Last Call on Climate


I tried this on The Monthly magazine over a year ago, twice.  Some of it is a little dated, but the essence is not.  It covers not just the science and the economics (already unusual), but the nature and culture of science, and the feedbacks that so alarm scientists at present.  They didn’t deign even to acknowledge receipt of course.  OK, so their writing is excellent, but mine’s not so bad.  And if that’s their primary criterion then they’re only providing a form of entertainment, however sophisticated.

There is a discernible pattern in the trajectories of many vanished societies and empires.  Their lives were not long, graceful arcs with a gradual rise, a plateau and then a slow decline.  Rather, their demise was sudden, and their greatest accomplishments came just before their collapse.  The grandest Mayan temples were built near the end of the Mayan civilisation.  The pattern of such societies was acceleration into sudden disaster.

This pattern, described by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book Collapse, is readily explicable.   Exponential growth is the norm in biological systems and common in human systems.  It is generated by the accumulation of the means to increase, such as an existing population of breeding pairs, or technologies to increase production. Thus the system can grow twice as fast when it is twice as big, and this yields the characteristic doubling time of exponential growth.   There is a limit to the growth of any biological or human system, imposed by available resources, but the imposition of the limit is usually delayed.  A population still breeds as its numbers pass the carrying capacity of its environment, and humans keep doing what they know how to do.  Because of the delay, the population overshoots, degrades its environment and reduces the carrying capacity.  What might have been an uncomfortable adjustment then becomes a crisis intensified by environmental collapse.  The population falls to a fraction of what it was before, and of what it could have continued to be, had the adjustment been less traumatic.

As a society becomes wealthier its rulers tend to become more remote from everyday affairs and more preoccupied with their struggles for power and status.  They tend not to see the warning signs, nor to hear the concerns of their subjects.  Because of exponential growth, any extra delay in the overshooting stage can greatly increase the severity of the impending crash.  The population encountered by Spanish explorers in the Mayan heartland was perhaps one percent of the population at the height of Mayan civilisation.

The acceleration-and-collapse dynamic is well recognised among specialists and was widely publicised by the publication of Limits to Growth by The Club of Rome in 1972.  That study is commonly derided as having been hopelessly wrong, because the sky had not fallen by the year 2000.  However many of the claims attributed to Limits to Growth were not actually made in the study, they were incorrectly attributed in the heated discussion it provoked.  What it did say was that people commonly mistake exponential trends for linear trends, that if we didn’t change our exponential growth then civilisation was likely to overshoot and collapse sometime in the ensuing hundred years, and that if we suitably changed our ways we could move into an indefinitely sustainable future, but we’d be well advised to begin the change soon.  Regardless of what the report actually said, the reaction to it has bequeathed a legacy of severe scepticism towards alleged doomsayers.

Today economic success is conceived exclusively in terms of growth.  Of course other factors like inflation and unemployment are of concern, but they are addressed within an overriding conception that the economy must grow by a percentage every year.  In other words the economy must grow exponentially.  Economists have elaborate theories of how economies work, yet curiously the fixation on growth is not ordained by theory.  Its sources can be attributed variously to the exigencies of World War II, to habit, greed, intellectual laziness and timid politicians.

Last year, 2007, is proclaimed as the year global warming finally made it onto the public agenda, the year nations gathered in historic communion in Bali to consider the fate of the world.  However the global warming discussed in Bali by politicians, economists and diplomats is not the global warming currently being discussed by climate scientists.  The pollies and economists are considering warming limits of 2-3 degrees (or more), atmospheric carbon dioxide limits of 450-550 parts per million, an interim target for emission reductions of twenty five to forty percent by 2020, and a commonly accepted long-term target of a sixty percent reduction by 2050.  Those numbers are nominally based on last year’s reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but the IPCC’s science was out of date before it was published, its process is to seek consensus, and its recommendations were further toned down by political vetting.  The result is that the final IPCC position corresponds to a view of the risks from global warming from as long as ten to fifteen years ago.

Over the past couple of years the symptoms of global warming have accelerated markedly.  The most alarming symptom was the dramatic shrinking of the area of Arctic sea ice last northern summer.  Even though its shrinkage had been accelerating over a number of years, Arctic specialists were still shocked by the sudden drop, twenty percent lower than the previous minimum in 2005.  Because the ice is also thinning, its volume has dropped by about eighty percent from a few decades ago.  Whereas IPCC projections had the summer Arctic becoming ice free after 2100, the current trend is for it to be ice free by 2013 or even sooner – a century ahead of schedule.

Decline of summer Arctic sea ice.

