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"We Have to Consume Less": Scientists Call For Radical Economic Overhaul to Avert Climate Crisis

A pair of climate scientists are calling for what some may view as a shocking solution to the global warming crisis: a rethinking of the economic order in the United States and other industrialized nations. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin of the influential Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England say many of the solutions proposed by world leaders to prevent "runaway global warming" will not be enough to address the scale of the crisis. They have called for "radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the United States, EU and other wealthy nations." Anderson says that to avoid an increase in temperature of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the world would require a "revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony."



This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Frédéric Chopin, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we flew into Warsaw, we flew into Frédéric Chopin Airport. Yes, we’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate change summit here in Warsaw, Poland, the country of Copernicus and Marie Curie—the first metal she named, polonium, for Poland, and then, of course, radium.

We turn now to a pair of climate scientists who are calling for what some may view as a shocking solution to the climate crisis: a rethinking of the economic order in the United States and other industrialized nations. Their names are Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin. They work at the influential Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England, as well as the University of Manchester.

They were featured in a recent widely read article by Naomi Klein headlined "How Science Is Telling Us All to Revolt." According to Anderson and Bows-Larkin, many of the solutions proposed by world leaders to prevent "runaway global warming" will not be enough to address the scale of the crisis. They have called for, quote, "radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the U.S., EU and other wealthy nations." Anderson has said that to avoid an increase in temperature of two degrees Celsius—that’s 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit—the world would require a, quote, "revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony."

Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin are here in Warsaw at the U.N. climate summit. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! It was rare to be able to actually sit across the table from you, because I know you don’t fly. You came here by train, Dr. Anderson.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Yes, that’s the case. We haven’t flown for—I haven’t flown for eight years. And Alice is something similar, I think.



KEVIN ANDERSON: Because the carbon dioxide emissions from flying, I mean, it’s sort of emblematic of modern life, for the wealthy few of us, that it symbolizes what we do, day in, day out. We don’t think twice about burning more and more carbon. So it’s important for us to make—it’s a symbolic gesture. But then, hopefully, that catalyzes action with other people to also say, "We, too, can make those sorts of changes."

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how long did it take you to go from England to Poland by train?

KEVIN ANDERSON: It’s 23 hours from Manchester to arrive in Warsaw. But during that, we got a night’s sleep, and we managed to work the rest of the time on the train and have a meal. So, you know, it’s civilized, comfortable form of travel.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the dire situation we’re in and whether you feel that is expressed here at the U.N. climate summit.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, we’ve been in a dire situation now. It’s, I really think, since the late 19—well, the early 1990s, when we started to recognize this is a very severe situation. We’re now 20 years on from the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Emissions are 60 to 70 percent higher than they were then. And the situation just gets worse every single year. We’re now at the point where this magical number of two degrees C, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, temperature rise, which really is the threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change, so going above that temperature we start to see many, many really very, very dire impacts. We’re at the cusp of being able to make those changes. If we don’t do it in the next few years, we’ve literally left it too late. We will have gone beyond that sort of temperature threshold. We’ll have locked the future, our own children’s future, and for the rest of the planet, into high temperature changes, changes in precipitation, changes in weather, that we will not—well, most of us will simply not be able to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Bows-Larkin, tell us what two [degrees] Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and four degrees Celsius looks like.

ALICE BOWS-LARKIN: Well, at two degrees, you’re facing the widespread mortality of corals, many more extreme weather events, you know, more flooding, droughts and so on. But the problem is that we’re not on track for two degrees. You’d be forgiven for thinking, listening to the negotiations, that we are on track for two degrees and that’s something that’s reasonably straightforward to attain. The emissions profile, the emissions levels at the moment are more on track with a four degree of warming than a two degree of warming. So that means that much greater impacts is the kind of level or the—that’s where we’re heading for at the moment.

At four degrees, you’re going to be seeing much more devastating consequences, up to things like 30 percent reduction in the wheat yields and rice yields in low latitudes; 80 centimeters of sea-level rise, which will be absolutely devastating for people in coastal, low-lying communities—so much greater impacts at four degrees than two degrees.

And remember, these are global average temperatures, that the sea—the Earth is made up much more of sea than land. Temperatures rise more slowly over the sea. So, on land, those temperatures are higher. So, two degrees, on average, might be three or four degrees when you’re on land. And then, four degrees average temperature—you know, the thing that we really experience are things like heat waves and so on. We experience weather. And so, if you’re in a city and you experience a heat wave, maybe you’re going to be looking at more like eight to 10 degrees warmer in a heat wave on that hottest day of the year than we experience at the moment. So if you’re in New York or Chicago, for example, imagine 10 to 12 degrees or eight to 10 degrees warmer than the hottest days. Very extreme temperatures. And we just can’t—we don’t know we can adapt to that sort of level. And it will be devastating to ecosystems.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Anderson, you say we need "radical and immediate de-growth strategies." What exactly does that mean?

