Kevin Anderson and the emperor’s underpants: beyond two degrees now inevitable

If you have a spare hour, this lecture is something not to miss. Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester gives this year’s University of Bristol Cabot Institute Annual Lecture, and rips into the comfortable assumption that limiting warming to two degrees is still possible. Can we stay within the “guardrail”? Only if you make a series of heroically unlikely assumptions, Anderson suggests. As we head into the Doha COP18 negotiations, this lecture provides a valuable antidote to the rose-tinted spectacles habitually worn by politicians — and, as Anderson points out — many scientists.

20 thoughts on “Kevin Anderson and the emperor’s underpants: beyond two degrees now inevitable”

  1. Anderson has been putting out this line for a number of years.

    David Roberts did a series of articles for Grist about a year ago on Anderson’s ideas. The first article is here.

    Nature Climate Change published an Anderson and Bows article in their September 2012 issue. An editorial entitled Clarion Call called attention to the article. The editorial is accessible, the article is behind a paywall.

    A good article that is not behind a paywall written by Anderson that covers the ideas presented in his Bristol lecture, published in September 2012, is entitled Climate Change going beyond dangerous – Brutal numbers and tenuous hope

    The Anderson point I think about most is his assertion that “there is a widespread view that a 4 C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond adaptation, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems and has a high probability of not being stable”, i.e. that 4 C is actually not possible, just a way station on a planet warming quickly to a higher temperature on its own no matter what is done at that point to attempt to stabilize the composition of the atmosphere. So if you accept his argument that 2 C is impossible, you’re left with its the end of civilization, unless….

    I wonder who the scientists are who share this “widespread view”. If anyone attends an Anderson presentation put it to him: who are these people?

    Schellnhuber says he presented at least part of the basic case Anderson presents, i.e. the necessity for the developed world to immediately reduce emssions as close to zero as possible if there was to be any chance of staying below 2 C, to Obama’s inner circle. He says they told him “the Senate will never agree to this”. Schellnhuber said: “Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it’s completely useless”. One place Schellnhuber said this was during his keynote speech to the 4 degrees conference held in Australia.

    This would explain the increasing legitimacy of discussion of geoengineering. Here’s David Keith , Andrew Parker, discussing it at a forum held recently.

    1. This is OT but each time I see your name I think of the doctor, sailor, adventurer, the catamaran Rehu Moana, the keelboat Icebird, Polenesian navigation and even as a youth kayaking and portaging with the help of a couple of bicycle wheels if I recall correctly from the Wanganui River via Taupo and the Waikato to Auckland. I know there are lots of people called David Lewis but is there any connection?


  2. I’ve watched the video twice now and still need to go over a few points.
    I was first made aware that 2° is an illusory target early in 2007, whoever that climate scientist was he was already talking about 3.5-4°. David Archer in 2009 or 10 commented that there was no scientific basis in the 2° target but just this morning one of our climate scientists warned again that unless these talks at Dohar get somewhere 2° is not likely. So what are my take home messages from this video, for those who have not watched it:

    1. All the modeling about 2° is warped by an input on rate of rise of emissions that is several times lower than observed. The modelers and the politicians have been complicit in a deception that, preventing us seeing what we are in for, also prevents us from seeing where effective measures can be taken.

    2. Aspirational targets set decades in the future are useless, climate change is about what we do now, not what we leave to future generations. This has been said on this site a number of times.

    3. Is we do everything that has been announced at conferences and in committees, yet not implemented, to mitigate climate change, 3.5°-4° by 2050 is guaranteed and as David pointed out, unstable. We’ll go past it to 6° by the end of the century.

    4. Much of what we have been debating concerns the supply of energy but even if there are big technology breakthroughs (cheap working thorium reactors for one) it takes a very long time to achieve penetration of the economies. We don’t have that time.

    5. Infrastructure embeds past ideas for decdes at least. We can’t change that in time.

    6. The only thing we can do that will give us time is to reduce demand. That gets down to local action. As we have just been shown with the sustainability series, everything we buy has accumulated cost to get to us.

    The better than adequate $18, 8 watt, 500 lumen warm white LED lights I bought for the lounge yesterday came from China. So what’s for Christmas? Anything local? How about early Christmas cards explaining that to reduce demand and help save the planet from unstoppable warming no presents will be purchased this year? The demolition of consumerism is about the only thing that can save us in the short term “Kill out desire”, said Gautama Buddha, and the exponents since of every form of spiritual discipline I’ve looked into. It appears that is just what we must do, but we call it reducing demand, and everyone who may or may not heed this call has grownup and lived most of their lives knowing no other relevant ideas than the unsustainable nonsense of consumerism.

    The reference to diesel was interesting. Most milage is done by cars less than 8 years old. Switching to efficient deisel vehicles could bring a 40%+ reduction in [transport] emissions without any new technology. An apparently high end consumer friend of mine, goes in for motor rallies would you believe, has just refilled his not yet empty tank in his Pajero (some 20c/litre coupon he got). The last time it was filled was some time in June. He and his partner also have expensive fast cars which are rarely used. They both cycle most places and use teleconferencing in place of journeying


  3. Driving down demand in everything in order to curb CO2 emissions seems our only way forward in the short run. In effect – a throttling of the current economy to a significant extent.

