Sunday, 13 November 2011

The cancer in our midst

Once upon a time - hundreds of millions of years ago - all the animals were single-celled. each pursued its own self-interest - surviving, eating and reproducing basically. But evolution took a hand and some of these animals found advantages in co-operation In time they changed into fishes, amphibia, dinosaurs - and more recently us.

Our cells are co-operative. They reproduce enough to make our organs and then they stop. Well, mostly. Some selfish cells don't stop but reproduce without limit. To do this they grab from our blood nutrients and oxygen that ought to go to other organs.

We call this cancer. Sometimes it kills us.

Human society is not a super-organism; we do not abandon our own interests and judgement to be part of it. But there are parallels. Both provide benefits, such as safety and access to resources, that the individual units could not get separately, Both require solidarity and self-restraint from those units.

And there are social equivalents of cancer. Sometimes the people in one part of society - a clan, a class or a sector - cease to show solidarity and self-restraint. They grab resources that should go to others and swell up so that they threaten the health, even survival, of the whole.

Today the finance sector is just such a social cancer. It's excesses have brought recession to the whole developed world and fierce austerity to Iceland and Ireland - and probably to Greece and Italy in the near future. It has grabbed a great share of our resources and, by increasing inequality, made our societies worse places to live. And it's compulsive pursuit of profit and growth is a major driver for the greenhouse gas emissions which are likely to make the planet deeply hostile to the societies of which it is part.

The finance sector is, like a cancer, damaging social health and threatening social survival. It must be cut back to size and made to see that it must be a partner not a ruler.

Though this blog is about climate change I believe that we cannot solve those problems without putting finance back in its proper place.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Scenario planning for climate change

The science of climate change is good enough to show that global temperatures will rise unless we cut back drastically on greenhouse gas emissions. What no science can do is show whether we will do so – or what policies nations will adopt if we do – or if we don’t. Nor can we predict the human – health, nutritional, political and economic – consequences of rising temperatures. Yet these are what people care about.

We badly need ways of thinking about the implications of climate change. Most of what’s written gets hung up on the uncertainties of the science. If we don’t know, and we don’t, whether temperatures will increase by two or four or six degrees how can we prepare?

The answer is scenario planning.

In scenario planning, a method pioneered by Shell, we focus on the uncertainties, not on forecasts, and use these to define a set of possible scenarios. If we get this right the actual events will follow one scenario or, more likely, fall between several scenarios. But in any case we’ll have considered what we can and should do before we have to do it.

Climate change is a long-term problem so let’s look at the long-term – 2030 and beyond On that timescale little is certain but there are two big uncertainties.

The first uncertainty is the temperature increase. The global temperature is currently 0.6 degrees higher than that in the pre-industrial period. By 2030 we ought to know whether we’ve managed to keep the increase below two degrees. That’s hardly risk-free but it should be manageable. If we haven’t then we’ll already be aware of the positive feedback effects that will drive the temperature to a four or even six degree increase. (Some models suggest that rises over ten degrees are possible but let’s not go overboard; four degrees is bad enough.) (The environmental consequences of various possible temperatures have been discussed by Mark Lynas in Six degrees. Prof. James Lovelock has discussed the positive feedback effects in The Revenge of Gaia.)

The second uncertainty is the degree of international collaboration on dealing with climate change. The Montreal treaty on CFCs showed that international collaboration is possible. The post-Kyoto experience shows that it’s very hard to get when it requires significant economic sacrifice. However, even politicians and civil servants can learn from experience and worsening climate will provide many powerful lessons. The real uncertainty is whether governments will commit to enough change soon enough to avoid triggering the positive feedbacks.

Now we combine the two to get our four scenarios as shown in the figure. I ignore the possibility that we can keep the temperature increase below two degrees without international collaboration because it’s impossible (unless the scientific consensus is badly wrong).

There are two scenarios for a world without catastrophic climate change. In the Lifeboat scenario this is achieved by international collaboration. In the Emergency Braking scenario collaboration fails and its achieved by unilateral action, mainly geo-engineering, by a major power.

There are also two scenarios that do involve catastrophic climate change. In the Police World scenario the nations collaborate to manage the consequences whilst in the New Dark Age scenario they don’t.


