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Brilliant Liars: The Real Climate Scandal

Cartoon of Earth with HumanWarning: an evening with Prof Kevin Anderson, one of the UK's leading climate scientists at the internationally renowned Tyndall Centre, is not for the faint hearted.

Nor is he popular with his fellow climate scientists, as he meticulously takes apart current climate models, and entertainingly examines the physiological reasons why most climate scientists are not speaking out.

The real climate change scandal it would seem is an almost conspiratorial underplaying of the data to maintain the political consensus that holding at a two degree global temperature increase is still possible.

Listening to Kevin speak recently at Bristol University's annual Cabot Institute lecture, it seemed to this lay person that Professor Anderson's analysis includes three big problems with the carbon descent models we currently base policy on:

  • Ignore the data; nearly all the modelling today continues to use the 1% figure adopted by Stern as the 'current rate of emissions growth'. But since Stern we have nearly 10 years of real measured data showing actual growth of 3% to 6% which is just ignored.
  • Invent a Tardis; most models then go on to use a peak emission date of around 2014-16. That is not very far away now and nobody actually believes China or India will peak before 2025 at the earliest. Hilariously, some of the past influential US reports even predicted peak emissions a couple of years before the report itself was even published. Again just ignoring the real data, or perhaps they really do have a Tardis!
  • Throw in some magic; finally there is the question of the rate of decent from that peak. Most models give ourselves 'a bit of room' on the way down by including a chunk of negative emissions at the end. Of course people other than Harry Potter are working on this 'sucking carbon out of the air' technology, but today it is still firmly in the realms of science fiction along with that working Tardis.

So if we do use today's real data where does that leave us? Probably on course for a 4 to 6 degree increase seems likely. Indeed a PwC (Pricewaterhouse Coopers) review this month warned that we are on a disastrous four degrees trajectory.

And that's the physiological problem. It is easy to understand the reluctance to say this when so much political capital has been invested in holding the line at two degrees, which scientists agree give us a 50/50 chance of avoiding disastrous outcomes.

Admitting we have already failed to act over the last 10 years in time for two degrees risks creating a political form of 'learned helplessness' or worse, given that the scientific consensus is four degrees plus is beyond our ability to cope with adaptation.

Remarkably, Kevin Anderson is still upbeat. His analysis shows how we could still fix this in the next ten years with radical change. Interestingly these 'last chance' next ten years renders power supply issues, like new nuclear, irrelevant because they will not be delivered in time. The battle is purely on the demand side, and it could be done.

But this correspondent cannot help reflecting on our abject failure to do anything meaningful over the last ten year as emissions have got worse. Will we really take the radical demand side action required in the next ten?

I am reminded of the infamous quote from my Forum for the Future colleague, Sara Parkin, that "we could end up the only species to have minutely monitored our own extinction".

You can probably add this article to that archaeological time capsule.