Are we ready for a war on climate?

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A number of climate scientists are starting to call for war on climate change… but who on earth is listening?

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When it’s too late for half measures, the only option is to be really honest.  And that’s what a number of brave climate scientists have just done.

Emissions trends over the past ten years are tracking consistently with the most carbon-intensive pathways of the four families of scenarios, leading to 4 to 6°C warming over pre-industrial times by the end of this century…It’s been a week of startling news that has buried the idea that reasonable action will keep global warming to 2°C, with evidence that the world is now heading towards a 4–6°C warming this century, and as early as 2060. And we know that a safe climate is global warming of under 1°C degree!

Releasing the Global Carbon Project’s latest report on Monday,  executive-director Dr Pep Canadell of CSIRO reported:

It is clear that the type of transformation needed would required the world to wake up tomorrow and embrace a new green industrial revolution whereby new economic development is focused on establishing a large and rapidly growing non-polluting energy sector as the vehicle to meet new energy and jobs demand…In all cases, there is the need for high levels of technological, social, and political innovation, and the increasing likelihood of the need to rely on net negative emissions in future.”

This week the NOAA released its annual Arctic Report Card, New Scientist headlinedSeven reasons why climate change is ‘even worse than we thought’, and the World Meteorological Organisation’s annual survey found that:

The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a new record low. The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere.

This came just after the World Bank said that 4°Cs of warming will end the world as we know it. Perhaps most significant of all was the United Nations Environment Programme Report on Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane emissions from thawing permafrost could amplify warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This amplification is called the permafrost carbon feedback. Permafrost contains ~1700 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon in the form of frozen organic matter, almost twice as much carbon as currently in the atmosphere. If the permafrost thaws, the organic matter will thaw and decay, potentially releasing large amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. This organic material was buried and frozen thousands of years ago and its release into the atmosphere is irreversible on human time scales. Thawing permafrost could emit 43 to 135 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2100 and 246 to 415 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2200. Uncertainties are large, but emissions from thawing permafrost could start within the next few decades and continue for several centuries, influencing both short-term climate (before 2100) and long-term climate (after 2100).

We have previously discussed this issue in Triggering permafrost meltdown is closer than we think. It is just one of the feedbacks being driven by the record Arctic sea ice melt this year. Arctic melting, in a self-perpetuating positive feedback, is also leading tomore global warming and a hotter future. Cambridge Professor Wadhams has predicted that Arctic summer sea ice will be “all gone by 2015”. This is an astounding prediction, which is backed by the evidence. As the Arctic system changes, we must adjust our science.

In response to the latest report from the Global Carbon Project which revealed carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels burning and cement production had increased by 3 per cent in 2011 — with a total of 9.5±0.5 billion tonnes of carbon emitted to the atmosphere, the highest in human history and 54% higher than in 1990 — Professor Matthew England of the University of NSW told the ABC’s 7.30 Report that we need a global-scale effort akin to preparing for a war:

Emissions are rising really quickly. One per cent per annum used to be considered high-end and we’re now up around 2.5–3 per cent each year. So we’re breaking a new world record for human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases every year. We need a (sort of) global-scale effort on this that is akin to preparing for a war, actually. It’s akin to that scale of effort where all of the world’s economies mobilise towards a problem that is facing the planet and facing the future of the planet.

The next morning on ABC radio’s AM programme, Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Colombia said it was time to prepare economy for a climate change ‘war’:

We are not dealing with it (climate change) in terms of the danger that this represents – it’s like a war. When there is a war, the industry is put on a war footing, and then within weeks it stops using, producing cars – it was so in the States – and it starts producing aeroplanes. World War II is a good example. Really the question of cost doesn’t come up. You had a bunch of crazies that were threatening all of Western civilisation. Actually, I think that global warming does threaten all of Western civilisation and but we are dealing with pennies, we are dealing with pennies.

This is similar to the propositions Philip Sutton and I put in Climate Code Red five years ago, and Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding more recently described in The One-Degree War.
“We need a radical plan”, said Prof. Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Britain and professor at the University of East Anglia. And Professor Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, Canada, observed that: “We are losing control of our ability to get a handle on the global warming problem.”

Five years ago, on 12 November 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on an Antarctic visit declared: “This is an emergency and for emergency situations we need emergency action.” Earlier that same year, on 21 March 2007, Al Gore in testimony to the US Congress warned that “…our world faces a true planetary emergency.”

