Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Kevin Anderson: What They Won't Tell You About Climate Catastrophe

SUMMARY: Scientists and officials are not telling the public the awful truth: we are hurtling toward catastrophic climate change. A review, summary and critique of an earth-breaking speech by Dr. Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre in Britain. Speaking to the Cabot Institute in Bristol November 6th, Anderson told the sold-out crowd our future is not possible. Radio Ecoshock replay from November 14, 2012 and still the best guide to the coming failure of the Paris climate talks.

Are the climate deniers right? Are some scientists colluding with government to hide the truth about climate change? "Yes", according to top British scientist Kevin Anderson - but not the scandal you've heard about. Top scientists and government reports won't tell you we are heading toward catastrophic climate change. Emissions are skidding out of control, leading us to a world six degrees Centigrade hotter on average, much faster than anyone thought possible. Why doesn't the public know?

Why are world conferences still talking about staying below 2 degrees, as though that is possible?

In a devastating speech at Bristol University Tuesday November 6th, 2012, Dr. Kevin Anderson accused too many climate scientists of keeping quiet about the unrealistic assessments put out by governments, and our awful odds of reaching global warming far above the proposed 2 degree safe point.

Dr. Kevin Anderson

In fact, says Anderson, we are almost guaranteed to reach 4 degrees of warming, as early as 2050, and may soar far beyond that - beyond the point which agriculture, the ecosystem, and industrial civilization can survive.

All this comes from one of the world's top climate scientists, plugged in to the latest research and numbers. Kevin Anderson is from the UK's premier climate modeling institution, the Tyndall Centre, and the University of Manchester. He delivered the speech "Real Clothes for the emperor, Facing the Challenges of Climate Change" at the Cabot Institute of the University of Bristol in Britain.

His estimates are backed up by recent reports from the International Energy Agency, and now the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. I also quote from Joe Romm's blog at, and a comment by Lewis Cleverdon from Wales, in the Transition blog at

I'm Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock. In this program, I'm going to play selections from Kevin Anderson's latest speech, accompanied by some explanation and references to other sources. Anderson speaks very quickly, assuming a highly informed European audience, and includes some technical data and reports unknown to most of us. So we're going to work through this together.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

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You may also want to check out Kevin Anderson's first chapter of a recently published book, “Climate, Development and Equity”. That's available online here: Kevin Anderson: “Climate Change going beyond dangerous: brutal numbers and tenuous hope”


All music on this program is by Suvarna, with her co-conspirator Ravi, and guest Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy. The album is "Energia" on Etherean Records. Suvarna, a world music maker, has another couple of albums with White Swan Records. We end this Radio Ecoshock show with a special single she sent to Radio Ecoshock. It's dead on. The song is "Atmosphere's Lament". Suvarna home page.


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Anderson begins his talk with a source that is hardly known as green or radical. Fatih Birol, Chief Economist and Director of the International Energy Agency has warned on our current energy pathway the global mean temperature will rise by 3.5 degrees C - over 7 degrees F - over pre-industrial levels by 2040. For those counting, that's just 28 years from now. The IEA predicts 4 degrees rise by 2050, and 6 degrees by 2100. In his book, "Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet", and the National Geographic series based on the book, Mark Lynas says at +4 degrees C "Southern Europe will become unlivable due to extreme heat. The West Antarctic ice sheet will melt away and add another 5 meters to global sea level." At +6 degrees C, the Amazon forest long ago burned in a giant fireball, and all the polar ice melted, Lynas simply says "we will all be dead." The short You tube version is here.

Fatih Birol of the IEA says we have only five years to change our energy system - or have it changed for us. We'll talk more about that short time frame later.


As all the international climate conferences come and go, with thousands of people flying to exotic locations, global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase. In fact, the atmosphere is being hit with increases on the increases. Anderson tells us:

"In 2009 to 2010, the beginning of the economic downturn, global emissions went up by 5.9%. I think that's higher than at any point [since] the industrial revolution. And even the following years, 2010 to 2011, went up by about 3.2% and this year [2012] probably a little below 3%, maybe 2.6%, we haven't got the final data on that yet."