    However demand and its fulfillment is the conduit for most people’s wages and the government’s tax take.In order to survive on a greatly reduced economic activity cycle we will need a negotiated new deal in which we re-adjust our entitlements and aspirations to a life lived surrounded by stuff and with goods arriving on demand from places far away.

    We also need to realize that the lifestyles of the current parent and grandparent generations are not inheritable to our children and grandchildren. It was an aberration of history, a grand exuberant dance around the fossil fuel wells of our world in which we have gambled the house of ecology proper and now sit on our last and loosing hand.

    Its either a negotiated new deal including the pain, hardship and sacrifice this will entail, or a disorganized mad max future on a planet with a significantly reduced natural capacity to provide the necessities of survival for many of us.

    Probably we will be able to sustain the illusion of all this being somehow avoidable for a wile longer still while the opportunities for an organized strategic retreat from Mount Consumerism slip away for good.

    1. Well said Thomas. So how to imagine an imediate future without “growth in consumer spending as a “progress indicator”.

      How to take the fear out of the adjustments? After all we have water, food, shelter, sewerage treatment, recycling, education, data on tap, communications, health care, and a part paralytic public transport system. How does the word equitable get into distribution? Is there anything else we need? I’m already a vegan! If desire overcomes me, an astonishing number of temples to consumerism are under construction within shuffling distance, even more a furthe two or three kilometres. Let’s see, maybe I could power up my wheelbarrow :Can I refrain? 🙂


  4. I find it very scary that the response to this may be geo-engineering. Reducing consumption is so unpalatable to governments that they might try geo-engineering instead. That would be madness, because, not only is it unpredictable, but it does nothing to stop increasing ocean acidification. As an aside, re: veganism, I would guess my homegrown lamb and eggs and my neighbour’s pork would have a lower carbon footprint than a lot of imported vegan food. I have a family member who is vegan for health reasons, I can eat a more local diet than she can.

    1. Yep, if geo-engineering is the answer you’re asking the wrong question.

      It also does nothing to solve the underlying problem; in fact, it will allow the problem to worsen as the inherent ‘short-termism’ of current economic and political decision-making will then immediately celebrate a ‘solution’ having been found by pumping more carbon into the atmosphere. The moment the masking stops the total CO2 bill will immediately fall due – and how!

      And if it doesn’t stop who’ll pay for it, who’ll run it, and who might decide to do it for themselves anyway and bugger what anyone else thinks? Also, dumping sulphur into the atmosphere (doesn’t that sound a bit, um, familiar?) or tonnes of iron filings and/or crushed limestone into the oceans – how could that go wrong?

      On the last point your raise: farmer’s markets, backyard gardens. The Vegans I know are also militant locavores!…

    2. There is a certain glamour to engineering projects that are enticing to certain people regardless of fitness for purpose, injury to the biosphere or whatever. I lump 60 hydro dams in the amazon basin into this sphere too along with the razing of that forest that plays a global role with respect to climate so I, and most I would hope, are with you on geo-engineering.

      On being vegan there is just one product that I buy that alas is now manufactured overseas, the sanitarium stuff: nutolene, nutmeat and others, all fortified with B12 and iron which imitators so far overlook,. but you know where Sanitarium used to manufacture that stuff!

      My garden is not big but still grows heaps, then there are the fruit trees and enough wilderness, including lawn, to enable me to make jokes about biodiversity, and yes, pigeons, parrots, blackbirds, tuis, seasonal ducks, sparrows, minors, wax eyes, an owl, a rare fantail and an odd bird or three I have no names for, rodents, visiting cats, lizards, leopard slugs, snails, hedgehogs, the odd possum and a few zillion spiders flies, ants, creepy crawlies. Of course they are all low to zero maintenance pets 🙂 except when some flock to the roof., invade the house or try to bite me. We all have something of the same. I expect, I just don’t eat the animals anymore.

      Perhaps I could do with a goat, but when it comes to counting productivity of the veges compared to animals per hectare, the vegies win hands down, unless of course the beasties are grazing land too unsuited for cropping. When the meat is treated as a cash crop, and has to be flavoured with a diet of grain, everyone is losing.


  5. Fossil fueled agriculture is the problem (along with fossil fueled everything else) whether it’s huge dairy farms and the diesel tankers that drive millions of kms a year or large farms growing soya beans. Life must become local and as efficient as possible. I’m sure we are all on the same page here.

    1. A farmer raising a thousand sheep, and driving a Landcruiser fifty km to town twice a week, will make much less CO2 per gram of mutton than a lifestyle blocker raising twenty sheep, and commuting twenty km every day in a Prius to do it. But the methane burped from either flock, and our cows, make up a bigger fraction of New Zealand’s greenhouse emissions than all transport. Ideally nearly all our grazing country should be put back into the permanent forest it was before the industrial revolution, but even that won’t be enough. The real question is not what might go wrong if we use geoengineering, but what we can be pretty certain will happen if we don’t – Gaia will cook us, then spend a million years brewing up some replacement fauna.