In 2009, Professor Kevin Anderson, then research director at the UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, told The Guardian:

The scientists have lost patience with our carefully constructed messages being lost in the political noise. And we are now prepared to stand up and say enough is enough.

More recently, in a courageous article with Alice Bows in Nature Climate Change, Anderson went further:

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions. But academics may again have contributed to a misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2°C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives. A carbon tax here, a little emissions trading there and the odd voluntary agreement thrown in for good measure will not be sufficient…
Acknowledging the immediacy and rate of emission reductions necessary to meet international commitments on 2°C illustrates the scale of the discontinuity between the science (physical and social) underpinning climate change and the economic hegemony. Put bluntly, climate change commitments are incompatible with short- to medium-term economic growth (in other words, for 10 to 20 years).
Moreover, work on adapting to climate change suggests that economic growth cannot be reconciled with the breadth and rate of impacts as the temperature rises towards 4°C and beyond — a serious possibility if global apathy over stringent mitigation persists. Away from the microphone and despite claims of ‘green growth’, few if any scientists working on climate change would disagree with the broad thrust of this candid conclusion. The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions…
At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society.
This catastrophic and ongoing failure of market economics and the laissez-faire rhetoric accompanying it (unfettered choice, deregulation and so on) could provide an opportunity to think differently about climate change…     Reinforcing the view that we may be on the cusp of a paradigm shift are the fundamental disagreements between orthodox economists as to how to respond to the crisis…
It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.
Civil society needs scientists to do science free of the constraints of failed economics….

If that has whetted your appetite, there are two must-watch short videos of recent Kevin Anderson public presentations here and here. Honest, brave, fearless: these are not to be missed.
It is now obvious to Blind Freedy that our society’s structures are incapable of facing and resolving the climate threat. The problem is now so big, and the scale and urgency of the solutions required so great, that it is impossible to talk about them within the current public policy frame. The business and political spheres have horizons too narrow and too limited in time to be able to deal with the challenges and complexities of global warming.
We have achieved a collective cognitive dissonance where the real challenge we face is excluded from discourse. There is no solution within the politics-as-usual frame; and there is no developed frame outside of it. Earlier this year Idescribed the choice:

  • What needs to be done cannot be achieved in today’s neo-conservative capitalist economy, because a rapid transition will required a great deal of planning, coordination and allocation of labour and skills, investment, and materials and resources, that can’t just be left to markets and pricing;
  • There is a choice between two dystopias: some very significant social and economic disruptions now while we make the transition quickly, or a state of permanent and escalating disruption as the planet’s climate heads into territory where most people and most species will not survive: our task now is to chart the “least-worst” outcome;
  • So this will not be painless, and the mass of the population will need to actively understand and participate in  some personally-disruptive measures, but they will do so because they have learned that the transition plans are both fair and necessary, and the other choice is unspeakable.

A few days George Monbiot described the challenge :

Humankind’s greatest crisis coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address. By the late 1980s, when it became clear that manmade climate change endangered the living planet and its people, the world was in the grip of an extreme political doctrine, whose tenets forbid the kind of intervention required to arrest it.
Neoliberalism, also known as market fundamentalism or laissez-faire economics, purports to liberate the market from political interference. The state, it asserts, should do little but defend the realm, protect private property and remove barriers to business. In practice it looks nothing like this. What neoliberal theorists call shrinking the state looks more like shrinking democracy: reducing the means by which citizens can restrain the power of the elite. What they call “the market” looks more like the interests of corporations and the ultra-rich. Neoliberalism appears to be little more than a justification for plutocracy.
Preventing climate breakdown – the four, five or six degrees of warming now predicted for this century by green extremists like, er, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and PriceWaterhouseCoopers – means confronting the oil, gas and coal industry. It means forcing that industry to abandon the four-fifths or more of fossil fuel reserves that we cannot afford to burn. It means cancelling the prospecting and development of new reserves – what’s the point if we can’t use current stocks? – and reversing the expansion of any infrastructure (such as airports) that cannot be run without them.
But the self-hating state cannot act. Captured by interests that democracy is supposed to restrain, it can only sit on the road, ears pricked and whiskers twitching, as the truck thunders towards it. Confrontation is forbidden, action is a mortal sin. You may, perhaps, disperse some money for new energy; you may not legislate against the old.

