2007 – Will Brown do anything useful about climate change, or just try to make money off it?

Mersey View

A big piece of the Arctic broke off the other day. So I thought this might be a good opportunity to review the situation with regard to climate change and to do a bit of speculation about what the next year may bring. The big event towards the end of last year was the publication of the Stern Review, produced at the behest of the British government. It’s probably a fair indicator of what Gordon Brown’s policies on climate change mitigation are likely to be, and since Blair is likely to finally leave office (not alas via a short boat-ride from Parliament to Traitors’ Gate, as he so richly deserves) those are the policies that are most immediately relevant in the UK.

Stern Review

Here’s the URL for the Stern Review site at the Treasury.

Stern is proposing policy aimed at stabilising emissions at around a 550 ppm CO2 equivalent, a figure which on most projections I’ve seen indicates some serious risks. Particularly to people in the developing world. (According to the Hadley Centre model, 550ppm has about a 70% probability of taking us to +3C)

What he’s saying is in effect ‘450 is not achieveable without giving up growth, so let’s just forget about it.’

He’s then saying (and here I’m paraphrasing something he explicitly says) If we can reduce emissions by 1-3% per year, while growth continues at rates that can satisfy investors and if some optimistic assumptions about the biosphere’s ability to regulate atmospheric greenhouse gasses are and remain true while we experience the effects of the emissions that have already happened, then stabilisation at 550 ppm may be feasible.

I say ‘remain true’, because one of the unpleasant things that the models say is quite likely around 550ppm is that several key carbon sinks stop working so it’s by no means certain that his assumptions about the rate at which the biosphere can self-regulate greenhouse gases will apply if we’re going to approach 550ppm. That in turn calls into serious question his assumption that by reducing emissions growth by 1-3% per annum will do the trick, even if that is possible while growth increases at a rate acceptable to investors, which I personally beg leave to doubt.

At 550ppm, we’re also in with a strong chance of seeing melting ice sheets, sea level rises of several metres and possibly runaway feedback caused by things like methane release due to melting permafrost and such.

He’s talking about maybe stabilising at 550ppm, if a whole lot of things come together for his approach. Meanwhile a lot of people in the poor South are in very bad trouble, which is why he mostly discusses adaptation (ie learning to live with sea level rises, fresh water shortages, ecosystem collapses etc) in connection with the developing world. It also looks like part of the growth he’s so keen on is going to come from lending them the money to adapt, so they can buy seeds with adapted genetics (presumably for growing under 2m of seawater) from Monsanto etc. Ch 12 and 26 make that bit fairly clear.

What he seems to be trying to do is make a case that by doing a little bit of regulatory fiddling here, at little bit of taxing there and a tiny bit of pump-priming where there is no alternative, that reducing carbon emissions globally can be turned into an attractive investment opportunity. I can see that if this were to be the case, they’d be able to keep economic growth and maybe there would be some impact on carbon emissions too.

If you’re still promoting economic growth in the developed world though, which is his primary objective, how can this possibly result in lowering carbon emissions sufficiently to level out at some reasonable target figure?

This bit doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. For that to happen, economic growth would have to somehow be separated from the strong correlation with energy use which has historically existed, so that the one could carry on growing while the other levelled out and started to fall to the point where it could be sustained by solar flows rather than fossil fuel stocks.

I’m sure that by promoting investment in efficiency, alternatives and so on, you can get closer to the most carbon efficient system for a given level of growth. But if you’re still getting a fat return on investment, which seems to be his priority over and above mitigating climate change, the overall trend is still onwards and upwards.

You’ve still got a bunch of destructive positive feedback loops running, albeit slightly damped down in places. So I don’t see how you can still keep the economy growing, without eventually busting whatever limit you set.

In the quotes on the Stern Review web page, Paul Wolfowitz (who despite demonstrating that he is an incompetent moron over Iraq is now President of the World Bank) says how he really approves of the report and how he and his pal Gordon Brown will be getting together next year to put together an energy investment framework for sustainable development that will ‘stimulate private investment.’

I’m sure everybody will feel much better for knowing that .. right?