KEVIN ANDERSON: In the short term, the only way we can get our emissions down is to actually reduce the level of energy we consume. Now, we can also put low-carbon energy supply in place, you know, power stations that are renewable—wind, even nuclear, as well. These are all very low-carbon power stations and other energy sources. But they take a long time to put in place. And we now—we’ve squandered the opportunity we had to make those changes. So, we still need to do that, but it’s going to take us 20, 30 years to do that. So what we need to do in the interim is to reduce the amount of energy we consume, and therefore reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we emit.

And the levels of reduction we now need in carbon dioxide, and therefore energy consumption, are such that for many of us—for the wealthy of us, certainly—we can’t carry on as we’re going now. So we’ll have to consume less. And there’s absolutely no way out of that. The maths are absolutely clear. But it’s worth bearing in mind this is an equity issue, not just between the poorer south and richer north, but actually within our own countries, within the U.S. There will be many people in the U.S., probably the majority of people in the U.S., actually are relatively low carbon emitters, but there will be a small group of us, maybe 20 or 30 people in the U.S. or in the U.K. and in the EU, and our emissions are probably several fold, sometimes maybe even tenfold, the emissions of the average person that are there. So I think that this is not an issue where we all have to see less consumption. It’s those of us that consume well above the average that will have to see significant reductions in the short to medium term, once you put the low-carbon power stations in place.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk specifically, I mean, about what people use—for example, refrigerators, for example.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, refrigerator is a good example. Refrigerators are a major energy consumer in our homes. But you look at the size of the refrigerators you have in the U.S. They’re much, much bigger than the ones that we traditionally would use in Europe and the U.K. There’s no real need for that. If the refrigerator is that much bigger, that means it uses that much more energy. So, in that very simple case, you can imagine a quite rapid phase-out of the existing refrigerators for much smaller designs, but also much more efficient designs.

We will have to fly much less often than we do now. We’ll have to think about even some of the issues to do—difficult ones to accept, maybe things like hygiene, where we’ve now normalized showering every day, sometimes twice a day. That means we have to wash—change our clothes every day, and then we have to use more washing machines. So you see this sort of build up, one thing after another, that over the last 10 or 15 years we’ve moved from what were quite high carbon lifestyles to these completely profligate, extraordinarily high carbon lifestyles, and we’ve made them normal, that, actually, what we did 10 or 15 years ago, if we did that now, we’d think we were strange. But, you know, in that time, the emissions have gone up. We have squandered the chance now pretty much to make a gradual, evolutionary change to how we do what we do, and now we’ve left it to the point where we need, you know, radical, almost overnight change, particularly amongst those of us that are actually the major consumers.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Bows-Larkin, you said something interesting yesterday at your presentation, that if we don’t do something right now at a global level, that’s when lifestyle changes will be even—will have to further be changed in the future. If people are concerned about changing their lifestyle, if we don’t do it now, it will be more drastic in the future.

ALICE BOWS-LARKIN: Well, one of the problems is that the emissions, they gradually accumulate in the atmosphere. So, you know, if we come up with great new technologies to get where we want to get to in, say, 2050, then we’ll have built up lots of emissions, lots of carbon dioxide emissions, in the meantime. So, that means that the earlier you can actually cut those emissions, the easier it will be to achieve change overall and the more likely it is that we’ll be able to achieve these grand climate goals. But that points to doing things that you can do in the short term. So you can address consumption and behavior and demand-side measures. That’s not saying it’s easy. It’s going to be incredibly challenging. But we don’t have much debate about consumption and about demand. When I go to energy meetings, we talk primarily about energy supply, particularly electricity supply. But to change that takes a long time. You know, we need to be changing it, but it’s going to take a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, for young women who are listening right now—especially in the United States, women tend not to go into science, though more are—how did you end up becoming a climate scientist at one of the most esteemed climate institutes in the world, the Tyndall Centre?

