12 January 2013

If we need a war footing to rebuild the physical economy, why can't we talk about it?

by Philip Sutton, Manager, RSTI

A 2009 WWF report says
"a 'war footing' may be the only
option" to re-industrialising
at the necessary speed
At the end of last year a very useful discussion was opened up by a number of climate scientists in different parts of the world calling for climate change action to be put onto a war footing.
    John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute, questioned the desirability of pursuing this approach. But how valid was John's critique? And is there a better response to the call from the climate scientists to go onto a war footing?

This is what John said in the Climate Institute's 13 December 2012 newsletter (emphasis added):
If you are not scared or getting scared, you are not paying attention. Yet another rollercoaster year for climate policy and investment is ending as a remarkable chorus of conservative voices from the World Bank, the World Meteorological Organisation, the International Energy Agency and others state that climate change is happening and on track to get much worse in terms of danger and expense. These are realities, not just risks.

     That the UN talks in Doha didn’t reflect that urgency was frustrating. But they made painstaking progress towards a global agreement by 2015 covering all major emitters. By establishing a framework for monitoring and verifying the commitments and action of countries, such an agreement is required for the trust and ambition needed for the multi-decadal, multi-national challenge ahead. Getting the vastly greater ambition needed on to that platform (or sooner) requires a reset within member nations with leadership, not just from politicians but from community, business and investors.
     Since its establishment in 2008, The Climate Institute’s Asset Owner’s Disclosure Project has both sought from and assisted leadership from Australian investors, particularly those looking after your and my retirement savings. This week with the AODP, now an independent body chaired by Dr John Hewson, we launched the results of the first global survey of superannuation and other funds’ management of climate risks. As Dr Hewson said, it found greenwash and reckless mismanagement, among some signs of progress. We will continue our focus on these investors in the new year. In the meantime, congratulations to Local Government Super for topping this year’s index.
     We are about to enter an election year without the carbon price scares but with plenty of sound and fury across the political spectrum. Australia’s high carbon economy is a high risk economy with high levels of political, economic and cultural inertia that needs to be engaged.
     We should focus on reducing Australia’s carbon addiction. But that shouldn’t convert into carbon nationalism which ignores the off-shore atmospheric reductions that can be driven by our carbon laws.
     We should recast investment and political agendas, though I admit to being troubled by war effort analogies. This is a rescue effort of mammoth and multi-decadal proportions. Some yearn for Churchillian efforts and other hero figures,. While I respect where they are coming from, I struggle to see how a war and sacrifice agenda can sustainably surmount our political, media (social and traditional), cultural and economic forces of inertia.
     The challenge is one of redefining prosperity, re-focusing on carbon and energy productivity, re-aligning investment and risk horizons and re-engaging people as citizens not consumers. It is also a challenge of holding to account those in politics and business who refuse to recognise the risks and ignore the opportunities in responding to climate change.
     We’ll have plenty of challenges and roller coaster rides next year, so I hope you all get time to rest and recharge with your families.
This message is quite amazing. It starts by saying that we should be scared about the fact that, barring some extraordinary effort, the world is now locked into a trajectory of catastrophic climate change — with no sign that governments are matching their action to meet this challenge — and he then goes on to say that he is "troubled" (!) by calls to tackle the problem with a wartime-style mobilisation driven by a Churchillian-level of leadership.
     On the face of it, these two points are completely contradictory. But the juxtaposition of the two ideas is obviously central to the message that John has written. So what is he really trying to say? I think the key to what John is saying lies in these sentences:
This (ie. what is required to solve the climate problem) is a rescue effort of mammoth and multi-decadal proportions. 
I struggle to see how a war and sacrifice agenda can sustainably surmount our political, media (social and traditional), cultural and economic forces of inertia.
My guess is that John feels that:
  • We live in a society dominated by (a) culture of short-term-focused self-interest, consumerism and outright selfishness and (b) the money power of business, with politics and media serving both, and
  • People will not be able to maintain a highly focused and united sacrifice mode for more than a few years (in the absence of overwelming here-and-now necessity like a total war);
  • By the time climate impacts have grown to match the losses inflicted by WW2 it will be too late to rescue ourselves because of the massive physical intertia of the climate systems (eg. the energy stored in the oceans);
  • The transformation of the economy to make it climate friendly will take many decades.