A great mind, the late Professor Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus from the Department of Physics at the University of Boulder laments a glaring inability of Americans, and most humans, to grasp the simple mathematics of numbers that increase themselves. In a video posted as "the most important video you'll ever see", Bartlett explains how "logarithmic" increases work. The 5.9% increase in 2009, for example, was almost 6% bigger than the previous year, which was let's say 3% higher than the year previous, and so on. It's like compound interest from the bank.

Bartlett gives us this simple formula: if you have a number that increases regularly, you can find the doubling time by dividing the increase into 70. So if we say emissions are increasing by an average of 3% per year, the carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere would be doubled in just 23 years. If we start at our current level, around 393 parts per million [in 2012, now over 400 ppm in 2015], and keep increasing emissions as we are, the atmosphere would theoretically hit a toxic 786 ppm in just 23 years. In reality, it doesn't work like that, because our oceans currently absorb at least 40% or our emissions, becoming more acidic in the process. I can't predict our doubling time, but the IEA and others suggest we will go well over 450 parts per million by 2050.

Returning to Kevin Anderson, he points out our infrastructure commits us to emissions for decades. Every new airplane sold, and every ship is expected to last at least 30 years, burning whatever they burn. Buildings, inefficient as they are, may last centuries. Each new power plant opened is likely to keep on burning for at least 50 years, often longer than that. We have already built more carbon capacity than the atmosphere can ever hold, with a climate suited for human survival. This leads me to conclude not another single fossil fuel based power plant should be opened anywhere in the world. Of course that's not fair to developing peoples, so we need a plan to shut down coal and oil-powered plants in North America and Europe to make room for electricity in China, India, Africa, and so on.

It is this commitment from long-lasting infrastructure, coupled with the already overloaded atmosphere, that dictates we only have about five years at best to change directions, or suffer a climate catastrophe beyond our current comprehension. Only a giant power-down by wealthy consumers (that's most of us) could possibly save us. That would include stopping recreational shopping for consumer goods that carry so much embedded energy use. And really, Anderson says, our best and possibly only hope for survival is an economic crash, or at least a planned "recession".

Remember Professor Tim Garrett from the University of Utah, following an interview on Radio Ecoshock, published a peer-reviewed paper saying exactly the same thing: the dynamics of energy in this civilization, poised against limitations in our atmosphere, show that only a deep and prolonger economic crash could really guarantee a safe climate.

At any rate, the good news, such as it is, is this: you and I have the ability to change our deadly course. We can cut our energy and consumption drastically. That's the front-line strategy that Kevin Anderson advocates. He tried to live it. Anderson does NOT fly around to climate conferences. He conserves energy personally, despite the disbelief of relatives and friends.


Kevin Anderson has brought up the new study from a most unexpected source. The report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the generally conservative giant accounting company, is titled" "Too Late For Two Degrees?" Joe Romm at has an excellent summary posted November 6th, titled " Study: We're Headed to 11 degrees F Warming and Even 7 Degrees F Requires 'Nearly Quadrupling The Current Rate of Decarbonization".

The main conclusion in the PricewaterhouseCoopers study reads:

"Our Low Carbon Economy Index evaluates the rate of decarbonisation of the global economy that is needed to limit warming to 2oC. This report shows that global carbon intensity decreased between 2000 and 2011 by around 0.8% a year. In 2011, carbon intensity decreased by 0.7%. The global economy now needs to cut carbon intensity by 5.1% every year from now to 2050. Keeping to the 2oC carbon budget will require sustained and unprecedented reductions over four decades.

Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2oC appear highly unrealistic.


"We have passed a critical threshold – not once since 1950 has the world achieved that rate of decarbonisation in a single year, but the task now confronting us is to achieve it for 39 consecutive years….