Choices

The problem as I see it with the Stern report is that it condemns several hundred million people in the developing world to experience the effects of severe climate change. This is already happening due to the 430-odd ppm CO2 equivalent already in the atmosphere.

This is why many greens, based on the science, are arguing for a target in the vicinity of 450 ppm CO2e, which Stern dismisses as ‘too expensive’ to achieve, quickly moving on to the many delightful opportunities offered by climate change mitigation and adaptation for profitable capital investment.

This is the reason why I would call continued economic growth into question, not because I believe poverty and economic recession is morally uplifting in some perverse way, but because continuing with an economy that crashes if annual economic growth drops below a certain figure seems to me fundamentally incompatible with sustainability. In this case (there are other arguments than climate change) because there is sod all chance of stabilising at a reasonable figure while continuing to depend on economic growth year on year to stop the economy falling to bits around our ears.

If you take a look at the papers delivered at last year’s Hadley Centre conference, which represents the current state of scientific knowledge on dangerous climate change impacts, e.g. this pdf … it’s pretty clear that:

a) We want to stablise under 2C average temperature rise if we possibly can, otherwise a whole lot of really bad stuff almost certainly happens and some truly awful stuff very probably happens, especially to the poor South.

b) If we aim for 550ppm CO2 equivalent, as Stern proposes, the probability of overshooting +2C is 70-99%. More likely we end up at least +3C, maybe worse because that’s the threshold where several key carbon sinks stop working. See e.g. this pdf

Stern’s report targets a threshold (assuming they could really stabilise at 550ppm CO2 equivalent in the way he proposes) where we have a russian roulette player’s chance of avoiding runaway climate change, and where the impacts on the UK, US and most of at least Northern Europe, are within a range that we can probably handle, given our fairly impressive technical and financial resources. It’d be pretty horrible, but not doomsday by any means.

The impacts at the threshold he’s set of 550ppm are only likely to be massively fatal and otherwise completely disastrous for a few hundred million poor people in the developing world. Of course trying to save them, by aiming for stabilisation at 450ppm say, would probably be impossible while maintaining the reproduction of capital on the scale to which we, or at least the ruling class, have become accustomed.

Which is why a few hundred million poor people are a sad but necessary sacrifice in the minds of our leaders (and a potential investment opportunity, let’s look on the bright side chaps!).

I think he’s aiming for a level of 550ppm CO2 equivalent, that is dealable-with (at a fat profit for some) in the UK, irrespective of the effects elsewhere, and that he thinks is compatible with continued economic growth. If he’d aimed for what the climate scientists are mostly suggesting as ‘safe’ (please take a paragraph or two of qualifications about levels of certainty and what ‘safe’ is meant to mean as read here) which is 400ppm, then the impossibility of continued economic growth would call the whole neo-liberal economic programme, and perhaps capitalism itself, into question.

So I think they’re going to turn on the PR machine, reveal Gordon the Green as our ecological saviour, and try with all their money to marginalise any scientific dissent.

To stabilise at 450 ppm CO2e, without overshooting, global emissions would need to peak in the next 10 years and then fall at more than 5% per year, reaching 70% below current levels by 2050. This is likely to be unachievable with current and foreseeable technologies. Now it’s interesting that he is suggesting that it’s the technology that doesn’t let us achieve this. I think that’s misleading, perhaps deliberately so. It’s certainly possible in theory if not in terms of political reality to get under those limits with current technology. What you can’t do is maintain ‘healthy’ economic growth at the same time.

He’s assuming that what all those scientists are saying is out of the question and so unrealistic, from his perspective and on his unexamined assumptions, as to not be worth considering. If we were to have a debate about whether to aim for something around 450ppm CO2e as a stabilisation target, then the whole idea of a growth-based economy would have to be called into question (not least because we’re probably already at about 430ppm). Maybe we do have no choice about this, but at least let’s be clear about why that’s so.

Spin

What this report looks like to me is an attempt to re-frame the issues in order to facilitate a profitable investment environment, nicely greenwashed for electoral purposes, while having your media stooges marginalise the critique of environmentalists and deliberately conflate that science-based position with a bunch of primitivist or deep green bollocks.