So, according to my reverse engineering of John's argument, most of the needed action must occur before a wartime mobilisation model can become feasible and the work of economic transformation will take longer than a wartime mobilisation can be held in place, so we therefore have no choice but to use self-interest motivators, such as business opportunity, to drive the needed change, supplemented by civic pressure to create modifications to the marketplace so the playing field is tipped to amplify the business opportunities of building a climate-friendly economy.
     This line of thinking seems pretty compelling until you consider how long it will take to build the climate-friendly economy using a reform-as-usual process.
     What recent World Bank, World Meteorological Organisation and International Energy Agency reports have been saying is that the current reform process globally is not going to be able to hold global warming to 2 degrees C.
     As John says, this is pretty scary, but maybe the solution is ramp up to a more vigorous reform process, but still within the change paradigm that John thinks can work? Is that possible?
    In 2009 WWF released a very important report called Climate Solutions 2: Low-Carbon Re-Industrialisation. This report scoped the physical changes needed in the economy to have a 50:50 chance of avoiding 2 degrees C or more of warming. It then estimated the upper limits within a market economy of the rate at which new industry sectors could be grown (consistently over decades) and tested the rate of industrial transformation required to meet the climate target against these limits.
     In the foreword to the report, James P Leape, Director General, WWF International, concluded:
The progress of climate change has not paused while our leaders have debated the issues over the past decades. The clock has continued to tick, inexorably counting down to the moment when, even if we do act, it may be too late to avoid runaway climate change.
     Climate Solutions 2 models this point of no return. It shows that the constraints of our industries, working in a market economy, leave us with just five years before the speed of transition required puts a viable solution beyond our reach.
     If we started today, the transformation required to move to a low-carbon world would need to be greater than any other industrial transformation witnessed in our history, but research shows that it can be achieved. This report not only indicates the size of the challenge, it shows us how it can be met and how we can proceed to a clean energy future. It also highlights the extraordinary opportunities for those investors and countries that move early.
     No matter how strong our desire for a transformation to a low-carbon world may be, the ability to make this transformation is restricted by available resources, manpower and technologies. That is why we only have until 2014 to set the wheels in motion. Beyond this, a "war footing" may be the only option remaining, with no guarantee of success".
So, according to this WWF research estimate, we are just one year off the time when the only possibility of avoiding a 2 degrees C temperature increase, using conventional technology (i.e. without solar radiation management), lies in transforming the physical economy by going onto a war footing.
    At the end of last year, the big global consulting firm, PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PwC), released its 2012 Low Carbon Economy Index Report. This report concluded:
The world will have to cut the rate of carbon emissions by an unprecedented rate to 2050 to stop global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C this century.
     To limit the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees C (3.6 Fahrenheit) carbon intensity would now have to be cut by over five percent a year to achieve that goal. That compares with the actual annual rate of 0.8 per cent from 2000 to 2011.
     Because of this slow start, global carbon intensity now needs to be cut by an average of 5.1 per cent a year from now to 2050. This rate of reduction has not been achieved in any of the past 50 years. (In an accompanying PwC video, Jonathan Grant said that a reduction of this magnitide had been achieved in the Second World War.)
     Climate scientists have warned that the chance of limiting the rise to below 2 degrees C is getting smaller. Even if the five per cent rate is achievable in the long term, decarbonisation will not be ramped up immediately, meaning that future cuts would have to be far more. Even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees C warming by the end of the century. To give ourselves a more than 50 per cent chance of avoiding 2 degrees C will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonisation.
Unfortunately though the reality is worse than indicated by both the WWF and PwC reports. The extreme weather events that have been assailing the world for the last ten years show that the earth is already way too hot, even with just under 1 degree C warming. We are already in the era of dangerous climate change now, heading fast into the era of catastrophic climate change.
    If the conclusions of the WWF and PwC reports are valid, then we do indeed need to go onto a war footing to rebuild the physical economy, and it seems pretty likely that we will need leadership to get us there that could legitimately be called Churchillean.
    But that presents us all with the dilemma that John has drawn our attention to, that is, it is likely to be very difficult to get onto a war footing soon enough and hold it there long enough to be able to prevent the worst climate impacts.
     I think however John's response of wanting to discourage people from talking about getting onto a war footing to tackle climate change, is counterproductive.
   A better approach, in my view, would be to raise the difficulties of getting onto a war footing and then challenge people to come up with new social change strategies that make such a mode of action politically and socially feasible, fast enough.