Even to have a reasonable prospect of getting to a 4°C scenario would imply nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation.

Joe Romm reminds us, our speaker Kevin Anderson has already written about the 7 degree Fahrenheit increase in global mean temperature:

[is] incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e. 4°C [7°F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level

I'd like to just keep reading out Joe Romm's excellent if horrifying article, but I'll leave that up to you, except for this from Joe:

"Such a world would likely mean:

* Permanent Dust Bowl conditions over the U.S. Southwest, parts of the Great Plains and many other regions around the globe that are heavily populated and/or heavily farmed.

* Sea level rise of some 1 foot by 2050, then 4 to 6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter

* Massive species loss on land and sea — perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity.

* Much more extreme weather

These will all be happening simultaneously and getting worse decade after decade. A 2009 NOAA-led study found the worst impacts would be 'largely irreversible for 1000 years.'

In such a world there would be little prospect for feeding 9 billion people post-2050 given current dietary, economic, and agricultural practices. The word “adaptation” simply doesn’t apply in any meaningful sense.

Other evidence is pouring in from all quarters that we are headed to the high side of climate predictions. Consider this release November 8th from the U.S. Snow and Ice Date Center.

"Future Warming Likely to Be On High Side of Climate Projections, Analysis Finds" November 08, 2012


I know I shouldn't be surprised the climate is spinning out of control. After all, the Swiss re-insurance company Munich Re warned the 2 degree alleged safety limit was "no longer attainable." But that was published in a periodical called Insurance Daily.

Perhaps like me, you missed it. A continuing message from Kevin Anderson is we've all been led astray by a general fog coming from a combination of convenient climate science, reports from governments, the United Nations, and the conferences that continued with big language and no results, as emissions continued to rise.

No wonder the public doesn't know. As Kevin Anderson will tell us, those who do know, are conspiring to keep us from the awful truth.

Anderson goes on to list a host of climate and economic reports coming from governments, big institutes and universities that use obviously false low-ball numbers for greenhouse gas emissions.

The famous British Stern Report in 2006, for example, used an emissions level growth of .95 percent per year. The actual rates for that period from year 2000 to 2005 were more than 3 times higher than that. Stern had access to the latest figures. Anyone could find them on the web. Why didn't he use the actual facts? Using lower numbers have helped a number of agencies and governments achieve much more palatable predictions, leaving lots of time for Western societies to make small changes while adapting. Quite the opposite was true based on the real numbers. Counting the growth of emissions from China and the developing world, the developed West and Japan were, and are, entirely out of time to slowly reduce emissions. As Anderson calculates, to preserve a relatively safe climate below 2 degrees, the emissions of the developed countries had to drop to zero by 2010.

I won't list out all the official reports from Britain, Europe, and America that used phony low emissions figures, plus wild overestimates of all kinds, to get results that pleased the sitting politicians and big business board members. Kevin Anderson gives you all the details on that in this speech.

Just as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche supposed it takes some ideas a long time to penetrate society, comparing it to the time light takes to arrive from distant stars, our public dialog is missing this critical fact that Anderson reveals again: we are heading toward a catastrophe that cities, agriculture, and civilization cannot survive.


Then Anderson reveals a startling twist on what we need to do now. He says we do not have time to implement large scale alternatives. We need not focus on the supply side, like the Tar Sands, Arctic oil, fracked gas, alternative energy or nuclear power. Those technologies all take more time to implement than we have to save the climate.

Anderson concluded in a science paper published by the British Royal Society, only a planned economic downturn accompanies by severe energy austerity by the one percent who use 50% of the world's energy - that's us! - can avoid this climate disaster. We needed to start action yesterday. We start, we must campaign, on the demand side. We still have time to each and every one of us drastically slash our energy use.

As he tells us, just to burn a 100 Watt bulb demands several times that amount of energy down the power chain, to mine the resource, transport it, burn it with only partial efficiency, and then lose another 50% or so in transmission. So turning off the bulb grows in impact up the power chain, if we can all cut back deeply, quickly.