I’m aware that two, perhaps three, of my scenarios may sound more like science fiction than sober reflection. However, these scenarios run forward from 2030 and much of today’s world would have seemed like science fiction to our parents. It’s almost impossible to overstate the impacts of four degrees of warming. It’s inconceivable, at least to me, that our civilization will be unchanged by these impacts and it’s time we took this seriously.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Scenario 4: The New Dark Age

In the final scenario attempts at international collaboration have failed to prevent temperature rises and have broken down. As temperatures rise nations and subnational groups will fight for survival destroying civilisation and creating a new dark age.

Change will have become irrevocable and some previously fertile land will have gone out of use. Food shortages will be normal and famines common. During famines there will generally not be enough spare food available from outside the stricken area to feed the hungry making starvation common.

Institutions and individuals will generally have recognized that long-term survival with any degree of security and comfort will be possible only in places remote from the equator. Only in these places will the impending climate catastrophe leave land for agriculture.

Since the majority of countries are not remote from the equator their governments will attempt to negotiate access to places that are. Countries that do include high latitude regions will recognize their value and will generally be unwilling to provide access; preferring to keep them for their own inhabitants. They will increase military expenditure and strengthen their defences.

As temperatures rise food shortages will increase and people will migrate away from the equator and the lowlands. Conflicts will arise as the migrating populations press upon national boundaries or encroach on lands previously used by other ethnic groups within the same countries. Darfur may be seen as an early example of such a conflict. These conflicts will arise even where the disputed land provides no long-term security. If faced with the choice between violence and starvation those not actually starving will choose violence.

Some large nations, the USA and Argentina for instance, will include some refuge areas though not enough for their whole populations. Civil wars will result in these nations. In some cases these wars will be encouraged by neighboring nations who hope to grab some of the more attractive land.

These conflicts will often be exacerbated by religious and ethnic differences and recollections of past grievances, actual or supposed. These differences and grievances will be emphasised and exaggerated, and sometimes invented, by unscrupulous opportunistic politicians. (These processes could be seen operating in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.)

Detailed predictions of these conflicts is impossible but with stakes so high – both national survival and the physical survival of whole populations – there is no reason to expect much restraint. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons will be used.

Repeated wars will inflict major damage on the very resources, both agricultural and industrial, that they are trying to control. Continued warfare will also destroy much of humanity’s capacity to innovate, except in military matters, and to do or even understand science and the arts.

As climate pressures increase (over a period of many decades) military power will become the dominant reality in human affairs. Political authority will give way to it. Jared Diamond’s Collapse gives examples of this breakdown.

A new global Dark Age will follow in which most of the survivors will live in militarised refuge areas in high latitudes. Food will be scarce and almost all resources will be devoted to survival – water supply, food production and defence. Commitment to survival goals will be enforced by the authorities and underwritten by new religious ideologies. Dissent will not be tolerated and punishments will be both severe and quick.

Survival outside these refuges will be limited to hunter-gatherer bands and small agricultural villages. As between them, suspicion and violence will be the norm.

After the Dark Age
The new Dark Age will doubtless last several centuries, during which the human population will fall to a fraction of its current level. The best that can be said of this scenario is that it need not last indefinitely. Neither the Greek nor the later European Dark Ages lasted for ever. Each ended and was followed by a notable period of cultural flowering – the Athenian Golden Age and The European Renaissance.

Though we have not previously experienced either a global Dark Age or such abrupt climate change there is reason to hope that our descendants will ultimately be able to rebuild civilization.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Scenario 3: Police World

In this scenario the nations collaborate against climate change but not in time to prevent catastrophe.

By 2030 China will be suffering from water shortages and the USA from increasingly severe hurricane damage. Every government will have recognised the direction and pace of change. Corporate lobbyists who currently deny the reality of anthropogenic change will have shifted to demanding government help in adapting to that change (whilst denying any meaningful responsibility). It will also be clear that even geo-engineering schemes cannot reverse the trend.

Climate change will already have reduced the area under cultivation and the availability of water for irrigation causing starvation in areas, such as those south of the Sahara, where governments are already weak. The reduction in global food production will make it impossible to provide enough food aid leading to major population movements and wars.

Governments will recognise that the Earth cannot support its current population and that existing human institutions cannot survive the huge population movements that these changes will provoke. (In Collapse Jared Diamond has described a variety of precedents for social collapse due to overuse of natural resources.)