Areal extent of Arctic sea ice in September of each year from satellite observations (smoothed), compared with IPCC modelling using a high-CO2 scenario (SRES A2 CO2). Chart courtesy of Dr. Asgeir Sorteberg, Bjeknes Centre for Climate Research, University of Bergen, Norway.

 The news of the dwindling Arctic sea ice is alarming.  However it is only the beginning of the bad news.  The Arctic sea ice is judged by many to be the first major domino in a series of climate dominoes that may topple in much quicker succession than previously expected, and take the climate irreversibly into a much warmer and less hospitable state.  In other words we may have reached the climate tipping point already.

Because of this unexpected acceleration of warming symptoms, climate scientists have dramatically reduced their estimate of how much warming is “safe”.  Some, such as NASA’s James Hansen, now estimate safe limits to be 300-350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide and less than one degree of warming over pre-industrial levels. The current atmospheric carbon dioxide level is 383 ppm.  We already have 0.8 degrees of warming, with another 0.6 degrees in the pipeline from the delayed response to past emissions.  The loss of the Arctic ice could add another 0.3 degrees, for a total of 1.7 degrees in the pipeline without emitting another molecule of greenhouse gas.  Yes, you read correctly.  We are already over the new limits.  To have a chance of retrieving the situation we may need to reduce emissions by much more than fifty percent by 2020, to near zero by 2050, and to be successfully re-absorbing large amounts of greenhouse gas as soon as possible.

This kind of requirement obviously goes far beyond what is being discussed in policy circles.  It obviously precludes business as usual, and it precludes politics as usual.  It requires us all to take a deep breath, and then to completely reconsider how we deal with such possibilities.

We need to look carefully at the evidence, arguments and judgments of climate scientists.  Equally we should examine economists’ estimates of the costs of stopping and reversing global warming, and decide whether they are as onerous as claimed.  We need to pose the issue much more explicitly in terms of risk, which combines probability with magnitude of consequence, and to decide what level of risk we can tolerate.  We would be wise to be willing to abandon old paradigms and to take advice from wherever it may be available.


When scientists speak about their work in any official or responsible capacity their language tends to be flat and conservative.  Scientists don’t always speak this way, they can use plenty of hyperbole in media releases or make ambitious claims in applications for funding.  However they know that if they go too far they may be attacked by rivals and their professional reputation may suffer.  On a subject as highly politicised as global warming they will be especially careful.  If there are uncertainties that are difficult to quantify, many scientists may prefer to say nothing.

You have to know this about the culture of science if you are to properly interpret the final IPCC report of 2007.  Discussing the possible breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the report notes that ice sheet dynamics in the presence of melt water are not well understood, and that partial loss of these ice sheets could imply meters of sea level rise.  It then continues “such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales, but more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded.”  Yet the summaries of the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report quote only a range of 18-58 centimeters of sea level rise by 2100.

For about three decades Dr. James Hansen has been in the vanguard of those warning of the dangers of global warming, and his judgements have been broadly vindicated.  He argues that there are known or suspected mechanisms that would cause the breakup of land-based ice sheets to accelerate exponentially.  There are also observations suggesting that the rate of ice loss from Greenland has roughly doubled over the past decade, though its contribution to sea level rise is quite small at present.  However if you put these two things together, as Hansen has, and assume an exponentially doubling rate of ice loss with a doubling time of ten years, then you estimate around five meters of sea level rise from this source by 2100.

The question that needs to be addressed here is whether this possibility can be ruled out with reasonable certainty.  The answer at this point evidently is “no”.  You can debate the details and point out why it might not happen, but we can’t at this point say with confidence that it won’t happen.  The IPCC did allow that such a rise could not be ruled out “on century time scales”, but did not flag any clear level of concern that meters of sea level rise might occur as soon as 2100.  Consequently this possibility is absent from policy and most media discussions.

There are many other factors that also suggest global warming might progress faster than IPCC projections. To appreciate the strength and depth of scientists’ concerns, we need to have some appreciation of the number of factors currently causing concern, and of the complex ways in which they might interact and reinforce each other.

Dr. Barrie Pittock, formerly of CSIRO, is one of Australia’s most distinguished climate scientists, and he has listed ten factors of concern, including the following.  The temperature increase that will result from a given level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has been revised upwards  (and James Hansen says by as much as a factor of two).  Human particulate pollution has been helping to keep us cool, but this form of pollution is being steadily reduced.  As permafrost melts, the darker exposed ground absorbs more of the sun’s heat, and it releases carbon dioxide and methane (methane is a greenhouse gas at least twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide).  As unfrozen gound anywhere in the world warms, its soils can absorb or retain less carbon.  Ice shelves have suddenly disintegrated around the Antarctic Peninsula, allowing glaciers to accelerate.  Both melting and glacial speeds have been accelerating in Greenland.  The rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice leaves the Greenland ice sheet more exposed to melting and breakup.

