“2 degrees” = dangerous #climate change. Interview with author

The Two Degrees Dangerous Limit for Climate Change: Public understanding and decision making” is a (very) new book by academic Chris Shaw. Here he responds to a series of questions about the two degree limit, the recent Paris conference, and ‘what next’. [The book itself is a good ‘un – if anyone in Manchester wants to borrow my copy, contact me through the usual channels.]

Your book was ‘inspired’ by the 2003 heatwave that killed thousands in Europe. And you did your interviews in 2009, before Copenhagen. It’s 2015- what took you so long? Did “Real Life” get in the way? When did you send it to the printers?

The book started as a PhD thesis. It was 2003 that made me doubt the ‘climate change not dangerous until 2c’ narrative. So I had to go away and do the research. It was 2005 when I went back to university to do a masters and then a PhD whilst also being primary carer to two young children. So that was all slow going. Then that was followed by a period of self-doubt, where the idea’s any good etc. Once I realised it was worth publishing then, as you note, the data felt perhaps a little old. So I thought, OK, I will write a whole new book. But by then I was working full time, alongside home and family commitments and I found writing the book a real struggle. But I didn’t want to just re hash what I had done previously. Even though my thesis was passed without correction and described as very literate I still felt I could do better, that my thinking had progressed. But when it came to it, I really struggled to find the time and whilst I could have continued with new research etc I was also keen to get it published by COP 21, with 2C back in the headlines. So in the end it is a mix of new ideas and the interview data from pre – 2009 which is actually timeless, as it is describing how the idea of a dangerous limit to climate change took hold. It went to the printers in  the summer.

Who do you hope reads it (and don’t say ‘everyone’!)

Mostly climate change communicators. The debate, such as it is, is  characterised by political naivety, that somehow corporate and human agendas can be aligned and that we have a pluralist democracy. I want to challenge that bourgeois complacency. I have seen a shift in the discourse since 2009, it is now sometimes described as a political target or an internationally agreed target rather than something scientists say is dangerous. We need more of that, an acceptance that we don’t know what we are doing, that science hasn’t identified a magic line below which everything is fine. We need to develop a discourse which allows us to make sense of what is happening around us (today in the Telegraph Boris Johnson was writing that the exceptionally warm weather is nothing to do with climate change)

For those who aren’t up on their Kuhn/Lakatos/Popper etc – What do you mean by by 2 degrees being a ‘constructed number’ -if a bunch of scientists agree it, isn’t in then Scientific?

But they don’t agree. It is very clear, science can offer probabilistic projections of future climate impacts but it is not the role of scientists at what point those impacts become unacceptable.

You say that the construction of the two degrees target silenced other voices. At times you imply that was a deliberate silencing. Could you elaborate on that, and on whose voice(s) were silenced

It is a globalised perspective. An abstract statistical construction. Most people in the west have never heard of it, have no idea what it means or the risks it implies. The concept is a complete irrelevance to the vast majority of the world’s population – what does it mean to a subsistence farmer in Asia? The trade-offs involved, the costs of  the costs-benefit analysis underlying the 2c claim, will be born by  those who have no awareness of the idea.  To measure the emissions of the global economy, match those against projections of warming and associated impacts requires laboratories, higher education, a scientistic culture. It has given birth to a way of being populated by salaried professionals. If you aren’t playing that game you have no voice in the ‘debate’. But 2c is also a very broad tent, it can accommodate a range of political perspectives from left and right. As a result any one pissing into the tent from outside can be dismissed as irrational and irrelevant. The only goal any reasonable progressive could aspire to is 2c of warming.

Given how busy we will be just surviving soon, it’s probably a good idea to get a head-start on the ‘post-mortems’ – What went wrong in our species’ response to climate change?

I have always been motivated by a belief in humanity. But the vast majority of humanity have a very different attitude to risk from elites. You know the drill, elites in politics, corporations, sport etc get schooled in the wonders of taking risks, not being timid, going for it etc etc. This elite culture is the one that got to define what sort of problem climate change is and hence what sort of responses are appropriate. Go for 2c, it’s high risk but human ingenuity will find a way to transition to a carbon free neo-liberalism. haven’t we always muddled through? For most people, what they stand to lose in a warming world is not compensated for by  the meagre crumbs falling from the rich man’s table. That is why the issue has to  be constructed as one beyond political  debate – the people  would  come back with the wrong answer.

On the recent Paris Conference – were  you surprised by the inclusion of the 1.5 degrees reference(s)? Why were they in there, in your opinion?

