuals have a role in trying to demonstrate what is it we can do. On top of that, technology is important as well.

14:40 Hunt – So young people, who are going to be around longer than you and I will be around, young people are going to embrace these new technologies and lifestyles, or are they going to be like us, reluctant to give up our luxuries?

Anderson – We always embrace new lifestyles. My lifestyle is quite different from my parent’s. My parent’s is very different from their parents. So new lifestyles are something – certainly post-enlightenment, post-industrial revolution – they’re things that seem to occur all the time.

But whether things will be lower carbon lifestyles is a different matter. And even if they were lower carbon lifestyles, it’s not enough just for the young generation to be doing that. What we’ve got to be doing is imposing lower carbon lifestyles, if their families and parents won’t do it willingly, imposing it on the generation above them, in other words – us!

We have failed. And I think there is something about handing the baton and lead issue onto the next generation. Not that we have to give up then, but they should be telling us what we should do. We have tried our leadership and it has fundamentally failed on climate change. And I think, perhaps, the younger generation, they’re not locked into all the baggage that we have. They see the world differently. They may choose to fail as well, but at least let’s give them a choice. We’ve had our chance and we’ve blown it.

Stuart Scott – They’re also… the younger generation is prone to a very strong influence from our generation in the form of advertising. They’re being indoctrinated with the consumptive lifestyle to start with in…

Anderson – They are. It’s very easy for us old sort of technology Luddites, in terms of modern IT anyway, to dismiss all the social media, but we don’t know where social media’s going to take us. It’s interesting how [Bernie] Sanders used it, in the UK how Corbyn used it. The greatest campaign ever set in place by any set of media to undermine him in the elections and yet the social media was what made the [winner?], not the main media. So perhaps there’s the scope now for more peer-to-peer advertising, peer-to-peer learning. Is that occurring already? I’m not saying this is going to be the case. Maybe it’s not necessarily a good thing. But I think things are different from how we saw the world. Things have changed. The way we communicate is different. You already see quite a few in the younger generation are less enamoured with having a big car, and a big house – probably because they can’t afford to get those things now – but what they can have are experiences. Now at the moment those experiences tend to be fueled by fossil fuels, flying somewhere. But they’re seeing something else in their own value system, different to the idea I’ve got a big house and a big car in my driveway. That’s not necessarily the thing that differentiates them from the other people they want to be differentiated from. There’s something different going on. It may not be low carbon, but maybe it could be.

Stuart Scott – I expected a lot more dire forecast from you. I’m hearing optimism. That’s wonderful, but do we have the time to see these transitions? I hear 2020 is a…

Hunt – There is optimism. One of the things that I’ve found… we’ve been organizing this Cambridge Climate Lecture Series, which starts again in February next year, and what is really interesting is that we’re engaging lots and lots of young people interested in climate change. And they’re not going to come to the lectures physically; they’re going to tune in through social media and live streaming. And I watch my own kids – they don’t watch television, they don’t read newspapers – they do everything on social media. So the messages are getting through by ways that you and I, we didn’t grow up with those media.

The optimism, I think, is that communicating these messages… you’re right, Jeremy Corbyn and the UK election recently, got a message through be social media that was impossible to do by other means. I do think there’s optimism. [Turning to Kevin] You have to say there is optimism?

Anderson – Well I wouldn’t work in this area if there’s a chance [of success]. Now that my colours are to the mast, I think there’s a 95% chance that we’ll go to hell in a handcart with about 4°C or something like that. But there’s a 5% chance we will succeed. And that 5% chance isn’t random. That 5% chance is a choice. So we can choose to fail, or we can choose to succeed. I work in this area because I think we can still choose to succeed. The sorts of things I’m talking about here are the sorts of things that might help us to move in the right direction.

Of course the signs are not looking particularly good. We’ve got the whole the whole established power structure… We like the status quo. Senior people like the positions they’re in. They like their comfortable lifestyles. We’ve got the hydrocarbon industry which is incredibly powerful and undermines everything it possibly can to bring about its demise. And we’ve got generally weak politicians in terms of responding to some of these challenges.

So things are not looking particularly good. But I can see a way out of the problem, out of the chaos that we’re in and heading towards even more. And once you can see that, it’s worth working on it.

Hunt – So there’s a technical “fix”. You know what I’m going to say don’t you? [laughs] There is a technical fix which is kind of on the cards, and that’s this thing called “geoengineering”. It’s really a scary concept – that if we fail to meet our CO2 emissions targets, and temperatures rise, there will be a temptation to try and modify the climate by, say, spraying aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight.

Just last week in Washington DC, there was a meeting held on behalf of Congress to discuss geoengineering. If you held a meeting about geoengineering in Sweden or in France you wouldn’t think too much about it. But it’s slightly worrying if that meeting is happening in Washington. Does that mean that somebody’s who’s got quite a lot of power might just write a cheque and say “Well, let’s do this geoengineering.”

To me that’s a real worry. Again, it’s more loose talk on technology.

