The Great Disruption

The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global EconomyAustralian Paul Gilding straddles the NGO and corporate worlds. A former international head of Greenpeace, he subsequently moved into consultancy with global corporations and others on the transition to sustainability. Transition can sound a comfortingly gradual process, but that’s far from the case with the transition foreseen in his striking new book The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy.

Gilding stands firmly with those who have been warning for half a century that our economies are pressing environmental limits to breaking point. Their warnings have now become realities. We have passed the limits of the planet’s capacity to support our economy. Ecosystem change and breakdown is now under way globally. Gilding takes his stand on the science, whether of climate change or the many other areas where sustainability is crumbling.

We didn’t heed the warnings. So now change will be forced upon us by actual physical consequences. The laws of physics, biology and chemistry defy the dream of ever-growing economies. We will throw everything we can at keeping growth going, as we did in 2008, and there will be measures of apparent success, but we can’t succeed because of the physical restraints of resource availability and the physical response of the global ecosystem, particularly the climate, on which our economy depends. The economy cannot keep growing and we will soon experience what Gilding calls the Great Disruption.

This means sustained economic downturn and a global emergency lasting decades. Climate change, particularly melting polar regions, extreme weather events and changes to agricultural output, will drive a series of ecological, social and economic shocks. This will lead to strong government intervention and generate a sense of global crisis. Sustained increases in food prices will trigger economic and geopolitical instability. The key ecosystem services of water, fisheries and agricultural land will be further reduced in capacity. Oil prices will continue to rise. Risk in global share markets will be repriced, leading to a dramatic drop in the markets and a tightening of capital supply.

Too pessimistic?  A natural optimist, Gidding doesn’t think so. But he is at pains to say that he’s not foreseeing an inevitable slide into collapse. He’s talking about major and highly unsettling disruption, but a disruption that will in turn drive a transformation of extraordinary speed and scale. People ask why he thinks we can escape collapse. He explains. First, climate science denial will evaporate virtually overnight when the risk of collapse is in our faces. When climate change hits it will hit economically and people at large will pay attention because they are directly affected. Second, we can respond quickly when we choose to. We are slow but not stupid. Third, we can make an absolutely remarkable turnaround.  There will be a Great Awakening.

But won’t it be too late? It will certainly be very late. He doubts that we will accept the need for the change for another few years, which means that a great deal more will be required than would have been the case if we had started earlier. He looks at what is necessary, concluding that we need to return to below one degree of global warming. Two degrees is an inadequate goal and a plan for failure. To those who say it is impossible he points to the impossible things that were achieved quickly during World War II.  He and his friend and colleague Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of the Club of Rome 1972 report The Limits to Growth, have worked out a one-degree war plan which is outlined in the book. (A draft copy of the full plan can be seen here.)

The plan has three phases. The first, years 1-5, is the climate war. Modelled on the action following the entry of the US into World War II it launches a mobilisation to achieve a global reduction of 50 percent in greenhouse gas emissions within five years. This would shock the system into change and get the job half done by 2023 if we start in 2018.  Phase two is a fifteen-year push to move the world to net zero climate emissions by 2038. Phase three is a subsequent eighty-year haul to remove sufficient CO2 from the atmosphere to move the climate back towards the preindustrial “normal”.

Some excerpts from the plan give a flavour of what is proposed for the climate war five-year phase. They include cutting deforestation and logging by 50 percent, closing one thousand dirty coal power plants, rationing electricity and rapidly driving efficiency measures, refitting one thousand coal power plants with carbon capture and storage, creating huge wind and solar farms in suitable locations, reducing airplane capacity, recycling and reusing all used materials, binding 1 gigaton of CO2in the soil, and so on.

Although governments will play a leading role as we pull ourselves back from the brink Gilding sees adequately regulated and guided business and markets as a vital part of the mobilisation, and gives space to discussing how they will deliver the required changes. There are some hard lessons here about business complacency and failure to read the science. Many companies won’t make it.  Many will. Gilding draws on the creative destruction theories of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, of an economic structure incessantly revolutionised from within.