Once the inevitability of this collapse becomes clear governments will shift their focus from mitigation to survival. The worst governments will seek their own survival – the best that of as many of their population as they think feasible. Most countries will adopt a ‘war footing’. Specific policy responses will vary according to geography and political feasibility but will typically include:
  • Bans on immigration – enforced by tighter borders and internal controls
  • Central direction of food production – including use of genetically-modified crops and lower animal welfare standards.
  • Forced relocation of people from threatened areas – sometimes to farmlands where human labour will replace diesel engines.
To deal with the inevitable resistance to these measures most governments will suspend many civil rights. Some will suspend elections ‘for the duration of the emergency’ – a suspension that will become permanent.

Even so, most governments will realise that these measures can provide only temporary relief. With large parts of many countries becoming permanently uninhabitable and new farmlands becoming available in the under-populated north the only long-term solution will be a wholesale northward relocation of people and industrial facilities coupled with a reduction in total numbers.

The inevitable strategy will be to identify the territories remote from the equator where the prospects are best and then limit and direct migration into these refuges. The rest of the Earth will be progressively abandoned together with a large part of its population. International institutions will be redirected or created in order to manage the transfer and, more critically, the abandonment and starvation of many millions of people.

This process will play out over many decades and its reality will be generally denied at first.

By 2050 the temperature rise will have exceeded two degrees and major positive feedback effects will be visible. Major floods and severe hurricanes will be much more common making and major habitat changes have already occurred, eg in the Sahara and Amazon basin, leading to a marked reduction in the Earth’s carrying capacity. An increase of at least four degrees will now be certain.

Beyond 2050
The refuges will take on a life of their own. Life in these refuges will be hard but life outside them will become literally impossible; most of those outside them will die. These deaths will be spread over many decades and will mainly be from starvation, though natural disasters and warfare will contribute.

Resistance to the new world order will be severe but the multinational authorities will take large-scale military action to maintain the borders of the refuges. This scenario assumes that the multinational authorities succeed in maintaining law and order and an industrial base but this will be at the price of human rights and ordinary human compassion. The need for vigorous military action against those outside the refuges and direction of labour within them will lead to severe rationing of almost everything and a police state covering all the refuges; in effect a Police World.

If the authorities are unable to maintain law and order and an industrial base we will get scenario 4.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Is the IPCC fit for purpose?

There’s no doubt that the IPCC’s analysis of climate change has been one of the most impressive scientific efforts of all time, comparable to the Human Genome Project. This was recognised by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

But there have been mistakes. The best known is probably the exaggeration of the threat to the Himalayan glaciers. But the most serious are the IPCC’s understatements of both the severity of the problem and the confidence we can have in the reality of the problem.

The IPCC has done a remarkable job, in the face of considerable hostility and criticism, of describing the problem but its very success has changed the situation. The IPCC was set up to analyse a threat seen as serious but long-term. We now know that the threat is urgent, becoming critical, and what’s needed now is action.

So is the IPCC still fit for purpose? Do we need a scientific body that is able to react faster and describe the necessary policies as well as the problems?

In my view we still need the IPCC – but we need new institutions too.

The government link
It’s important to remember that the IPCC is the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. It was created by the world’s governments to provide independent advice. (And to provide excuses for inaction!) This connection to the world’s governments prevents the IPCC from acting as a critic but makes it more likely that governments will listen to what it says.

The link is therefore functional to the degree that governments remain key actors.

The delays
The IPCC seeks to provide authoritative analysis. To do this it has decided to look only at evidence published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It also imposes a cut-off date many months prior to the publication of each report. Papers published after that date are not considered. The IPCC thus has time to consider the meaning and importance of each paper.

But this has consequences. It takes time to write a scientific paper – especially if it’s the work of multiple authors based in several countries. Such authorship is particularly important when dealing with a global phenomenon. It then takes time for the paper to pass peer review and be published. This whole process may easily take two years – and can take much longer.

And then there’s the data. The paper cannot be written until the data has been collected and quality checked. This takes time. Then again trend data is typically most valid for the mid-point of the period in which it was collected – pushing the timing back yet further.