  1. Thank you for your current overview - I am finding you site a good summary of key science and global institutes current strategies/mindsets.

    I am coming from both a science and cultural perspective and the idea of a war footing is already described by some radical philosophers/activists. I tend to agree with them, that no matter how much information of catastrophe that has and could be presented, it runs counter to the global cultural paradigm of growth and dominance over the natural world and faith in technology. The book that best summarises this is 'Deep Green Resistance' that is evolving quite a discourse around this area, but it would be foreign and confronting to many in the science world. Some brave environmental writers are also beginning to talk about the inevitably of collapse too and why we need to abandon hope that things will change when consumerism and population are exponentially accelerating. To say to give up hope has challenged many. Anyway, thanks for your site.

    1. Dear ecoartfilm.com,

      The people who are spruiking that we should "give up hope" might be brave, but they are not, in my opinion, very helpful. We will not know that we've failed till we see what society is like in 100 or 1000 years time (maybe we succeed, maybe we seem to fail but something good comes out of the ashes. Who knows. But nobody alive today will be around to find out the answer. In the meantime, giving up improves our chances of failing, so it's not an option I plan to take up! :)
      Cheers, Philip

    2. Thanks Philip,

      in fact in Climate Code Red's most recent post the pulitzer writer Chris Hedges probably sums up so much better than what I could ever write about the challenges of facing up to failure.

      Its not that I mean that we shouldn't try and my own work instigating permanent forest practice in my woods and national forest policy is about that, but I hope also not to be ignorant of what we are facing, even it is is uncomfortable

  2. I enjoy your blog, and have nominated you for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award. The details are at http://jameswight.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/very-inspiring-blogger-award/

  3. My take is that we need to go on to a climate action war footing to lift the world economy out of its chronic doldrums. Saving the planet would be a bonus.

    1. I agree that you could get both benefits.

      Fixing the climate would be "good for the economy", but there would be a period during which we would most likely have to devote a significant slice of our discretionary income to the economy rebuilding effort. There would be full employment but the comfortably well off and the rich would have less money for consumption till the rebuilding effort was completed (or at least well underway).

  4. Having got a letter into the UK 'Independent' calling for a war footing on climate destabilization - back in '97 - my first response to John Connor would be to enquire what change his voluntarist approach has achieved in the last 20 years?

    Yet with the likes of Anderson promoting a bizarre version of a war-footing approach, with intentional global economic slump as the goal, discussion surely needs to focus on just what exactly is needed, and how that can deployed to build capacity and retain global support.

    It seems clear that if mitigation relies only on stringent Emissions Control (set here as near-zero GHG output by 2050) we should face serial global crop failures in the coming decades, plus the loss of the Sulphate Parasol (raising warming over 100%,) plus a massive acceleration of the major feedbacks' outputs. Due to the 30yr timelag, a 2050 Emissions Control target would not peak anthro-emissions warming until around 2080, giving 68 years for these effects' growth.

    Such a strategy is patently unsustainable - under the outcome of widespread destitution no gov.t could honour its commitments and retain office. The first global crop failure would be liable to cause geo-political destabilization collapsing the effort. This prospect negates both Connor and Anderson's proposals, since neither approach avoids or could endure this outcome.

    The thing the public needs to see to maintain support for the contraction of energy usage (we patently need to achieve frugal demand as well as sustainable supply) is that the climate stops getting ever more unstable, that crop yields are restored to reliability, and that the ocean acidification threat to fisheries is declining. If people don't see positive results, there will certainly be demagogues delighted to harvest the discontent.

    - Continued

  5. It has long been pointed out by a persistent few that with six out of seven major interactive feedbacks already accelerating, and with every coal-plant's closure cutting our maintenance of the Sulphate Parasol, the well-supervised use of geo-e will inevitably be required for these threats' timely control. Similarly, the threat of ocean acidification cannot be controlled without geo-e's other mode - Carbon Recovery, for all it is too slow to affect the critical coming decades' warming.

    The climatalogical case for geo-e as the complement to Emissions Control has thus long been made; what is needed is advancement of the political case - that the climatalogically deficient outcome of Emissions-Control-alone makes it geo-politically unsustainable. A politically viable (durable) treaty will include the requisite mandates for the governance of both modes of geo-e.

