10 May 2021

What roles for markets and for the state when climate risk is existential?

Climate system tipping points. From Climate Reality Check 2020

This blog is based on a paper given to the University of Hamburg's “Unsustainable Past – Sustainable Futures?” conference on 12 February 2021.  A video of the presentation is available. 

by David Spratt

In his foreword to our 2018 Breakthrough report on scientific reticence and the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the Director Emeritus of the Potsdam Institute, wrote that:

"When the issue is the very survival of our civilisation... conventional means of analysis may become useless."

And yes, he was talking about the IPCC! This failure of analysis extends beyond the science of climate change, to the political economy of climate disruption. 

The climate policymaking orthodoxy is that markets can efficiently price and mitigate climate risks, but this blog argues that when risks are existential — that is, a permanent and drastic curtailing of human civilisation’s future development — then the damages are beyond calculation. What follows is that conventional climate cost-benefit analyses and climate-economy models, which rely on the quantification of both the potential damages and the  probabilities, are of little value, and that markets cannot efficiently assess or optimally price the risk.

13 April 2021

Net zero emissions must be reached before 2030 for 2°C target, new analysis says

 

by Michael Mazengarb, RenewEconomy

Calculations of global carbon budgets have underestimated potential increases in global temperatures, and the world will have to dramatically accelerate its decarbonisation efforts, a new analysis of climate projections has argued.

According to new briefing note published by the  National Centre for Climate Restoration, also known as Breakthrough, carbon budgets calculated by authorities like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are virtually meaningless due to a failure to adequately account for feedback effects, and are likely to lock in higher temperature increases.

02 March 2021

Zero by 2050 or 2030? 1.5°C or 2°C? Overshoot or not? Demystifying carbon budgets.


by David Spratt

Confused about carbon budgets for the Paris climate  goals? Zero by 2050 or 2030? 1.5°C or 2°C? Overshoot or not?

There is a maze of contradictory positions,  claiming to be based on research evidence. But the assumptions behind much of that evidence obscures some startling conclusions.  

The Breakthough Briefing Note on "Carbon budgets for 1.5 & 2°C",  released today, explores some of the myths and realities about the Paris Agreement targets and the associated carbon budgets, and what it would really take to achieve them.

The main findings are:

  • IPCC carbon budgets underestimate current and future warming, omit important climate system feedback mechanisms, and make dangerous assumptions about risk-management.
  • 1.5°C of warming is likely by 2030 or earlier, a product of past emissions.
  • There is no carbon budget for the 1.5°C goal; such “budgets” rely on overshoot, with unrealistic reliance on speculative technologies.
  • The current level of greenhouse gases is enough for around 2°C of warming, or more.
  • 2°C of warming is far from safe, and may trigger the “Hothouse Earth” scenario.
  • There is no carbon budget for 2°C if a sensible risk-management approach is taken.
  • Even accepting the IPCC carbon budget for 2°C at face value, emissions need to be zero before 2030 for developed countries with higher per capita emissions.

08 February 2021

Matters of fact that we ignore at our peril

by David Spratt

“Political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it’s completely useless.”  

That statement, by Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, was the starting point for a presentation I gave on Tuesday 2 February at the "Matters of Fact" public forum organised by the National Climate Emergency Summit as part of its Reset.21 series of public discussions.

On the panel were Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser for the United Kingdom and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist from the University of NSW. The moderator was journalist and university teacher Jo Chandler.

The video of the event is available on YouTube...  

 


27 January 2021

New research on forests and oceans suggest projections of future warming may be too conservative, with serious consequences

 

By David Spratt

How much will the world warm with ongoing fossil-fuel carbon emissions? It’s a big question that preoccupies policymakers and activists, with important discussions about when the world will hit two degrees, are we really on a path to four degrees of warming with current Paris commitments, and so on.

And the answer is that the world is likely to warm more than current projections, if two recently published pieces of research on the terrestrial and ocean carbon sinks are any guide.

Warming projections and carbon sinks. Future warming projections come from complex climate models, which combine historic data, current observations, equations that encompass current understandings of the bio-geo-physical processes, and some assumptions about processes where direct observation or modelling is more difficult.  

02 November 2020

Net-zero emissions by 2050: Leadership or climate colonialism?

A boy rides his bike through floodwaters near the airport in Funafuti, Tuvalu. The low-lying nation has been classified as extremely vulnerable to climate change. Picture: Getty Images/Canberra Times
  

by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt, first published by The Canberra Times

How fast does Australia need to reduce greenhouse emissions to play its fair part in responding to the global climate emergency?

One answer jumps out: "net-zero emissions by 2050". Suddenly almost everybody is clambering aboard this train: state governments, big business, investors, mining companies such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Shell, and community advocacy organisations.

