Interview with Professor Kevin Anderson, June 2012

Interview conducted Monday 8th June 2012.  Professor Anderson was given the opportunity to make very minor (stylistic) amendments to the transcript before it was published. Hyperlinks added by Manchester Climate Monthly

So, have we definitely missed this two degrees warmer than pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures target that everyone thinks is a good thing? Yes or no?

I never like yes or no answers! The science is such that there is still a very slim possibility that we might hit the two degrees c, but we’ll have to be extremely lucky on the science. We’ve left it so late now that only if there’s a very low climate sensitivity [how much the climate shifts if you double the amount of carbon dioxide in it from prior to 200 years ago] do we have any chance of hitting two degrees centigrade. So pretty much… if you were putting any money on it, it’s what you’d call a dead cert that we’ve missed two degrees.

Emphasis on the word “dead.” Well, look, I barely notice two degrees warmer or colder in my house. We have technology for this. And animals and plants will adapt. Why is it a big deal?

Well, if you work back from animals and plants first, animals and plants – or ecosystems – adapt, but they adapt over reasonably long periods of time. It’s the rate of change that matters. So, two degrees would not be a problem if you had it over a long period of time. And of course most eco-systems have evolved over hundreds, thousands, sometimes even millions of year. Such timeframe issues are pivotal to understanding climate change. For ecosystems, we’re changing things so rapidly that they will not be able to evolve to deal with what we’re doing to the climate. In addition to that of course, a lot of the time ecosystems have evolved by migrating. The problem with migration now is that in the way is Manchester, or Sheffield, or any of the numerous conurbations sprawling across our countryside. So… in the UK and elsewhere in the world … species would normally have evolved by heading north to avoid warmer climates – they can’t do this now because other things, we, are in the way. Even where some species can move, potentially their food sources can’t. So you disrupt the ecosystems – they simply can’t evolve at the rate of change that we’re imposing on them through climate change.

The second thing relates to how two degrees C is a global average. And we have to remember that most of the globe is covered in water, in oceans, and they take a lot longer to warm up, so the average for the land is probably nearer three degrees. And it varies across the planet… so some parts of the planet will be seeing six, seven or eight degrees warmer, and others could be, arguably, a little bit cooler. So the extreme differences in temperature are much more important than the global mean. Moreover, an average doesn’t take account of extreme weather events that might come out of a change in the climate. We’re not particularly worried about small adjustments here and there, it’s the extreme events that cause the headline issues. We may see more storms, or different forms of rain patterns. We’ve a sewage system, a water system, a drainage system that is set up for – well, lets call it drizzle since we’re in Manchester , and consequently, if what we see is completely different weather patterns coming in over 2020-2030 timeframe, our infrastructure will not be able to cope with demands placed on it. Substations may go down, so we could lose our electricity supply. It may well be that our water system is inundated, that we can’t drain the water away appropriately, so that our sewage systems can’t cope. You start to see whole sets of infrastructures that can’t deal with radical change.
In addition, we did see in [2003] the heatwave, where a lot of people died across Europe. And these were mostly older people. But that was one heatwave that didn’t last very very long. What we may be seeing, and what the science is relatively clear we’ll see, is an increase in those sort of events; an increase in the severity and the frequency of those events. So, in those situations more of the vulnerable people in our communities will be much more susceptible to the impacts of climate change; these people are our relatives – our mums, our dads, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles. They’re part of our family, part of our community, it is these people that are extremely vulnerable to changes in the climate, as we’ve seen previously.

Your talk on Thursday is entitled “new clothes for the emperor.” Does that mean you are the innocent boy? Who is the emperor? Who are the conmen who has been selling him invisible clothes, and who are the hangers-on who have been pretending they can see these clothes?

Well, the conmen and women are pretty much all of us. I think there are no exceptions really – maybe the odd exception here and there, but basically we…are all relatively happy with the status quo. Or even if we’re not happy with the status quo, we’re reluctant to rock it. So I think we’re all party to a rose-tinted spectacle view of the future. We all hope – but without any reason behind it – that things will be fine, that things will turn out okay on the day. So I think we’re all party to clapping as the naked emperor walks by.

