Event Report: Kevin Anderson on informed hope Trumping despair…

The tl:dr.  Professor Kevin Anderson, one of the most plain-spoken and photogenic* climate scientists on the planet still isn’t willing to say that we are definitely doomed.  Graphs and well-aimed barbs at policy-makers and climate scientists ensued….

[*  he’s a bloke, so I am allowed to objectify him, ‘kay?]

The North West branch of the IEMA hosted a very well-attended and fascinating talk by Professor Kevin Anderson this evening.   Anderson, who is deputy director of the UK Tyndall Centre now spends six months of the year as Professor of Climate Leadership at Uppsala University in Sweden. Part one of a post-Paris interview that MCFly did with him here.

Parts two (on psychology and hope)

Part three (on denialism, what is to be done, what is NOT to be done and so on).

Today he was explaining (and eviscerating) the 2015 Paris climate agreement, sticking the boot into “BECCS” and explaining what would need to be done.  Anderson believes he is not wasting his time, and we should probably pretend likewise, if only for the sake of our consciences.  What follows is basically bullet-points and [sarky asides in square brackets].  There may be a more extended reflection on this, but it’s unlikely, since TDWT (Theses Don’t Write Themselves.)

The talk was called “Accelerating towards Paris: how informed hope and action can Trump despair.” Anderson started by suggesting we use Trump’s election [see page 51 of this on Trump and climate #egomaniac]  as a catalyst for action, and reminded us of an article that Alice Bows- Larkin  and Kevin had published in the Royal Society  Transactions a few years ago that argued against rose-tinted spectacles and that if real hope were to exist it would come from a clear-eyed appraisal of the problem and what was actually needed.  He argued that policy-makers have let the public down, and part of that was the fault of academics , who have gone along with the spin. Anderson thinks academics should do their work and communicate it bluntly, and leave the spin to politicians, companies and NGOs [as someone else once said, it is the responsibility of intellectuals to expose lies and tell the truth].

In a typical gibe he pointed out that we seem content to doubt 13 billion years of physics but swallow 30 years of economic orthodoxy unblinkingly and unthinkingly.  He used the lovely Richard Feynman quote from the Challenger explosion [see article about Sigmund Freud and NASA and organisational decay – no, really]

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

He pointed out that since 1990 annual (anthropogenic) emissions have gone up by 60%, and that “people with no hair, grey hair and dyed hair have failed the young”, that his (okay, our) generation has failed.


(for my take on why it would be pointless see here. For my cod-psychology  on why it was greeted so effusively by people who really ought to know better, see here).

Anderson started by reminding us of the US’s last minute kerfuffle on the use of the word ‘shall’ (would imply legal consequences) versus ‘should’ (yeah, nobody cares about empty promises) over emissions reductions.  He pointed out that science was absent from the penultimate draft, and that fossil fuels were absent from the final draft, that aviation and shipping are exempt from the agreement (as they were from the Kyoto Protocol) and that the pre-Paris pledges, even if fulfilled (big if) would deliver not 2 degrees but 3 to 4 degrees over pre-industrial levels, and that the first proper review of those pledges isn’t until 2023 or “300bn tonnes of carbon dioxide from now.”

He argued that the deal is reliant on negative emissions (also absent from the text) – we will come back to them, and that the promised (see above on big ifs) $100bn in adaptation finance is a piddling sum – “crumbs off the rich people’s table” – compared to the direct and indirect subsidies that the IMF reckons the fossil fuel industry gets annually – 5.3trillion, since you ask  (this includes, for example, not picking up the tab for health impacts. Externalities, schmexternalities).

Anderson’s focus is on energy, but he acknowledged that agriculture – 20 to 30% of emissions – matters, and that it can by definition never be zero carbon, so energy needs to be.

How to do that?  Well, need to cut energy demand massively (“we can’t build our way out of it.  We’re spending pennies on renewables.” ) And don’t even start him on fracking…

He argued in 3 to 13 years (depends – lots of imponderables) we will have used up our energy budget for 1.5 degrees (source of that is table 2.2. of the IPCC Fifth assessment synthesis report).

So “it is too late for 1.5 degrees” and the only reason we’re not already there is the sulphate pollution already up there.  Oh, and “two degrees is not safe.”  [For a – okay , ‘my’ –  review about a book that discusses that, see here].  The two degrees target comes from a political process, and that is dominated by rich people in the north, insulated from the problem.  “The framework we’ve had since 1990 is going to kill a lot of people in the global south.”

