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We’re deluding ourselves – note my words

Kevin Anderson says climate predictions are foolishly optimistic

If you’re looking for a chirpy, upbeat assessment of how humanity will, in the nick of time, get its clappy act together to tackle dangerous climate change, then Kevin Anderson is probably not the person you need to talk to.

Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Anderson is one of the world’s best known and most in uential – and outspoken – climate specialists.

On a recent working visit to Ireland, he ripped into any complacent notion that the Paris Agreement signed up to by almost 200 nations, including Ireland, last December meant that we could all relax a little in the knowledge that our politicians, guided by the best scientific advice, are nally getting on top of this crisis.

Some of his most devastating critique is reserved for the IPCC itself or, more specifically, the wishful thinking that underpins many of its model projections. He fleshed this out late last year in a commentary piece published in Nature Geoscience, where he took apart some egregiously fanciful assumptions.

“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”, wrote Anderson.

He repeated this point forcefully during his presentation at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, to the obvious discomfort of the representative of Ireland’s Environment Protection Agency, who found himself trying to explain how completely untested technologies could, somehow, be massively deployed to remove upwards of ten billiontonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air every year, liquefy it and pipe it into vast underground storage where it would have to remain securely for at least the next 1,000 years.

Village sat down with Professor Anderson for an in-depth interview in Dublin.

First question: what about our recent steps, such as the new Climate Act – does Anderson think Ireland is grasping the nettle of climate change?

“I think certainly not; what Ireland has signed up to in the recent Paris Agreement, and particularly when you think that Ireland is one of the wealthier countries in the world, isn’t anywhere near what is necessary to meet its (Paris) commitments”.

While the same can be said for the UK and much of Europe, Anderson stresses that “Ireland is a particularly wealthy nation, and it has wonderful renewable (energy) potential; it also has a very educated workforce. It has all that is necessary to make the rapid transition to a low-carbon energy system and indeed a much-lower-carbon agriculture system – at the moment, it is choosing to do very little in that direction”.

Kevin Anderson

So what about the view propounded by Irish politicians from Enda Kenny to Simon Coveney, that climate action is something we can kick down the road for another five or ten years, while concentrating on economic development instead?

“That view completely, and I would say, deliberately misunderstands the science”, he retorts. “It’s the emissions that we put into the atmosphere now that really matters…these build up every single day in the atmosphere”.

As for the oft-quoted argument that Ireland’s emissions are a small fraction of the global total, Anderson replies that every sector, from aviation and shipping to countries large and small, makes the argument that it only contributes a small share of the global total, but every percent is equally important.

He is scathing of Ireland’s major expansion of its ruminant-based agriculture sector, believing the argument that if we don’t produce vast amount of beef and dairy products here, someone elsewhere will do it less efficiently, is bogus. “The climate does not care about (emissions) efficiency, it only cares about absolute levels of emissions, so if you are going to look at Ireland you have to look at these absolute levels”.

Measuring ‘efficiency’ of CO2 per kilo of beef or ton of dairy produce is not, he argues, the right way to think about it. “If you are really concerned about feeding the world, then you measure it in terms of the CO2 per useful calorie you produce – that will almost certainly mean you will have to move away from the types of agriculture that have innately very high green-house-gas emissions”.

Anderson describes the types of measurements being deployed to promote the ‘Origin Green’ image of Irish agriculture as “inappropriate and misleading”. A staunch public defender of agricultural emissions is retired UCD meteorologist, Professor Ray Bates, who has repeatedly argued against an ‘over-alarmist’ response to climate change that might, in some way, curtail our beef and diary sectors.

Bates’ principal argument is that ‘climate sensitivity’ to CO2 may be on the lower end of the scale. Anderson is unimpressed.

“I think it would be a foolish mistake to go down the ‘let’s keep our ngers crossed that climate sensitivity is on the low end’ dead-end, despite the fact that by far and away the majority of scientists think it’s likely to be on the middle to the upper end of the (sensitivity) spectrum”. What’s at stake, after all, is the habitability of the entire planet, and who would want to leave that to the toss of a coin?”.