Anderson – It is loose talk on technology. I don’t want to dismiss technology. I’m am engineer and I used to design and build offshore oil platforms. I think engineering can do a lot. I think we have to look at these engineering opportunities, and if you’re going to try them out, you need… they need to meet a set of criteria, sustainability criteria, and equity criteria and so forth. I would think at the moment the idea of even testing putting sulphates into the stratosphere should be a long way off. We need a lot more work as to the other sets of consequences.

But perhaps if you changed the variety of some of the planes that we grow, some of the agriculture plants that we grow so that they had leaves that were slightly more reflective – Is that something we should be trying? That might affect the amount of vitamin A in the plant, or something like that. I don’t know. But we start to say what are the other sets of criteria. We can reflect the sunlight by vapourizing sea water and causing more clouds. Now that may have some negative implications but we can probably do smaller tests on that. There will be less sustainability-damaging if it went wrong than putting sulphates in the stratosphere. So, I think we need to look at these things, technology by technology, assess them against a set of criteria and say “Should we be testing these, empirically testing them, as well as testing them on  our computers…”

Stuart Scott – Yes, yes, yes, we should be testing these. And we should be setting up rules for governance, but are we doing it?

Anderson – There’s a lot of discussion in the whole field. I mean there are lots of engineers… [crosstalk]

Stuart Scott – Discussion. Loose talk.

Anderson – Well, no. I think… to start off with you’ve got to be able to identify what do these things look like. And I still think quite a lot of the time we’re still sketching out exactly what the details are of these things. I think the engineers are doing what they appropriately should be doing at the moment. But also, there is discussion going on in the academic realm, and maybe beyond that now, about what would the governance structures look like for this. You also have to think about what happens – the political psychology of this – what happens if these things are available and that undermines what we feel is our need for mitigation. I think we already see that. We see that just with the negative emission technologies; that has already undermined some of the legislation in the UK and the new climate law in Sweden – because they assume these things are going to work in the future.

Hunt – You assume they’re going to work. They’re technologies that don’t exist. I guess we ought to be having these discussions. We’ve got to encourage the people in this room to be willing to go out and talk about some pretty scary things.

Anderson – Yes. But I also think the people here have lives to lead, they’ve got their jobs to do. They fit into our system, and they’re employing us to go off and do our careful, diligent work on climate change or geoengineering or policymakers, they’re employing them to do their careful work as policymakers. My concern is those of us in these positions at the moment are not doing our jobs properly. They’re paying us, and we’re not doing our jobs properly. We’re not being coherent in our own environment.

It’s like employing a plumber who makes a complete mess of your boiler and your radiator. That’s not a good plumber. And they’re employing us and we’re making a complete mess of what we’re looking at. We’re not coherent. We haven’t thought these things through. It’s not that they should get involved, they should really be expecting us to do our jobs properly. I think we have fairly well failed to do our jobs coherently. We’ve all got our little pet technologies or pet policies you think are going to solve the problem, but when we stand back from that, that’s simply loose talk.

Stuart Scott – How do we fix it?

Hunt – Let’s see what the audience says.

Michael Wadleigh, Homo Sapiens Foundation – Speaking for physics here, fossil fuels are really a subset of natural resources. If we all live like Kevin, and like me and like you – all of us right here – we’re going to crash the planet just with biology extractions, metal extractions and mineral extractions to make your trains and your boats and so forth. The problem it seems to the resource scientists is our living standards: by ours, the very high developed – Europe, America and so forth. And we’re ignoring that problem. We’re doing small, little fixes, like reusable shopping bags. And like the illusion – the one that kills me – is the resource efficiency is no going down, it’s descending at 0.8% per year in terms of the resources that are necessary to make products. We’re getting less efficient, and worldwide, the resources that are truly recycled are 0.6%. We’re not making any headway on the big subjects. I think we should generalize from fossil fuels, imagine that we eliminate all of them. Now what do we do about biology, about metals, which are required to make wind turbines and solar collectors, Now what do we do about construction. When the average skyscraper is going to last 25 years.

Hunt – So we want to be thinking about imagining a future in a couple of hundred years time, and think about how do we get from where we are now to there. And where we are now to there is really a tricky journey. [Turns to Kevin] I don’t know whether you’ve got a roadmap, but there’s all sorts of things that we can’t continue to be doing.

Anderson – I’m not sure if that longtime frame… [crosstalk]

Michael Wadleigh – It’s 2100. We crash at 2100. I’ll send you the details.

Anderson – Even if we could provide something with a bit more detail between now and 2050 – we’d need to think about further away as well – but we can say more about that period of time. And then other people will be coming in with their own views, as the younger generations mature. We can resolve quite a few of these issues. I don’t want to overplay the idea of the circular economy. I think there’s a lot of engineering that can help us understand how we can re-use some of the materials, not just the materials but the commodities that we’ve made out of them. So you’re not just looking to recycle, you’re looking to re-use some of the parts of the commodities; it’s a modular construction. You don’t buy a new fridge. You just use the same chassis, and what you might change is the compressor. So you start to look at other ways to design and build things. It won’t eliminate these problems, but I think you can reduce some of the levels of resource flow through our society. At the moment we basically use once and throw it away.

End of Discussion

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