To even have a 50% chance of achieving two degrees we’d need a ‘war footing’ and there is no sense of that, we’re just tweaking at the margins.  Remember, climate change doesn’t care about which technologies we use, just the fossil fuel emissions.  In his typical plane speaking manner, Anderson asked how many of us would get on a plane that only had a 33% chance of landing safely.  (Indeed…)

He pointed out that China’s current emissions per capita are only equivalent to the EU because they’re making stuff we consume (laptops, shirts, tables, you name it).  [Gee, wasn’t Manchester City Council going to move to embedded carbon accounting?  Yes, they were. Broken promise number 254].

He then riffed on how IF China kept all their promises and were fully decarbonised by 2050, then the budget to have a shot at two degrees would, for the rich world involve ten percent per annum reductions, starting … now.  And given its wealth, the UK would have to do more.  We’d need to be zero carbon for energy (not just electricity) by 2035.  In an aside, he pointed out that pre-Brexit the UK had pushed for the EU to make a 50% by 2030 target for the Paris conference (it went for 40%) and so maybe now, free from Brussels’ shackles we can have a higher target. I think he may have had his tongue in his cheek. It’s hard to tell, what with his chiselled cheekbones.)

So why the euphoria at Paris?  Well, because they’re pulling rabbits out of hats, and promising ‘negative emissions technologies’  (he had some scathing words on Integrated Assessment Models, where economics play with numbers [and other social scientists sort of enable them, MH].  What are these technologies? Well, they’re all unproven at scale and involve planting trees and plants, harvesting them, shipping them around the world (new infrastructure) and then burning them and capturing the CO2 and sequestering it for a few thousand years.

Anderson pointed out that ‘Boundary Dam’ CCS plant in Canada has not been very successful [and relies on Enhanced Oil Recovery and grants to make the economics work, MH] and that is with far more homogeneous C02 – biomass is trickier – different plants, different times of year etc).  There’s also a huge energy penalty (i.e. the power plants are less efficient both in terms of physics and cash) and limited biomass availability (we live on a round planet), and it would need to be done way beyond the end of this century.

“Is this” he asked (I think rhetorically) a “reasonable way to develop policy?”

Anderson is on record as saying that economists do have a use – as biomass – but he didn’t use that line tonight. He instead turned to their use of discount rates – basically everything in the future is cheaper to do than today, so leave it to tomorrow. And tomorrow leave it to the day after – it will be cheaper still.  Such is the hyperbolic discounting function.

Anderson feels we should research BECCS, and even Solar Radiation Management [Grant title: “We need our heads in the clouds”, MH] although the latter is “a sticking plaster on gangrene” in his view. But we should also assume that they’re not going to work….

By now things were still incredibly upbeat, so Anderson decided to cite a recent Nature paper on how, in a 2 degree warmer world, soil will not be a carbon sink (soaking up our emissions) but instead release 200bn extra tonnes. [can only find this, from 2009]  Oh how we cheered.

Anderson then outlined what he called “a litany of scams” – offsetting, the Clean Development Mechanism (‘state-sponsored offsetting’), Emissions Trading Schemes without caps, and now BECCS. [See also this for people who want to offset their adultery. Straight up.]

When, he asked (definitely rhetorically this time) will we actually try mitigation?

To show us the importance of recycling, Anderson brought out that Feynman quote again.

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

So, what will the impacts of 3 or 4 degrees be?

Anderson has previously lamented how hard it was to get funding to study this, but that’s apparently now beginning to change, though the results aren’t in yet.  Crucially though, we must remember that average temperature rise is a very unhelpful metric.  We don’t live in climate, we live in weather, and extra ‘baseline’ temperature will make extreme weather events (especially heatwaves) much worse.  So, in 2003 the European heatwave killed between 20 to 30 thousand people, but 2 degrees could make peak temperatures 8 degrees higher in those heatwaves.  Good luck driving during that – the tarmac will be melting. Good luck on a train – the rails will buckle.  Underground power cables, currently cooled by soil will be expected to cope with bigger loads (air conditioners etc) while the source of their cooling may not be quite so effective.  Imagine London, 8 million (or is it 12?) people without electricity and water….It’s the zombie apocalypse basically.

