People keep mistaking me for a climate sceptic.
Funny things happen when you question the idea of a single dangerous limit to climate change. Most people, and I am talking about people who worry deeply about climate change, people who campaign on climate change issues, academics, researchers, you name it, they instantly get the hump when I question the validity of building policy around the idea of a two degree dangerous limit.
For example, I commented on an article urging scientists to get better at communicating uncertainty http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2012/06/mark-maslin-on-communicating-uncertainty-ahead-of-ar5#comment-557384018 lamenting the fact that many people believe the two degree limit is a scientific fact. I received a rapid reply slapping me down for not accepting the seriousness of climate change and consequently advocating doing nothing. Apparently it is people like me who are stalling policy makers from taking the appropriate action.
I explained that it was the advocates of the two degree limit who didn’t take the problem seriously enough, that these advocates want to continue warming the world to levels more than double the warming currently experienced, a level of warming which has already sent weather patterns into chaotic, random and mad spasms.
I went on to point out that it is the advocates of the two degree dangerous limit who are stalling, by claiming that dangerous climate change is not here yet, thus legitimating the neo-liberal agenda of business as usual, and the utopian fantasy of some technological wizardry that it is going to make the horrible climate change monster go away without the rich having to surrender even one crumb of their wealth and power.
Needless to say, when I explained these points the respondent recognised he had been overly hasty in his response, and recognised the legitimacy of my position. But this wasn’t the first time my attempts to highlight the fallacy of the two degree limit has met with such impassioned reactions.
And that goes to show just how ingrained the two degree dangerous limit has become with ‘progressive’ climate policy and campaigning. To worry about climate change is to want to warm the world by two degrees, to the very edge of what the two degree advocates claim is dangerous climate change, and which I argue is way beyond dangerous.
That is no accident, it is a deliberate act of power designed to forestall immediate and massive political and social change. And the vast majority of academics, NGOs and ‘progressives’ have fallen for it, hook line and sinker.
No one asked me.
You probably weren’t even waiting to be asked.
A question of immense historical importance.
Knowing what we know about climate change, how should we choose to live?
You weren’t asked. I wasn’t asked. No one was asked.
Odd really, given the enormity of the issue. Odder still, when we are supposedly free citizens of a democratic society.
No, we weren’t asked. We were told.
We were told by the same people who told us Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. We were told by the same people who promised us we had entered a new financial age of eternal milk and honey.
We were told:
You want to live in a world two degrees hotter than it has been for the last 10,000 years.
All the climate policies, all the carbon footprinting, all the windfarms? All designed to keep warming the world. Yes, to keep warming the world.
And then, when we have got enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere we will, as though the world is just one big oven, stop any more warming. Just turn the warming off.
Why two degrees? Apparently climate change won’t become dangerous until after this point. Safe at 1.99 degrees. Safe at 2 degrees. Dangerous at 2.0001 degrees.
Convenient. A nice even round number. That makes things easier.
It’s also very convenient that it’s not a lower number. Two degrees. That might give us enough time to make some magic machines which will allow life to carry on as normal and get rid of all that nasty climate change stuff.
How do we know that this is the dangerous limit?
Because the scientists have worked it out. At least that is what the politicians, journalists and environmental campaigners tell us.
Here’s a typical example, taken from a Guardian editorial shared with 56 other newspapers in Europe.
‘The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C’
It’s a lie. It is not a scientific fact.
Deciding to warm the world by an average of two degrees is an opinion. There is no ‘two degree dangerous limit’ for everyone. The world, people, ecosystems are all too complex, too varied, to be reduced to such a simple measure.
If the science tells us anything it is this.
Two degrees is too much. The world’s coral reefs bleach into extinction at 1 degree. The weather is already going haywire http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/03/22/448839/march-madness-unprecedented-event-modern-us-weather-records-began/
And we are only at 0.8 degrees of warming.
Climate policy has been dominated by the myth of a single dangerous limit. To no avail. The rate of emissions continues to set new records. We couldn’t be warming faster if we tried.
