Friday, 1 August 2008

Avoiding the shock of geo-engineering

If current policies and behaviour continue increases in greenhouse gases will drive temperature to two degrees above the pre-industrial level. From there it's likely that feedback effects will drive the increase to at least four degrees - quite possibly more.

We need to stop any net increase in emissions within five to ten years and then to bring emissions down.

At present there seems little chance of us meeting this demanding target. But there will come a point (perhaps after 2018) at which the key players - the governments of the US and China - recognise the need for action. At that point they will combine to insist on a world response. If it's too late to handle the growth in emissions then geo-engineering may be the only option. (

Several geo-engineering schemes have been proposed. Some obstruct incoming sunlight or reflect it back whilst others collect CO2 from the atmosphere and store it underground. All will be very expensive and will be required in addition to, not in place of, energy efficiency, reductions in aviation, renewable power generation, etc.

Most geo-engineering schemes will have significant side effects, eg they may warm some areas whilst cooling others. Inevitably there will be winners and losers. So what's needed is:
  • First, honesty about the possibility that our current efforts will fail.
  • Second, real R&D on geo-engineering schemes and their likely costs and effects.
  • Third, study of the forms of governance that such schemes will need.
The third is particularly significant. It's obvious that expensive schemes with world-scale impacts need effective governance. I, like most people of goodwill, would favour international governance aimed to solving the problem with the least damage to people and their environments.

But that is not what we are likely to get. In her book The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein has shown how the US government and major international organisations, especially the IMF, have used a series of crises, eg Iraq, the asian tsunami, New Orleans, to advance a neoconservative political agenda. Indeed, in some cases, and not just in Iraq, they have deliberately created the crises.

The effects of these political interventions have been to increase enrich certain major corporations whilst increasing violence, corruption, sectarianism and the gaps between rich and poor. More to my point - the proportion of the money spent that has produced real benefits on the ground has been astonishingly small.

These interventions - driven by an unholy alliance of China and the US - would constitute a big step towards the Police World scenario.

The neocons have been able to achieve these perverse effects because of their strong position - control of the US government is a big advantage - and because they have been always ready to propose - indeed impose - their preferred solutions. The challenge for people of goodwill is therefore to think through what's really needed before panic induces governments to adopt simplistic and counter-productive solutions.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Measuring international collaboration

My scenarios for climate change – really for the social and political consequences of climate change – vary according to the degree to which nations will co-operate, long-term, to avoid and ameliorate the change.

I had given no thought to how we might measure that co-operation until I saw research by Michèle Bättig and others at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Battig’s group has created a co-operation index which combines five factors:
  • Speed of ratification of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
  • Speed of ratification of the Kyoto protocol,
  • Frequency of payments to the UNFCCC
  • Timeliness in submitting emissions reports
  • Reductions in CO2 emissions relative to per capita GDP.

Inevitably, being a first attempt at something quite difficult, this index is imperfect. For instance, it is largely blind to actions, even relevant collaborative actions, taken below the level of the national government. That’s unfortunate since such actions may be precursors to a change in national policy – as appears to be happening in the USA.

More worryingly it does not seem to have been validated, ie shown to predict behaviour not used to calculate it. Therefore the authors’ findings about the causes of co-operative behaviour (though weak) are suspect.

Changes over time

An online summary of the work says “…co-operative behavior of countries within the climate change regime … is only little influenced by the results from climate change research,...”. However, since the study looked at variations between countries rather than changes over time it would not reveal changes due to climate change research that affects all or most countries. It seems almost certain that the increasing confidence that the IPCC has attached to its warnings has affected some governments – and has prompted some electorates, eg Australia, to change their governments.

A study of variations over time could look at whether changes in the severity and confidence level of IPCC warnings, both local and global, have influenced national and international policies. If they have, and if other drivers can be found, we would have a useful contribution to forecasting changes in willingness to co-operate in the future.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Pale green policies won’t keep the global lifeboat afloat

Yesterday Irwin Stelzer of the Hudson Institute had an article in the Guardian (Brown’s pale green policies are more honest than most, 24 June 08) in which he praised Gordon Brown with faint damns. The article made some good points. ‘Cleaning up the environment’, ie changing our ways to use Earth’s resources sustainably, will be expensive. And, yes, politicians are hypocritical and short-sighted in wanting to take the credit for action without dealing with the electoral unpopularity that effective action will produce.

But what does Stelzer recommend? ‘Pale green policies’. That is, policies that do too little to achieve sustainability. Policies that will continue to drive global warming.

Stelzer’s real concern, as his website makes clear, is to promote ‘market solutions’ even if they do not actually solve the problems. He does not address the need to treat climate change as a global emergency that will make the Earth unable to support even its current population if left unchecked. In an emergency we put aside our normal preoccupations and focus on solving the problem. In WW2, for instance, we formed a government of national unity which took control of the economy.

Climate change is not one issue amongst many – just another environmental issue. It is the central survival issue of our time. It poses as great a threat as world war – just a less immediate one.