So as prominent climate scientists this week called for a war, a war economy, a radical plan and a new green industrial revolution, what was the response from those in the climate advocacy movement?  After all, the movement and parties like the Greens have often said that they can’t go further in their advocacy because they are already on the edge of the public discourse boundary (I disagree, as I argue here) , and others need to open up more space for them.  Which is exactly what the science community has done.
So what did we hear from the leading public climate advocates this week?

Good on you Matthew, Daniel, Corrine and Kevin and all those scientists who have drawn our attention to the need to confront climate change head on, right now, to recognise that actions so far proposed can only result in failure, so we must now plan and make war on climate change — whatever it takes — because the hour is late and this is our last and only chance to have a world where children and grandchildren can live safe and healthy lives, where our water and food supplies are secure, and our planet’s vital natural systems can flourish.

No? All I heard was silence.

This article was originally published on Climate Code Red. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. Dave Johnson 7 years ago

    Three points:

    1) Over the last few years I have made my own home an informal lab for testing ways to reduce my carbon footprint, and so far, without doing anything especially radical or painful, I have cut my footprint by at least 90%, and if I actually invested in some solar PV I could easily get to about 95%, if not better. Note well: this has been utterly painless in terms of my material comforts, so, in principle it is perfectly feasible.

    2) I know not one single person who has the least interest even in talking about such things, much less adopting them in their own lives. The most that people here (New Hampshire, USA) do is to buy a slightly more efficient car or to change their light bulbs.

    3) In general, people are hardwired to have a strong emotional reaction only to immediate physical threats such as hunger, fire, muggers, rattlesnakes, and the like. Mere intellectual analyses simply don’t trigger the parts of our brains that get us moving, much less moving quickly.

    In short, we are going to wreck everything, and hardly give it a thought until way too late. The odds of anything else are minuscule to non-existent.

    • D. John Hunwick 7 years ago

      I know I am only one – BUT you are NOT allone. There must be numerous individuals working along the same path you have gone. However, I am the first to admit that such actions are NOT enough. I am prepared to go on to a “war footing” but lack the insight as to what to do exactly half an hour from now. I cannot derail coal trains, I am hopeless at unarmed combat, but I can write and talk and give speeches etc. Am quite happy to try other skills if someone will give evena clue as to what to do that has some chance of being effective.
      The article above says it all. This is our last window of opportunity.

      • Dirk 7 years ago

        I go with Kurt Vonnegut. At least 2 of his comments resonate with me:

        1. I think our planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us and should.

        2. To future generations: We apologize. We were roaring drunk on money.

    • suthnsun 7 years ago


      1) me too, refer bottom of comment further down

      2) quite a few here, thankfully – it seems to be our only hope

      3) Have you read Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, fast and slow” ? A really interesting read on that subject, with fascinating by-products.

    • Dirk 7 years ago

      I’d be interested in knowing how you got to a reduction of 90% with no pain and making it sound easy. Were you burning thru gobs of energy before? And how is it that PV would only gain 5% more. Sounds like you’re almost to 100%.

      • Dave Johnson 7 years ago

        First, 90% is relative to the average for all Americans which by some analyses runs as high as 28 tons a year, and even conservative estimates go to about 17 tons. I’m down to something less than 3 tons, of which my direct electric usage is only about one third to one half. Plus, the local electric company is already using very little coal, and a big gob of nuclear, so electricity is not a big chunk of my carbon footprint to start with. Hence, the small additional payoff for solar PV. The real trick is just to avoid using very much electricity in the first place.

        Second, easy in the sense that I had no capital costs to speak of, but merely found a bunch of efficiencies that added up to a big cut in carbon. The nice side-effect is that my personal expense budget is down to about $300 a month, so I have no financial worries either, despite living on a fixed retirement income. Given this budget I still save about $400 to $500 a month of my total after-tax income. And I pay almost no taxes.

        Third, not easy if you are stuck on big houses, big cars, or things like luxury vacations. I don’t happen to have that problem, so I use my bike instead of a car, and I only heat and cool one room of the building in which I live. I could heat and cool more, which I occasionally need to do for a few hours, but for five months of the year I spend nothing on heating or cooling at all. I do have plenty of space for storage and various projects, but the key living activities are concentrated in just the one room, which is only 9 by 12, and heavily insulated.

        In general, I have a material lifestyle about like that of a student living in a college dorm room. It’s not fancy, but it has all the modern conveniences, all the same. My main room is recently remodeled (by me, material cost $500), so there is nothing shabby about it, despite the very low rent that I happen to pay.