The result of that energy austerity of course, when we stop buying useless consumer junk with all that embedded energy, is an economic crash. Is that better than a climate that wipes out at least half of all living species, possibly including ourselves? You be the judge.

We must always keep in mind the target of keeping under 2 degrees C of warming was always an arbitrary political decision. It doesn't necessarily guarantee a safe climate, as we are already finding out these days. The droughts, super-floods, super-storms like Sandy, and drastic melt-back of Arctic sea ice all come when we are only officially approaching 1 degree of warming over pre- industrial times. 2 degrees gives us double that, at the very least.

Anderson says scientists have been keeping quiet about the tendency, one could even say "plot" to underplay everything about the looming climate catastrophe.

Anderson should know. He's working every day with scientists from around the world who "just keep quiet".

In reality, once we factor in continuing emissions coming from things like agriculture and deforestation, there is no room left for emissions from the developed countries.


Anderson also leaves aside the whole issue of natural climate feedbacks that could dramatically add more carbon dioxide and methane to our atmosphere. He's a specialist in energy, even working in that field for companies like Shell Oil in the past. In this speech Dr. Anderson takes us on a straight path through the impacts of our fossil fuel extraction and burning alone. He acknowledges there may be much more, but says science knows too little about them at this time.

We can think for example about recent science finding methane coming from the Siberian sea bed, and from the warming waters along the East Coast of North America. Other studies, in speeches already broadcast on Radio Ecoshock, show that melting permafrost in the Arctic and sub-Arctic could add far more greenhouse gases than all fossil fuel burning.

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement in the UK, did a written interview with Kevin Anderson in Hopkins' blog "Transition Culture" published on November 2nd, 2012. In the comments, we find this compact addition to the warming forces Kevin Anderson did not cover, written by the Wales farmer Lewis Cleverdon:

Kevin Anderson said: “Rapid and deep emissions reductions may not be easy, but 4°C to 6°C will be much worse”

In the comments at, Lewis Cleverdon writes:

"I’m sorry to say that this presents a false dichotomy. And doubly sorry to hear it from one of Anderson’s standing.

Taking a credible best case for emissions reduction of getting to near zero output by 2050,

- regardless of whether that is by personal virtue demonstrations suddenly sweeping the whole world -

- or by determined popular global efforts at steering the politics to achieve an equitable and efficient global climate treaty -

- or by the latter adamantly supported by the former

- we are going to emit enough GHGs by 2050 for at least 0.6C of further warming.

Adding this to 0.7C of warming now time lagged “in the pipeline” of ocean thermal inertia, plus the 0.8C of warming already realized, would give 2.1C of warming as a total, but for one critical factor.

Ending our fossil fuel emissions means ending those of fossil sulphate which maintain the ‘Sulphate Parasol’ that veils the planet. As Hansen & Sato reported, the loss of the Sulphate Parasol will mean a rise of warming by 110%, (+/- 30%), raising the projected 2.1C to a total 4.41C (+/- 0.6C), that would be realized by about 2080, due the time lag of around 30 years after 2050. Our ‘best case’ for emissions control would thus give between 3.8C and 5.0C of warming.

However, there is a further critical factor, namely that of the interactive mega-feedbacks, of which at least six are already accelerating and several have the potential to dwarf anthropogenic GHG emissions. The most advanced of these, cryosphere decline (loss of snow & ice cover) causing albedo loss, is reportedly already causing warming equivalent to around 30% of our CO2 emissions. This feedback alone is already nearing the capacity to offset the 43% average annual intake of our CO2 output by the natural carbon sinks.

In the 68 years between now and 2080, under our ‘best case’ emissions control, those feedbacks would have continuously intensifying warming to drive their interactions and outputs far beyond any possibility of our control. Under this scenario we should certainly have substantially more than 5.0C of warming in 2080, and warming would then continue at a pace dictated by the interactive feedbacks.