In crude terms for business and investors, where is the money to be made? Gilding offers some cautious predictions himself in the energy field. He sees a likely dramatic marking down of the value of oil and coal companies as it becomes apparent that a high percentage of known economic reserves may never be extracted. Carbon capture and storage he thinks remains unlikely to be employable on a wide enough economic scale to rescue coal. Nuclear power, though far preferable to climate change, is surrounded by serious safety questions. He plumps for renewables, particularly wind, solar and geothermal, recommending Al Gore’s book Our Choice for an analysis of the whole picture.

Successfully meeting the challenge of climate change is only the beginning. We still have to cope with the end of growth. Climate is not the only boundary we have come up against. There isn’t room here to explain in any detail Gilding’s take on an economy no longer dependent on material growth, but he espouses the steady-state economy which he considers long understood by capitalism’s founding fathers as a logical point we would eventually arrive at.  He tackles the questions of poverty and inequity, neither of which have been well served by the current growth economics, and sketches the rough outlines of a fully satisfying life with less stuff and more human interchange.

It’s an invigorating book. Gilding doesn’t sell his readers short on sustainability or the climate issue which is right at its heart. He is utterly realistic about climate change and the drastic measures now required to avert it. Whether he is equally realistic in believing that we will in the next few years take those drastic measures may be debated by some. Perhaps we will take the path to collapse rather than the more immediately demanding alternative. Gilding himself has faced that possibility. But his conviction that we will do whatever it takes to avoid terminal decline once we realise what is happening doesn’t sound hopelessly idealistic, nor does the kind of plan he outlines to get us there.

Note: Paul Gilding will be a guest of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival in May.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]

33 thoughts on “The Great Disruption”

  1. I think the introduction to the paper you referenced gets the current mood just right when it discusses the difference between public optimism and private fears. Gwynne Dwyer in “Climate Wars” makes the same observation: “When you talk to people at the sharp end of the climate business, scientists and policy-makers alike, there is an air of suppressed panic in many of the conversations.” pxiii

    Their approach relies heavily on a ‘great awakening’ sometime before 2020. I am particularly interested in their prescription for air travel, as it provides an idea of the change from current norms that will be required:

    “Reduce airplane capacity by a linear 10% per year through regulatory intervention and pricing to achieve a 50% reduction in airline emissions by the end of year 5. This will force the rapid development of bio-fuels for aircraft and force a cultural shift to electronic communication and away from frivolous air travel.”

        1. OK, so when you have shut down the NZ tourist economy, shut down the Dairy Industry (thanks to our “fair” ETS acknowledging that 50% of our emissions come from agriculture),what exactly are we going to do to make a crust in this country?

  2. “We didn’t heed the warnings. So now change will be forced upon us by actual physical consequences.”
    My guess is that this will happen in the 22nd century or later, certainly not in the next 10 or 20 years.
    Sea level rise is the proven evidence of global warming. It will need to be really substantial, exceeding normal wind driven high tides, to convince voters (half of whom are below average intelligence). Democratic governments have to bring voters along with them or they cease to be in power.
    In addition, most people on the planet don’t live near the sea and it doesn’t affect their day to day lives at all. But they still vote.
    Unfortunately the populations of the US and China are in this category, the majority live inland. Those two countries must lead changes for any world effort to be effective in reversing global warming.

    1. Sea level change is just but one of the many symptoms of GW.
      I believe that other effects will make their presence known much earlier:

      Regional flooding, droughts and wild fires are increasing at an alarming rate causing bad harvests and destruction of habitats which are marginal already. This is well underway as we speak. With our current global food situation skidding along the fine line between enough and not enough we are only one bad harvest away from serious issues.

      Our Just In Time production and delivery culture that is “optimized” though cut throat market competition to eliminate many buffer zones which provided some balance and inertia to disturbances is poised to crash when stressed.

      And sea level change may indeed happen a lot faster as well then the conservative 1m estimates for the end of the is century.

    2. So now change will be forced upon us by actual physical consequences………..My guess is that this will happen in the 22nd century or later, certainly not in the next 10 or 20 years.