    We need to get clear that a war-footing economy is one that diminishes the enemy's capacity to do harm faster than it cuts our ability to organize, fund and equip our counter-measures, and crucially, that does so faster than our popular morale and support for the effort can be eroded. While Connor blithely ignores the requisite rate of change, it seems that Anderson ignores these very basic tenets of conflict management, besides the sheer impracticality of promoting his strategy globally.

    I suggest that we need to make the point loud and clear that a war-footing economy for climate mitigation requires a global treaty that sets up:
    - stringent Emissions Controls to end the problem's exacerbation as fast as global poverty-reduction allows;
    - a well supervised program of Carbon Recovery (via widespread afforestation for biochar for sequestration) gradually cleansing the atmosphere of its problematic excess CO2;
    - a well supervised program of Albedo Restoration to swiftly reduce global temperature, thereby offsetting the loss of the Sulphate Parasol, halting the acceleration of the feedbacks, and regaining reliable agricultural outputs during the long period needed for Emissions Control and Carbon Recovery to be completed.

    If anyone can show how anything less than this comprehensive approach can be described as commensurate, let alone as a war-footing strategy, I should be interested to see it.



    1. Lewis,

      I agree that we need an economy that can (a) take us quickly to effectively zero net global emissions of greeenhouse gases, (b) draw down all the excess CO2 in the air, and (c) provide solar radiation management to cool the planet by at least 0.5ºC and ideally by 0.8ºC until this temperature target can be mainstained natually.

      I think we should stop promoting economic growth as a fetish, but I don't think we should set out to make it impossible. A better approach would be to 100% decouple economic change (including any growth that might occur) from environmental damage.

      My guess is that if we adopted a "war footing" to tackle climate change the economy would actually grow strongly (as occurred in the US in WW2 after Pearl Harbour).


  6. Philip,
    Many thanks for this bold and provocative post, the questions you pose are of great significance to the climate movement and are deserving of wide attention.

    While I have great respect for John Connor's skill and commitment as an advocate, I can't agree that there is anything to be troubled about in calls for a 'wartime mobilisation' response to climate change. I would urge John to rethink the strategic position he's outlined in the Climate Institute's December newsletter.

    I couldn't agree more strongly with the line that those who are not scared are simply not paying attention (or are blinded by ideological blinkers). From the Arctic ice melt to temperature records, floods, fires, storms and ocean acidification, the evidence, observations and projections that are pouring in are beyond alarming. We need to pay much more attention to the prospect of hitting tipping points that will swamp anthropogenic emissions and deal us out of the mitigation game - the 2 degrees 'guardrail' is aptly named, jumping over it will have consequences.

    As you've established Philip, timing is crucial. Whether we are not already too late to be able to bring down emissions is uncertain, but it should be clear that reform-as-usual is a woefully insufficient approach. We can attempt to redefine prosperity, cajole and entice the investment community, and confront and expose the deniers in politics and business until we are blue in the face, but I just can't see this stopping big oil, coal and gas from chasing their performance bonuses/serving their shareholders. Or motivating the emergency action required to pull hard on all levers to acheive near term, fast acting radiative forcing emissions abatement as well as the slower acting CO2 reductions needed.

    While a mammoth and multi-decadal effort is required, we have delayed the needed action too long already. Nothing less than a wartime mobilisation effort will be sufficient to trigger the scale and pace of changes needed to address the clear and present dangers the science predicts, and that we are seeing just the early signs of.

    No doubt adopting a 'war footing' anytime soon will be difficult, and will require talented and exceptional leadership to establish and sustain, but these are extraordinary times.

    Some have argued that it will take an overwhelming catastrophe to shake society out of our current complacency and inertia, and that by the time we see this it may be too late to act. I can only hope we are not already past this point, and I think it's safe to assume we will keep seeing dramatic and extreme weather events, along with further refinements of the science.

    Surely the weight of evidence and argument is now sufficient to enable visionary and persuasive leaders to make the case for our society and institutions to 'join the dots' and accept the need for a rapid and far-reaching escalation of the mitigation effort. Given what the science is saying, surely this is an imperative we cannot afford to further ignore?

    Calling for a war mobilisation effort is powerful rhetoric and metaphor, and perhaps it does risk frightening the children, and inviting derision from the unpersuaded. At this juncture I'm convinced that nothing less will provide the necessary response in the timeframes available, or can succeed in sustainably surmounting the range of forces of inertia and complacency that have obstructed action called for by the science to date.

    How we go about achieving this is a question that would be much easier to address once we have a broader consensus that it is the necessary strategic approach.