The role of myself, and others who work on a day-to-day basis in this field, is to try to open people’s eyes to the fact that the emperor is naked, that we haven’t actually made the changes we need. There’s lots of rhetoric, we hear lots and lots of good words from politicians, from companies, from individuals, from ngos. But actually when you say ‘right, let’s have a look at the action that goes alongside that’ there is a complete gap – void – between what we say we’re going to do and what we are doing. It’s relatively easy to see the gap because we can measure what is happening on the ground. And what is actually happening is our emission keep going up, day in day out, we keep investing in more fossil fuels futures, we keep building more fossil-fuel infrastructures, whether it’s airports, whether it’s new roads, whether it’s new power stations or shale gas, or whatever it might be – everything we are doing is about building and locking ourselves into a high-carbon infrastructure which will take years to replace with a more low carbon renewable infrastructure. And the more we lock ourselves in the longer it will take to get ourselves out of that. So what we see is this rhetoric “we’re doing lots of stuff on the green agenda, on the climate change agenda” and at the same time we see the money is being spent on the conventional carbon-based infrastructures.

Leads in nicely to a reader’s question – what impact would Shale Gas have on CO2 ‘budget’ for the UK ?

Well in theory at least, the shale gas should have no effect on the budget for the UK, at least not initially. The reason I say that relates to quite an elaborate set of arguments. The UK has a carbon budget, that arguably is a kind of constraint on the fossil fuel emissions we can emit. Our work at the Tyndall Centre suggests shale gas is lower carbon overall than coal, and if we substituted coal for shale gas, we would be able to generate more energy for the same amount of carbon. So in theory we would have a bit more energy in our system to play with. Of course, the problem is that the coal we wouldn’t buy off the world market would then be bought by someone else. The price of coal would drop a bit because we wouldn’t be buying it. And if someone else starts to burn that coal, what the climate sees would be emissions from our shale gas and emissions from their coal. In the States you’re seeing an example of this –a massive increase in shale gas usage and actually a slight reduction in their coal usage. But this coal is not been left in the ground – it is still being mined and subsequently exported..

Same reader, different question: What reduction do we need to make in aviation emissions from Manchester Airport?

Aaah. Well, controversially, you could actually say we don’t have to make any reductions from the airport as long as we’re prepared to cut back on our heating, and our trams and our cars, and all the other fossil fuelled appliances we use. If we have a budget, it’s up to us how we spend that budget. The problem with aviation is that it is a very high consuming part of that budget – somewhere around six to seven percent of total UK emissions. So it’s a very large chunk. And if we grow the airport, then we have to cut back elsewhere. Unless we’re prepared to make dramatic, almost draconian reductions in our wider use of carbon, then we have to curtail our emissions from the airport. In my view, it is hard to reconcile allowing aviation emissions to continue as they are – or even worse to grow – when we still have people in fuel poverty – people who actually need that energy to live well in their homes. It comes down to a choice between heating our homes – and particularly heating the homes of people who really need that heat – and being able to fly. When we fly we have to make that moral choice. If we think climate change is a serious issue, do we think it’s more important for us to burn the fuel to fly to another climate change conference, or to fly abroad on holiday, or do we think it’s more important that people in the poorer communities around Manchester can actually burn some energy to keep their houses warm in the winter. Manchester has a lot of households in fuel poverty – and until this situation is resolved it is difficult to justify a regional airport consuming part of the carbon budget that could be otherwise ‘spent’ on such poorer communities.

Final question – what would you like to see people in Manchester doing about climate change, after they’ve understood the problem, had a panic and a stiff drink?

 Well, individual action is important, and is something I often emphasize. But of course going alongside that, it is essential we talk to our family, our friends, our work colleagues, that we lobby our politicians, that we contact our councilors, that we get engaged across all the different tiers and facets of our lives, and we try to encourage other people – through thinking about what the issues are, what the information is, what the science is telling us and what we can do. We need to get that message much more widely spread. But I think it starts at home. If we are not making reasonable changes ourselves, how on earth can we expect other people to make those sorts of changes? So I think it’s incumbent on those of us who think this is a really serious issue, to bring about some significant changes in our own lives and then to argue with others that they should be making similar changes in their own lives, or their companies or their institutions or their governments.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Probably my final comment is that it is easy to try to blame other people – it’s a normal response. And many of us – and I count myself in this group, along with pretty much all academics and people working on climate change – illustrate the hypocrisy between our protestations on one hand and our failure to control our own emissions on the other. We are the problem, – and it’s absolutely incumbent on us to make the changes ourselves as well as call for reductions from other high emitting groups. Ultimately, climate change is an issue for the whole of society; it’s not the responsibility of companies, of power stations, of government ministers, of politicians. It’s all of us. To paraphrase [David] Cameron – we are all in this together, unlike perhaps other misuses of that expression….

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