Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Kevin Anderson: The Brutal Logic of Climate Change

Welcome. I'm Alex. Are you ready for the bad news about climate change? Really?

I'm going to play you a speech too awful to run during the holidays. People with clinical depression and very young children may want to avoid this program.

It's also going to be a challenge for our many North American listeners, because our speaker is Kevin Anderson. From his recent post as Director of the Tyndall Centre, the UK's top academic institute researching climate change, Anderson speaks quickly, says a lot, and holds nothing back.

This lecture is part of the London School of Economics Department of International Development Friday Lecture Series. The title is "Beyond 'dangerous' climate change: emission scenarios for a new world" Anderson calls it "the brutal logic of climate change."

This talk set up a blaze of urgency, and a stiff warning to people and governments: we are failing to address the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity. Something unimaginable is happening.

Following this edited-for-radio speech, I'll chat again with Professor William Calvin from the University of Washington. He sees the bleakness, but offers a grain of hope.

I'm going to throw you into the deep end with this one. I suggest you download the program from our web site at, or find links in the blog at Things are not what they seem.

This speech courtesy of the London School of Economics Lecture Series was recorded October 21st, 2011.

The subtitle for this talk is "Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope".

Dave Roberts of Grist wrote two articles about the implications of this talk, which he called "The Brutal Logic of Climate Change". Try this one, and this one.

Find a .pdf of Kevin Anderson's pivotal paper on our near hopeless situation of unfolding climate change here.

A recording of the original speech, running 1 hour 28 minutes with a Q and A is here.

And you can find the slides for that here.

To get a written summary, I can't do better than the Dave Roberts Grist articles linked above. Dave even throws in some helpful graphs.

My own conclusions from this speech could be:

1. The 2 degree target (keeping below 2 degrees of global mean temperature rise to prevent dangerous climate change) is quite arbitrary, and likely too high. As Dr. James Hansen of NASA points out, we should be at 350 parts per million CO2 to keep the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets which moderate our climate. In previous history, levels higher than that triggered melting of the ice sheets, and eventually a much hotter greenhouse world. We are currently at 390 ppm and rising fast.

2. That 2 degree target is no guarantee of a "safe" climate, but just a 50% chance of staying within merely "dangerous" climate change, and "extremely dangerous climate change".

3. As we are almost 1 degree above pre-industrial times already, with at least 1 degree hidden by aerosol pollution (including sulfates from world coal plants) - it may already be too late to stay at 2 degrees.

4. The RATE of increase of our emissions is steadily going up, meaning the dangerous impacts of climate change keep getting closer and closer to us in time. Not 2050, but sooner. Yet government reports keep assuming 1 or 2% increase in emissions, when we are generally increasing at 3% over the past few years, and hit almost 6% in 2010. That is a 6 % increase over the increasingly high emissions during all the past years.

5. Kevin Anderson is particularly critical of all the government assessments which low-ball the emissions and the impacts. He says some climate scientists try to tell politicians, but those warnings are polished up as they rise through the ranks. Top ministers don't want to hear we may have to accept grave austerity, and a halt to growth, since they are promising growth as a way out of economic recession. But more growth means higher emissions. Period.

6. There are also a crew of scientists who make the situation sound more rosy or hopeful, when they will admit later, over a pint of beer, that they don't believe it themselves. They know we are headed into deep trouble.


All this is dissected as Professor Anderson, now at Manchester University, goes through the brutal logic, the physics of how climate change and atmospheric pollution really work. No mater what your politics are, or what politicians promise, if we keep emitting more carbon, our civilization if not our species is at risk.

I've said this repeatedly on Radio Ecoshock. My scientist guests have said it. In this chilling program you hear one of the top climate experts in Britain telling it like it is.

I know our cities are entirely dependent on fossil fuel burning. Most of Canada would have to be abandoned, or the population decimated just to heat the people, using the forests as wood heat. I know we are using cars to get around, and again, in a Northern winter, there aren't a lot of options yet, if you live outside the narrow web of mass transit (like New York subways).

It seems we are committed, just by being alive, to polluting the sky. Yet I play with my grandson, and inwardly fear for his future. In fact, if Kevin Anderson is correct, I and my children will also suffer. We won't have to wait a generation or two.

How can we face this contradiction?

Yet we know, when World War Two came to the United States, a simple act of government, at the federal level, ended all car production, and switched over to tanks and ship-building overnight. Make that wind machines and solar panels and you get the possibility. All it would take is (a) the recognition we are going over a cliff (with no return) and (b) the will among us all to make the change.


I also talk that over with Professor William (Bill) Calvin from the University of Washington. He's specialized in the development of the human brain, and lately, how our journey through the ice ages and climate change helped us develop.

We know the human brain was big enough for things like agriculture and advanced tools at least 100,000 years ago. Yet, for some reason, human intellect didn't seem to take off until 50,000 years ago. Bill Calvin compares it to a software upgrade to available hardware.

I express my fear we will see million dying on High Definition television, before the climate and food impacts hit us in the developed countries (although diseases can spread in a day in these times of air travel). Calvin agrees, but then we realize: our own time is another burst of human creativity. We have experienced a kind of
software upgrade in our own times.

What if that mental evolution is not finished? What if we can make the moral leap it would take to protect the future, and all future generations?

There is some hope. And Calvin also feels more optimistic because we could use ocean algae to capture more carbon out of the atmosphere. We might be able to reverse this process.

James Lovelock also talked about the scheme to put in whole fields of pipes into the ocean. The surface algae are missing essential elements like phosphates, which are found in deeper water below them. If we pump that up, cause an algae bloom (which sucks carbon dioxide out of the air) - and then pump the dying alge back down to the deep, we might sequester some carbon.

It would take a giant project, covering about 1% of the Earth's oceans, to remove enough carbon, but perhaps a war-like project could do it. We haven't even bothered to build one such experimental station so far.

Is it possible? Is the future possible? Radio Ecoshock asks you that question.

Our web site is Thank you for listening.

Alex Smith

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