But there is a problem: what if this target is just another bit of the colonialism we rejected long ago? A sense of entitlement in this rich, developed country to keep on polluting for another three decades, a country whose leaders insist its wealth must continue to be built on a high output of greenhouse emissions, in the process denying some of the poorest and least developed nations their very survival? Particularly our neighbours in the Pacific.

13 October 2020

What must climate and energy policy really achieve? It's time for a ...

 

by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt, first posted at Pearls and Irritations

The Australian Government is dangerously out-of-touch as climate change accelerates and a cascade of tipping points risks unstoppable global warming.

The glaring omission from the spate of announcements on the Federal Government’s latest attempt to structure a climate and energy policy, and in the media commentary, is the absence of clarity on what it is designed to achieve.

Minister Angus Taylor set the scene in the First Low Emissions Technology Statement 2020: “History shows that we solve hard problems through enterprise and innovation. —- The global race to reduce emissions will be no exception”.  A good start, but what is the problem to be solved when the Minister insists “you cannot set targets without a plan to get there”? Rather, strategy is based on “technology not taxes”, and “the Government’s efforts will focus on new and emerging technologies with the potential for transformational economic and emissions outcomes”.

09 October 2020

Surviving the age of extreme heat

by Alex Smith 

This is the introduction  to a new book, Surviving the age of Extreme Heat, by RadioEcoshock host, Alex Smith, featuring his interviews with leading practitioners.

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Nobody alive or dead has ever seen anything like the heat waves here on Earth in the current century.

No human has ever lived with carbon dioxide levels this high in the atmosphere. That carbon load continues to climb as motorized life and fossil-powered electricity spread across the globe. The human cloud of greenhouse gases finds an echo as disappearing forests release their carbon on every continent.

In my home on the west coast of Canada, 2018 was our second year of Fire Emergency. Over 700 large fires burned through the mountains. Gigantic out-of-control blazes lit up the night, and then buried the day sky with thick smoke.  Day was turned into night. Thousands of people were evacuated, turning on their vehicle headlights at ten in the morning.

Our annual family camping trip to a nearby lake in the mountains was smoked out. I was imprisoned indoors for weeks with two HEPA air-cleaning filters running 24/7. Two fires popped up within a few miles of the Radio Ecoshock studio. We had our photos and clothes packed, ready to evacuate at any minute. The stress became stressful.  I was not sure I would still have a studio to make each week's radio program.

02 October 2020

LobbyLand

Photo: Unsplash
 
In Australia, denial mounts. The recent “Gas-Led Recovery” and “Technological Roadmap” announcements of the  Morrison government confirm the continued influence of the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists.

by Ian Dunlop, first published at Pearls and Irritations

Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels have played a central role in the development of human civilisation. Without them, the explosion in population, economic activity and wealth creation would never have occurred.  Not surprisingly, those in control of the industry have gained enormous influence over the direction of global and national affairs.

Australia is particularly well-endowed with fossil fuels, notably coal and gas, less so oil.  As a result, our economy is heavily dependent upon those fuels, both for domestic energy supply and in generating export income, far more so than most other nations.  Coal and LNG comprising around 23% of Australia’s export income, with fossil fuels supplying around 94% of Australia’s primary energy needs.

28 September 2020

When climate risks are so high, short term actions matter most

by David Spratt, first published at Pearls and Irritations

Last week, Prince Charles was the climate radical. Speaking by video link to Climate Week in New York, he said that the focus on 2050 climate targets “suggests we have room to delay” but, on the contrary, “it is absolutely vital, given the enormity of the problem we face, that we make truly transformative progress along the road to net zero by 2030”.

By contrast, when Australian energy minister Angus Taylor launched his energy roadmap this week, Australia’s not-for-profit climate lobby’s main message was that “the Federal Government is behind the pack in its refusal to commit to a net-zero by 2050 emissions target”.

There was no talk about zero emissions by 2030, or in fact any 2030 goal, which appears to have become a threatened species. Advocates feared they would not be heard if they were “politically unrealistic”, but this is about science, too. And if you talk about 2050 just as most of the world is, you’ll be drowned out anyway, caught somewhere in the middle of the peloton, and certainly not up the front in the 2030 breakaway leaders’ group.

09 September 2020

We live in “disaster alley”: Australia and the region are particularly vulnerable

Coastal NSW rivers stopped flowing
during 2019 record-breaking drought:
The Barnard River, a tributary
of the Manning River, at Bretti
Reserve. Photo: Darren Ray
by David Spratt

The following is the text of a presentation today to the opening session of the Smart Energy Council’s 2020 Virtual Conference and Exhibition. 

In this Covid-19 period, I should start by re-affirming that the first duty of government is to protect the people: their health, safety and well-being. This requires management of high-end risks —  such as nuclear and biochemical weapons, pandemics, climate disruption, ecological and economic collapse  and so on  — where the threat may be catastrophic or existential. 

