13 February 2011

4 degrees hotter: an adaptation trap?

Download the Climate Action Centre primer "4 degrees hotter"

"Can, and how would, we live in a world 4 degrees Celsius warmer?" is no longer an abstract question, but one that has become the subject of debate in scientific circles, and now in the community.

Global political failure to reach agreement on greenhouse gas reduction measures in accord with the scientific imperatives will result in 4 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100, if only the present levels of commitments by nations are achieved.

But is talk of, and planning for, adaptation to a 4-degree warmer world realistic, or delusional?

4 degrees became a sensitive issue in 2008 when an influential and controversial paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research concluded that:
…it is increasingly unlikely any global agreement will deliver the radical reversal in emission trends required for stabilization at 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm CO2e). Similarly, the current framing of climate change cannot be reconciled with the rates of mitigation necessary to stabilize at 550 ppm CO2e and even an optimistic interpretation suggests stabilization much below 650 ppm CO2e is improbable.
In other words, adaptation would be much better guided by stabilization at 650 ppm, which is around a 4C warming. Professor Bob Watson, the chief scientific adviser to the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, warned that the UK should take active steps to prepare for dangerous climate change. Whilst a much lower outcome was necessary, Watson argued that “we should be prepared to adapt to 4C” warmer.

As The Guardian reported, Watson’s plea to prepare for the worst was backed up by the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. He said that even with a comprehensive global deal to keep carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at below 450 ppm there is a 50% probability that temperatures would exceed 2C and a 20% probability they would exceed 3.5C:
So even if we get the best possible global agreement to reduce greenhouse gasses on any rational basis you should be preparing for a 20% risk so I think Bob Watson is quite right to put up the figure of 4C.
But Professor Neil Adger, a Tyndall Centre climate change adaptation expert thought:
…that is a dangerous mindset to be in. Thinking through the implications of 4C of warming shows that the impacts are so significant that the only real adaptation strategy is to avoid that at all cost because of the pain and suffering that is going to cost... There is no science on how we are going to adapt to 4C warming. It is actually pretty alarming.
So what does 4 degrees feel and look like? In a new primer, the Climate Action Centre has surveyed some of the literature. In a nutshell, it is one in which:
  • The world would be warmer than during any part of the period in which modern humans evolved, and the rate of climate change would be faster than any previously experienced by humans. The world's sixth mass extinction would be in full swing. In the oceans, acidification would have rendered many calcium-shelled organisms such as coral and many at the base of the ocean food chain artefacts of history. Ocean ecosystems and food chains would collapse.
  • Half of the world would be uninhabitable. Likely population capacity: under one billion people. Whilst the loss will be exponential and bunch towards the end of the century, on average that is a million human global warming deaths every week, every year for the next 90 years. The security implications need no discussion
  • Paleoclimatology tells us that the last time temperatures were 4C above pre-industrial (during the Oligocene 30 million years ago), there were no large ice-sheets on the planet and sea levels were 65–70 metres higher than today. Whilst ice sheets take time to lose mass, and the rise to 2100 may be only 1–2 metres (or possibly a couple more according to James Hansen), the world would be on the way to 65–70 metres.
  • 3C may be the “tipping point” where global warming could be driven by positive feedbacks, leaving us powerless to intervene as planetary temperatures soared. James Hansen says warming has brought us to the "precipice of a great tipping point”. If we go over the edge, it will be a transition to “a different planet”, an environment far outside the range that has been experienced by humanity. There will be "no return within the lifetime of any generation that can be imagined, and the trip will exterminate a large fraction of species on the planet".
And we are talking about how we might adapt to a 4-degree warmer world? Have we gone mad?

In part, there is ignorance, real or feigned. Former prime minister John Howard told Tony Jones on ABC’s “Lateline” in 2007 that an increase of 4–6 degrees would be “less comfortable for some than it is now”. But there is also a pervasive assumption that our species can adapt to whatever is thrown at us by climate change. After all, we are the masters of the planet whose industrial revolution gave us the tools to conquer distance, hold back the elements and tame nature.

