A suit for the emperor

November 27, 2012

In a recent iconoclastic talk at the University of Bristol, a leading British climate scientist invoked the lad in Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the emperor’s new clothes. In the story, swindlers have offered to make a new suit for the emperor, of magic fabric that they announce can’t be seen by people who are stupid or "unfit" for their positions. Although the swindlers weave nothing, everyone in the court has been afraid to expose the fraud until the vain emperor, wearing his new invisible outfit, goes on parade and a child shouts that he’s naked.

In alluding to this story, Kevin Anderson begins a talk that, in its tone, could be described as the passion of a rational man, casting himself as the truth-telling child, the world’s political leaders as the emperor, and scientific policy advisers as the weavers, or rather, as people who (for whatever reasons) tell less than the whole truth about climate change.

Well-informed by other scientists and engineers, Anderson is deputy director of the UK’s leading climate science consortium, called the Tyndall Centre. His claim in the talk is that, far from exaggerating the danger, some scientists close to policy-makers acquiesce while politicians and their helpers describe the situation as being less dangerous and less immediate than it is. To the extent this is true, politicians (and their constituents) are less than fully informed of what changes are necessary, and how urgent is the need.

In particular, Anderson points to the goal of a two degree (centigrade) rise in global mean surface temperature, a mantra accepted at international conferences including Copenhagen, and by his own government in the UK. According to Anderson, this goal is unmeetable unless we take extreme measures, and yet it has brought about no adequate action to date. Instead, we are on track, he says, for a four degree rise or worse. It’s as if prudent governance is paralyzed.

To nearly all non-scientists, a four degree rise sounds acceptable. After all, we deal with extreme variations in temperature between night and day, winter and summer. But to a climate scientist, four degrees is a calamity. The reasons are many. Four degrees is an average over the whole globe, most of which is relatively cool water; and some land areas will be more affected than others. Second, climate change will mean that some areas have disastrous floods, while others, including agricultural lands, suffer drought along with temperature increases. Third, the oceans will rise, imperiling coastal cities such as New York and hundreds of others around the world. Fourth, tropical diseases will migrate north.

In the British transcript of Anderson’s talk, apart from the stark conclusions, the most haunting word is just a noise made by the speaker, transcribed repeatedly as "hmm." It’s hard to know what this sound means. Is the speaker wondering how to convey the urgency of what he’s seen? Is one fact tumbling over another? Is the speaker musing over what will possibly break through the good-natured resistance of people whom he feels are thinking, "this can’t possibly be happening"?

Anderson’s prophetic voice is directed at the place where climate science and politics meet. According to him, we are sleepwalking in a fantasy land where we pretend that a two degree rise is no big thing, while, he says, keeping the rise that small would actually require heroic measures starting now. In his talk, he points out that what counts is not the gases emitted in some far-off year, when we say they will finally be low, but the cumulative emissions from now until that point.

He knows that purveyors of doom are not welcomed, so, near the end of his talk, as of a recent paper that he wrote, he asks what can be done. In one graph he imagines a deliberate ten percent reduction in emissions each year, but he observes that even when Russia’s economy collapsed in the 1990s, the annual reduction was only five percent. In short, the situation is as extreme as a global war.

It seems impossible that something as beneficial as fossil fuels could hurt us, could through its emissions at worst take the advanced world back to the time before the Industrial Revolution and then much further. Meanwhile, we tend to deny, temporize, or try to adapt. Even if this year’s U.S. drought and the East Coast hurricane were not caused by global warming, or even worsened, they demonstrated to some degree what nature might do. And they are the kind of events scientists predict will be affected by warming.

Anderson has a conclusion that is simple: (a) Emissions are caused not equally by seven billion people, soon to be nine, but most of it by just 10 percent (or even 1 percent) of global population, and (b) emissions need not be a long-term problem but the transition to a low-carbon economy must happen soon. So, what he advises is a short-term change, quite big, focused on the rich countries.

In Anderson’s analysis, the solution lies in the world’s richest people using less energy and thus becoming less prosperous, or to put it another way, less rich. This cuts against people’s desire to have as much as we can manage, and cuts too against the myth of progress. Why shouldn’t we always have more as measured by GDP?

The field of economics has flourished in a world in which, apart from wars and the pauses called recessions, consumption grew. The financial system, we are being told, works only in this condition, because loans have to be repaid with interest. The American dream, which is now also a Chinese dream, assumes that each generation, on average, will be more prosperous than the last.

But prosperity depends on energy. Energy now is mainly carbon-based. Carbon endangers the climate. Politicians talk as if a return to growth will solve our problems, by creating jobs, increasing discretionary income, producing tax revenues. When we grow, we’re happy.

Two problems with this: As the easy energy is used up, the cost of extraction rises or "peaks." Even to the extent we can afford this energy, it produces emissions that, at best, impose enormous costs, and at worst imperil our future.

One response is to call these facts a hoax and to pirate emails that suggest that scientists are cudgeling their brains to get the rest of society to take seriously what they know. Another is solemnly to agree on an impossible task: to keep global mean surface temperature rise to 2 degrees (C) and then do nothing to reduce emissions except have a recession and export manufacturing processes that emit greenhouse gases.

The merit of Anderson’s position is that he says what would be necessary, even if it seems "politically impossible." It is not up to him, as a scientist, to say how the necessary can be done. Likewise, we cannot reliably expect leadership from those who face election and fear backing an unpopular course.

We are now on track for desperate attempts to adapt to new conditions (expensive projects such as seawalls for New York), followed by desperate attempts at global atmospheric engineering

This challenge is difficult in that it’s not as obvious as a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The cause is invisible gases. The accumulation is gradual. The gases are caused by activities whose benefits are obvious, and even taken for granted. We have built our way of life around these benefits. The fossil fuels are supplied by giant firms with a cash flow that can easily pay for dis-information ads, "campaign contributions," and lobbying to defend their economic interests. The energy substitutes require a huge new infrastructure, and might not provide as much energy as the fossil fuels. Effective action require collective or governmental steps, not just voluntary personal "consumer" decisions. Nobody wants to be put at an economic disadvantage by taking steps while others gain market share by continuing to pollute. Above all, who wants to pay more for energy?

Anderson’s talk formed the basis for an episode produced by the admirable Alex Smith’s Ecoshock Radio (be patient while the audio loads), and is now available in the form of a video edited, and a transcript prepared, by the Cabot Institute at Bristol. Recently, Anderson has also introduced these themes in the leading chapter of a collection on climate change and in an interview with Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement.

Craig K. Comstock

Craig K Comstock is a book creation coach and former director of the Ark Foundation. He produces and hosts a weekly TV show. He is co-author of books including Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness, with Nevitt Sanford (Beacon) and Citizen Summitry and Securing Our Planet, both with Don Carlson (Tarcher).

Tags: climate change, Kevin Anderson