Infrastructures take hundreds of years to change, and we’re not making the right moves…. A brief digression on Chinese buildings [see this about ghost cities] and thermal mass, before a mention of food crops – in a warmer world 30/40% reduction in maize and wheat yields in low latitudes, a 30% reduction in rice yields.  [Will make the Arab Spring look like a picnic]

Sea level rise – at least a meter by 2100, which will change the map.  Greenland will go, but not all in the twenty-first century, but causing major changes (7m) over the next 3 to 400 years [Anderson didn’t mention the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, perhaps mercifully].  Oh, and gravitationally, the lack of Greenland’s icesheet will mean higher sea level rise in the Southern Hemisphere.  [Bye bye Sydney. It was nice…]

Anderson said that people who look into this stuff think that 4 degrees of warming will be “incompatible with an organised global community”, that it’s beyond our ability to adapt (“who will pollinate our crops?” ) and that our institutions are already creaking under the “weight” of a dribble of refugees.  Beyond two degrees, some of the”positive” [very very negative, humanly speaking] feedbacks may well kick in – [permafrost burps, anyone?]

So, four degrees should be avoided at “all” costs (regardless of discount rates).  Is two degrees still viable?  Anderson says yes, and when he thinks it isn’t, he’ll quit.  [Hey Kev, I want that exclusive for Nature Climate Change, ‘kay?].

While demand side gives us near term options [the radiators are heating the stairwells in the Pariser building, which has its windows open], supply side takes longer (decades).

After saying ‘sociotechnical systems’ was NOT meaningless social science gibberish and explaining why carbon capture and storage is a crock Anderson reminded us that  electricity is only 20% of final energy demand, so we are going to need to find ways to electrify lots of things. Cars maybe – but ships?  Well, you could use the wind [kuhrazy idea but it just might work] but this would have implications for the speed of journeys and the size of cargoes.

Anderson argued that NGOS often ignore this point about electricity only being 20% of final energy demand, before saying “UK shale gas is incompatible with a two degree target.”

He then explained that private cars, 12-5% of EU emissions, could be made much more efficient at no price premium. Given that 2/3 of car travel is in cars less than 9 years old he advocated setting a stringent CO2 target (ignore the lobbyists who will protest it’s impossible – they did that for 85g/km) and that this would work at no additional capital cost, no additional operating cost, the same infrastructure and the same employment.  Oh, and in the US car efficiency is going backwards – cheaper fuel and heavier cars… [doomed I tell you, all doomed]

But you’d need to do something, policy-wise, about Jevons Paradox

So, we need rapid deep changes in what we do, how often we do it. But let’s remember, there are massive inequalities in emissions (he cited a Chancel and Piketty paper), with 50% of the emissions coming from 10% of people.  The top 1% of US emitters (3.4m people) have C02 emissions 2500 times higher than the bottom  [yeah, missed this – will insert. Presumably about 40% of t’planet].  If the top 10% of global emitters were to reduce to the level of a typical EU citizen the C02 reduction would be 33%.

Who are these nefarious 10% ers? Oh, climate scientists, business leaders, policy makers, frequent fliers… audience at climate events,  Manchester climate bloggers.  You know, people you see in the mirror….

Most of the 7.4bn people on the planet have little scope to reduce their emissions, but those who do have a chance to lead by example… Anderson said policies are never/rarely just top-down, but usually a mix of top down and bottom up and need examples of ‘having worked’ as pilots (official or unofficial). He invoked Naomi Klein’s argument that if we’d started in 1990, then the climate problem could have been dealt with within ‘normal channels’ but we’ve done nothing [actually, made things much much worse, MH] so now we need a Marshall style plan, a transition in physical and institutional infrastructure, shifts in behaviour and practices, we need to develop cogent economic models (‘not an oxymoron’), have inclusive values and a serious consideration of inter/intra-generational values (buying a 4×4 to ‘protect’ your child on the school run is, um…). Anderson argued that people only seem to care about their kids as long as they (the parents) are alive to enjoy the kids. After that? Well, apres moi, le deluge. Au sens propre.

Yeah, “we need to start now, and be completed in 30 years. It’s doable, but we will (probably) choose to fail.”

And because this is Kevin Anderson, and because he believes in recycling, he ends with the Unger quote he always ends with –

“At every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.”

The future will be different, whether we act or not…


The Q and A was not as bad as some, though there was a tendency for us pale stale males to use 500 words when 50 would do (I include myself in that). I wonder if meetings are institutionally sexist and what to do about that .

Why have NGOs failed? Marches, petitions, glossy reports, camps.  What should we be doing differently? /NGOs silent these days on climate change.