In his 2010 book, “Requiem for a Species”, Clive Hamilton lays bare the trap of the “adaptation myth”:
The new understanding of the climate system and the likely influences of tipping points induced by human intervention also forces us to reconsider one of the other foundations of international negotiations and national climate strategies, the belief in the ability to adapt. From the outset of the global warming debate some have argued that as much emphasis should be placed on adapting to climate change as on mitigating it. As the setting and meeting of targets appears more difficult, more people began talking about the need to adapt. 
Underlying the discussion is an unspoken belief that one way or another we (in rich countries) will be able to adapt in a way that broadly preserves our way of life because global warming will change things slowly, predictably and manageably. Wealthy countries can easily afford to build flood defences to shield roads and shopping centres from storm surges, and we can ‘climate proof’ homes against the effects of frequent heatwaves. Yet if our belief in our ability to stabilise the Earth’s climate is misconceived then so is our belief in our ability to adapt easily to climate change. If instead of a smooth transition to a new, albeit less pleasant, climate warming sets off a runaway process, adaptation will be a never-ending labour.
The adaptation trap finds voice in those sceptics and delayers such as Roger Pielke Jr and Bjorn Lomborg, who insist that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it. Pielke calls for “rejecting bad policy arguments when offered in the way of substitutes for adaptation, like the tired old view that today’s disaster losses are somehow a justification for changes to energy policies”.

Events such as New Orleans after cyclone Katrina should disavow the notion that adaptation (rebuilding the city) is more economical that mitigation (strengthening the storm defences before the event). And it won’t take too long to figure out that building a new energy system is cheaper than constantly rebuilding lives and buildings and infrastructure and agriculture when “1-in-a-100 year” extreme heatwaves, droughts, fires, floods and cyclones become regular events on the hotter planet calendar.

It is clear that our collective survival depends on the most radical mitigation effort we can imagine. Climate change is already dangerous, it is no longer a future-tense proposition. The hour is late. James Hansen, in a new paper, says that “...goals of limiting human-made warming to 2C and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster.” At just 0.8C warming so far, he says we have little or no “cushion” left to avoid dangerous climate change.

Restoring a safe climate means the world very quickly building a zero-emissions economy without fossil fuels, and reducing the current level of greenhouse gases. It is a vast undertaking akin to a post-war reconstruction, but we have the technologies and the economic capacity. What we presently lack is an honest conversation about where we are headed, and the political will to build the solutions that are already available to us.

Our time is better spent working out how to make the impossible happen, rather than living the delusion that reasonable adaptation is possible to a 4-degree warmer world.

David Spratt


  1. Almost as if I can sense another book coming David, wonderful piece and the timing couldn't be better. It coincides with Frankston Council placing an "Adaptation Strategy" out for public comment that recommends "placing more shade structures in the public realm, planting seasonal grasses to maintain sports venues and hydration information"......

    My still unanswered question is "What are we adapting to", I think you answered that pretty well. I have passed this on to Council officers.

  2. The difficulty with framing the discussion in terms of x degrees temperature change is that people think about natural daily and seasonal temperature variations of 20 degrees or more. Another difficulty is that people easily fall into the trap of thinking that the climate will be static at x degrees more than today, when in practice positive feedbacks invite a dynamic exponential pattern of temperature rises completely incompatible with survival.

    However the difficulty with discussing runaway scenarios is that they are inherently unpredictable and people are averse to doom-laden scenarios. Our minds offer us a choice between delusion and doom and we're programmed to choose the least painful path even if it leads to the other destination.

    Your excellent conclusion, "Our time is better spend working out how to make the impossible happen" offers another path to choose, evading both delusion and doom by designing solutions on the scale of what's needed. The link on my name offers my suggestion how to do that. I hope it's of use?

  3. What an inspiring article for people with a background in science who care enough to read it. I wish everyone on the planet could read it and take it in.

    It is as though politicians have a very limited capacity to understand science, the new premier...a climate change denier who just put cattle back in the high country in exchange for votes for example.

    75% of the population in a recent survey did not believe in climate change.

    Climate science needs to be taught in every school, every kinder, every university, to everyone. Those who believe in it need to volunteer nationally until not one educational stone remains, we need to campaign for the science to be in curriculums, our children have the right to understand the world they are going to live in if we do not change.