There are yet more concerns.  The oceans are becoming both warmer and more acidic, and both factors cause phytoplankton (floating single-celled plants) to decline in numbers and retreat towards the poles.  These factors all combine to reduce the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leaving more of our carbon dioxide emissions lingering in the atmosphere.  The amount of (carbon-based) organic matter currently trapped in northern permafrosted soils dwarfs the world’s oil deposits, and the melting of these soils could release massive amounts of methane and carbon dioxide.  Large amounts of carbon dioxide have been emitted from forest and peat fires in Indonesia, and from forest burning in the Amazon.  The frequency of megafires in temperate zones has increased, and they also emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, as well as degrading ecosystems.

Many of these effects are in a category that scientists call nonlinear.  In practical terms this means that a small stimulus can produce an accelerating and increasingly disproportionate response, such as accelerating breakup of ice sheets.  Nonlinear responses cannot be characterised in standard statistical terms, with probability distributed around a mean in a bell-shaped curve.  A more meaningful characterisation of sea level projections for 2100 might therefore be “between 18 centimeters and about 5 meters;  the upper range is judged by some at this point to be less probable but cannot confidently be ruled out.”

The concern with all these factors is not even just about the sum of their effects.  It is about how they could interact, each reinforcing and magnifying others in what engineers call positive feedback loops.  For example, as Arctic sea ice shrinks the Arctic ocean will absorb more of the sun’s heat, which will warm the whole Arctic faster, which will melt permafrost faster, which will release more greenhouse gases, which will shrink the sea ice even faster, and so on.  That is why the Arctic sea ice domino could topple a series of others, and why the whole climate system could, for all we know at this point, be on the brink of running out of control.

We have to worry not only about the amount of warming, but also the rate of warming.  Projected rates of warming are well beyond historical or geological rates, and would cause temperate climate zones to migrate polewards at around 50-100 km per decade.  Many species cannot migrate at such a rate, notably trees.  Even those that might are adapted to living in a particular ecosystem, and if the ecosystem doesn’t move with them they will struggle.  It means that many ecosystems will be torn apart and go into chaos and collapse.  Many species would go extinct.  Other species, with competitors or predators removed, might proliferate uncontrolled, and those species could just as well be micro-organisms as animals or plants we can see.  The words for such conditions are swarm, plague and pestilence.  Then there are the more direct effects on human systems, the ones more commonly mentioned, such as crop losses from droughts, floods and storms.

This is a summary of why many scientists have become increasingly alarmed, and why many are increasingly despondent as the world ignores, minimises or dilutes their warnings.  These are some of the reasons why, just within the past two or three years, scientists have been revising rapidly downwards their estimates of tolerably safe levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and of tolerably safe temperature rises.

Because of the accumulating evidence, some people are proposing that we declare a state of emergency and bend all our will, efforts and creativity to the task of saving this industrial civilisation of ours from significant risk of collapse, with the potential loss, in the extreme, of billions of human lives and the extinction of millions of species.

The subtitle of Jared Diamond’s Collapse is “How societies choose to fail or succeed”.  Along with the failures he also cites societies that saw their crises coming and reacted soon enough and sensibly enough to avert them. They had a choice, and so do we.  There is hope.  There are many things we can do to save ourselves.  Many of them have been available for some time now and are not expensive.  The major obstacles are not, as commonly perceived, technical and economic, they are social and political.  We have only to open our eyes and our minds to what is available to us.


Chemical giant DuPont cut its greenhouse gas emissions by over seventy percent, and saved two billion dollars in the process.  Five other large corporations cut their emissions by at least sixty percent and saved another two billion dollars between them.  Can these claims be true?  How can such savings be possible?

Amory Lovins, energy expert and Director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, says “Increasing energy end-use efficiency … is generally the largest, least expensive, most benign, most quickly deployable, least visible, least understood, and most neglected way to provide energy services”.   It is possible to increase dramatically the efficiency with which we use energy.   Energy efficiency is the biggest, quickest and cheapest option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  It is an option with few negative side-effects and large positive side effects.