Anderson invoked Naomi Klein’s (long) argument that NGOs have been co-opted, along with research councils that dish out dosh to grant-grubbing academics – “we have been co-opted by orthodoxy, and only fight within the orthodoxy. Not all organisations, not all people with in them, but mostly we’re not prepared to challenge. There’s a lack of integrity and honest.  We cannot fit the (Nick) Stern view of the world, of ‘green growth’ into reality. NGOs mostly won’t say ‘degrowth’, for example.   “Our paradigm will kill us.”

CO2 is too cheap.  We need to be more draconian on the rich.  We need to think radically about population.

Kevin – I’m in two minds. For some (many) C02 is too expensive – poor people’s emissions should go up. (Skeptics accuse him of wanting the poor to stay poor and miserable).  High emitters are inelastic to price. And extra “5 quid on a 100 quid ticket won’t stop many people flying to Rome for the weekend. So a price signal has equity issues. How about rationing – personal carbon accounts – or frequent flyer levies, with radical increases for each additional flight.  Sarkozy suggested a CO2 levy on US goods if Trump scraps the Paris agreement –economists are working on it.  Handled well, a reduction in globalisation might be a good thing.

Shouldn’t the INDCs be annual?  What has happened since Paris? Why does the fossil fuel industry need 5.3bn?

Kevin – The Global Carbon Project is tracking annually, but new pledges would need to go through legislatures. The 5.3bn includes the cost of things like inhalers for people breathing dirty air.

Globally emissions have flatlined for the last three years principally because of China using less coal and lots of hydro (they had a wet year)

Role of education and what kinds of partnerships with manufacturing?

Educating adults matters!  Kids have a certain amount of pester power.  Anecdotally they lose the ‘save the world’ perspective when they hit puberty and become consumption monsters.

Some manufacturing, yes – not “the bad guys.”  Anderson said would prefer Esso (Exxon) because at least they are wolves in wolf’s clothing, while Shell and BP are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

During the war we knew who the enemy was and what to do. We need clear instructions and rationing.

Kevin – “we are not going to achieve action at scale through altruism and voluntarism.” We need more sophisticated way of thinking about relationships between policy-makers and the public. Re: rationing – we already have it, via our salaries [An etymological aside – ‘salary’ comes from the stick of salt you’d get if you were a Roman soldier.  What have the Romans ever done for us?. MH]

Events of the last year perhaps help us think of new economic model?

Kevin – we had our chance in 2008, when the model failed, and we blew it.  We didn’t fix the model, the same will probably happen again.  Bernie Sanders asking some of the right questions, that haven’t been asked before.  The Scottish referendum was a more mature debate (than Brexit).  But Scotland and Norway are as morally bankrupt as Qatar. If the educated populations there don’t see this is all about keeping fossil fuels in the ground, then we’re stuffed.  They are the bellwethers [for seriously bad weather, MH].

And with that, applause….


Climate Envoi

As I walked back to my bike, past the mostly dismantled Santa Claus in Albert Square (“You blew it up!  Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell”) and the lights blazing at 7.30 in the Town Hall extension, I pondered what has changed in the nine years and eleven months since Kevin Anderson gave a talk (on the Fourth assessment report of the IPCC) at the first ever ‘Manchester Climate Forum’, in the self-same building.    Well, Kevin has introduced some new numbers and new denunciations of new fantasy technologies to his well-established format of numbers and reminders that it’s the space under the curve, not some silly mythical 2050 promise that will save or doom us.   The atmospheric concentration of C02 is now 406ishppm, when then it was, what, 385 or so?.  We have built more infrastructure, both physical and psychological, (probably) locking us in to a high carbon future (in the short-term, until the collapses).

But that’s not the biggest change, at least for me.  Ten years go, if you squinted and pretended, you could believe that the state would (finally) respond, that a growing movement of committed activists (including the Climate Campers, despite the heresthetic ‘decision’ to have annual camps) and wider civil society (the Big Ask etc etc) could Be The Change.  Does anyone seriously believe that now? Does anyone believe that, presented with a second bite at the cherry we wouldn’t screw it up the way we did last time? I don’t.


Upcoming events
Monthly IEMA lectures – watch this space.

Green Drinks relaunched – Thursday 24th January 2017 at the Pilcrow Pub (it’s a nice one).


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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1 Response to Event Report: Kevin Anderson on informed hope Trumping despair…

  1. Pingback: climate change: a Greek tragedy? | Seedlings from a Sussex Green House

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