ALICE BOWS-LARKIN: Well, I started off with a real interest in the stars, actually, so as in astronomy. And I decided to do a physics degree, because I was really interested in that. And then I felt that I—whilst that was very interesting and I really enjoyed the science, I wanted to try to apply my physics to something that was a bit more to do with, you know, some of the big societal problems. And so I ended up being a climate scientist. I did climate modeling for a while at Imperial College down in London. And then I was more interested in the kind of communication side and the policy side, which is why I’m now at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, where we’re in the Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering Department, where there are very few women, which is a shame, because I think that we have a lot to offer in science and engineering.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Anderson, the issue of equity—how does climate change affect different countries, different populations differently?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, if we think about the poor parts of the world, firstly, and very unfortunately, they’re actually geographically more vulnerable to many of the impacts of climate change, the increased sea level rise and so forth, so that they are often actually situated in a place that’s going to suffer the impacts earlier than we will in the wealthier North. Secondly, that we are in the wealthier North, we have the ability and the wherewithal to be able to protect ourselves and adapt to some of the changes that will occur, but the poorer parts in the South simply won’t have that ability. So they’ll be hit by more impacts than we will, and then they will actually have less money to actually be able to deal with those impacts, adaptation and so forth. And then, I think the other problem that goes with all of this, that they face many other problems as it is now. So, this is just one other concern that’s layered on top of the many other challenges that these parts of the world are facing. And the rates of change that we’re talking about now are ones whereby I think many of these communities will simply be unable to survive, even in sometimes the poor state that they are now.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night we went over to the convergence space of young activists.


AMY GOODMAN: Many of them were planning the protest, the big walkout that has happened here. Very interesting, as they planned to walk out, they took off their outer clothes, and they were wearing these white T-shirts that said, "Polluters talk, we walk," and on the back it said, "We will be back." Well, last night, Democracy Now!’s Amy Littlefield spoke with Ruth Nyambura, a young woman from Kenya, who traveled to Warsaw to demand climate justice here at the U.N. climate summit. She described how climate change is already transforming lives in Kenya.

RUTH NYAMBURA: We already have climate refugees. And especially pastoralist communities are the worst affected by climate change. Just to give a—just to give an example, in Kenya we have two rainy seasons—the long rains and the short rains. And this is one—the short rains, which are supposed to begin late September, early October, one of the most important planting seasons. And the rain delayed 'til 1st of November. And at this particular point, it stopped raining. We already have a drought alert for next year. In Turkana, we already have people who are starving. So, we're already going into 2014 knowing full well that we’re going to have serious problems with regards to food.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ruth Nyambura with the African Biodiversity Network from Nairobi, Kenya, speaking to Democracy Now!’s Amy Littlefield. Alice Bows-Larkin, your response, how countries like Kenya, continents like Africa, are being affected?

ALICE BOWS-LARKIN: Yeah, the impacts of climate change are being much more widely felt in places like Africa than in a place like the U.K., for instance, where we have very variable weather, we have high levels of good-quality lifestyles, and so we are less affected by climate change. Unfortunately, many of the parts of the world that are going to see the impacts first are going to be those that are most vulnerable, where people don’t have the wherewithal to be able to adapt to change. And that’s the kind of thing that’s being seen already in Africa and that we will see more and more frequently in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: This issue of loss and damage, what industrialized countries, the traditional polluters, owe to other countries?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, that’s certainly how I see it. I see it as reparation, that we have basically said to these parts of the world, "You can’t develop and be successful, as we have—on the same mechanisms that we have in the West." We’ve used fossil fuels to bring us this wonderful quality of life that we have today, and we’re basically saying that because of climate change, these poor parts of the world can no longer go down that same route. So it’s incumbent on those of us that actually enjoy the benefits of—or have enjoyed significantly the benefits of fossil fuels, now try to help those poor parts of the world. So I say it simply is reparation. It is what we owe them, rightly owe them, to help them develop using slightly more expensive renewable, low-carbon energy systems, so they, too, can live qualities of lives like us. But at the moment, in the West, we are very reluctant to really help them, other than lip service.

AMY GOODMAN: Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore gave a TED Talk in which he discussed ways individuals can help avert climate change. This is a clip of that talk.

AL GORE: It is easier than you think. It really is. A lot of us in here have made that decision, and it is really pretty easy. It means—it means reduce your carbon dioxide emissions with the full range of choices that you make, and then purchase or acquire offsets for the remainder that you have not completely reduced.

AMY GOODMAN: You were just listening to Vice President Al Gore. Alice Bows-Larkin, your response?

ALICE BOWS-LARKIN: I mean, there’s an awful lot that we can do as individuals, and I think those of us who are either in the limelight or in leadership positions should be kind of setting an example. But that’s not to say that that’s necessarily going to do the job. We need bottom-up and top-down action. We need change at all levels. We need leadership from our policymakers.

