Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at Manchester University, and former director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, visited Dublin earlier this month (March 2016). He managed to pack in a lot during his time here – he spoke at Dublin City University, the Royal Irish Academy and the Irish Institute for European Affairs. In each speech, his theme was the same: we have systematically over-estimated the effectiveness of our responses to climate change and under-estimated the rate at which the climate is actually changing.
We have been deluding ourselves about climate change, says Prof Anderson, because we cannot face up to the radical changes needed to deal with the problem. We say to ourselves: “Oh, the Emissions Trading Scheme will do it.” Or “Carbon capture and storage – that will solve everything.” Or even: “Planting more trees, converting our power stations to biomass – that will do it.”
Even the climate change agreement signed in Paris in December 2015 plays into this “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario – it pretends that the measures it sets out will be enough to keep dangerous climate change at bay. It keeps alive the idea that continued economic growth is compatible with a safe climate.
Nature cannot be fooled
Prof Anderson uses a quote from an inquiry into the Challenger space shuttle disaster: “nature cannot be fooled” – and applies it to climate governance. The climate does not read the texts of international agreements, the climate does not trade CO2 emissions, and it does not abide by the terms of the Kyoto Protocol.
“The position on climate change mitigation has not changed since the first IPCC report in 1990. So we’ve had a quarter of a century of complete and utter inaction and abject failure on climate change,” he said during his DCU talk.
This seems a little harsh. There have been advances in the promotion of wind and solar energy and huge efforts have been made at a global climate change agreement. But largely, Prof Anderson is right. We have failed to stop, or even mildly influence, climate change in 25 years of trying. In fact, as he points out, that 2015 emissions will be 60pc higher than they were in 1990 – a damning statistic that show that, not only have we failed to curb emissions, we have carried on emitting recklessly.
Prof Anderson considers the carbon budget – the amount of CO2 we are “allowed” emit and still keep warming below 2C. The figure is 1,000 gigatons, and we emitted 511 gt by 2011.
He notes that the problems with the Paris Agreement are (i) there is not reference to fossil fuels or decarbonisation in the text (because of lobbying by the Saudis); (ii) aviation and shipping (which together account for more CO2 emissions than UK and Germany combined) are not included in the CO2 calculations covered by the agreement; (iii) there is no review of the CO2 pledges until 2020, which is too far off; (iv) there is a reliance on “highly speculative” carbon reduction technologies.
Communicating on climate change
Prof Anderson’s talks were challenging. Things we – the climate concerned community – thought were “wins” are actually meaningless in climate terms. Emissions reduction policies are doomed and we have failed to make the case for deep societal change.
Yet the communications and framing research shows that “doomster” and apocalyptic messages about climate change just make things worse. People throw their hands up and become resigned to climate change as inevitable.
So although the “tell-it-like-it-is” has attractions, not least of which is that it is true and congruent, it also has consequences. It appears that, when it comes to climate change, you can’t shock people into action. What happens is that you shock them into inaction.
The idea of a personal carbon allowance
In response to a question from Duncan Stewart of Ecoeye (at 49mins into the video above) about what needs to be done to get people to act in response to climate change, Prof Anderson suggests that each individual have a “personal carbon ration”.
This is an interesting idea – a ration of CO2 that we can decide how to spend. We might blow it all on a flight, or husband it carefully. Or perhaps even sell it on.
There are communications problems with this. Firstly, don’t call it a ration. Don’t make it seem negative as if you’re depriving people of something. Make it sound positive, like you’re giving them the opportunity to save the world. Rationing has connotations of the post-war period in the UK, of queues and drabness and lack of opportunity.
But helping people to emit less is also an opportunity for innovtion, creativity and community spirit. Maybe a “carbon wallet”? Or a carbon “treasury”?