McEwan on climate: at war with ourselves

Readers of Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, which I reviewed here last year, will be interested in a short video on the Guardian website in which McEwan talks with Matt Ridley about the book. A little ironic that it should be Ridley, who vigorously aligns with deniers, but his views thankfully do not figure in the clip.

It opens with a discussion in general terms on the work of the novelist by comparison with the work of the scientist, during which McEwan speaks of literature as an investigation of human nature. He then traverses the difficulties of writing a novel about climate change, concerned as it is with hard science and also touching on virtue which carries dangers of preaching for the novelist.  However Solar was sparked when McEwan was invited to attend a Nobel Laureates’ conference on global sustainability. He thought of a character who “lived in his own shadow” as a consequence of Nobel prize-winning work done 20 or 30 years earlier, and saw this as a possible way into a novel which had climate change “as its background noise”.

There follows a fascinating short reflection on the Copenhagen conference which he relates to the novel. It’s why I decided on this post. My transcription follows:

“When the climate change conference in Copenhagen happened, by the time it ended I thought, well, crucial aspects of human nature have been demonstrated for us.  Possibly for the first time in diplomatic history and in international politics rationality in the form of science had summoned every last country on earth to one place. That’s one side of our nature, and on the other side everything that happened as soon as they got there. Not only did God send a blizzard descending on those queuing up to get into a building to discuss global warming, but also very soon there was all kinds of short term thinking, cabals.  Obama, rather disgracefully I think, came and played things up to the American networks, the Chinese were devious beyond belief, the Europeans sulked in their tents, and the whole thing ended in farce and great disappointment.  And I thought with no real pleasure that the whole spirit of my novel and of Michael Beard was at Copenhagen. I mean I’m trying to really render a sympathetic account of us in the west as privileged consumers unable really to ever pause in our delicious lives and trying to relate this a little to Michael Beard’s gluttony.”

The clip finishes with McEwan reading a memorably comic extract from Solar chronicling Michael Beard succumbing yet again to his appetites after perfunctory token resistance.

The years are rolling by and climate change, in spite of its obvious seriousness and urgency, remains largely extraneous to the central business of our societies. It becomes increasingly apparent that the reasons for delay in tackling the issue lie deep in aspects of human nature against which plain rationality struggles to prevail.  As McEwan’s “privileged consumers unable really to ever pause in our delicious lives” we are finding it extremely difficult as societies to stand apart from what we know and enjoy long enough to appraise and heed the danger.  There are many useful analyses of how this avoidance operates. Gareth’s recent post on George Marshall provides one good example. However McEwan’s “rationality in the form of science” does, as he says, represent one side of our nature. It remains our best hope in the battle with ourselves.

Can Cancún’s COP deliver?

Another year, another Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, number 16 in a series that looks set to run and run. Mexico is the host, Cancún the seaside resort where thousands of diplomats, negotiators, activists and apparatchiks are gathering to have another go at sorting out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. High hopes for a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen last year were dashed on the rocks of US inaction, Chinese intransigence and a failure of political will. A weak but face-saving Accord was cobbled together at the last minute, but it satisfied very few — least of all those who’d like to do more than pay lip service to a 2ºC target.

By way of contrast, the build-up to Cancún has seen prospects of a final deal downplayed by just about everyone involved in the process. COP 16 will make progress on the building blocks of a Kyoto follow-up, we are told, but few expect anything substantial to happen before COP17 in Durban next year.

Nature News has a good overview of expectations:

“It’s a question of trying to get some incremental gains,” says Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. “The approach of all-or-nothing that we took in Copenhagen blew up in our faces, and we can’t just sit back and do nothing at all.”

John Vidal in the Guardian reports on the impatience of Latin American and African nations:

“There is deep frustration among the least developed countries”, said Bruno Sikoli, the spokesman for the 54-strong group of mainly African countries. “We feel there has been far too much talking. If the rich countries put nothing new on the table, then it will be very serious. Climate change is affecting our countries hard now. It is most urgent.”

Johann Hari in The Independent takes the bleak view:

The collapse of Copenhagen has not shocked people into action; it has numbed them into passivity. Last year, we were talking – in theory, at least – about the legally binding cap on the world’s carbon emissions, because the world’s scientists say this is the only thing that can preserve the climate that has created and sustained human civilization. What are we talking about this year? What’s on the table at Cancun, other than sand?