We have known for decades how to reduce energy use in homes by eighty percent or more.  Current building codes tap only a fraction of this potential.  Houses need to be carefully oriented with respect to sun, wind, vegetation and ground slope, they need to be well insulated, they need the right combinations of north-facing windows, internal thermal mass, circulation and ventilation, and they need energy-efficient appliances.  A well-integrated, well-balanced design will need little active heating or cooling capacity, which saves money that can be used for other features.  If such houses were mass-produced the additional cost would be modest, and would be repayed in a few years by lower energy bills.  By 2016 Britain will require all new homes to use zero net energy for heating and cooling.  If the Poms can do it in their miserable climate then we certainly have no excuse.

Much of our housing stock could by now be saving large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions if we had started building to these standards twenty or thirty years ago.  There are a number of reasons why this has not been done.  People and banks tend to be resistant to spending an extra, say, ten thousand dollars, even though it’s an excellent investment, evidently forgetting that inflation of house prices has been adding tens of thousands of dollars per year to the price of a house over the past couple of decades.  Builders are resistant because it costs them money to change their designs and building practices.  Governments have been unwilling to lead because they would have to revise regulations and because they are too timid to get ahead of voters’ preferences.  None of these obstacles is technical or economic.  They are social and political.  Overcoming them only requires sufficient will.

Energy comes in different grades that have to do with thermodynamic efficiency, which in rough terms is whether it comes from a low-temperature source or a high-temperature source.  You only need low-grade energy to warm your house, and that can be captured from sunlight coming through your windows, which can warm a dark surface by five or ten degrees.  Electricity is the Rolls Royce of energy – the highest grade, the most versatile, good for running little electric motors, computers and so on.  Unfortunately electricity is very inefficient, because only one third of the energy used at a power station is converted to electricity.  Therefore electricity should never be used for space heating.  The grade of energy used should be tailored to the end use, which is why Lovins talks about end-use efficiency.

Energy savings in the range of 60-80 percent have already been demonstrated at medium to large scales in buildings and in industry, and best practice demonstrates even greater savings.  Retrofitting of buildings can have a payback time of only a few years if all potential savings are realised, and proper pricing of carbon emissions would make it even more cost effective.  Careful retrofitting can also result in a more pleasant workplace that makes people more productive, and the savings from happy and productive people can be many times the savings in energy costs.

The key to big efficiency gains is good design that balances and integrates the parts so they achieve synergy. The principle applies equally to designing a fridge, a factory or a city.  Some of the biggest potential gains are from better integration of living, working and playing spaces in cities to minimise transportation and improve livability.

The efficiency revolution, as Lovins calls it, works for all the resources we use, not just for energy.  Germany is already on the path of recycling industrial materials rather than mining new materials and dumping “wastes”. More than ninety percent of German car parts must be recycled by the manufacturers, and the cars have been thoroughly redesigned to facilitate recycling.

The potential of efficiency has by now been examined in many studies (see Resources box).  According to a McKinsey report, the United States could save as much as 1.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year and save money at the same time.  Up to 4.5 gigatons could be saved at a cost less than $50 per ton, whereas the Stern report, using conventional economic analysis, estimates the cost at around $100 per ton.  A Rocky Mountain Institute study concludes the U.S. could wean itself off imported oil by 2040 and off all oil by 2050 at a quite modest cost.  Examples specific to Australia are summarised in Climate Code Red.  Most of these studies and examples are based on technologies that are commercially available now or that can be confidently anticipated on the basis of present trends.  The U.S. McKinsey report identifies the obstacles to achieving these efficiencies as: “market-distorting subsidies, information gaps, agency issues, and other market inefficiencies …”.  No technical or economic obstacles there either.

These studies and accomplishments would, on their face, seem to be great news.  However they almost never make the headlines.  Nor have they gained any traction in Australian policy debates.  An obvious conjecture is that there is no large, coherent efficiency industry, therefore no lobbyists, and therefore efficiency doesn’t exist for politicians in our funny little pseudo-democracy.  That doesn’t excuse the media for not reporting the news.  Perhaps cynicism prevents people from believing.  I also find that people seem to hear “efficiency” as if it meant doing without, though of course it means doing the same with less.  From the time early humans started using stone implements that has been the theme of our material progress – learning to accomplish more with less effort.

Perhaps also we perceive social and political changes as being just too hard to contemplate.  We just want someone to come up with a technical fix.  We should not underestimate the potential psychological power behind this attitude.  Changing our habits of thought and behaviour moves us into unknown emotional and social territory, and this can feel very threatening.  Shifts in power structures would also be involved, which are very threatening to people already in positions of power.