    We have a collective imperative to understand this. Never mind learning about Abbott's "What happened around the time of christianity campaign in history"lets campaign for the inclusion of climate change.

    People in the West think that this will not affect them, just build stronger houses, levys etc. That's fine, but those efforts also contribute to climate change by using more and more resources.

    People think well if there is no ocean I can eat meat, or veggies, thats OK I don't care if the ocean dies. I don't care if my Merbau deck kills the orang-utan, I don't care if my mobile phone kills gorillas, we have to have a phone and a deck, hey there are alternatives, yes but Merbau is cheap and you get it from Bunnings.

    I am not sure how you make stupid people intelligent,or those who are insensitive feel, or how you make people who are in power sacrifice themselves to do the right thing, or have people step into the shoes of people whose islands will sink.

    Queensland is just seen as a co-incidence..remember when blah happened.

    Education has been the answer along the ages, it worked when religion was taken to the African people through the missionaries.

    We need to get this message out to people who otherwise would not listen.We need to have a voice with those who are not converted!

  4. The adaptation trap is a strategy for those who despair of affecting the political process. When this article was posted up at Climate and Capitalism the point was made that Monbiot made similar arguments two years ago (see )

    The fact that the same points need to be made 2 years later is what’s chilling. But as Wendell Berry puts it:

    “To accept that there is nothing to do is to despair,” Berry said. “It is to become in some fundamental way less than human. Those of us who are protesting are protesting in part for our own sake to keep ourselves whole as human beings. We don’t agree that it is impossible because we don’t intend trying to stop it.”
    (from )

  5. Oops, formatting error, the missing links from the previous comment are
    1. http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=650
    2. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article27468.htm

  6. I will start this by saying that I am not a global warning denier. However, having said that, I am sick and tired of these kinds of "warnings" and "predictions". Do not tell me there is no hope. Environmentalists do great harm to the cause of preserving and repairing our planet when they persist in such reports. They completly ignore all the tools and efforts that are already being made in this area and ignore the technical progress that is under developement around the world to make better tools yet. Yes there will be change and a lot of it may be seen by some to be negative, however I believe that this is simply a failure of scope of vision on pretty much every one's part. Those living fourty years ago had no idea what the present would look like, neither do we looking forward. Grow up.

  7. You use the words 'the most radical mitigation effort we can imagine.' Do you know what you are saying? Can you imagine a few Hiroshimas & Nagasakis in key parts of the economic monster which needs to be stopped dead in its tracks? Or is that not radical enough?
    Instead the Maquis could disable the Aussie coal freight industry with more ease than they disrupted the Nazi controlled railways in France - now that is not the least bit radical so why the radical talk?

  8. Anonymous throws up the cross of technology a lot. Have you taken a look at what is happening in the Arctic and with Siberia's methane hydrates?

    As for Hiroshimas & Nagasakis, the extra energy we're adding to the climate and ocean system every day is roughly equivalent to the energy of 1 million hiroshima explosions, and about 500 million a year.

    No wonder corals are expected to be extinct by 2050, the ocean acidified, the shellfish dead, and our agricultural land turn to desert or floodland. We use 37% of earths surface for agriculture. That is free dirt, water, and sunlight. It's not easy to replace that with technology when you've triggered runaway global warming. Especially for 7 billion people. Maybe if we stopped wasting money and resources on luxury items and moved straight to a food-education-communication-local society and eliminated mass transport and travel we could save ourselves. But we don't have an effective replacement for fossil fuels as it exists today. The only option is to choose another, better alternative lifestyle.

    Will we stop at 4-6 degrees? I don't know. But if Hans Schellenhuber and Alvia Gaskill are correct, then we could be headed for 15 degrees which is total human extinction.

    What tools do you propose we use to stop that? Or can we simply change our minds and behaviour, while adopting geoengineering, synthetic food, and nuclear power?

    I guess for some people, an extinction crisis that threatens to eliminate all mammals just isn't serious enough. And it kinda is too late...we're probably going to have to fight wars now too.


  9. Can someone PLEASE update the links several are dead now...