That’s a lot easier to argue with than the case that letting a few hundred million people in the poor south get fucked over and running right up to and possibly over, the edge of runaway positive feedback loops in order to maintain profits for investors is not acceptable, and that we need to look at changing capitalism in order find a way to behave like a civilised species instead of a bunch of malthusian predators.

Meanwhile, talking of media stooges, here’s Nigel Lawson getting on board. Deliberately conflating the scientists with people who want us all to live under piles of old leaves and eat berries.

“In primitive societies it was customary for extreme weather events to be explained as punishment from the gods for the sins of the people; and there is no shortage of examples of this theme in the Bible, either – particularly but not exclusively in the Old Testament. The main change is that the new priests are scientists (well rewarded with research grants for their pains), rather than clerics of the established religions, and the new religion is eco-fundamentalism.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6107428.stm

I think what we’re going to see over the next year or two is a concerted attempt to re-invent nuLabour, and that due to the evident electoral concerns about the environment, this will involve a lot of really dodgy PR promoting, among other attempts to mislead the public, Jolly Green Gordon and his pals at the World Bank as ecological saviours.

That absolutely requires that real scientific dissent to stuff like Stern’s apparent agenda to be marginalised and conflated with eco-moralists and nutters.

The minute you start seriously thinking about the consequences of 450ppm rather than 550ppm (to take the present example) it becomes pretty clear that the former target calls into question the economic status quo in our own country and with it, standards of living and all that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, I would say that 550ppm is not likely to be a picnic for the UK unless you’re comparing to Africa or Bangladesh or Egypt or someplace that’s totally fucked on those sort of numbers. So even within the UK there are some serious questions to be asked about how much our immediate desire for consumer goods or the ruling classes desire for return on their investments can be balanced against the possibility of seriously fucking over our own descendants and probably seeing some pretty bad local consequences in our own lifetimes, including various economic ones that Stern is on about. I think 550ppm poses a serious risk of runaway climate change. I don’t think the science would yet sustain a claim that it’s certain at that level, but that’s the right on the edge of key carbon sinks ceasing to work and very likely past the point where ice sheets start melting.

So I think we might get away with it in the UK (from Stern’s point of view, despite what happens to the South), especially if we didn’t peak too high before we stabilised, but the odds of doing so appear to be about the same as walking away from a round of Russian Roulette.

I think Stern thinks it’s worth that risk and the near certainty of hundreds of millions of people having their way of life destroyed and possibly losing their lives, so that capitalism isn’t called into question, which it seems to me would inevitably happen if people seriously started trying to work out how to stabilise at 400ppm.

Adaptation

Adaptation to climate change, unlike mitigation, is largely a local matter. So perhaps the most pragmatic approach is to focus on figuring that out right now. That is an area where unilateral action within the UK is worth considering. It’s pretty cold-blooded, but on the other hand isn’t in principle incompatible with striving for effective mitigation at the same time.

Given the recent appearance of the Stern Review and the strong indications that Gordon Brown is already talking to people like World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz about a ‘sustainable development investment summit’ next year, I think there are some potential clues we could use to figure out what the government will be trying to achieve.

Where he’s talking about mitigation, ie preventing the problems, he’s largely talking on a global scale, because for obvious reasons you have to. Where he’s talking about adaptation, ie dealing with the problems once they arise, the discussion of local action is much more prominent, although he seems to envisage a lot of that action happening, particularly in the developing world, by means of investment and guidance from the existing international organisations, the World Bank, IMF and so forth.

Where he’s trying to build a positive case for prompt action, what he’s doing is identifying issues of concern to e.g. the UK government and the City and arguing that there is an early adopter advantage to investing in both mitigation and adaptation technologies and programmes. So in terms of the UK, a lot of this stuff would translate into technology and investment policy as well as being used to justify ‘green taxes’ on individuals, in preference to penalising the companies who are profiting from causing ecological damage.

