Kevin Anderson meets Dave Roberts

In early 2011, when I first read “the Anderson Bows paper” (the actual title of which is Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world) I did so too quickly.  Grist.org’s Dave Roberts, in what I shall call his “Brutal Logic Trilogy,” was a much closer reader.  His trilogy, which takes off from the paper, is published here, here, and here, and is essential reading, as is the paper itself.  Though if you’re short of time, it’s probably better to listen to this talk by Kevin Anderson, in which he presents the paper’s main conclusion and also riffs rapidly and revealingly about many of the surrounding issues.

There’s a lot to say here, and I won’t say much of it.  But a few points.  First, on the “how frankly should we talk about the climate crisis” question, Anderson is extremely bracing.  He considers the tendency of most scientists to underplay their public discussions of the severity and immediacy of the climate danger to be a form of denialism.  The way be puts it in the talk (slide 53) is “I think that the scientific community has hugely underplayed the size of the problem, knowingly, because it’s very hard to come up and say what you really think, because people don’t want to hear the message.”  This, IMHO, is fantastically helpful, though the scientists are hardly alone in being guilty here.  Economists are far worse, and in truth the whole, broad American climate policy community should be called out on the carpet for its soft-pedaling.  In any case, Anderson, who was until recently the director of Britain’s Tyndall Center (and is still its Deputy Director) is performing a public service by making this point so clearly, and he should be commended for doing so, and in general for being a straight shooter.  He’s also a vegetarian, by the way, and he does not fly.

Dave Roberts, for his part, is a good deal mellower than Anderson when it comes to the soft-pedaling question, saying for example that “lots of folks in the climate hawk coalition (broadly speaking) have counseled a new approach that backgrounds climate change and refocuses the discussion on innovation, energy security, and economic competitiveness.”  But he’s also an honest man, and his real point is that “This cannot work.”  Also, it seems to me that the Anderson Bows paper, among much else, has pushed him to have a Big Think, and his call for giving scientific realism its due (the focus of his third “Brutal Logic” piece) is extremely welcome.  It may have more impact than Anderson himself, at least in the US.  This because Roberts’ has not been shy about his sympathies with political “realism” (see for example, his glowing review of David Victor’s new book, published in The American Prospect), which falls clearly into the soft-pedaling camp.  And because of his huge blogspace footprint.

In any case, I don’t want to give the impression that Kevin Anderson, though a brave man and a first-tier scientist, is above criticism.  He is not.  For example, he blithely dismisses all talk of negative emissions (even, say, biomass with carbon capture and storage) as “geo-engineering,” which is a bit rough, and he isn’t even willing to be guardedly optimistic about reforestation, bio-char, agro-ecology and other potentially win-win approaches to sucking carbon out of the air.  Jim Hansen, it should be said, is more optimistic on the “potential for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere via reforestation and improved forestry and agricultural practices.”  See The Case for Young People and Nature, which was published by Hansen’s team in 2011, and which estimates that we could get 100 Gigatonnes of carbon (not carbon-dioxide or carbon-dioxide equivalent, but actual carbon) out of the air before the end of the 21st Century, if we really tried.  It’s a lot, and it would make a difference.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s a notable silence in the story that’s being told here, one that unsurprisingly has a lot to do with the equity question.  Anderson’s approach (technology and equity as two sides of one coin) is an excellent one (pick it up at his slide 38) but at the same time, his analysis (which Roberts’ echoes) is notably lopsided.  That is to say, his bluntness about the predicament of the developing countries is not supplemented by any discussion of a political accord designed to help them out of it.  Their predicament, that is.

Which is not to suggest that he doesn’t have a lot to say.  He speaks of all the rich people in Shanghai and Beijing, but immediately notes how outnumbered they are by the poor masses in China as a whole.  He emphasizes that the rates of emissions growth in the rapidly-expanding Asian economies will leave the climate system reeling, but does not forget to note the near certainty that most people in Asia will still be poor when it does.  Most importantly, he emphasizes the need to focus on the emissions of the top 20%, the top 4%, the top 1%.  It’s a great setup, though (at least here) he has virtually nothing to say about how we might, politically, accelerate the overall rate of planetary decarbonization, save to note that most of the emissions on the planet can be traced to the rich.  Which is, I have to admit, suggestive…

Roberts, alas, follows him in this silence.  So his (very welcome!) discussion of carbon debt (see the second bit of his trilogy, here) mentions the UN’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” but has nothing to say about what it might imply.  Or how it might contribute to an increase in the rate of global decarbonization, such that it might come to approximate the maximum rates that even Anderson thinks might be achievable, if we are very, very aggressive, and very, very lucky.

Anyway, all this stuff is well worth reading.  In fact, doing so would be a good way to start the new year.  In fact, it would be a good way to launch yourself into the post-Durban period, wherein – I earnestly hope – we finally begin, at least part of the time, at least late at night, at least in bars, to discuss the real issue: Global emergency mobilization.

PS: The bit about “debate tables” vs. Kalashnikov rifles is on slide 37.