Thus the data considered in the 2007 IPCC report (still the most recent) mostly relates to a period ending in 2003 and sometimes to much earlier dates. This compares unfavourably to the reporting of company performance to the stock markets or of military developments to commanders (if not to the public) or of competitive intelligence in most industries.

The need for additional reporting
Delay is the price of the IPCC’s authoritative voice but it’s clear that the world community needs faster reporting; something intermediate between individual scientific papers and the current style of IPCC report.

Two additional kinds of report would be valuable:
  • Periodic, often annual, publication of measurements that have been pre-agreed to be reliable and important, eg world average temperature, the extent of Arctic ice. These would provide tracking of phenomena that are already reasonably well understood.
  • Selective alerts on other measurements or research findings. The alert would say something like: This is credible and appears important. It’s more like the judgment formed by an intelligence officer than by a scientist

These reports need an understanding of the science but each needs something additional; process design and management in the first case and good judgment in conditions of uncertainty in the second. Scientists may possess these skills but they aren’t in themselves scientific skills. These kinds of reporting might benefit from the contributions of experts from other fields, notably business and intelligence.

Since the reputation of the IPCC remains strong amongst governments and diplomats these reports should be produced under the oversight of the IPCC rather than of any other body but perhaps by newly-established specialist bodies or committees.

Preparing for action
It’s increasingly clear that an effective response to climate change will require actions by governments, businesses and individuals. A low-carbon economy will require new technologies, eg for power generation and geo-engineering, and changed behaviour from both businesses and individuals, eg less flying and driving. These will have to be encouraged by government and by public opinion and motivated by carbon taxes and new standards for energy-using processes and structures.

There will be plenty of scope for honest disagreement about the relative advantages of the various options and there will therefore be needs for authoritative, independent assessment of the options. The skills required include a variety of sciences and engineering disciplines as well as law and expertise in social change. This certainly goes beyond the scope of the IPCC and may well be beyond the scope of any one body.

Work of this kind has already started, for instance the Royal Society report on geo-engineering published in 2009, but a great deal more will be needed. Although the UN would be the best home for such studies the difficulty of getting agreement and the almost inevitable politicisation of the resulting studies makes this an unattractive approach. It may be better to ask governments, or possibly individual philanthropists, to sponsor learned societies to collaborate on suitable evaluation projects. Suitable international might emerge over time.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Review: Climate Wars

Most books on climate change focus on either climate science or the policies needed to avoid catastrophic change. Most, therefore, are written by optimists - by people who think that governments will behave better once people understand more.

Well here's one that isn't:
Climate wars: The fight for survival as the world overheats
By Gwynne Dyer. Published by One World.
This focuses on the social, political and military consequences of the change. More importantly, it’s written by a pessimist. Where most commentators say ‘I hope’ or ‘we ought’ Dyer says either ‘we probably won’t’ or ‘what if we don’t?’ Where most concentrate on how we can avoid catastrophe Dyer focuses on what catastrophic climate change might be like and how the nations are likely to respond to it. His inspiration is similar to mine in my scenario planning but his political analysis is much deeper.

Let me be clear. Dyer has interviewed a lot of influential people. He has understood the science and the politics of Kyoto and Copenhagen. Based on this he believes that we won’t get an effective climate change treaty in the foreseeable future and that greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise for a decade or more. His judgments are all too plausible. Indeed, I think them much more likely than not.

He predicts that climate change will produce food and water shortages and that countries will raid their neighbours rather than see their people starve (and their political power decline). Rich countries will, of course, simply close their borders to immigrants.

Starting from these judgments he has created eight scenarios for various regions and dates between 2019 and 2055. These scenarios show how shortages of food and water might play out in a world already divided by money, power, religion and traditional rivalries. They discuss the tensions and wars that might follow.

These are not forecasts – they are more like science fiction stories – stories driven by climate change. None of them are pleasant and some are very frightening - nuclear war between India and Pakistan anyone?

But despite these scenarios Dyer does not despair. If we don't start to get greenhouse gas levels down by 2016 then we'll just have to find something additional to insulation, decarbonisation of power generation, etc., to buy us a decade or two. We'll need to use geo-engineering for that - despite the risks.

Every green optimist should read this book. They should ask themselves: What will we do if we don't get an effective successor to Kyoto?

[A shorter version of this review was published in Green World.]