Hari’s extended riff on the “great ecological crash” we’re staring in the face is well worth a read — he’s a compelling writer — and he articulates all too well the reality of the huge disconnect between the evidence piling up that we need to act fast and the complacency of the international realpolitik.

The Economist joins the chorus with perhaps the ultimate in negative perspectives. In an editorial the magazine declares:

In the wake of the Copenhagen summit, there is a growing acceptance that the effort to avert serious climate change has run out of steam. Perhaps, after a period of respite and a few climatic disasters, it will get going again. It certainly should. But even if it does, the world is going to go on getting warmer for some time.

The chance of hitting a 2ºC target has passed. It’s now time to focus on adapting to the inevitable:

Though they are unwilling to say it in public, the sheer improbability of such success has led many climate scientists, campaigners and policymakers to conclude that, in the words of Bob Watson, once the head of the IPCC and now the chief scientist at Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “Two degrees is a wishful dream.”

The fight to limit global warming to easily tolerated levels is thus over. Analysts who have long worked on adaptation to climate change—finding ways to live with scarcer water, higher peak temperatures, higher sea levels and weather patterns at odds with those under which today’s settled patterns of farming developed—are starting to see their day in the uncomfortably hot sun.

What’s left is planning to adapt, and The Economist does a characteristically through job of providing an overview. I’d say it was notably optimistic in the face of the climate numbers — particularly those presented in a “theme issue” of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society AFour degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications. [All the papers in the special issue are available free until Nov 30, and many beyond that date.] The Guardian does a good job of summarising the bad news:

Rachel Warren, at the University of East Anglia, described a 4C world in her research paper: “Drought and desertification would be widespread … There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, impinging on [wild] ecosystems. Large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Human and natural systems would be subject to increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”

Warren added: “This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes [and] an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. In such a 4C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world.”

Another Met Office study analyses how a 4C rise would differ from a 2C rise, concluding that threats to water supplies are far worse, in particular in southern Europe and north Africa, where regional temperatures would rise 6-8C. The 4C world would also see enhanced warming over most of the US, Canada and northern Asia.

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), “the prognosis for agriculture and food security in a 4C world is bleak”, according Philip Thornton, of Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute, who led another research team. He notes there will be an extra billion people populating Africa by 2050.

Expectations for Cancún are low, but the stakes just keep on getting bigger. The next two weeks will give us an idea which way the chips are falling. Hot Topic will once again be featuring guest posts by Oxfam NZ’s Barry Coates, who is already in Cancún, plus I’ll add comment as news catches my attention. You can also follow the NZ Youth Delegation at their blog.

For more detailed news, there’s the International Institute for Sustainable Development‘s Reporting Services’ coverage, including their Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a daily update of events. iPhone owners can even download a UNFCCC app, Negotiator, designed to keep you up to date with COP 16 news — even read conference papers. Slightly more quixotic is the Twitter newspaper The unfccc-ipcc-cop Daily at It’ll be interesting to see how that goes…

And finally: we can expect more comedy gold as the Scaife-funded Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow is flying Christopher, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley into Mexico to bring his unique brand of, er, something or other to proceedings. He’ll even have Roy Spencer to act as his bag man… I confidently expect high jinks.

Wake the world

This is a guest post by Anthony Giddens and Martin Rees. Giddens is a former director of the London School of Economics, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and the author of The Politics of Climate Change. Rees is president of the Royal Society.

This year has seen outbreaks of extreme weather in many regions of the world. No one can say with certainty that events such as the flooding in Pakistan, the unprecedented weather episodes in some parts of the US, the heatwave and drought in Russia, or the floods and landslides in northern China were influenced by climate change. Yet they constitute a stark warning. Extreme weather events will grow in frequency and intensity as the world warms.

No binding agreements were reached at the meetings in Copenhagen last December. Leaked emails between scientists at the University of East Anglia, claimed by critics to show manipulation of data, received a great deal of attention – as did errors found in the volumes produced by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many newspapers, especially on the political right, have carried headlines that global warming has either stopped or is no longer a problem.

Continue reading “Wake the world”

The King will come

Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, has not retired into quiet obscurity since leaving that position. He co-authored the book The Hot Topic (reviewed here) in 2008 and works as director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford, which addresses the major environmental threats and opportunities facing the world. He’s written two articles in recent days which seemed to me worthy of mention. Yesterday in New Scientisthe urged readers not to despair despite the apparent lack of progress at the recent Bonn talks.