        Fourth, even such a small dwelling has several dozen ways to consume energy in the form of lights, computers and peripherals, microwave oven, space heater, AC, etc. So, dealing with this is just a matter of looking at each item, and finding the most efficient way to produce the required functionality.

        For example, I just replaced an old CRT computer monitor that used 90 watts with an LCD version that uses 14 watts. Given that the computer is on 16 to 18 hours a day, that is an annual saving of 500 KWH, almost $80 in cash, and (in this market) about 375 pounds of carbon. This may sound trivial, but, exclusive of heating and cooling, it was forty percent of my electrical usage, which was already very low by the usual standards of the middle-class American lifestyle.

        The point here is that I actually got a better monitor AND a big improvement in electrical and financial efficiency. The capital cost was $130, and the savings will pay for it in about 18 months, or so. After that, the gadget will likely still run for years with the savings continuing to pile up as long as it lasts.

        Note also that governments don’t tax these savings, even though the money freed up is quite spendable. Nor do bankers or stock brokers take a cut. That amplifies the financial profit by a considerable margin. In fact, for many people it would nearly double the favorable effects.

        Finally, the thing that seems to make most people bridle is doing without a car. That is easier for someone who is retired or works at home, both of which apply to me, but even if you keep a car, you could probably drive it a great deal less than you do, and you would not only save money and reduce the carbon footprint, but you would likely get some very healthy exercise as well.

        Note that I am 62 years old, but my weight, blood pressure, and blood chemistry are all normal, and I can easily ride my bike 20 or 25 miles in a leisurely afternoon trip. The majority of people my age would not come close to this, but my doctor says I have a good shot at making 90 or 100, and with a very nice quality of life all the way.

        This is just a summary, and it is obviously missing considerable detail, but I trust that you can see the general method clearly enough. For the most part it is both logistically easy and stupidly simple to do. Apparently most people are simply so swamped by the rat-race that they cannot get their heads up long enough to see what is right there for anyone to do.

        Again, note that I not only have a very small carbon footprint, but I am as financially secure as anyone normally gets in this world. As far as I am concerned everyone should be doing this for the financial advantages alone. The ecological benefits are just a giant bonus.

        • Dave Johnson 7 years ago

          I forgot to mention my diet, which is almost entirely vegetarian. I don’t have any philosophical objection to eating meat, and occasionally I have a slice of pizza or a bagel with cream cheese, but that is only once or twice a month.

          This diet has four advantages:

          1) It’s very healthy, if you do it right.

          2) It can be dirt cheap, which it is in my case.

          3) In climate terms it is equivalent to taking a whole car off the road permanently.

          4) I structure things so that I don’t need to run a refrigerator, which saves about 2 KWH a day, or over 700 KWH a year, another quarter of a ton in carbon, and something like $116 in electric bills.

          Again, this is, literally, not to everyone’s taste, but that does not change the benefits – or the ease, if it does suit you.

          Combine this diet with some regular exercise, and you might be surprised at how healthy you get.

          • Dave Johnson 7 years ago

            One more thing. All this healthy living not only reduces my medical costs to peanuts, but also reduces my share of the carbon footprint generated by the medical establishment.

            I can’t put a tonnage figure on that, but in general there is a close correlation between dollars spent and carbon generated, and my medical costs are probably well under a thousand dollars a year. Plus, as a veteran, I get my care at the VA, which – unbeknownst to the general public – is an exceptionally efficient organization in a great many ways.

            This final point is a very nice illustration of how the individual benefits cascade to create savings well away from the obvious places like fuel for automobiles, or electricity for your lights.

            In other words, do the easiest, most obvious stuff first, and you will then find that other things start to become much easier and much cheaper. Keep following your nose in this fashion, and you might be extremely surprised how easy it really all is.

  2. Paul Wittwer 7 years ago

    Great article which has improved my thinking considerably in a similar way that The Great Disruption did.
    By declaring war on Climate Change we are effectively declaring war on Neo-liberal economics.
    Killing the Zombie of market fundamentalism will be a start to addressing many of the world’s other problems brought on by the Human plague.
    Leaving government to allocate scarce resources fairly and have much more control over our lives will be awful, made worse by 30 odd years of ‘self-indulgence’ being God.
    While the collective wisdom of the Human race has declined over those years, there are still many far sighted and sage people in this world who have been applying their wisdom to the world’s problems and will have their day when the wankers are slapped down.