Today the whole human race is in one lifeboat. Because it’s a planet-sized lifeboat many people do not recognise this. But because we are in a lifeboat we need to put our effort into bailing – not selling our emergency supplies to each other!

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Open letter to Piers Corbyn

Piers Corbyn is a physicist who has published research on superconductivity, cosmology, solar physics, Sun-Earth relations and the weather. He runs a commercial weather forecasting business ( and disagrees with the IPCC consensus on global warming.

Piers has challenged the IPCC ' admit that there is no observational evidence … that CO2 levels (whether from man or nature) have driven or are driving world temperatures or climate change'. He’s issued a general challenge: 'If you believe there is evidence of the CO2 driver theory in the available data please present a graph of it'.

Here is my reply to the challenge.

Dear Piers,

Let me respond to your request for evidence by explaining why I won’t be providing any.

Since I’m not a climate scientist I must, even though I have a science degree, approach the issue as an informed layman. How is the informed layman to proceed in such a case?

a) He can ask whether the claimed effect is plausible based on what he does know. For instance I know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that there’s more in the atmosphere than there was before the industrial revolution and that temperatures and sea levels are rising globally. Now that doesn’t prove causation but it is consistent with it.

I also know that most of the reports I see on advances in climate science (in New Scientist for instance) suggest that change is now happening faster than was expected in the last IPCC report.

b) He can ask whether MOST of those who are competent to form a genuinely independent scientific judgement are agreed. In this case there’s a very broad agreement that increases in atmospheric CO2 are driving global warming. He’s entitled to note that there are always dissidents in science. Their existence is not evidence that the consensus is wrong.

c) He can ask whether the issue has thoroughly studied. Given the IPCC process climate change has perhaps been studied more thoroughly than any other comparable question.

d) He can ask whether the consensus is getting stronger or weaker. Plainly it’s getting stronger.

e) He can ask whether vested interests have been operating so as to undermine the science. In this case some of the world’s strongest vested interests have lobbied against accepting that increases in atmospheric CO2 are driving global warming:

  • The White House has censored US government scientists.
  • It has also pressed for the weakest form of words in IPCC drafting work.
  • Major multinationals have paid supposed climate scientists to contest the consensus in just the way that Big Tobacco sought to resist the evidence on smoking. (NB I don’t, of course, suggest you have been suborned in this way.)

f) He can ask whether people he knows personally have well-founded views on the science. In this case I know you. But I also knew David King at UEA’s School of Chemical Sciences in the 70s. So let’s call that a tie.

g) He can ask whether prominent non-scientists who are well advised on the science have accepted the consensus. Here I see that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, the UK Prime Minister, the US President and an overwhelming majority of senior business executives polled by McKinsey last year have either accepted or moved towards acceptance of the consensus. Insofar as any of these have a vested interest it lies for the majority in denying, not affirming, the evidence for man-driven climate change. Evidence against interest always weighs more heavily than the contrary.

So out of the seven tests that I, as an informed layman, can make six encourage me to believe that increases in atmospheric CO2 are driving global warming. One is inconclusive. Actually, that’s about as good as it gets.

Now none of this creates certainty but neither, in practice, does science. Science is always somewhat provisional.

The real question now is that of public policy and here a version of Pascal’s Wager applies. If the consensus is right it would be dangerous to the lives of many people to wait the years that may be needed to approach certainty more closely. If the consensus is wrong and we act as if it were true we will waste money on insulation, wind farms and carbon offsets and some of us will take fewer foreign trips.

Morally, I don’t find that a difficult decision.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Is climate change politics working for the poor?

Sometimes politics is knockabout comedy. Sometimes it’s tragic farce. And, just sometimes, it looks as if it might do some good. At last Tuesday’s meeting on the climate change bill I felt several times that here was politics that could do good. But was I right?

Climate Change Bill Public Meeting, 22 April 2008


  • Hilary Benn
    Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Peter Ainsworth
    Conservative Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary
  • Steve Webb
    Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Energy, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Tony Juniper
    Director of Friends of the Earth and representative of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition

Chair : Anne McElvoy, Executive Editor of the Evening Standard.

The speakers were Hilary Benn and his Tory and LibDem shadows, plus Tony Juniper of FoE – which had organised the meeting. The speakers told a packed and often enthusiastic, house – the main meeting hall at London’s Friends’ House – that climate change was a vital, urgent problem and that they were committed to serious action. They agreed that a target of 60% reduction by 2050 would not be enough.

They congratulated each other on their shared commitment and on making the UK the first country in the world to set itself legally-binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions. And they congratulated the NGOs, like PA, and the audience on their roles in putting climate change on the political agenda. Continued public pressure will be needed, they agreed, to keep up the momentum. Though disagreements emerged they seemed minor.

