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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  • great blog Jonathan - we can only hope to inspire a few more 'red pill' moments with Also great to have Kevin Anderson on our doorstep here in Manchester - one of the better science communicators out there at the moment.

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