He acknowledges that there’s reason for gloom at the failure of December’s Copenhagen summit to come up with a successor to Kyoto — failure which he puts down to a combination of serious organisational issues and glaring, often naïve, political errors. He describes the end result as “the victory of unambitious realpolitik over correct, but wishful, thinking.” But some positives resulted.

First,  climate change now has the full attention of the world. “The anger of poorer nations is a powerful and lucid expression of their full appreciation of the scale of the problem.” Second, we realise that a single collective leap won’t bring a successor to Kyoto. Third, we now have global agreement to avoid a dangerous 2 degree temperature rise and deforestation is now part of agreements.

However, the main reason for his optimism is that he sees alternative ways to regulate carbon through national and regional commitments to emissions trading.

He points to the European Union whose Emission Trading System is the largest of its kind in the world. If the US introduces its own version, Mexico’s president is keen to join and wants to see Canada sign up too, forming a North American trading group. Another emissions trading market may emerge among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Harmonising such parallel markets would be a challenge, especially for international trade policy, but co-ordinating across a small number of commodity markets is likely to be easier than across a large number of sovereign states. There is the issue of regional schemes initially leading to industries in different parts of the world paying different prices for emitting carbon and thus giving an advantage to manufacturers in regions where the price of polluting is low. King’s reply is that high-price countries would impose tariffs on imports from low-price regions to level things up. He has said elsewhere that if this causes trouble with the WTO it also presents an opportunity for the WTO to step in and “persuade nations to get their act together”.

He is sceptical about attempts to create multibillion-dollar funds to help poorer nations adapt to climate change, since he’s not sure that the pledges of the developed world are credible. A better approach in his view would be to extend existing trading schemes to these nations.

“This would encourage them to develop lower-carbon economies and generate income through taxes on high-carbon imports. It would also unify emissions trading, overtaking troubled efforts to devise a global trading scheme with a single carbon dioxide price. Regardless of the details of the mechanism, it is plain that one of the central challenges for climate policy is to find a credible way to meet the concerns of the poorest countries while offering the right development incentives.”

Add to these factors the increasing confidence of the growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and King sees hope ahead by the time of the meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012, the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in the same city that started the Kyoto process.

“We are all custodians of a global commons, and we have moral responsibility to future generations to curb our greenhouse emissions. I am optimistic that Rio can deliver.”

On Sunday, King wrote in the Observer about the different but closely related question of oil supply and demand, under the heading We must abandon oil before it’s too late. In the context of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster he presses the point that demand for oil may outstrip supply sooner than people realise. Analysis undertaken at Oxford suggests that the IEA is overestimating the reserves in fields yet to be developed by some 30%. He expects oil prices to rise very considerably soon to be more than $100 a barrel, peaking at $130 a barrel by 2015.

The effect of this on importing countries will be harsh, especially on developing countries.  King is scientific adviser to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, and has recommended that the country do all it can to decouple its currently rapidly growing economy from oil.

Kicking the oil habit is increasingly necessary for economic reasons, but when added to the imperative to reduce carbon emissions and prevent dangerous climate change he considers the case for change is overwhelming.

He briefly sketches the kind of measures that will need to be taken. The efficiency of transport will need to be increased by reducing air friction, improving engines and running smaller, lighter vehicles. Alternative fuels will be important, moving from petrol to new generations of biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicles. We will also need to go beyond the designs of the vehicles and fuels and look at changing urban design, at building and improving mass transportation systems, and changing the ways that people drive.

His organisation is holding a World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment between 27-29 June in Oxford on the theme of low carbon mobility. There’s an interesting short video clip launching the forum here.

[Wishbone Ash]

What becomes of the broken Hartwell?

Calls for a radical re-framing of policies to deal with climate change are intuitively attractive — after all, current national and international policies don’t seem to be doing much to curb rising emissions. The latest effort comes from a group of developed world academics brought together by London School of Economics professor Gwyn Prins, and takes the form of The Hartwell Paper [PDF] — a document based on discussions held in February at the English country houseof the same name. It suggests ditching Kyoto and all its structures, and instead tackling climate change with policies that approach the problem more obliquely. The authors claim:

…it is not possible to have a ‘climate policy’ that has emissions reductions as the all encompassing goal. However, there are many other reasons why the decarbonisation of the global economy is highly desirable. Therefore, the Paper advocates a radical reframing – an inverting – of approach: accepting that decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.