His arguments to convince other nations of the need to join in global action are along the same lines. “It’ll cost you more to let this happen than to invest in preventing it” but I suspect from some of the stuff he’s talking about, insurance markets and so on, that the main audience for that stuff is the City.

Several key papers at last year’s Hadley Centre conference were identifying 550ppm equivalent as the point where runaway positive feedback loops may start happening, so Stern picking that as his target is very worrying. It’s why, given that he says he’s talked a lot with Sir David King and hence can’t be unaware of those results, I’m deducing that he thinks the scientists proposed target of closer to 450ppm equivalent while it may be the sane one, isn’t feasible under any assumptions that a chief government economist or the City can accept. In the report he’s airily dismissing 450ppm CO2e as unrealistic, so I think he’s aiming for ‘Lifeboat Ethics’ and preserving capital accumulation as far as possible whatever the cost.

Worst Case Scenario

The fact that the sun has been getting slightly warmer over time hasn’t stopped the glacial cycles from happening. The equibrium point of the biosphere seems to be what we’d call an ice age, and yet, despite the fact that the sun has been getting warmer, the climate has remained in homeostasis, with the help of life, for many glacial cycles.

We are riding high on a possibly extended warm period in the cycle. A clear impact of the climate models, no room for doubt, is that excess CO2 will keep us artifically in the warmest phase of the cycle.

I’m stepping well outside the solid science here into James Lovelock territory, but it absolutely scares the hell out of me that species are going extinct left right and centre. The great extinctions, of which we are now in the sixth, correlate very strongly with radical changes, where the biosphere moves to a very different relatively stable state. I try to stick strictly to the IPCC type probabilities, because I know I can defend that with well supported science, but that other stuff scares me absolutely rigid.

Our government, and very likely also other governments of the same general type, are most likely to respond to this threat by playing Russian Roulette with the planetary ecosystem and looking to make money out of the situation. I don’t believe that this is in our interests as a species.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted January 5, 2007 at 4:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    I saw a version of this argument on the Grist website in the thread regarding Andy Revkin’s recent story, so I followed it to Caractacus’s site to learn more about its author.

    As an interdisciplinary scientist and climate policy advocate, I specialize in exactly the questions that this post discusses, and I think that the author gets the key issues better than the vast majority of the people writing on the subject. A few brief points:

    1) most scientists who look at the issue closely think that 450 ppm CO2-equivalent is extremely risky, and higher thresholds are obviously even worse.
    2) it is precisely because of the implications of stabilizing at 400 ppm CO2-e for our current economic system that such targets are largely off the table.
    3) The Stern Review does, because of the political purpose it was designed to serve, accept as “inevitable” precisely the kinds of risks that in its framing rhetoric it would pretend to avoid.

    My own first commentary on the Stern Review can be found at http://www.postnormaltimes.net/blog; my work (with collaborators) on solutions can be found at http://www.ecoequity.org. See also my report on precautionary emissions trajectories (“High Stakes”) done for IPPR, at http://www.ippr.org/publications.

    I look forward to further discussion, and will be posting a similar comment on the Grist blogsite shortly.

    –Paul Baer

  2. Posted January 5, 2007 at 12:32 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks Paul. That stuff looks very interesting. Two of those URLs got tangled with punctuation, so I’ll reproduce them here in working form.

    http://www.postnormaltimes.net/blog/

    http://www.ippr.org/publicationsandreports/publication.asp?id=501

    I’ll get back to you when I’ve had a proper read of your stuff.

  3. Posted January 5, 2007 at 1:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

    OK, this is very good stuff Paul. Thanks for pointing me to it.

    “Here then is where mainstream economics and its critics finally part company. Put simply, Stern and others look at the problem and say “evidently people don’t value the Greenland ice sheet enough to save it.” I and many others look at the problem and say “what are we going to have to do to save it?” That means starting with the recognition that “the worth of an ice sheet” is something that we decide through a social process – a process which is clearly only beginning, and in which the fact that such a consequence is beyond our practical experience is taken as a reason for caution. ”

    http://www.postnormaltimes.net/blog/archives/2006/12/the_worth_of_an_1.html

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