  3. Alistair 7 years ago

    While this story does a great service in describing the gap between science and media … It seems to be implying that it is the fault of green advocacy groups that are responsible for not taking up the fight ?
    I think this is a little ignorant ….. Both of the actions that are taken by activists and also by green NGO,s …….. Ghandi reminds us to become the change we want to see in the world ….. While these fine scientists are great talkers , perhaps it’s time for less talk and more action. I do not disdain the effort so far , but great sacrifices are needed to bring the issue to the foreground….. All of the great struggles involve sacrifice …… Burma for example …… The cause needs to be pushed , the extremist label challenged and contested continuously through political action until this deception crumbles….. I doubt that the greens or NGO s have the political clout to push this at present ……. If change is to occur this way it needs leadership from the educated scientist to inspire and lead by example a new protest movement … Talk is cheap

  4. Michael Adams 7 years ago

    It is not a war on Global Warming that is about to happen, but a war with the Politicians and Big Business leaders that wish to maintain business as usual, maintain growth & profits in order to maintain their position & lifestyle & those of their supporters. The obsession with the Free Market and the opposition to Governmental controls is symptomatic of the idea that these people somehow have an unfettered right to do as they please, irrespective of the damage it is doing, & will do to others and the Planet.
    Politicians, Capitalists, and Business Leaders currently who have the position and power to make the decisions that would start the world towards solving the Global Warming problem, but do the opposite, in their Political & Business interests, are behaving irresponsibly and need to be made to face up to this fact & their behaviour & attitude changed. The business attitude that profit & the needs of the shareholders are paramount has to be tempered with the needs of the Planet, pure profit to the detriment of all else, in the light of current Climatic events, is now obsolete and needs to be changed.
    The Western world needs to recognise that it is in the position that it is in, because of it’s use of fossil fuels over the last 2 hundred years, & it’s wealth is a result. It is responsible for our current Climate situation and now needs to use that wealth to rectify it, not continue blindly on, trying to create more wealth the same way, and accelerating the coming disaster.
    The emerging industrial nations such as China etc, also need to understand that they also have a responsibility NOT to go down the same path, but use history & modern technology, to learn from the mistakes made by the West, (& still making them!), and choose a better path that will not accelerate irrevocable damage & detrimental changes to the Planet’s Climate.
    THE USE OF FOSSIL FUELS has to be stopped as soon as possible, they should be left in the ground until man has worked out a way to use them at a later date without damaging the Climate.
    “Business as usual” is no longer tolerable and those persons in power who continue along that path, need to understand that whilst they do so, they will be regarded as IRRESPONSIBLE by the wider community and treated accordingly.

  5. suthnsun 7 years ago

    I agree and second most of the article and comments above.
    Let us not forget that the so-called ‘free market’ is extraordinarily compromised in every dimension, even by the so-called proponents and champions of the free market. I don’t mind a free market and regulatory controls which protect it, but I can’t abide the arbitrary rule-changing and outright manipulation which occurs whenever results are not going to the power broker’s plans. A relevant example – governments have consistently intervened in energy markets in various ways, even to the ridiculous extent of mandating biofuels from food crops which cost more energy to make than the energy returned, this has been partly corrected now, but similar processes are in train with tar sands and shale oil fracking , the rational free market approach would be to pay more than double for imported oil on the basis of the free energy it contains, rather than provide massive subsidies through local social infrastructure for their production. The resultant distortion of energy markets is a crucial component of our problem at hand.

    I am tracking and gradually rectifying my personal CO2 emissions for residence and personal transport, getting down to 400kg within the next 6 months I hope, and then I need some new development to achieve my target of 250kg per annum.

  6. Phil of Brisbane 7 years ago

    Great article, but I’m not sure why you are critical of the Greens and the general climate advocacy movement for not doing enough. People concerned about climate disruption need to be aware of our best political allies in a toxic political environment where the most likely outcome of the 2013 Federal election is the election of a Coal – ition government full of climate change deniers!!! These people are planning to tear down the only positive climate action the current government have taken (price on carbon – thanks to the Greens), provide every support possible to the fossil fuel industry and attack renewable energy. If elected, they will continue the attack on our environment currently underway under Coalition governments in QLD, NSW, Victoria and W.A.

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