It seems churlish to object when people are talking sense. And yet – with the exception of one man who called Hilary Benn a murderer – there didn’t seem to be the sense of moral outrage the situation requires. Benn spoke of targets for 2050 and five year budgeting. The opposition claimed credit for demanding a tougher target and annual reports. There was more than a touch of complacency that we were doing the right thing.

Yet LibDem spokesman Steve Webb argued that if we count aviation and shipping emissions the UK has made NO cut since 1990. Yet we need to cut emissions by three per cent EACH year to reach even the 60% target.

In my view Sarah Mukherjee of the BBC asked the key question: “Shouldn’t we just use less stuff?”. No politician was prepared to agree. Even Steve Webb described it as “a possible second term strategy for the LibDems”.

Afterwards a group of Practical Action supporters shared experiences at a local pub. We also met Tory spokesman Peter Ainsworth, who was rather franker than he’d been in public. Politicians and public are moving. But are they moving fast enough?

Monday, 10 March 2008

Energy use in the lifeboat scenario

This post now relates to a revised version of the Lifeboat scenario.

The lifeboat scenario is the least unpleasant of my three climate change scenarios. However, it will be extremely difficult to realize as can be seen by considering the central issue of energy use. Though the uncertainties are too great to say exactly what changes will be needed to keep the lifeboat afloat we’ll almost certainly need to act in at least four ways.

First we must improve our efficiency in using energy, eg by community heat and power schemes, better house insulation and more fuel-efficient cars. This ought to be the easiest option because in cutting energy use we also save money. If people, businesses and governments aren’t doing what’s needed – and they mostly aren’t – that’s because of inertia and a preference for short-term convenience over long-term savings. Information campaigns, carbon taxes and stricter standards can all drive savings here.

Second we must reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation by:

a) Introducing low-carbon sources of energy such as wind, tidal, solar and nuclear.

b) Adding carbon capture and storage facilities to gas, coal and oil-fired power stations.

These steps are expensive and some of the technologies are unproven at least on the scale required. Moreover the effects of making these changes will only be felt over many years but their impact is large.

Third, we must replace other uses of fossil fuels, eg petrol for cars, with low-carbon electricity. This probably means settling for some loss of performance and perhaps of comfort and safety (since comfort and safety often add weight thus increasing fuel consumption). However, a great deal of driving is short journeys in which comfort is secondary and high speed a positive disadvantage.

Fourth, we must reduce our total demand for energy-consuming goods and services. We must:

a) Do less of the things that consume energy, eg travel, especially by car and plane, and eating meat.

b) Replace the things we buy less often.

c) Reduce the world population.

Now, there should be something in this list to offend everyone! Why will we need to do all these things? Because it’s likely that by the time we get international action on climate change we will be approaching, or even past, the point at which positive feedback effects cut in to drive increasing temperature gain. Indeed, some experts, Prof. James Lovelock for one, think that we have already passed the tipping point. So we will not be able to organize a soft landing. We’ll have to use all the means we can find.

It’s entirely possible that all of the first four measures will be insufficient by the time we actually apply them. If so we’ll have to take actions of a fifth kind. That’s steps to effect the global climate directly, eg by using genetically engineering plankton to capture CO2 from the atmosphere or dispersing aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight.

Now I accept that the science is uncertain so perhaps we won’t have to treat this as a global emergency. But the lack of progress in addressing climate change and the track record of international institutions suggest that a pessimistic view is most likely to be correct. After all, if the nations can’t stop such visible horrors as the genocide in Darfur, how likely is it that they’ll take timely action on the infinitely harder and less visible problem of climate change?

The only safe assumption is that we’ll have to do all of these things is we are to avoid the horrors of the police world and Hobbes world scenarios.

And to do them requires both vigorous inter-governmental action and a major change in social attitudes. These are needed both to motivate governments to act and to make the costs and loss of goods and services acceptable.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Does Business ‘Get’ Climate Change?

A recent survey of nearly 3,000 top managers by McKinsey, the world’s leading management consultancy, shows a change in thinking about climate change. 51% see “environmental issues including climate change” as one of the top three issues that will affect public and political attention over the next five years. A similar proportion put it in the top three for impact on ‘shareholder value’ (ie the share price). The environment was rated a top three issue by more managers than any other issue.

This was reinforced for me at the Financial Times Innovation conference in London last year. Although climate change was not on the agenda it kept coming up and Gary Hamel, one of the world’s leading management thinkers, told the audience “Climate change is now one of humanity’s greatest challenges and therefore a challenge for any company.”

The good news is that this is up from 31% two years ago. 87% are personally worried about climate change and 81% see a role for government in addressing the issue. Overall they expect government to take the lead.

The bad news is that 49% of top managers don’t put it in the top three. And this proportion is 55% in China, 59% in North America and 67% in India.

The opinions of top managers matter both for the resources they control directly and because of their influence with governments and other businesses. 97% believe that the climate is changing. We haven’t yet persuaded them to take responsibility but we’re well on the way.


  • Assessing the impact of societal issues. The McKinsey Quarterly, 24 November 2007. (Also on the web.)