Two kinds of climate radicalism - RSA

Two kinds of climate radicalism

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  • Climate change
  • Social brain

When Anthony Giddens spoke at the RSA about the Politics of Climate Change, he opened with a reference to a celebrated scene in the film, The Matrix where Morpheus gives Neo a choice, highlighting perhaps the most fundamental human dilemma, either to grow in awareness, even if that means a radical change in how we will have to live our lives, or go back to living as if we knew what was going on, in more or less blissful ignorance:

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

I thought of this choice today when reading an interview with Kevin Anderson (@Kevinclimate) who is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester.

Professor Anderson is very much a red pill kind of guy, and a persistent and extremely important challenge to those who would take the blue pill, including many if not most people actually working on climate change mitigation or adaptation.

In essence, he argues that the situation is significantly worse than we have been lead to believe, mostly because the climate change models include figures that have been massaged in various ways, and are built on questionable assumptions(e.g. that India and China's growth will be largely based on renewable energy) made in order to make the science appear politically and economically acceptable and the targets achievable. In his own words: "Orthodox economics and political cowardice are unduly influencing science."

There are various major points in his argument, and the best way to quickly grasp them is to read the interview or look at the slides he used in a public lecture on the subject.

"We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option"

He argues that Government emissions targets for 2050 or beyond completely miss the nature and the urgency of the challenge, which relates to the need to rapidly reduce energy consumption to stay within a rapidly diminishing carbon budget. The point is that total and cumulative emissions are what matter for the atmosphere, not how much we may be emitting annually at a fairly arbitrary future date.

He also has discomforting but essential things to say about the near impossibility of staying within the politically constructed 2 degree target, the likely and imminent devastation caused by staying on our current course towards a rise in 4 degrees.

"Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future. We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option (emphasis added). Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption."

The point is that either you change radically to reduce consumption and stay below the 2 degree target, or you deny or ignore radically in the sense that you become complicit with incremental changes that seem to lead us inexorably towards a future of 4 degrees or beyond. To be clear, while predictions on such matters are difficult, our best guesses suggest this is not likely to mean a planet that's just a bit warmer. Rather its likely to be a planet with 40% less maize and rice as the population heads towards 9 billion, and it means it will be about 10 degrees hotter on our hottest days in central Europe(so if it feels warm today, just imagine...). 4 degrees is likely to be devastating to the majority of our ecosystems, and beyond our capacity to adapt. And that kind of world is now very likely to transpire within the lifetime of anyone currently below 40.

The point is that walking in to that kind of world knowingly is a radical step, arguably much more radical than, for instance, attempts to create a viable global economy that is not dependent on economic growth.

"What does 2°C (target) imply for the wealthy parts of the world, the OECD countries? It means a 10% reduction in emissions every single year: a 40% reduction in the next few years and a 70% reduction within the decade....So what do we do? We have to develop a different mind-set – and quickly. The impossibility we face on mitigation may open us to conceiving of different futures – moving beyond the reductionist thinking of the twentieth century, and towards new ways of framing issues in the twenty-first century."

To get there, more of us need to start taking 'the red pill' and we are doing what we can to move in that direction, as indicated here.

By Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director, RSA Social Brain Centre. @Jonathan_Rowson

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  • Many thanks. Glad to hear that, and grateful for the links.
    Our forthcoming report on climate change has been a little delayed, but we are actively thinking about these issues and considering practical interventions that might help, so all ideas are welcome.

  • Jonathan, I appreciate your consistent efforts to communicate a clear message about climate change, thanks.

    Having researched the issue intensively for over a year, I still felt unsure until I went to see Kevin Anderson speak at the TUC 'Confronting the Climate Crisis' conference. A week earlier I attended several climate change events at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival at Hay. It was interesting, and disturbing, to witness the denialists in action. My video recordings of these events can be accessed here:

    At Hay I also attended a presentation by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ('The Black Swan') and Rupert Read titled 'How do you solve a problem like uncertainty?' The take away message was that we really should apply the 'precautionary principle' in tackling climate change. Anything less is reckless.

    John Quiggin wrote about this in his paper 'Complexity, climate change and the precautionary principle'

    You may also find two papers by John Sterman interesting: 'Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world' (2011) and the earlier 'Understanding public complacency about climate change' (2007), both downloadable via

  • Thanks for the comment. That sounds like a drastic step to me and I hope you'll reconsider. The purpose of this blog is to develop our own ideas, often through other people's work, and while we are careful about what we share, we can't possibly vouch for every aspect of every place we link to.

    As you may know, the RSA is also a broad church, containing multiple views, which is one of its strengths. We are not politically aligned, but we do work on politically charged subjects, and if we only ever wrote on matters that every one of her 27,000 fellows would agree with, I doubt that people like yourself would come here to read at all.

    I am grateful for the substantive point you end with. In the interview I link to above that question of downward revision is directly addressed, so it would be worth taking another look. I have copied the relevant section below for ease of access:

    Best wishes,


    "Gabriel Levy (for People and Nature): Could you comment on recently published research showing that global average temperature has risen more slowly in the 2000s than in the 1990s?[1] The usual crowd of climate science deniers are using this as a new and spurious reason to deny the need to do anything about global warming.

    Kevin Anderson: Over a relatively short period of time – a decade – the temperatures have not gone up as much as some estimates said they might do. The first point to bear in mind is that climate change is not about one decade. It’s about longer periods of time. You can not say that any one year, or two years, or even ten years, is much of a signal that climate change is occurring or is not occurring. You need to look at longer time frames, and the longer-term trends have not changed.

    It is interesting, though, that in the last ten years, as carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have been going up, we have not seen the acceleration in the rate of increase in temperatures that some anticipated. There could be several reasons for this. One possibility is that, as the world gradually warms up, a great deal of the thermal energy is trapped in oceans. There is a thermal lag in the system that the oceans provide: that may or may not explain why the temperatures have not gone up as much as some thought they would.

    But bear in mind the context: the temperature has gone up, and continues to go up. If you look at the Met Office plots, the warmest 15 years on record have all occurred since 1990. We had an outlier in 1998 – and we will always have occasions when such extreme weather events occur, that may or may not be related to climate change.

    What concerns me is the conduct of public debate. The slower rise of average temperature has resulted in scientists modifying slightly their estimates of climate sensitivity – that is, their estimates of what temperature rise is most likely if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is doubled. The change has not actually been that dramatic – and, of course, if there were further reasons for the range of estimates to come down still more, that would be welcome news.

    But while there has been a great deal of discussion of this, where has been the discussion about total emissions of greenhouse gases, which is the really important indicator? During the 2000s, emissions have been much higher than anyone anticipated. Since the global economic downturn of 2008-09 – an event that you might have thought would severely constrain emissions growth – global emissions have continued to rise at an unprecedentedly rapid rate. They rose by 6% in 2010 and by 3% in 2011, and preliminary information indicates something similar for 2012.

    So while the climate sensitivity has dropped a little, the emissions are going up at much faster rates. If you think about that from the point of view of overall temperature projections, of overall climate change, the higher-than-anticipated rise in emissions more than counterbalances the reduction in climate sensitivity."

  • As the partner of an RSA fellow I am going to ask him to cancel his membership.
    What were those final slides other than an utterly misanthropic rant against our lifestyles?
    I mean, how very dare those hen parties travel to Prague?!
    All this while estimates of climate sensitivity to rising CO2 are being revised downwards and the path of global temps is undershooting ALL climate model predictions.

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