Beyond hope and despair: the battle for climate realism

How fast can we bend the arc of reality?

Jonathan Rowson
9 December 2015

People's Climate March 2014/South Bend Voice, CC2.0

The deluge in Cumbria follows the inundation of Chennai, as negotiators in Paris find themselves drowning in text, brackets and footnotes. We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and may be the last to be able to significantly mitigate them.

It takes courage to say that violent weather is connected to climate change, but we have no real choice now. The British floods of 2013/2014 are the most salient comparison and a recent Met Office study suggests they were seven times more probable because of existing global warming. In our unfolding human drama, climate change has stopped being a peripheral part of the plot, and is now a primary part of the setting.

It’s too late to be embarrassed. An aggregate rise of 1°C above pre–industrial levels has already happened and it looks like another 0.5°C is locked in unless third way technologies wildly exceed current expectations. And if we read between the lines, it looks unlikely we’ll be able to prevent 2°C becoming locked in before mid–century. We might yet commit to limiting the harm to under 3°C, but even that disastrous outcome requires fairly heroic assumptions about global climate agreements surviving scores of national election cycles. 

We are not yet doomed, but the prognosis seems genuinely grim. There is, however, an emerging case for optimism on several fronts – cultural, technological, financial and legal. In a recent upbeat piece UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres unpacked these positive signals, including the affordability of solar energy, the Pope’s intervention and the US and China getting serious, before stating, trumpet–like: “Political will has arrived”.

Political will took its time, and the case for pessimism is still strong. Energy demand is growing in the developing world, where coal is abundant and accessible, fossil fuel subsidies continue throughout the world, and accelerating warming from methane released through melting permafrost becomes ever more likely. Perhaps most importantly, waking up to climate change and waking up to its relative importance in the context of other life priorities are very different things. In this respect, we haven’t really woken up at all.

How then can we remain authentically positive? Gramsci’s overused distinction is a useful near miss at this point; he said we need pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, but on climate change we need something altogether different: to get real, by shaping reality.

Billionaire Philanthropist George Soros attributes his wealth to his grasp of reflexivity – an apparently theoretical notion with huge practical relevance whenever thinking participants are involved. The basic cognitive function of thinking is to understand the world in which we live but the participating function seeks to change the situation to our advantage. When the direction of causation is from world to mind, reality is supposed to determine the participants’ views; but when the direction of causation is from the mind to the world, the intentions of the participants have an effect on the world.

This is the sweet spot of climate realism. ‘World to mind’ is what you get when you read projections by the International Energy Agency about continued demand for coal or oil, or read the IPCC forecasts; they evoke optimism and pessimism. ‘Mind to world’ is where the higher quality of realism lies, because there is scope to act in ways that change the conditions of action at scale, whether that’s the presumed climate indifference of your political representative or the plummeting price of solar energy. For example, it is estimated that every time the volume of solar power doubles, the cost reduces by about 20 percent, a phenomenon known as ‘Swanson’s law’. These connections become clearer when you realise climate change is a challenge across dimensions – science, technology, law, money, democracy, culture, behaviour – and that acting in one dimension has a direct bearing on the reality of several others.

Being authentically positive about climate change therefore means being tenaciously and pro–actively ‘realistic’ by acting in ways that contravene conventional accounts of reality. John Ashton captures this spirit in his extraordinary open letter to Bob Van Beurden, The CEO of Shell:

“You and those who agree with you have a monopoly on realism and practicality. You are ‘balanced’ and ‘informed’. Your enemies are ‘naive’ and ‘short sighted’. And you accuse them of wanting ‘a sudden death of fossil fuels’. No phrase in your speech is more revealing. Nobody is asking for this and if they were they would be wasting their time. But the Freudian intensity of your complaint flashes from the text like a bolt of lightning… You seem to be want us to believe that the issue is not how to deal with climate change but how to do so without touching your business model.”

Money is the touchstone of capitalism, and the best way to shape climate reality is to do what you can to help redirect money from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Divest Invest has grown out of this understanding and the movement is perhaps the most successful social and environmental movement ever, with at least £2.6 trillion already withdrawn from fossil fuels because of it. The movement is often misunderstood as tactical protest, a form of gesture politics, but it is deeply strategic and currently our best hope.

At a cultural level divestment stigmatizes the continued investment in fossil fuels, attempting to remove their social license to operate. At a technological and monetary level it signals to financiers that we are at the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, encouraging them to redirect their money towards new forms of research and infrastructure. At a democratic level, divestment challenges the political power of the fossil fuel industry as it manifests in subsidies. At a behavioural level, divestment wakes people up to their unwitting financial complicity in the challenge, and gives them a way of acting that feels commensurate with the global and systemic nature of the problem.

And even if you doubt the strategy, there is a simple matter of logic. There are estimates, assumptions and qualifications at every stage, but the case for divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in alternative energy flows from premises to conclusion as a form of deductive reasoning in roughly 10 parts. Full references are given in an RSA report just published: Money Talks: Invest Divest and the battle for climate realism. (Pages 29–31).

1. There is a scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, showing a clear relationship between rising carbon dioxide emissions and atmospheric warming.

2. There is an agreed constraint on temperature warming (2°C above pre–industrial levels on average) widely considered to be the upper limit of acceptable risk for maintaining the quality and viability of our habitat.

3. To stay within that limit, there’s a commensurate total global carbon budget (approximately 800bn tonnes) we can’t exceed, and in 2015, we have already used about two–thirds of it.

4. The IPCC estimate that to have a chance of staying within the temperature limit, global carbon dioxide emissions have to peak by roughly 2032 and fall rapidly towards zero before the end of the century.

5. Most carbon dioxide emissions stem from fossil fuel combustion; estimates range from about 78–87 percent of the total.

6. To stay within the remaining budget (approximately 380 tonnes) there have to be stringent constraints on fossil fuel extraction, or sufficiently developed carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

7. However, CCS has stunted potential primarily because it lacks efficacy in reducing net emissions (the process uses significant energy, it does not capture all carbon dioxide emissions, and there is a small residual risk of leakage). Compared to other low–carbon power sources it is costly and slow to deploy at any scale. While CCS is factored in to many climate projections, it is reasonable to discount any significant contribution will be made by CCS within the time constraints implicit in the carbon budget.

8. It follows that most existing fossil fuel reserves are overvalued because they cannot be used without contradicting the scientific and political consensus. The best current estimate suggests that from known reserves, to remain within the 2°C limit, we will have to leave 88 percent of available coal, 42 percent of available gas and 33 percent of available oil in the ground.

9. Given global energy demand is likely to rise rather than fall, it also follows that to maintain a functioning economy and society we will need a swift energy transition to decarbonise the world’s economy, which means rapidly developing alternative forms of energy infrastructure with speed and at scale to gradually replace rather than merely supplement fossil fuels.

10. Fossil fuels will remain a necessary part of the world’s energy for some time to come, but we are compelled to make that time period as short as possible. For moral and financial reasons, we therefore need to stop investing in fossil fuels and invest instead in alternative energy.

Whatever the final outcome in Paris, we can remain authentically positive by strengthening and accelerating the decarbonisation process that is already underway. There are of course huge psychological, cultural, moral and democratic factors in play, but Divest Invest is built on the relatively solid premise that finance drives technological change. Without 18th century coal there would have been no 21st century solar and wind. From an engineering perspective, we have what it takes to transform. What remains unclear is whether we can bend the arc of reality fast enough.


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