In managing such risks, Covid19 provides some alarming insights into this challenge. Last year the Inaugural Global Health Security Index of pandemic preparedness found, in their words,  “severe weaknesses in countries’ abilities to prevent, detect, and respond to significant disease outbreaks” with an average global score of 40/100.

Remarkably, given what has eventuated since, it found the USA the “most prepared” nation, and the UK second most prepared. Nations and experts believed they were prepared, but were not. That parallels the politics of climate disruption. 

24 August 2020

Economic rigidity generates extreme risks including collapse

by Ian Dunlop, first published at Pearls and Irritations 

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A review of The Coal Curse – Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future by Judith Brett, Quarterly Essay 78.

The first part of Coal Curse is a masterly dissection of Australian economic history since WW2.
It brings into sharp focus the divide between the protectionist – primary producer and manufacturing – forces of the immediate post-war period and the gradual shift to a neoliberal globalist model which favoured the mining sector.  The transition was marked by the Hawke/Keating 1983 decision to float the dollar, and Paul Keating’s “Banana Republic” outburst three years later as commodity prices and the exchange rate fell, illustrating the dangers of an overly rigid economic system being left too late to reinvent itself in a rapidly globalising world.

Luckily, economic expansion in Asia in the 1970s, 80s and 90s provided relief as demand for primary products soared – agriculture as before, but increasingly minerals and fossil fuels, notably coal and most recently gas.

13 August 2020

“Fear” versus “hope” in #climate communications. How about brutal honesty?

by David Spratt

 “Fear” versus “hope”. It can be a sterile debate, with straw figures and mischaracterisations, none more frequent than the claim that "fear" messages involve alarmism or an exaggeration of the published literature. But that is not often the case and in my experience cries of "alarmism" generally reflect a lack of knowledge of the brutal truth about the existential risks of climate disruption. 

After a year of unprecedented bushfires and a world turned upside down by Covid-19, there is a need for positive news, but that should not involve a collapse into bright-siding, the belief that you can control your outlook with relentless positive thinking and a sunny disposition, and by refusing to consider negative outcomes. It requires deliberate self-deception.  Barbara Ehrenreich says of the US that believing the country impervious to a 9/11-style attack (or Covid-19), and incapable of failure in Iraq or a Wall Street crash, can exist because there was no inclination to imagine the worst, as well as the best. In the end, bright-siding strips away critical analysis. As Ehrenreich says, enforced optimism obstructs the progressive agenda, producing an enforced stupidity. In other words, optimism is conservative, while realism and forthrightness are progressive. 

So here is a Twitter thread on "fear" versus "hope" in climate communications

The full thread is: 

11 August 2020

Canary in the coalmine: A former senior fosil fuel executive speaks out

by Ian Dunlop

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This post is the introduction, by Ian Dunlop, to the publication this week by Breakthrough of a collection of Ian's media commentary articles.  Ian is is a senior member of the Breakthrough Advisory Board and a Member of the Club of Rome. He was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is co-author of “What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk”, and of the Club of Rome’s “Climate Emergency Plan”.

This publication brings together some of my commentaries over the last three years on the need for real action on climate change. Not the normal variety of political action, but an emergency approach, akin to a wartime level of response, which before long will have to be adopted as impacts escalate around this hot, dry and vulnerable continent, and around the world.

Climate change is now an existential risk to humanity which, unless addressed immediately as a genuine emergency, will likely destroy civilisation as we know it within decades. We are not going to let that happen. 

28 July 2020

Are worst-case climate scenarios less likely, as media reports of a new scientific paper suggest?


by David Spratt

Reading the media reporting of a new scientific paper released on 22 July, it was easy to get the impression that some “worse-case” climate warming possibilities are now off the agenda. “So this is good news?” a friend emailed. “No” was my answer.

It would be a grave mistake, and an illustration of how media reporting can get complex climate stories wrong, to find good news in this research. 

The research in question is “An assessment of Earth’s climate sensitivity using multiple lines of evidence”. Climate sensitivity is the amount of warming to be expected from a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found the range was 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius (°C).

09 July 2020

As warming approaches 1.5°C, talk of a carbon budget for the Paris targets is delusional

by David Spratt

There's a lot of delusional talk about how much "carbon budget" (or new emissions) are allowable that would still keep global heating to the Paris target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C). The reality is that over the last year, global average warming was already close to 1.5°C, based on a true, pre-industrial baseline.

And the warming already in the system may well be enough to take the planet past 2°C, without any more emissions. The propositions pushed by governments, big business and many large climate movement NGOs that we have a "carbon budget" available for the Paris targets runs contrary to the evidence and suggests a world of politically convenient make-believe. 