But when it comes down to individual action, you know, one of the things that actually isn’t going to bring down emissions is the issue of offsets, so carbon offsets. They’re not going to help us reduce our emissions, because at the moment we don’t have a cap on emissions overall. If we did, if we had a cap at a global level, which is what we would all hope for, we could then exchange emissions rights. But we don’t have that. So carbon offsets are not going to reduce emissions.

So we need to be looking at our own actions in the energy we consume, the kind of things that we purchase, all of our different lifestyle choices. But that’s particularly those of us who are being watched, if you like. I think governments need to act. Governments need to start discussing consumption and behavior, and how can you bring in policies that actually get to the people who are emitting the most emissions, which is only a few of us in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about the role of scientists and protest, so that brings us to James Hansen, known as the leading climate scientist in the United States, retired this year as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies so he can be more activist. He has been arrested multiple times in recent years protesting mountaintop removal, coal mining, demanding action on climate change. A few years ago, I talked to him about his arrests at these protests.

JAMES HANSEN: These protests are what we call civil resistance, in the same way that Gandhi did. We’re trying to draw attention to the injustice, because this is really analogous. This is a moral issue, analogous to that faced by Lincoln with slavery or by Churchill with Nazism, because what we have here is a tremendous case of intergenerational injustice, because we are causing the problem, but our children and grandchildren are going to suffer the consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s James Hansen, retired last year as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, there for many years. Professor Kevin Anderson, that role that you feel scientists should be playing and the role that’s played right here at the COP?

KEVIN ANDERSON: I think we—I think the scientific community has for too long really let the policymakers, and indeed the wider public, down, that we haven’t been as vociferous as we should have been about what our science is telling us. So, our science is telling us, and has told us, to be honest, for 10 to 15 years at least, that—you know, explain the situation that we’re in and that we need these radical levels of change. But we have not—we have not translated that in a language that indicates how important that is. We have used language which is more acceptable to the policymakers. It’s more politically palatable. So we’ve converted, you know, "impossible within the current economic framework" to "a little bit challenging." Now, that’s not a fair reflection of what our analysis is showing us. So I think, to some extent, though there’s some excellent work that’s been done by the scientists just to show how severe this problem is, the actual language that we’ve used isn’t one that’s demonstrated that severity to the policymakers.

And that’s really evident here. If you sit in to the big plenary sessions, what you hear are these ministers with sort of platitudes and "We must do something about it"—all motherhood and apple pie, and, oh, we can have green—we can have everything; we have our cake, and we can eat it. The science is showing this is completely misguided. But I don’t think we, as scientists, are that vociferous, that vocal in saying, "Hang on, you’re not talking about the issue as we’re understanding it from our own analysis." So I think we need to be much more engaged. And it is—as James Hansen points out, this is now a moral question. It is not a question that can be resolved with technical solutions. It is now a question that—which is much more embedded in what we do as civil society, in our political structures, in our economic structures, in our attitude towards wealth and well-being of other people in the world, as well as within our own countries. This is now a moral question, not just a scientific question.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Anderson, talk about the pressure that climate scientists face. I mean, you had the big scandal of the emails at East Anglia being exposed and hacked. You’ve been called the "Ayatollah of the green movement."

KEVIN ANDERSON: I think—actually, I think for scientists who want to be very honest about their research and communicate it openly and so everyone can hear it, for us, we’re attacked almost from both sides. We’ve got the skeptics on one side, that call us alarmists and so forth; and we’ve got other—other people on the other side, our own colleagues, our own peers, and indeed our own research and funding bodies, who are actually reluctant for us to stand up and be quite as what they would say is being political, as I almost turn that around and say that actually the silence of many scientists I see as being very political, that we have sat by and let our work be misused repeatedly by policymakers—and we’re doing that again at this Conference of the Parties event here in Warsaw—and that by staying quiet, we’re effectively saying we agree with them using our work like this. That is not the role of science or the scientists. Our role as scientists is to stand up for the analysis that we do. And it if is misused, we should be louder and louder and louder about how it is being misused. But at the moment, there is pressure from both sides for us as scientists to stay quite quiet about this, just to say, "Oh, it’s an issue, a problem that we can resolve in the current way of thinking." You know, that’s all rubbish. The analysis and the maths are really clear about this now. We need radical change.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the United States and then China. You visited China, I believe by train, a few years ago, right?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Yes, there and back by train, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: First start talking about the United States.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, the United States very clearly has a major historical responsibility—


KEVIN ANDERSON: —for the situation we’re in, because of the fossil fuels it’s burned—as, of course, has the U.K. and the EU. So, all of the industrialized countries have a major responsibility, because we have put out the emissions, since we’ve been—since we’ve known about climate change. Remember, we knew about climate change very significantly by the mid-'80s. It became a major political issue by the time of the Earth Summit in 1992. We're now 21 years later, and we’ve done absolutely nothing about it but watch emissions rise, day in, day out, year in, year out. So we have to have some responsibility. You know, our scientists were telling our policymakers, who were making the right sort of noises 21 years ago, and we’ve done nothing. So we now—in the U.S., in the U.K., in the EU—we have a significant responsibility to get our emissions down and to put the—you know, to put our own house in order. And at the same time, of course, we also have the wherewithal to be able to do that. We’ve got great intellectual skills and inventive skills in the U.S., in the EU and so forth. We have the money to be able to put those into practice. So there are many things that we can actually—we can actually do and deliver within these wealthier parts of the world now.

