Heading for 4oC: interview with Professor Kevin Anderson
by Ian Sinclair
13 February 2016
Amid all the backslapping and self-congratulation by governments and commentators about the December 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the most famous climate scientist had an altogether different take. “It’s a fraud really, a fake”, argued James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who brought global warming to the world’s attention in 1988. “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”
Professor Kevin Anderson, in London to give a lecture at the London School of Economics, has a more nuanced take on the 21st conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “From a diplomatic point of view I think it was a huge triumph”, Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells me. He believes it was very important the agreement agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2oC – and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5oC. 2oC is the global temperature increase world leaders in the West agree we cannot exceed if we wish to stop dangerous climate change. “I also think it really undermined a lot of the credence the sceptics have had unreasonably for far too long”, he adds. “Every world leader says climate change is important now. And every world leader has tied themselves, to some extent, to these temperature thresholds.”
However, Anderson, 53, is “very concerned” because while “the headline message was appropriate and sound” the rest of the final document is “just fluff and eloquence.” He goes further: “I would argue Paris locks out the success of its own targets, locks out the ability to achieve its own targets.” For example, the agreement omits any mention of aviation and shipping, two high emitting sectors which anticipate huge increases in their carbon emissions going forward. More importantly, Anderson notes the agreement includes hidden assumptions “that we will have negative emissions technology that will suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere” in the near future, such as Carbon Capture and Storage.
Similarly, Anderson notes that the pledges nations submitted before Paris to reduce their future carbon emissions – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – are also based on these hidden assumptions. So while the consensus is these INDCs will lead to a 2.7oC temperature rise, Anderson believes these calculations are “extremely misleading” because there is only a small chance these “non-existent, highly-speculative technologies will actually work at scale”.
Rather, he says it is “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that”, though he is keen to stress the science is not precise. 2100 is the year usually given for when we could expect to hit 4oC, but Anderson warns that modelling work by the Met Office found that high emissions combined with being “unlucky with some of the uncertainties around the science” could lead to 4oC as early as 2060.
What would a 4oC temperature increase mean for the world? Noting this figure will probably translate to a 5.5oC increase on land (the oceans tend to take longer to warm), Anderson lists a number of likely impacts: sea level rise of one metre by 2100; an increase in the frequency and severity of storms; reduction in staple crop yields by 40 percent (“at the same time the population is heading towards nine billion”); dramatic changes in rainfall patterns; large refugee flows. While these effects will likely be felt hardest in the Global South, Anderson notes that work done by the Hadley Centre shows the consequences will be serious for the West too, with a 4oC rise leading to additional warming during heatwaves. “If you take the 2003 heatwave in Europe where 20-30,000 died, you add eight degrees on top of that”, he explains. “Our infrastructure simply isn’t designed for that.”
At this point I interrupt Anderson, repeating back to him his belief a 4oC world will likely be “incompatible with organised global community”. “Yes, global chaos and collapse I think would be a fair assessment”, he replies. “I’d say it is a different planet. It is not the one we live on.”
I push him further, asking if he agrees with the author Naomi Klein that “climate change is an existential crisis for the human species”.
“If we don’t respond soon I think yes”, he says.
Such a frightening future has led Klein and others to argue that we need a radical transformation of society on the scale of the national mobilisation during World War Two or the Marshall Plan. When I mention the latter, Anderson demurs. “Even the World War Two Marshall Plan is not as significant as what we would need now. We have to transition every part of our infrastructure to address climate change”, he says.
“We sit in this room and everything about how we are here, why we are here relates to carbon”, he elaborates. “I’ve got a plastic bottle here – made out of carbon. The varnish on this table? Made out of carbon. We travelled here using carbon. The carpet is synthetic and made out of carbon. My jacket’s dye will be made out of carbon, probably some of the materials will be carbon. Oil and carbon infuses every facet of our lives. We’ve never had to change something quite like that before.”
In response, he believes the West needs to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions as soon as possible – by 10 percent a year. Making reductions as early as possible is key, he notes, “because that means we will burn less fossil fuels and that means we will not use the carbon budget up as quickly which gives us slightly longer to put the low carbon supply in place.”
He is particularly keen to stress the global and national inequities surrounding carbon emissions, citing work done by Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty from the Paris School of Economics that shows about 50 percent of emissions come from just ten percent of the world’s population. “The top one percent in the US have carbon footprints that are about 2,500 times the bottom one percent globally”, he adds.
As with politics generally, arguably the media play a central role in climate change. Does he see the media as having a positive or negative influence? “My immediate take on that is that it has historically been part of the problem. But I think going forward it has to be part of the solution.” Why has the media been part of the problem? “It has been a significant part of driving a particular approach towards consumption” which is “one of the reasons we find it difficult to address the issue of climate change”, he says. “It has helped reinforce a political message which is one where we value ourselves by the material consumption that we have. We don’t tend to use other forms of value. To the extent it is how big our house is, how big our car is, where we go on holiday, what we can choose.”
Anderson ends by turning his attention to the role of his own profession when it comes to the threat of climate change. “I have quite a simplistic view of this”, he says, noting that scientists have two jobs: “To do careful, robust analysis but with a sense of humility that we get things wrong” and then “to communicate those findings clearly, directly and vociferously. And if anyone tries to misuse the information I think we should counter them very directly.”
As his extensive academic work and public outreach implies, Anderson is communicating evidence-based information and arguments that are of the upmost importance to humanity and the planet. The question is this: are we, as a society, really listening? And, more importantly, are we living and acting in ways that are consistent with the deeply alarming science?
Kevin Anderson blogs at www.kevinanderson.info