      Sadly your “guess” is wide of the mark. I know there is a tendency is in some circles to obsess over sea level rise, and yes that will be a huge problem later this century, but the real danger lies in the collapsing eco-systems, and freakish weather events we are going to be subjected to.

  3. Of the large population blocks, Europe and China are fully committed to change but the big problem is America. The scientists in universities and senior government are on-board but many Republican senators are making more money from carbon fuel companies than their salary and are working to disrupt carbon restrictions. We need a major climatic shake up to convince the public that the situation is real and urgent. My guess is a heat wave and drought in the corn belt similar to Russia especial if it encompasses the cities in the north East. I don’t want to wish it on them but it is going to happen one day and if it happened soon then we could get on with making the conversion.

  4. Bob Bingham said: “Of the large population blocks, ….. China is (are) fully committed to change ……”
    Can’t see how this can be true.
    There are tens of millions of Chinese (and Indians) who are becoming more prosperous each decade and will buy a car (or 2) and air conditioning for their home and fly overseas for holidays. Just 3 things that will increase power consumption and increase emissions.

    Dappledwater said: “the real danger lies in the collapsing eco-systems, and freakish weather events”. There is no comprehensible, scientific evidence to directly connect recent weather events to climate change. The El Nino – La Nina cycle is the more likely cause this year.
    And please name a few “collapsing eco-systems” that could convince a below average voter that CO2 caused them. A patch of white coral reef or crappy Beijing smog won’t do.

    Sea level rise will, I hope, convince dumb voters that climate change is real but it will take time. There must be support at the ballot box for the measures to reverse climate change. This means the effects must be really obvious. The reception for the proposed carbon tax in Australia is not encouraging.

    1. SLR and coral reefs are one thing. Crop failures are another.

      We’ve had a taste of the kinds of disruptions to agriculture that a more erratic climate can offer. It doesn’t matter that someone cannot accept that climate changes contributed even a minuscule % to Russia’s heatwave, China’s drought, Pakistan and Australian floods in one year.

      Another year where a similar combination knocks out crops, Oz droughts, China & Canada floods, other problems elsewhere – which is then followed by one more – will be enough to convince some people that avoiding these kinds of problems is worth the effort. It’ll be a bit late by then. But better late than never.

    2. Colin MacGillivray – There is no comprehensible, scientific evidence to directly connect recent weather events to climate change. The El Nino – La Nina cycle is the more likely cause this year.

      Colin, you are just repeating a common blogosphere fallacy. I suggest you watch Gareth’s climate show interview with Kevin Trenberth. Because humans are adding more water vapor and heat to the atmosphere, every freak weather event now has a “global warming component”, every single one. Does this mean that each event is directly attributable to global warming?, errr no, extreme weather are a result of multiple factors converging.

      Your La Nina claim isn’t supported by the evidence. Why would extreme weather just be linked to La Nina?. What the mechanistic principle you are suggesting here?.

      Collapsing eco-systems?. Try oyster reefs.

      A patch of white coral reef

      Colin, you are now just illustrating your profound ignorance here. Coral reefs are home to almost a third of all fish in the ocean and support over a million marine species. We have lost almost half the world’s coral reefs in the last 40 years, and reefs are disappearing at the rate of 1-2% per year!. See Bruno & Selig 2007.

      People like yourself are in for one almighty shock, when these systems tip over. You think food is expensive now, well you truly have no idea!.

  5. Hi Dappled Water
    You misinterpret my posts assuming I’m a denier. (I’m a 64 year old retired architect who stood for the Values Party in 1972.)
    I believe
    1 that global warming is a major problem for the world in the future.
    2 government strategies to introduce measures to combat global warming must be driven by world wide voter pressure.
    3 voters are uninterested in science, cynical, concerned with their own wallet and half are below average intelligence.
    4 evidence of global warming has to be really obvious and totally compelling to convince dumb voters to back their governments.
    5 sea level rise is incontravertible evidence of global warming that even the voters can understand.

    I really don’t think I’m “in for a shock” because I’ll be dead when the sea level rises enough to convince everyone. My worthless guess is that real popular support for change will occur in the 22nd century.
    I’ll never know.

    1. You misinterpret my posts assuming I’m a denier.

      No Colin, I did not assume you were a denier, just that you are wrong.