Energy efficiency promises multiplying benefits, in contrast to fossil fuel and nuclear approaches that threaten multiplying problems.  As energy efficiency improves, renewable energy sources are more nearly sufficient.  This is the basis of Lovins’ and others’ claims that we can ultimately eliminate the burning of fossil fuels.  The peak oil problem goes away.  The increasing price of energy is compensated by using less, so household power bills need not increase.  Most studies predict more jobs, including rural-based jobs.  As energy efficiency is improved, other resources also tend to be used more efficiently, either as a direct consequence or because people see that the same money-saving approach works for other resources too.  Reduced demand for energy and resources would ameliorate a major and increasing source of international conflict.  Best of all, our heavy footprint on the planet would begin to lighten.

Big-ticket energy supply approaches like clean coal, carbon capture and storage and nuclear are simply irrelevant to the new situation, because they will not be ready for a decade or more and we need solutions that work now.  But each of these technologies also brings other problems.  Without improved efficiency, increasing energy prices means bigger household bills.  Carbon capture and storage is still under development and has not been demonstrated at the required scales.  “Clean coal” would reduce emissions by perhaps thirty percent, not enough to make coal a viable long-term energy source.  Nuclear power would require global transportation of large amounts of dangerous materials that would be vulnerable to accident or terrorist assault.  Nuclear wastes must be stored safely for tens of thousands of years and the capacity to do so is unprovable in advance.  The world’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons would get a big boost.  Nuclear power would in any case produce only a modest fraction of the energy required, even with large numbers of reactors world-wide.  None of these approaches is likely to be as cost-effective as the efficiency-renewables approach, and with improved efficiency there will be little need for them.


Besides the fear of change, there are two other sources of resistance to the efficiency-renewables path, vested interests and mainstream economists.  The reason for the resistance of vested interests is no mystery, but the effectiveness of their resistance is a topic worthy of exploration.  Guy Pearse exposed just how deep, pervasive and insidious their influence is in his 2007 book High and Dry.  The influence of big money is a systemic corruption of our democracy.

Much of the resistance from mainstream economists, on the other hand, stems from a particular mindset. This mindset arises from a fundamental misidentification of the nature of an economy.  Mainstream economics these days is the economics of free markets, so-called neoclassical economics.  The central theoretical result of that body of work is that free-market economies supposedly tend towards an equilibrium state in which resources are used optimally in the production of wealth.  Because of this theoretical result, most economic models and most economists’ thinking carry the built-in assumption that the economy is close to an optimal state.  That would imply there is not much room for improvement, and if you try to change anything it will push the economy away from the optimum.  In other words, changes will be costly.  Economic models do usually take some account of technological change, which can shift the optimum, but it is added as a static input rather than as something that can be stimulated by smart policies. (In the jargon, it is exogenous rather than endogenous.) The dynamic role of innovation is deadened in the quasi-static neoclassical world.

For decades the mainstream profession insisted that doing anything about global warming would be hideously expensive, would slow growth (the cardinal sin), risk recession, cause unemployment and so on.  The practical solutions surveyed above flatly contradict the presumption that there is not much room for improvement, but until recently this has had little effect on the mantra.  Only with the advent of the UK Stern Report has mainstream economics begun to acknowledge that cutting our emissions might not actually cost all that much, really.  Other recent reports by the McKinsey Institute and others have strongly supported this conclusion (see Resources Box).

In fact there is a great deal of room for improvement of energy efficiency.  The self-proclaimed gurus of optimality have overlooked an elephant in the living room.  This implies the real world is nowhere near an optimal state, and there are very good reasons for this.  Achieving the theoretical optimum depends on assumptions whose lack of realism is so obvious it does not even have to be argued.  For example we consumers must all be rational, we must all have complete information (both available to us and digested in a timely manner), we must not be influenced by others (through fashion or marketing, for example) and we must be able to assign probabilities to all future contingencies.

If the neoclassical assumptions are abandoned the predicted behaviour of the theoretical system changes radically.  Instead of a well-behaved near-equilibrium system you get a far-from-equilibrium system full of instabilities.  Such systems are well known to systems theorists, and they are called complex systems or chaotic systems.  A new paradigm of economics, based in the theory of complex systems, is rapidly developing around the fringes of the old subject, and is ripe to take over.  In this conception of an economy, optimality cannot even be sensibly defined.  The central neoclassical result is lost, and the claims that free markets are automatically best are lost with it.  Thus there is no assurance at all that free markets will deliver desirable results, let alone deliver them efficiently.  What many people suspect turns out to be true – free-market economics does not make sense.