Sounds reasonable enough at first reading, but my suspicions were roused when I read beyond the executive summary.


Prins et al derive the need for their new approach from what they describe as two watersheds that were crossed in late 2009: the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen to deliver on its promise of a global deal to follow Kyoto, and what they call “an accelerated erosion of public trust [in climate science] following the posting […] of more than a 1,000 emails from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit” last November. Copenhagen clearly did not live up to expectations, and the UN-mediated policy process may well have lost impetus, but the authors go on to assert that the CRU email theft, and the subsequent press furore and investigations means that “the legitimacy of the institutions of climate policy and science are no longer assured”. That, it seems to me, is a very long bow to draw. To see the Hartwell take on the emails applauded by Steve McIntyre and that they approvingly reference Andrew (Bishop Hill) Montford’s book The Hockey Stick Illusion suggests to me that the authors are coming at the issue with their own set of preconceptions — a framing they want to impose on the issue. A look at the author list (Roger Pielke Jr, Nordhaus and Shellenburger from the US think tank The Breakthrough Institute, amongst others) hardly dispels that notion…

When they consider the underlying science, they are at pains to misrepresent what’s going on:

Climate change was brought to the attention of policy-makers by scientists. From the outset, these scientists also brought their preferred solutions to the table in US Congressional hearings and other policy forums, all bundled. The proposition that ‘science’ somehow dictated particular policy responses, encouraged – indeed instructed – those who found those particular strategies unattractive to argue about the science. So, a distinctive characteristic of the climate change debate has been of scientists claiming with the authority of their position that their results dictated particular policies; of policy makers claiming that their preferred choices were dictated by science, and both acting as if ‘science’ and ‘policy’ were simply and rigidly linked as if it were a matter of escaping from the path of an oncoming tornado.

If “the science” has been unhelpful, then this misrepresentation of the message is even more so. The basic message from “the science” is clear enough. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere, and adding more is going to make life very uncomfortable — all life, not just human beings — in the not too far distant future. Did scientists really bundle this message with “particular policy responses”? Only if reducing carbon emissions can be considered a policy response — but that’s the very response Prins et al seems to want to dance around. Decarbonisation they can countenance, but not now, not quantified. They want to ignore the quantification of the size of the problem we face because it might be inconvenient:

We share the common view that it would be prudent to accelerate the historical trend of reducing the carbon intensity of our economies, which has been a by-product of innovation since the late eighteenth century. However, we do not recommend doing so by processes that injure economic growth, which we think – and the history of climate policy demonstrates – is politically impossible with informed democratic consent.

What if political impossibility is confronting the harsh impact of physical reality? The Hartwell Paper assumes that we have the luxury of time, that we can step away from the progress made over the last 20 years , and somehow recast international policy according to a wishlist of interventions that might (if we’re lucky) set us on the right path. They imply that we need not face reality now, that we should take the Capability Brown approach to a country house, up a winding path that yields carefully framed glimpses of our goal, rather than march straight towards a target defined by our understanding of physical reality.

There is some good analysis of The Hartwell Paper at the Economist (with nice Eno reference), and by Richard Black at the BBC. Both writers suggest that whatever the merit of the Paper’s recommendations, the authors cannot ignore where we are now. We may not want to start from where we are, but we have no choice. In a wider perspective, the Paper is arguing for a bottom up approach to carbon reductions, looking for the low hanging fruit — efficiencies, black carbon reduction — while the Kyoto approach is top-down, starting (with luck) from an informed appreciation of what we would do well to avoid. It seems obvious to me that we need both approaches, at a national as well as international level. Setting a 40% target for emissions reduction by 2020 is just as valid as mandating the use of low energy lightbulbs, or encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles.

Prins, Pielke Jr et al prefer to ignore what we really know about the climate system and the one-way nature of the changes we’re imposing on it (who can put a species back after it’s gone, or reconstruct a coal seam?), adopting instead a high-minded but ultimately wishy-washy stew of policies that look a lot more like sticking plasters than a remedy. And, being a cynic, I can’t resist asking the cui bono question… who might benefit most from the policy mix they propose? I leave the answer as an exercise for the reader.

[Jimmy Ruffin]