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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Call for Climate Change-Policy Paradigm Shift


Nature Climate Change‘s most recent issue included a paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows entitled, “A new paradigm for climate change” [subs. req'd].   Kevin works at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering and Alice works at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering, University of Manchester.  The discussion and arguments in the paper aren’t exactly novel if you’ve paid attention to the policy side of the climate change topic but bears examination as much as other works on the climate-policy interface, in which I am very interested.

I think the paper has some serious flaws in its assumptions, which detracts from the policy prescriptions offered.  Prime among the flaws is this:

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions

The latter part of this statement simply will not happen, barring additional severe economic distress.  The first part represents progress from the scientific community: developing nations want and deserve higher living standards, of which energy is a primary input.  But developed nations cannot and will not “immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions”.  There is a choice that these nations make every day: their own economies will grow and they will do so with the cheapest energy possible.

The U.S. recently achieved something through price signals that scientists and environmentalists have failed to achieve via policy for a generation: a significant reduction in overall CO2 emissions: 7.7% since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.  This is after Congress failed to get a climate-energy bill passed in 2010.  Why did the decrease occur?  Because old coal-fired plants (the most polluting type) grew much more uneconomical to operate in the past few years compared to natural gas-fired plants.  There is a problem moving forward and that is there is nothing substantially cheaper than natural gas on the scale necessary to further reduce U.S. emissions.  Effectively, there is a new baseline from which the U.S. will operate for the next generation.  But natural gas, as most readers are familiar, still pollutes far more than renewable energy sources.  So U.S. emissions will continue to be quite high and more CO2 will accumulate in the atmosphere.

Despite the early flawed assumption, the papers’ authors quite correctly state the following:

[...]any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2°C [increase in average global temperatures] is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints.  Against this backdrop, unsubstantiated hope leaves such constraints unquestioned, while at the same time legitimizing a focus on increasingly improbable low-carbon futures and underplaying high-emission scenarios.

I have written many times on the false hope that low- and moderate-emission pathways represent (given the unfortunate reality that our actual emissions are on a substantially different orientation) and lamented that even climate scientists misdirected their energies by rarely analyzing high-emission scenarios, thereby depriving policymakers with the required scope of potential futures from which we choose.

The authors do present this somewhat accurate portrayal:

At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society.

Rather than demonizing neoclassical economics, the authors should look for opportunities within such a framework that would actually result in emissions reductions.  But the authors’ do identify issues that really do lie at the heart of climate policy: the values of contemporary society.  If those values were more robustly analyzed and respected for what they were as a foundation to climate policy, we would have made meaningful progress on the issue.

The lack of such effort is evident in one of the authors’ concluding paragraphs:

It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

This thrown gauntlet is full of high-minded rhetoric but short on grasping the realities of the world.  I don’t know of any climate scientist who is afraid of making academic judgements.  But it is folly to accuse skeptics of unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice when advocates for climate activism also display their own set of opinions and prejudice – those opinion and prejudices arise through psychological lenses which themselves are rooted in biological constructs.  Insulting one another has done and will continue to not to anything to solve this problem.  Nobody has the “truth” market cornered.  The “new” paradigm championed by the authors bears remarkable resemblance to other recommendations from legions of climate activists before them.  What has such a stance accomplished?  Emissions continue to grow, concentrations continue to accumulate, temperatures continue to rise, etc.

Many of the same people who rail against unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice also vehemently dismiss new articulated paradigms.  I see nothing in this paper, or many others like it, that advocate for the rapid growth of developing economies based on 21st century technologies and innovations, even though such an effort is clearly needed while developed nations work at finding ways to decarbonize their own economies.  Quite simply, this is the least expensive path forward – it leverages opportunity within the economic framework in which we operate.  It strikes me as senseless to continue the same fight that has not achieved meaningful decarbonization in the last two generations.

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5 thoughts on “Call for Climate Change-Policy Paradigm Shift

  1. The low U.S. gas price seems to be a blip. Shale gas has recently been selling at below its cash production cost largely due to the use-it-or-lose-it leases and the need to book big reserves to raise cash.

    For this reason, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. CO2 emissions will continue to decline at the rate stated in your blog.

    What’s more the main reason for the decline in recent emissions is due to a mild winter, not the switch from coal to gas…

    More warm winters might help keep emissions down, but the extra air con demand from hot summers will cancel out some or most of the gains.

    • Furthermore, while coal combustion has declined markedly in the US, coal extraction has not followed suit, meaning that the excess coal is now exported to Europe and (increasingly) China.

      While the recent US reductions have been the largest in absolute terms, in relative terms (which make more sense since the US is such a large nation), it lags a long way behind many European nations, and as the previous comment pointed out, there is little to suggest that the reductions will be sustained.

      Saying that we have to remain within the current failed growth paradigm is to ensure that we will warm by 3, 4 or more degrees C, which is very likely incompatible with a complex globalised industrial society of seven, eight, nine billion.

      • Byron-
        Thanks for commenting. I agree that coal extraction has not stopped in the US and that other countries are burning it. The large scale switch to natural gas in the US is noteworthy and in a climate sense is a good thing. A 20% reduction in emissions is a 20% reduction. I actually view this trend as likely to be sustained in the long term as additional efficiencies are worked on and new technologies come to market.

        I somewhat agree with your last statement. The industrial societies with survive the upcoming changes just fine. There will be shifts in lifestyle, to be sure, but advanced societies will not just collapse. We simply have too much technology for this to happen. That leaves developing nations as the ones likeliest to be seriously impacted by climate change. One strategy then is to help develop their societies as much as possible before that. There is plenty of warming on the way – how much and the extent of the downscale effects remains in our power to decide.

      • Thanks for your reply.

        In globalised world, failed states have a systemic effect, increasing strain not just on their neighbours (refugees, spill-over conflict, lost trade), but on the system as a whole. A globalised system can handle a few failed states, but only at the cost of placing all other states under greater stress. There is a limit to the number of failed states the system will be able to handle. I am not sanguine about the capacity of developed nations to weather the coming storm if we stay on our present trajectory. The disruptions to natural systems likely associated with 4+ºC are immense. No nation will be “just fine”, and if there are a more failed states (very likely), then this is going to affect everyone.

        So, yes, some fairly slow marginal improvements in the massive US emissions is a kind of good news, but even the current rates of decline (which are not 20% or anything near it) are (a) partially dependent on weather (mild winters); (b) based on structural changes that will only go so far and (c) most importantly, still *way* too slow.

  2. Pingback: State of the Poles – Mid-September 2012: Record Low Arctic Ice Extent; Antarctic Ice Above Climatological Normal « Weatherdem’s Weblog

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