The implication is not that we should abandon markets.  Rather, the implication is that markets are like wild horses:  they are powerful but they need to be guided, for example with incentives, if they are to take us where we would like to go.  Uncompromised by free-market righteousness, we are free harness the creative power of markets to our purposes.  At present it pays to exploit people and trash the Earth.  By eliminating perverse subsidies, taxing destructive activities and using incentives judiciously we can make it profitable to support people and nurture the Earth.  Such an economy can be much more efficient than present economies because we would not be working so much at cross-purposes.

Besides optimality, the other big preoccupation of economists is growth, specifically growth of the Gross Domestic Product.  The GDP came to prominence during World War II as a means of monitoring military production.  As apparently the first widely-used aggregate measure of production, economists seized upon it as a measure of national well being without considering its fundamental deficiencies in that role.  The GDP does not measure wealth, it measures activities involving money.  Cleaning up after accidents, storm damage and pollution all increase the GDP, as does exploitation of employees and the environment.  When people are poor, obviously they want material production to increase, but when we are rich and the environment is showing pervasive signs of stress why would we remain obsessed with increasing material production?  Projections to 2050 and beyond have the GDP doubling or tripling.  Why?  Will we need SUVs and McMansions two or three times bigger than now?  What is obviously required is a clear distinction between quality (of life) and quantity (of resources used).  Quality can increase indefinitely, whereas quantity of resources used needs to decline from present levels.


Another aspect of economists’ preoccupation with optimality was manifest in an interview given in late January by Professor Ross Garnaut, who is conducting a climate change review for the Labor governments. Professor Garnaut said that an interim emissions target for 2020 was not a good idea because it might not be consistent with the optimal adjustment pathway to a sixty percent reduction in 2050.  The obvious problem with such thinking is that the world throws us surprises, and indeed the 60%-by-2050 target is already obsolete. Fortunately Professor Garnaut has since allowed for an interim target.

Rather than the optimising mentality of economists, we need the risk assessment mentality of the engineers, insurers and military planners.  Smart engineers and generals make it their business to look at worst-case scenarios and to assess their likelihood.  Risk is assessed as a combination of the probability of an event’s occurrence and the severity of its consequences.  A level of tolerable probability is chosen for the worst case, for example that the chance of loss of life in a plane crash should be no more than one in a million.

There has been a nearly-universal unwillingness to face the risk associated with climate change (the primary exception being the insurance industry).  The lowest emissions trajectories of the 2007 IPCC report still give a 50% or greater risk of global warming exceeding 2-2.4°C.  This amount of warming is now thought likely to incur severe consequences, and to significantly risk runaway to much higher ultimate temperatures.  With about 1.7 degrees of warming already in the pipeline, the likelihood of substantial loss of human life is probably already well above one percent, perhaps above fifty percent.  The chance of the worst-case, which is to cross the threshold into irreversible and severe climate change, with large losses of life and species, would also seem to be somewhere well above one percent.  Such risks ought to be totally intolerable.

The economic costs of an effective emergency program to bring the Earth back into a safe climate range may not be extreme, even at this late stage.  The Stern report estimated that its program would reduce GDP growth by only around one percent between now and 2050.  Stern’s program is insufficient, but an adequate emergency program might still cost no more than a few percent of GDP if opportunities for efficiency gains are more fully exploited, according to Climate Code Red and other reports.  By contrast, major nations involved in World War II diverted 30-70 percent of production into the war effort.  Really, our denial and timidity are pathetic in comparison to the magnitude of the threat, and compared to the kind of effort our parents and grandparents expended when they perceived dire threats.

These estimates of costs are based in the conventional economic paradigm.  They are expressed in terms of their effect on growth.  But our fixation on growth of the GDP is part of the problem, and can’t be part of the solution.  We are well into the overshoot phase of exponential growth.  The environmental base of our industrial civilisation is degrading.  This is evident not just in global warming but in the decline of soils, forests, fresh water supplies and arable land.  Technology cannot rescue us because it doesn’t create more of these basic resources, it only diverts more of them to human use, and further compromises the biosphere.  We are still totally and intimately dependent on a healthy biosphere, because every molecule of oxygen, every drop of water and every particle of food that passes through our bodies also passes through other organisms, in an ancient and endless cycle, and all our clever technology has not altered that foundation of our existence.

If we let go of our obsessions with growth and free markets then a more hopeful prospect comes into view. If we in the rich countries level off and then reduce our material consumption, focussing instead on quality, equity and distribution, then our chance of success will be much greater.  Our example and our help might then dissuade developing nations from following our previous, disastrous path.  If we harness the creative power of markets to our purpose, through active management, then we might be surprised how rapidly our situation transforms.