Anderson knows only too well the appetite among politicians, policy-makers and parts of the media for people who are prepared to down-play the risks and urgency, but believes that only by acting now in line with the scientific advice can potentially disastrous and irreversible damages be avoided.

Quite how close we already are to the point of no return, no one can say for certain, but there is growing consensus that +1.5C, rather than +2C, should be the upper limit before really dire consequences become locked in.

The findings emerging from climate science pose “fundamental questions about how we have framed modern society, the whole concept of economic growth, of progress – all of the things that have served us very well until now”. Indeed the 1.5C ‘target’ was in the end included in the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, based on current emissions, the total carbon budget for this target will have been exceeded within the next seven or eight years”.

He believes the model of constant economic growth is fundamentally at odds with efforts at stabilising the global climate system.

“As scientists, it’s hard for us to say this, as it sounds like we’re touting a political message, but I think it’s just the political implications of our science”. Truly accepting the science means making hard choices, profoundly challenging our own entitlement to lead high-emissions lifestyles:

“Quite a few of us on the physics side have run scared of questioning the economics side, but we’ve had physics for over 13 billion years… somehow we think this ephemeral growth paradigm is more important than fundamental physics”.

Anderson hasn’t own, in over a decade. He thinks the symbolism is important. “Every facet of aviation is playing against the agenda of avoiding dangerous climate change”. He believes that it’s incumbent on people like him to be morally consistent on emissions if they really take their work seriously.

The changes being wrought by climate change this century are, he says, playing out almost as rapidly as the fallout from previous meteor strikes. “From a geological point of view, we are hitting the planet that fast, that hard – and consciously. We know we are doing it, and we know we can do something to avert it”.

Anderson is sceptical about the efficacy of carbon taxes, but does see merit in the notion of individual ‘carbon rations’ being allocated. This could mean that poorer people could receive net income transfers, while wealthier people would be heavily penalised for persisting in a carbon-intensive lifestyle. The advantage he sees in this system, apart from social equity, is that the wealthy in society typically drive innovation, but only when the price signals are clear.

He sees financial transfers from high-emitting countries to the lower-emitters not as charity but as reparations. “We have imposed on other parts of the world huge levels of damage and… we have constrained their ways of resolving these problems”.

The proposed transfer of $100bn a year is, he points out, less than one fiftieth of the annual subsidies propping up fossil fuel usage.

“Despite what we on islands on the western edge of Europe might think, we are not insulated from the impacts of increased foods costs, of migration and military tension. All of those things will play out in the UK and across Ireland”, he adds.

Anderson is deeply troubled by the plight of other species. “We have removed ourselves from the natural world, when we are really part of it, and completely reliant upon it…seeing ourselves as separate (from nature) has been part of the problem here”. Earth sciences are, he says, giving us “as clear a warning as we should ever need that we have to do something very rapidly”.

A crucial motivation for Anderson, beyond just the science, is his sense of wonder, mixed with growing alarm, for the natural world.

“There is a beauty to our planet, not as a static Victorian view of it…the dynamics, the beauty of evolution on our planet, and what we have done, consciously and knowingly, is we have come in like the meteorite and we are destroying that process overnight…and we’re not prepared to make the changes to avoid doing this. To destroy this place of absolute beauty…we have the arrogance to think we can destroy, not just ourselves, but take the rest of it with us”.

Asked to gaze into the crystal ball of the world between now and mid-century, he responds:

“The chances are we are going to carry on choosing to fail. We will make the right noises and sometimes for the right reasons, but with the wrong reasoning; the issue about all this is time.

We are choosing not to take notice of our science, and even those of us who work on science are not being vociferous enough about the misuse of our science by policy-makers and by wider society”. He concludes. “We’re all in this collective delusion together. We are choosing to fail – but we could also choose to succeed”.

A full video recording of the interview with Kevin Anderson is available

John Gibbons