      I really don’t think I’m “in for a shock” because I’ll be dead when the sea level rises enough to convince everyone.

      Then you will be in for a shock. In my earlier post I agreed that sea level rise won’t be an immediate threat for many nations, even Tuvalu won’t have it’s solid reef foundations submerged until mid-century under most projections (they’ll have other issues to deal with, but I’m veering way off-topic).

      Rapid sea level rise will likely occur when positive feedbacks such as the death of the Amazon rainforest and the accumulated methane emissions from melting permafrost and perhaps ocean methane deposits kick in. The Earth will warm very quickly when/if this happens and Greenland and Antarctica will shed a whole lotta ice. Just lump me in the James Hansen camp on this one.

      What I am saying is that, under business-as-usual CO2 emissions, some ecosystems will collapse, not that they will disappear entirely, but that they will cease to be of much use to either humans or the vast array of creatures that rely on them. Coral reefs for instance appear to be doomed. Sure a few isolated pockets may remain, but not much use to the 100 million people that currently depend upon them for sustenance.

      Now as to extreme weather, that’s going to be the immediate threat to global food supply and henceforth prices. Just note what the effect of the 2010 Russian heatwave has had on the price of grains. Why?, because we no longer have those vast stockpiles of grain to buffer against poor harvest years. Add to the mix the many studies, showing the main agricultural crop yields fall under warming temperatures, and the picture gets gloomier.

      Just for the record, I think (based on prolific reading of scientific papers) that things are going to end very, very badly for humanity. Not because things are already too late, but because of willful ignorance and inaction. I’m fighting to limit the suffering.

  6. No Dappledwater, whoever you are, you are wrong to say I am wrong. Nobody knows for sure, we are all guessing.

    But I would bet you right now (any sum) that in the next 35 years (after which time I reckon I’ll be dead) there will be sea level rise of about what the IPCC estimates- less than 500mm.

    1. But see, this is not the problem Colin.
      I have children. And they will want to have children.
      But if things carry on as they seem at the moment, then for these generations 50 cm sea level rise by the time you are dead is the least of their worries!
      Yes, nobody knows for sure, but we know well enough to take action now. Science is never 100% sure. But the evidence that is in at present is as good as it gets in many other cases of scientific discovery.
      So on the balance of the evidence you are wrong.

    2. Colin MacGillivray –“No Dappledwater, whoever you are, you are wrong to say I am wrong”

      No, you are wrong to say I’m wrong for calling you wrong!. (had enough?)

      “Nobody knows for sure, we are all guessing”

      Not every idea or opinion has equal merit. Yours is just an opinion based upon lack of knowledge.

      But I would bet you right now (any sum) that in the next 35 years

      I suspect neither of us will be around when that time comes, however it simply reinforces my point, you are obsessed with sea level rise, when there are in fact more troubling and immediate dangers on the horizon.

  7. Thomas said:
    “we know well enough to take action now.”
    You and I and Dapplewater may know but the crux is what I have been saying on this page (in 5 clauses above):

    that voters will only support measures to stop global warming when the evidence is totally incontravertible, therefore governments can’t act now, so not much happens.
    And my opinion is that it won’t happen in 2018 as the Paul Gilding book under review predicts.

    I can’t see how this view is totally wrong as you guys say.

    I’m not discussing global warming I’m discussing real politics- the way things get done. Read what’s happening in Australia with the Federal right wing opposition to a carbon tax. New South Wales just elected the same team- the Coalition. Paul Gilding clearly ignores his own nation’s handling of the issue.

    (Thomas- as you will have inferred, I have no children and am an atheist so that’s why my horizon is 35 years or so.)

    1. Ok, I get it now. I share your concern about voters apathy, selfishness and shortsightedness very much.
      I believe that the way forward is to increase scientific literacy among the wider population, if only to the point where people get to realize that there is immense value in listening to experts on climate change just as they supposedly would listen to their doctor.
      But I have hope. In one German federal state, one that was always very right and prim and proper the German Green party now has 25% of the vote and in a coalition with the labor party is in government now and even holds the post of prime minister in that state.
      The young generation there votes with a vast majority within their peers green.