Figure 1: Global warming July-to-June, illustrated here with a
1981-2010 baseline.  Image by CarbonBrief.

Here's why:
  • According to CopernicusECMWF, globally, the twelve-month period from July 2019 to June 2020 was 0.65°C warmer than the 1981-2010 average (see chart above).
  • Then 0.63°C should be added to these values to relate recent global temperatures to the pre-industrial level defined as a late 19th century baseline.
  • So warming for the period July 2019-June 2020 is 1.28°C, compared to the late19th  century, for which instrumental temperature records are available from 1850.  This ties with the warmest year on record.
  • But there was also warming from the start of the industrial revolution and the use of coal from the mid-eighteenth century, up to the end of the nineteenth century. That figure ranges up to 0.19°C, according to Importance of the pre-industrial baseline for likelihood of exceeding Paris goals
  • And new research published last year found that gaps with missing data in the observational temperature record are responsible for an underestimation of the global warming between 1881–1910 and 1986–2015 by 0.1°C.
  • Adding up all those components takes the warming over the last year, from a true pre-industrial base, very close to the lower end of the 1.5-2°C Paris goal, whilst recognising there is some uncertainty about warming in the pre-1850 period. 

02 July 2020

Canberra unprepared for climate upheavals that will rock the nation

By David Sprat, first published at RenewEconomy

Covid-19 should teach us the value of being fully prepared for catastrophic risks, but on climate disruption risks the Australian Government is walking blindfolded off a cliff.


Unprecedented bushfires, Covid-19 and climate warming all raise the question of the preparedness of governments to deal with catastrophic risks, and what allows nations to successfully respond to big crises.

Those lauding the Australian Government for its pandemic response overlook the fact that, early on, this nation may have been on the disastrous "herd immunity" policy path. On 15 March, the Chief Medical Officer defended keeping schools open because “if they (school children) are getting infected and they’re perfectly well, whilst they might spread it, it also creates a herd immunity”. Australia appears to have changed course due to the stronger advocacy by State premiers, and the alarming early evidence from Italy and Spain about the consequences when the virus takes hold of a population.

In his recent book, Upheaval: How nations cope with crisis and change, geographer and anthropologist Jarod Diamond concludes that the key predictors of success in facing crises are “acknowledgment rather than denial of a crisis’s reality; acceptance of responsibility to take action; and honest self-appraisal”, plus the “presence or absence of a shared national identity” which can help a nation’s people recognise shared self-interest and unite in overcoming a crisis.

06 May 2020

Covid-19 climate lessons

by David Spratt and Alia Armsitead
This post is the concluding section of a discussion paper, Covid-19 climate lessons, just published by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.
Download the discussion paper
The novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has striking parallels with climate disruption.

The threat was well known and catastrophic, even existential. History’s valuable lessons were ignored. Researchers were clear on what needed to be done, and how to respond. The UN had devoted a whole section to the issue, governments ran risk scenarios and national security analysts warned of the consequences. The developed world had the capacity to be ready. And to support less prosperous nations, or should have been.

When it became fatal, it was conceived by wealthy nations as a threat somewhere else, because they were insulated. Then there was the denial, the delay, wanting to avoid any economic dislocation. Modern society was good at research, solutions would appear, no need to panic. Humans had tamed nature.

16 April 2020

Fatal calculations: How bad economics encouraged climate inaction

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Pandemics and climate disruption are existential risks that require that particular emphasis be placed on the high-impact possibilities, not middle-of-the road outcomes. Released today by Breakthrough, Fatal calculations: How economics has underestimated climate damage and encouraged inaction, shows how economists  have ignored the real risks of climate change.  This is the introduction to the report.

by David Spratt and Alia Armistead

At the heart of global policymaking is a concern that mitigation should not be economically disruptive or curtail future growth in production. Perhaps as a consequence, and in order to mesh with this policy paradigm, the economic methods of analysis applied to climate change have underestimated the risks and provided reasons to delay action.

The evidence is all around us. Listen to most governments and business leaders, and especially those nations with a large carbon footprint, and the climate conversation for decades has been about taking it slowly; of incremental policy change that does not rock the economic boat, cost jobs, disturb growth or disadvantage significant national industries.  With minimal discussion about the jobs and growth that will be destroyed in a hotter world.

05 March 2020

Scott Morrison's duty is to protect the Australian people. There is no greater threat than climate disruption

Our government continues to focus on the supposedly horrendous cost of climate action without mentioning the benefits 


by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, first published by The Guardian

The first duty of a government is to protect the people. There is no greater threat than climate disruption as the world heads to 3C or more warming, possibly by mid-century, yet the prime minister is unwilling to explain the implications.

Asked by Zali Steggall in parliament recently about the costs of 3C of warming, Scott Morrison replied that “we do understand there are costs associated with climate change”, but was incapable of saying what they were.