AMY GOODMAN: China? How long did it take you to get there?

KEVIN ANDERSON: It took me 11 days to get from Manchester to Shanghai. It was the most productive period of my academic career. I managed to write a paper on the way there and another paper on the way back. So it was much more quicker than flying, from a sort of productive point of view.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the difference between using train and using a plane, in terms of energy consumption.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, a lot of people just ask me that question: Is the train that much better than the plane? Actually, it doesn’t really matter, in terms of the journey, whether it’s better or not, because what happens if you go by train is you don’t go very often. So you immediately curtail about how much you travel. And also, you plan when you get there to spend longer there. So I went to China, and I spent two weeks doing a lecture tour in China, as many of my colleagues flew there to give 20-minute talks and then flew back the following day, and then probably the following week were flying to another venue. So, it’s not the actual emissions from the journey that matter; it’s how it makes you change your life.

Virtually everyone that I’ve spoken to who’s flown here say, "Oh, I flew here and then got a taxi into Warsaw." So people who fly already do not then use public transport to, say, travel back into the town. It normalizes a whole load of high-carbon activities, that we then—that then become what we do every single day. And, of course, it’s very challenging then to think, "Actually, I—well, actually, I could get to—could get to Warsaw by train from Manchester, yeah." That would never cross their mind, because it’s only a two-hour flight. And when they fly here, they’re flown here, they’ve got the taxi here. We take the train here, and then we take the bus and the tram, and we go to our hotel. It’s not that challenging.

You know, we manage to engage with scientists around the world using all of the forms of communication that we’re all using here. So there are plenty of virtual forms of communication. There’s expertise all around the world now. We do not have to keep flying around the world in a sort of old-fashioned, colonial style. You know, here’s the great white hope, the great white males from the rich parts of the world, flying around to the poor parts of the world, telling them how they should be living their lives. So I think that we really need to be stepping away from thinking about the world like that.

And when you come to somewhere like China, China has wonderful expertise, good universities, great inventive capacity, and also an ability to put those things in practice much quicker than we can do in the West. It also has many problems, as well. Its emissions now are very, very high indeed. But whilst everyone criticizes China—and certainly there are many things we can criticize it for—it’s building a coal-fired power section roughly every week—but it puts up a wind turbine roughly every hour. It’s brought a lot of its investment spent on renewable power. Solar power around the world is much cheaper now, thanks to the Chinese. So, you know, as in the U.S., there are good things in China, and there are bad things in China. What we need to focus on is trying to improve the things that we can do well, which we have all of that capacity. We have all that ingenuity. And we even have a lot of the public will to make those changes that are necessary. The polls always tell us that people are keen to move to cleaner forms of energy. But, you know, for whatever reasons, politic—we still seem to be stuck in a rut of what we did back in the 20th century. We’re now in the 21st century.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the folks were right, Alice Bows-Larkin, to walk out of these talks, saying, "Polluters talk, we walk"?

ALICE BOWS-LARKIN: I think that it’s important that if the scientists and the science is not being adhered to or listened to, and that there is frustration, I think those people who are in those civil society organizations need to make a stand and to raise the profile. I’m a great believer in communication. I worked in science communication for a while myself. And, you know, different parts of this community that are here—the academics, the civil society, the journalists and so on—we all have a different role to play. And civil society are trying to raise the profile, the fact that, you know, this is a huge and an urgent problem. And actually, you would not get that sort of message from the negotiations, that it’s urgent at all. You know, you get the sense that really we can, you know, wait a while, and at some point we will sort some targets out. Well, it’s, frankly, going to be too late. And it’s—you know, not setting any targets before 2015 means it will be too late to avoid a two-degree target, because emissions are supposed to have globally reached a peak by then. Well, of course, they can’t reach a peak if we don’t have a target.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Professor Kevin Anderson is deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and Alice Bows-Larkin is senior research fellow there at the Tyndall Centre. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit in Warsaw, Poland. We’ll be back in a minute.

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