There are many who routinely disparage optimistic prospects.  But why allow ourselves to be put off by naysayers, especially self-interested naysayers who are often so ignorant they proclaim the impossibility of things already being done?  Why not welcome the glimmer of hope?  Why not have the courage to trust in our ingenuity and adaptability, and in the markets we claim to believe in, and step up to the challenge to create a hopeful future?

I am struck by the lack of hope in our popular culture.  The future is commonly portrayed in terms of conflict, catastrophe and technological dystopia.  The greatest gift we can give our grandchildren is the gift of hope.  Fundamental to restoring hope is to secure the continuing miracle of a healthy, thriving planet.


Text Box:


Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change (, 2006, The Business Case for Early Action

Clean Energy Future Group (, 2004, A Clean Energy Future for Australia

Greenleap, Carbon Equity (, 2008, Climate Code Red

M.C. McCracken, F. Moore and J.C. Topping Jr. (Eds.), Sudden and Disruptive Climate Change, Earthscan, 2008.

McKinsey Global Institute (, 2007, Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

McKinsey Global Institute, 2007, Curbing Global Energy Demand Growth: The Energy Productivity Opportunity

McKinsey Global Institute, 2008, An Australian Cost Curve for Greenhouse Gas Reduction

Rocky Mountain Institute (, 1997, Climate: Making Money and Making Sense

Rocky Mountain Institute, 2005, Energy End-Use Efficiency

Rocky Mountain Institute, 2006, Winning the Oil Endgame

The Apollo Alliance,

Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 2006.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, North Point Press, NY 2002,

4 thoughts on “Last Call on Climate

  1. Ed

    I agree. Efficiency and conservation are the cheapest [per McKinsey, they yield net returns]. However, those same reports show the combination of all such options being inadequate to achieve the necessary emission reductions on their own – and these reports are aiming for CO2-e values well above the 350 to 400 cited in your post and recently by Hansen.

    Click to access 20090226_WaysAndMeans.pdf

    You’ve referenced James Hansen a few times. Are you aware that his support for nuclear power deployment differs significantly from your own?


    You cite Germany as a positive example, yet Germany is now planning to construct coal [brown coal] plants in order to continue with its nuclear phase out. I do not believe that transition will make the world a more live-able place.

    In the Energy Efficiency section above, I believe the paragraph that begins “Big ticket energy…” needs further consideration. The McKinsey reports show nuclear being very cost competitive with renewables – even in Australia.

    Near the beginning of the post you mention the need to “completely reconsider how we deal” with these issues and that we must “abandon all paradigms”. Now would be a good time for that. Specifically, I get the impression that you have read Lovins [and other anti-nuclear campaigners] and afforded them more credibility than they may deserve. The nuclear waste and proliferation concerns are overstated – none of Lovins’ dire warnings from 30 years ago regarding an expansion of nuclear power have come to fruition. Consider what a retired physicist [nuclear and weapons proliferation expert from Argonne National Laboratory in the USA] has to say about scientific credibility at the link below. If we are to build policy based on objective risk assessments as you recommend, we MUST get these inputs properly quantified by genuine experts.

    I have only these few comments. In general I agree with your post and hope society begins to move through the barriers you [and the referenced reports] highlight.

    I’ve taken the time to read your entire post. I am confident you will extended me [and the links above] the same courtesy.


  2. Geoff Davies Post author

    Thanks for a constructive response Ed.

    First, a general point. Because I cite a source doesn’t mean I agree with everything that person/group has ever said. Why should I? To suggest so seems to be analogous to guilt by association: discrediting by association or hypocrisy by association. I mean this comment constructively: I think your form of argument needs to be tightened up.

    The McKinsey Australia report is one of the few readily accessible sources that begins to document the potential for efficiency, and the fact that you can save money and reduce emissions simultaneously. In the mainstream “debate”, reducing emissions is still regarded as horrendously expensive and likely to wreck the economy. Ask Peter Costello.

    I think the McKinsay report is conservative. I think if we shifted the economic signals coherently and comprehensively, we could do much better and more quickly. I’m talking about economic structural reform, not just cap-and-trade, not Garnaut and certainly not the pathetic Rudd/Wong farce. Impossible? Read Economia, or my new book when it’s available. You have to get a sense of how much of our economy is perverse, and how incoherent it is. Wild horses pulling in all directions. That’s my bigger subject and it conditions my views on topics like this.

    If Hansen, McKinsey, James Lovelock et al are pro-nuclear, I think they’re not well informed about other possibilities.