Arguments over emissions control via personal virtue or via collective political action for the global climate treaty are thus missing the point. Even the best case of emissions control is patently not remotely commensurate with our predicament.

Lewis Cleverdon goes on to say only geoengineering to increase our albedo effect, namely by spraying sulfur particles into the air to brighten clouds, and thus turn away some solar energy, could possibly save us. That is the least toxic, and most easily reversed proposal for geoengineering, but it's a topic for another day.

The main point here is this: Kevin Anderson's speech sticks to the simple math of our fossil fuel trajectory. That alone promises to take us to at least 4 degrees hotter, and possibly much more if we don't act immediately. The mega feedbacks and warming hidden by pollution loom as even greater shadows over this already dark picture.

In his November 6th speech in Bristol, UK, Anderson warns again and again, we allow ourselves to be fooled, year after year.

The American scientists are playing the same incredible game, pretending world emissions peaked in the past.


Every big report assumes we will rescue ourselves by sucking CO2 out of the air by some magic as yet undiscovered technology assembled almost instantly on a massive scale. It's geoengineering, the technical fix. And it presumes a kind of magic that goes like this: "if we reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, things will go back to the way they were." Except nature doesn't work like that. If you could reduce greenhouse gases, by the time you do, the whole ecosystem has already changed. A large percentage of species will be extinct. Coral reefs won't be around. Like the Amazon rainforest won't either. There is not backward path through time. It's a huge fallacy in the public mind, and in too many government reports.

Anderson notes there is not a single big commercial scale operation taking CO2 out of the air, and storing it for long periods, anywhere in the world.

Most schemes, and governments use this idea in most big reports, involve taking biomass, burning it in power plants, capture the CO2 as it goes up the stack, and then burying that CO2 somewhere in a geologically stable hole. Anderson dissects this idea and finds giant leaks of greenhouse gases into the sky at every step.

We must grow the biomass - agriculture and the food industry contributes about 30% of all human-made emissions currently. Producing fertilizers (often from fossil fuels), transporting things around, it all adds up to emissions. Then the power plant only burns at a peak of about 70% efficiency. More wasted. The best smokestack capture techniques only grab 70 to 80%, so at least 20% will still go into the sky as greenhouse gases. Then we have to store the CO2 somehow, and that hasn't been worked out yet. It's like nuclear waste, where everyone expects a solution will come up in the future, that hasn't developed so far.

Bottom line: it's not going to work, at any scale comparable to our current energy use, and more importantly - such a massive energy change would take at least 20 or 30 years to implement (we haven't even started yet) - and we don't have that long! Fail. It all sounds good on paper, but fail.


In the radio show, I play you a longer passage from Dr. Kevin Anderson as he spoke at the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol on November 6th. Anderson gives example after example of scientists, policy advisors and government ministers who (a) know the 2 degree target is no longer attainable, and (b) admit the public can't be told this. Our awful predicament is being hidden by official process, deliberate underestimates of known facts, and scientists keeping quiet. No one wants to alarm the herd, and politicians want to win the next election. Corporate board members want the next big quarter's profits, and big investors want their payback. Nobody rock the boat!


Don't despair Anderson tells us. We are the very people who can do something to save the climate, right now.

Anderson goes into an interesting analysis that find half the world's emissions are coming from about 1 percent of the world's population. It's almost a play off the Occupy 99% and 1% model. We need to reach those high carbon emitters, and get them to change.

It's likely this expose of sweetened climate projections, with known bad numbers and reassuring official talk, could be my speech of the year.

Now you've got the tools you need to take another hour out of your life, to hear the truth about climate change. Listen, learn, worry, and rededicate yourself to change, before the new out-of-control climate changes everything and everyone we love.

Thank you for taking the time, and having the courage, to listen.

I'm Alex Smith, for Radio Ecoshock.

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