I was surprised, given there is no plan in place for 2c. I assume the intention was to placate marginal voices to help promote Paris as a ‘success’. We don’t want any flies in the ointment. But in the end it doesn’t matter what the number is 1c, 1.5c or  2c, unless the response is  rooted in a democratic political contestation of values then all anyone is doing  is rubber stamping the corporate agenda.

What is the significance of the developing countries having signed away their “loss and damage” claims?

It is a blow for  the climate justice agenda but  it seems they  had  little  choice,  the rich nations weren’t going to sign up  for it. But the relationship between North and  South has always been an exploitative one so I can’t see what has happened in global politics to  change that relationship.  The poor countries were never going to  get  the money. That’s not how  the world works.

Anything else you’d add on Paris?

Well the success is  rooted in a final death knell for the idea that responding to climate change will require a fundamental shift in politics, society and economics to a more equal future and a rejection of neo-liberalism. Instead the dominant narrative is that humanity and the planet will be saved by a transformation of the energy system. Neo-liberalism  without  the emissions.

Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you see for ‘us’ and ‘others’ as the world powers towards (and beyond) two degrees of warming, where ‘us’ means

a) climate-oriented academics – I do not see how the ‘system’ can survive 2c plus of  warming and sustain a thriving and open academic culture. Even  if economic and agricultural systems remained intact I think our days (people like  you and me) are numbered. Shut up, play the game and help  usher  in  the energy transformation. There will not  be a living to be made from challenging  the status  quo.

b) privileged white citizens of (currently) prosperous countries – as above really. I don’t think we have a handle on just  how  severe the impacts of 2c warming will  be. Mark Lynas wrote that under 2c of warming every summer in Europe will be like 2003. I don’t think Europe  could take many consecutive summers like that.

c) and where ‘others’ means the poor in the Majority World. Well,  the Inuit culture is almost finished now as a result  of melting ice. I would hate to proclaim what will happen to  the Majority World, but I fancy their chances better than ours – we  couldn’t even survive 24 hours without youtube.

Anything else – other than ‘buy my book’ – that you want to add?

Maybe don’t buy  the book as it  is priced for  the closed market of academia. I have a website in development, www.dangerouslimits.org.www.dangerouslimits.org.  Maybe visit there in 6 months  when I have found the time to update the content, to see what is happening in the sorry world of global  climate governance.


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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2 Responses to “2 degrees” = dangerous #climate change. Interview with author

  1. Chris, thanks for your unflinching honesty. Its rare enough in academia. I agree with all you have written here, and probably everywhere else, and I would like to read your book. The price is fairly crazy so that probably won’t be happening, I’ll wait in hope for the paperback option. I do remember your earlier 2degrees blog, so I am looking forward to the new website. I think your message is very important. More importantly it is far from doom mongering and it is helping people to come to terms with the prognosis – and how we prepare to “adapt” – even just mentally.

    Realizing our place in all this is difficult – for the mind and spirit I found this very helpful (http://www.paulkingsnorth.net/journalism/the-witness/). After all the science reports I have forced upon myself, its probably one of the most profound pieces I have ever read on climate-change. Its more or less everything I have had muddled-up in my clouded head, but Kingsnorth arranges the words in a beautiful way. Maybe it just seems that way now, after many re-reads. Then again “hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”. We could choose to develop Havel’s quote on so many levels – to inspire a last dash push to decarbonize energy, and manage the land better, and eventually accept the science and prepare. Maybe it all only begins to make sense when you finally let go of all the noise – COP21, political consensus, sustainability, etc, etc. I know things are becoming clearer for me, and life goes on.

    For the practical things, James Lovelock always gave it to us straight. See his most recent BBC radio interview (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03b25dj). At 96 years of age he is still the sanest man alive, and I think he is so cool. Like you, Lovelock has always been motivated by a belief in humanity. After all his research and books, Lovelock synopses his sage advice for adaptation into three main points; (1) become more Dutch, (2) retrofit / construct much better housing for ourselves, and (3) become much better at growing our own food. The bottom line here is to realize and basically accept that things are going to change, and therefore become more resilient. Hopefully we can better communicate the message and help prepare ourselves; future proof our homes, our lives, our families, our friends our livelihoods- as best we can. Thanks for being honest.

  2. John Grayson says:

    Wishing you a veryhappy Christmas and good health in the year ahead. Thank you for your valuable work.  We hope that you can continue it. John and Pauline

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