    Germany and brown coal, see my first comment. It doesn’t change the fact that some of their policies are enlightened.

    On nuclear costs, I concede not being any expert. I also want to know if full costs are included of negative effects of mining etc, risks of accident and terrorism during transport (and your posts seem to imply a lot of continuing transport), decommissioning, storage (even if much less), etc. The industry has itself to blame for its very low credibility on this score.

    Lovins is much more than an “anti-nuclear campaigner”. He advocates what he used to call soft energy paths. He actively researches and promotes energy efficiency as part of that. His institute developed the hybrid car concept. I think it would be fair to say he envisages humanity living much more lightly on the planet. Also see first comment again.

    Certainly my vision is that humanity can live much more lightly on the planet, and that’s relevant to much more than energy supplies and greenhouse emissions. So my paragraph about “multiplying benefits” is crucial for me. The efficiency approach, extended beyond energy to all resource use, including the 100% recycling encapsulated by “Cradle to Cradle”, can deal with our general assault on the living planet that is our life support system. Nuclear energy can address only one small part of that. And it does have dangers and long-term costs, even if they’re less than they used to be.


  3. Ed

    I do not believe you have had time yet to read the links I included in my first reply. In total, perhaps they would tighten my argument up a bit. In addition to those links, please consider the below clarification.

    I’d love to see a complete economic overhaul and will take a look at your book and Economia. But my belief now is that the required changes can only be achieved with an acknowledgment of some basic aspects of human nature – one being that people will always strive to improve [or at least maintain] their standard of living for subsequent generations. Hansen’s idea of a carbon tax with 100% dividend is very interesting in this regard because it seems to tap directly into this concept to rapidly make the necessary shifts in societal behaviour. Do you have any thoughts on that idea?

    Hansen, Lovelock, Cravens, Brand, Schwartz, Moore, Tindale, Smith, Lynas and Goodall [and recently in Australia, Prof Barry Brook] are just a few high profile international environmental experts and activists who have changed their decades old stance and now endorse nuclear power’s expansion to reduce emissions [among a host of abatement measures including aggressive efficiency and conservation programmes]. I consider them among the most informed. If there is guilt to be had by association – then please associate me with them.

    I included the brown coal/German example to show nuclear power’s link to coal in a context of aggressive conservation, efficiency and renewables deployment programmes [in a potential emissions displacement sense, or in Germany’s case, the inverse]. Germany is at the forefront of other initiatives such as the deployment of many renewables, efficiency etc. But if their emissions increase as they phase out nuclear, has that phase out quantifiably reduced Germany’s contribution to global risk? I do not believe it has. It is an interesting case and is an example of how efforts opposing nuclear energy can have direct, negative impacts on those to cut emissions. But one’s answer and opinion are fundamentally based on the perceived risks due to climate change and those from the use or expansion of nuclear power.

    So it is critical to be well informed on both.

    I agree. The nuclear industry has one of the worst track records regarding communications. Objective reports, from credible experts outlining the costs and risks of nuclear, including the complete lifecycle / impacts are not easy to find. Some are linked in the right column of my Blog.

    In his critique of Lovins, DeVolpi acknowledges Lovins in the areas of soft energy and I agree with his comments and Lovins’ ideas in that area. The only questions being raised regard Lovins’ comments on nuclear waste and proliferation risk, specifically how inaccurate he has been in the past on these points. I would be grateful for objective references to the claims made regarding nuclear power’s risks – from Lovins or anyone else. But they should please see DeVolpi’s article regarding scientific credibility and work to reference credible experts in the respective fields.

    The economic reports you’ve referenced already show nuclear power’s economic viability. Looking at real world data [part of DeVolpi’s smell test], thirty countries, plus Taiwan currently rely on the energy from 436 operating plants [over 370 installed GWe capacity with a 2007 capability factor of over 78% worldwide].

    If one is to push for the increased reliance on a nuclear free resolution to the issue of high emissions and climate change, where are the practical examples to give confidence that such an approach is feasible – specifically in a context similar to Australia [geographically isolated from other energy suppliers, flat and dry]? Where are the detailed engineering feasibility studies [cost, resources, schedule, locations and risk] to support it?

    I would not [and have never] recommended nuclear as an early or first option to reduce Australian emissions. However, I see no objective evidence to suggest Australia can achieve large scale reductions [in the order of 50 to 80% reduction below 1990 levels or more] without it.


  4. Pingback: The Real Obstacles to Greenhouse Action « Better Nature: commentary by Geoff Davies

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