The single dangerous limit idea is an oppressive lie, that has emanated from the powerful institutions of the West. It must be resisted.
A new way of talking and thinking about climate change is long overdue.
I will set out some options for this new way of thinking on this blog.
It’s gonna be a long, complex and difficult path.
Targets are the lingua franca of policy making. Education, health care, social care, economic performance; these are just some of the areas of public life subject to the logic of targets. It was therefore inevitable that as soon as climate change came to the attention of policy makers it would be defined as a phenomenon which could be controlled by a target based approach. This belief has informed all discussion of climate change, from whatever quarter - government, scientists, business or campaigners. But what if they were all wrong? What if there are some issues that simply cannot be made to fit into the targets box? What if it isn't simply that the chosen targets are wrong, but that the very idea of thinking about climate change in the form of targets is wrong?
Prominent climate scientists and politicians I have spoken to, all very worried about the impacts of climate change, have described the targets as 'meaningless' and a 'deceipt'. Read on to find out more about why it is time to abandon the language of limits.
Targets promote an erroneous sense of control over the climate
The language of targets assumes there are certain impacts we want to avoid and that these impacts can be traced with particular amounts of warming. At x amount of warming these things will happen. However the models used to make these assumptions have been too conservative and are too abstract, can only deal with large scale average changes. They did not predict the 2003 European heatwave or the exceptionally cold winter of 2009-2010. The relationships between weather and warming are simply not as neat and tidy as the models suggest. This is not the fault of science, but the expectation of policymakers that the science can provide usable predictions.
There is little agreement on the relationship between the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere and the consequent changes that will arise. The hope is that a certain increase in the amount of GHG can be related to a certain increase in temperature which in turn can be related to a certain series of impacts. From such assumptions arises the belief that an atmospheric concentration of GHGs of 400 parts per million (ppm) will lead to two degrees of warming, which is a dangerous limit. Such simplistic assumptions are naive and misplaced.
Who decides on the targets?The most important target concerns how much warming we will all have to live with. Do you remeber getting the chance to vote on this? Policy leaders in Europe and elsewhere have decided that there is a dangerous limit to warming and that limit is two degrees of warming above the pre-industrial average. Others have argued 1 degree is the dangerous limit, whilst the Association of Small island States alongside other developing nations have sought to argue for 1.5 degrees of warming as the upper limit. These controversies show that there is little science behind the targets discourse, and that essentially deciding what is dangerous is a value based decision. Different people live in different circumstances and have different values and vulnerabilities to danger. How is it then possible to imagine one single dangerous limit for all the people of the world?
Dangerous limits, parts per million, annual emission cuts, percentage increase in proportion of energy from renewables, fuel efficiency; these are just some of the forms the language of targets takes in the climate change debate. This is what is called an instrumentalist approach. It assumes climate change is a technical problem, like all the other problems we face, and that it can be solved by accurate measurement and the correct technologies.
Describing climate change as a technical problem pushes questions of politics and values to one side. This is a mistake because climate change is an issue which forces us to ask - how do we want to live? See here for a fuller description of the problem with targets.
What should replace the language of targets? A positive language which highlights the benefits that will accrue from moving towards a more equal, less competitive and less acquisitive way of living. The work of the Equality Trust provides ample evidence that more equal societies are happier societies, healthier societies. Current Western ways of life are economically bankrupt. People have ceased getting happier since the 1970's. Communities are breaking down, families are torn apart by the need to work long hours, politically the world is becoming increasingly unstable. We have all the marvels of technology at our fingertips, and yet 'have we ever felt so impoverished and isolated? (Zerzan, 2002). Has the future ever seemed so precarious? Has the reason for optimism ever been so difficult to locate?
Now is the time to be brave, to imagine how our world could be better, how we might truly live in a way that honours our ancestors and offers hope and joy to the generations yet to come. Let us not ask how much of the modern world we can keep, and still avoid catastrophe. Let us ask how little we need to keep in order to be happy, and build a life worth living, that will be a testament to those who are to follow us.