Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Adaptation: Science, pessimism and planning

I went to a Castle Debate on climate change yesterday morning. It wasn't - fortunately - a debate but a briefing. It was realistic, and therefore depressing.

The consensus, based on the latest IPCC report and work by PWC, was that though it's still POSSIBLE to keep the temperature rise below two degrees it's likely to be four degrees. That's not really 'four degrees'. We're on track for four degrees by 2100 with substantial increases thereafter. And, given the uncertainties, a likelihood of four degrees means means the possibility of five, maybe more, even by 2100.

The first speaker, Dr Celine Herweijer of PWC, presented these facts and the IPCC view on impacts - falling food production, dying coral reefs, loss of summer sea ice from the Arctic. In fact the usual stuff. She also drew attention to the UK's vulnerabilities - we import 40% of our food and our 350 largest public companies own overseas assets worth £10T (that's £10,000,000,000,000) many of which are vulnerable to climate change. The most vulnerable sectors include energy, mining, utilities and manufacturing.

Next up was Anthony Hobley of Carbon Tracker. Hobley acknowledged the science and mentioned that whole civilisations can fail. It's happened repeatedly in the past though never globally. Of course, ours is the first global civilisation so that qualification is not entirely encouraging. These failures often followed environmental changes and the ruling elites failed to respond because their wealth shielded them from the impacts of those changes until it was too late to act. Hobley did not make the obvious connections but I will:
  • Climate change has increased in parallel with increasing inequality.
  • The super-rich are increasingly powerful and increasingly isolated from the problems that beset the rest of us.
  • London's economy is increasingly dependent on the richest 1%.
  • Some of them use their wealth to stop governments addressing the problems.
  • Therefore, a sharp reduction in economic inequality is an essential step in addressing climate change.
But back to the meeting! Hobley tried hard to be encouraging about the prospects for the 2015 UN Climate Change conference in Paris which he clearly regarded as our last hope. However he struggled to be optimistic and implied that the most plausible success scenario was a global crash programme that he called the Lastminute scenario. This is similar to my Emergency Braking scenario.

The final speaker was Lord Krebs of Wytham. As Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the  Committee on Climate Change he was very well qualified to explain his committee's thinking and recommendations. In short, last year's National Adaptation Programme was based on climate projections made in 2012. These projections included rising temperatures and sea levels, drier summers, wetter winters and more extreme weather events. Specifically they expect 1 in 100 year events to occur every ten years.

So a science-based plan?

Actually no. In answer to a question from me Krebs explained that the projections were based on two degrees of warming "because that is the government's target". He accepted that this approach is inadequate and would need to be revised (though I didn't get much sense of urgency from his remarks).

I will go further. The current National Adaptation Programme is essentially dishonest because it implies that it is appropriate to the actual threats. Only a programme based on the most likely projection - four degrees by 2100 - can be honest. And, given the uncertainties, an honest programme must at least consider the possibility that things will be worse.

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