    2. Colin, the people of NSW dumped a tired – and seriously tainted – Labor government that was waaaay past it’s use-by-date. It’s simply tendentious to assert that ‘the carbon tax did it’, or that it proves that the public endorse Abbott’s blatantly idiotic (and internally contradictory) ‘policy’ – it scarcely merits the name – on carbon emissions and pricing.

      And governments are acting now. Particularly those that are aware that it’s inconceivably reckless to wait until the ‘evidence is incontrovertible’. So bang goes that thesis! But they’re not ‘right’, of course, are they? Insufficiently cynical? And some governments, such as the alarming rabble that has taken over the US congress, are willfully going in the other direction – in deliberate defiance of world opinion, their own science academies, and common-sense. But, hey, they can apparently carry a majority sea of dunderheads with them, so they must be right, mustn’t they?

      This is exactly the road Tony Abbott wants to take us down. Moral failings scarcely come any larger.

      Your posts are inherently contradictory. If the ‘serious’ problems aren’t going to arise for so long, nor are the population likely to ever be convinced until, when? maybe 2070? why bother to involve yourself at all? For my suspicions, see below.

  8. Crying wolf
    Good Thomas we’re reading from the same hymn sheet.

    But Dapplewater is clearly exceptional forecasting “The great disruption” in the next 35 years- and is just crying wolf. Such loony opinions discredit the whole movement to save the planet. Like Paul Erlich who wrote The Population Bomb warning of the mass starvation of humans in the 1970s and 80s due to overpopulation. He was wrong.

    Raving about the end of the world in 35 years, Dapplewater brings derision on us all. And battling people like me in the same tent is daft.

    Get yourself a placard- “The end of the world is in 35 years” and stand somewhere in a public place and listen to what the voters (the general public) say.

    1. Now, this is virtually impossible to see as anything other than a species of concern trollery.

      DW was not doing anything of the sort, and you further reveal yourself by combining this blatant strawman with outright abuse. You have also derided the collapse of reef ecosystems as if it were trivial! You belittle the impact of AGW as a few ‘crappy’ smogs in Beijing! Assert ‘it’s just the La Nina’ as though numerous reputable studies to the contrary didn’t exist! These are the hallmarks of the other side in this debate.

      I find manipulative dishonesty to be both cowardly and infuriating. If, by any chance, you are sincere I suggest you simply desist with this tawdry strategy altogether. Perhaps, since AGW impact will only become obvious in the 22nd Century and there’s nothing we can do in the intervening period (because other people are stupid) you could devote your remaining years to some pursuit more pleasant (perhaps even of greater utility!) than deliberately antagonising people?

      Otherwise just cease any cheap pretence to being ‘in the same tent.’

      And it’s Ehrlich, by the way.

  9. No colin, it won’t be the end of the world – but it may feel like it.

    Seeing as you’re the same age as me, you will remember the Biafran famine (and all the tasteless jokes that ensued for far too many years following). As it happens, I do have children and I’m anticipating a couple of grandchildren in a couple of years. I fully realise that they will grow up in a different world and that they may not be as dismayed as me at the state of the world – because it’s what they’re used to. But the prospect of living with Biafran scale disasters year by year is not one to relish.

    In 35 years I will be approaching 90 years old. I happen to come from very long-lived predecessors so it’s just as likely as not that I’ll still be around. These as yet unborn grandchildren will be over 30 years old by then.

    I’d like to think that we can get more people to get more done now so that, even if the next generation or two lives with horrible burdens, they can live with some hope that their better actions and better technology will benefit their further descendants. (Or the descendants of others.)

    1. Adelady – No colin, it won’t be the end of the world – but it may feel like it.

      Clearly Colin believes his opinions are as valid as the experts in the field of climate science, hence his “belief” that La Nina drives extreme weather, so in one respect he is very much thinking like a denier. I notice he doesn’t even attempt to justify that comment.

      Every year the news gets worse, and every year both deniers, and “warmists”, try to convince themselves “it’s not happening”. On one hand I sympathize with that reaction, people in the western world are generally so well off, they have a vast emotional investment in hoping things won’t change too much for the worse. But how exactly is that helpful?