      1. “Ideally nearly all our grazing country should be put back into the permanent forest it was before the industrial revolution, but even that won’t be enough.” – not necessarily, for starters, there is promising work on ruminant diet and enteric emissions, with NZ science at the forefront of this. Just like the fallacy of organic produce = good, we should avoid making value judgements based on labels and wishful thinking such as local or intensive, or advocating a return to pre industrial revolution conditions. Instead use an evidence based approach comparing impact of land use, and a cost curve of measures to reduce emissions.
        Taking drained and nutrient enhanced grazing land and ‘putting it back’ to permanent forest may not give you the benefits you hope for because the land is drained and nutrient enhanced. Hysteresis is very common where our impact on ecosystems is concerned. Optimising the forage grown on that land for reducing enteric emissions may be a far better option over nearly all of that grazing land.

        1. Even if you stop ruminant methane completely, it’s only stopping things getting worse. Drawing down millions of tons of carbon dioxide by putting some of New Zealand back to how it was before the axe arrived, or Scotland to when wolves kept the deer in check, would start to make things better. Not saying the work on sheep diets and so on is wasted;( it’s slowed down here with Agresearch sending any GM testing offshore ) but less grazers and more trees will be more effective in the long run. I’ll miss my meat and dairy.

          1. Reinstate areas of forest, yes but target that where it has most benefit and least cost. As I said before, some land will not easily go back to a diverse woodland. As for “Ideally nearly all our grazing country should be put back into the permanent forest it was before the industrial revolution” no that is just silly. Don’t forget that since all those trees were cleared for grazing, the world population is a bit bigger with well established trading links. You may deprive the world of a lot of productive land under relatively benign management emission wise, for some woodland of little biodiversity benefit, a land use change that would be better made elsewhere.
            As ever, evidence based policy is the way to go.

            1. For forestry to be any use as a carbon sink it should be permanent, not intended for logging as are pine plantations. Why allow short term pines to earn carbon credits?

              I have heard from farmers that in many instances about 10% of the area of a farm may be unproductive for farming but suitable for forestry. I have met farmers identifying those areas and planting them, in native trees in the cases I came across. The seedlings are preferably taken from a remnant stand on the property.

              We all know Kauri and Totara but I would like to mention two other candidate trees for replanting. Other people will have their own recommendations.

              In the process of checking this out I came upon people who believed that Puriri should be promoted, not the default, soon to be logged, pine. Puriri is NZs hardwood. It was formerly cut for piles for foundations and landings, railway sleepers and flooring – just the best! Puriri does not float but will last as a pile in marine mud say, for about 85 years. When hunting for the Waitemata terminus of the former Pitoitoi portage – Waitemata to Kaipara or Kumeu – I came upon a chart by Drury that identified it. I asked a farmer if he knew of any sign of a former landing on his property. He took me straight to the site marked on Drury”s chart where he had found piles when he took up the property 55 years earlier, since vanished. Those piles could have been a hundred years old when he sighted them. Around Auckland the best Puriri came from the Awhitu peninsular, slow growing in relatively poor soils. Many people think puriri is a short twisty tree but there are stands around Auckland still that are all straight limbed and moderately tall. The twisty ones were left as unusable by the loggers. Puriri fruit all year round and are favourites of the native wood pigeon, the kereru. I came upon a farmer who was planting puriri between the old exotic pines formerly planted all round his fencelines, partly to encourage kereru.

              Of the once great forests of wetland favoring kahikatea only small remnants are left. New Zealand’s tallest tree, the wood is usually white and odourless, very straight grained and beautiful to work. Boat builders specially prized what we called yellow ‘kike’. Most of the kahikatea were felled to make butter boxes. I have been pleased to see kahikatea springing up clear of the willows in swampy areas, near the mouth of the Waikato for instance. The “Great swamp” south of Waiuku was once forested with kahikatea.. The aril of the Kahikatea was once a favoured food source.


      2. Perhaps then the commuting lifestylers should be sold the idea of planting longlived trees on their properties for carbon sequestration instead of pretending to do a bit of animal farming.


  6. The Transition Town movement and its NZ branch provides a very comprehensive set of blueprints and experience towards the retooling our economies for energy decent, local production and permaculture lifestyles. The movement grew strong around the 2008 oil price shock because people somehow got the “peak oil” idea a lot easier than the AGW threat. In fact, both, Peak Oil and AGW have much in common if we take the idea of tackling AGW seriously.

  7. The essential element creating demand and maintaining GHG generating consumptionomics is of course advertising. To help me imagine possibilities I create an imaginary city or country called of course Erewhon. It substitutes for Christchurch for instance when I wonder if any thought is taken to reduce emissions in the rebuild. In this imaginary city no advertising is permitted via usual mass media but a products and services database accessible via communications devices is maintained. I wonder how many enemies I could make with such a stance?


Leave a Reply