  10. But Dapplewater is clearly exceptional forecasting “The great disruption” in the next 35 years- and is just crying wolf.

    So tell me Colin, how many scientific papers on ocean acidification, extreme weather, global biodiversity, ocean stratification, ocean hypoxia, paleo coral reefs, amazon drought, declining crop yields under rising temperatures, soil microbe respiration, have you read?. From your comments thus far, none it seems.

    Who cares if you don’t understand, nor believe what the scientific literature has to say on these subjects, it just pigeon-holes you as someone as ignorant as a denier.

  11. Raving about the end of the world in 35 years

    For a person who claims not be a denier, why make a strawman argument?
    Exactly where did I say the world will end?.

    Time to put up or shut up I think – what scientific studies support your contention that the recent spate of extreme weather is just because of La Nina?. If no answer is forthcoming, we can safely assume you just parroted what you’ve read somewhere on the blogosphere.

  12. My last post, you anonymous people will be pleased to hear.

    Bill said
    “And governments are acting now.”
    Which ones Bill? And what are they actually doing that will have a real effect?

    For Dopeywater
    please read and understand this:
    Global warming is real and will cause real problems for the planet (evidence: IPCC)
    Nobody knows when or how much for sure (evidence: IPCC)
    Voters don’t get it (this week’s evidence: Australia)
    Governments can’t do anything really meaningful till voters get it (evidence: every country on the planet. It’s pitiful how little has been done since Kyoto)
    I’ll be dead when it really gets bad

    And so will all of you.

    1. I endorse the replies made by Bill and others to your extremely unpleasant remarks, trivialising issues which will become major in our lifetimes (those that are not so already). You are really no more honest or more genuinely concerned than the John D types. Goodbye, and take your intellectually and morally lazy cynicism with you.

    2. Actually, I did not initially assume Colin was a denier, but his repeated posts have identified him as a concern troll as Bill has already pointed out.

      A couple of things left off your list Colin:

      – Extreme weather is not caused by La Nina. Increased frequency and severity of extreme events is indeed due to global warming. See IPCC AR4 2007 – Summary for policymakers for future projections:

      It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy
      precipitation events will continue to become more
      frequent. {10.3}

      Sound familiar?.

      – Colin MacGillivray has probably never read an IPCC report, and has relied upon third hand information of it’s contents.

      – Colin is smug now thinking he has escaped the impending chaos, but will panic when he realizes Dappledwater’s assessment of the scientific literature is correct, things are progressing faster than the previous worst case scenarios. See Dappledwater’s many previous comments on this site on this topic. No, not prescience, just down to prolific reading and observation.

      – Coral reefs are important to marine life and to humans, and are on their way to functional extinction under business as usual scenarios. See Silverman 2009 -Coral reefs may start dissolving when atmospheric CO2 doubles.

      – If Colin is around in 10 years he is going to be bitterly disappointed, and smug attitude will have been replaced with one of worry.

  13. Pity that Colin has gone.

    I have always thought of it this way, given the risk of extreme and/or runaway climate change, what should we do today? On a pure risk management approach, we should be working ceaselessly on this issue.

    This is because the risk of things getting very bad fairly soon is high. For example, the 10% chance that doubling CO2 will lead to a 5-6 celsius degree global temperature increase (, or Hansen’s recent paper predicting an almost certain risk of multi metre sea level rise before 2100.

    We would never build significant infrastructure which had anywhere near a 10% chance of total collapse. The very idea would be rejected as inviting catastrophe.

    In addition, evidence exists of a high probability that AGW was involved in some quite bad things which have happened recently – European heatwave, Russian heatwave, various Australian disasters, Pakistan floods etc.

    Now scientists are begging people to act and not wait for the final risk assessment on links between ‘bad things’ and AGW:

    So, risk wise, no question, things are really, really bad.

  14. If anyone’s interested in a follow-up to Hot Topic’s review of Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption, it’s worth taking a look at Joe Romm’s post today on Climate Progress where he focuses on Tom Friedman’s op-ed in the New York Times.

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