Recognising Reality

2012 December 14
by Chris Vernon

We have a problem. I’ve known we’ve had a problem for a long time. It’s only in the last few years though, after I left my career in engineering to take a PhD in glaciology, studying the changing Greenland ice sheet, that the magnitude and timeframe has become clear. It is now all but impossible to limit global warming, the warming of mean surface air temperature, to less than +2°C from pre-industrial temperatures [1, 2]. Understand also that temperatures over land rise more than this global average, and extremes are likely to be further exaggerated by positive feedbacks. All but impossible because to have even a fifty-fifty chance of keeping warming below that somewhat arbitrary threshold, global greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak within the next five years or so then fall rapidly for decades: “…the threshold of 2°C is no longer viable” [3].

This fall in emissions would have to happen against the trends of increasing wealth in growing economies and growing populations. Recent history, even with the largest economic slowdown in decades, offers us no hope as global emissions are currently rising faster than ever [2]. It is a fantasy to suggest that the global community is able to collectively choose to peak and decline emissions within the next few years.

The lack of action is not for lack of knowledge. The data and scientific understanding have been clear for a long time and yet over the last decade carbon emissions have increased by a greater amount than in any previous decade (between 2002 and 2011 emissions increased by 2.5 GtCyr-1 from 7.0 to 9.5 GtCyr-1 [4]). There is nothing in the data to suggest that we have recognised the seriousness of our situation. In fact the reverse is true: we are accelerating into disaster faster than the scientific community thought possible even a decade ago.

As a scientist, I’m not supposed to use emotive words like disaster; however, that is what we are facing – an avoidable disaster of our own making. Reticence amongst the scientific community has probably contributed to our civilisation’s inaction. We know enough to say, and importantly to do more. As I write this, however, my office is quiet, half empty. My colleagues are attending a conference on the other side of the planet, elevating their carbon emissions to some of the highest in the world.

Two glimmers of hope I held until recently are fading. The first was offered by researchers quantifying the Earth’s endowment of fossil fuels. Their evidence suggested there simply weren’t the hydrocarbon reserves available to greatly perturb the climate system [5]. This is the question I explored for my master’s thesis [6] a few years ago. However, as extraction of unconventional resources continues to expand and as Arctic melting unlocks probably significant northern reserves, the hope of these resource limits applying any meaningful and timely brake diminishes. Secondly, our emission growth is linked to our economic growth. Without increasing demand from the expanding wealthy population the hydrocarbon reserves will remain unexploited. The threat of economic collapse, in our case linked to unserviceable debts, is familiar and appears plausible at least for developed Western economies. Exactly three years ago I blogged, with evidence, about the economically induced 2008 emissions peak. The global economy has proved far more resilient than I imagined. In any case, were western economies to collapse, the remaining four fifths of the global population are unlikely to need asking twice before taking up any hydrocarbon supply slack and attempting to resume the emission growth trajectory.

The time for hope is over; it is simply illogical to continue believing that dangerous future climate projections can be mitigated through national and international agreements, or through pro-active action. We now have to consider life in a 4 °C warmer world, described here in a report for the World Bank [7].

Our global civilisation appears to be facing a protracted period of decline. Most likely this will be due to the damaging impacts of climate change but if, against the odds, we are spared the worst climate impacts it will only be due to decline from crippling energy shortages or global economic collapse. There is no easy way down for our seven, going on nine billion population, not from the height we’ve now reached. The first half of the 21st century is likely to represent a new peak of human civilisation, the first truly global civilisation, eclipsing our species’ many previous peaks. From here, we can only now hope the cost of climbing so high won’t be so damaging as to deny our distant descendants their own future triumphs.

[1] PriceWaterhouseCoopers, November 2012.
Too late for two degrees? Low carbon economy index 2012.
[2] Peters, G. P., Marland, G., Le Quere, C., Boden, T., Canadell, J. G. & Raupach, M. R. 2012. Rapid growth in CO2 emissions after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Nature Climate Change, 2, 2-4.
[3] Anderson, K. & Bows, A. 2012. A new paradigm for climate change. Nature Climate Change, 2, 639-640.
[4] Boden, T.A., G. Marland, and R.J. Andres. 2012. Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2012
[5] Nel, W. P. & Cooper, C. J. 2009. Implications of fossil fuel constraints on economic growth and global Warming. Energy Policy, 37, 166-180.
[6] Vernon, C., Thompson, E. & Cornell, S. 2011. Carbon dioxide emission scenarios: limitations of the fossil fuel resource. Procedia Environmental Sciences, 6, 206-215.
[7] Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, November 2012. Turn Down the Heat: why a 4C warmer World Must be Avoided. Report for the World Bank.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Adrian Pike permalink
    December 14, 2012

    Hi Chris,

    I share your sentiments. On the one hand, what can you do when our democratically elected government makes decisions such as lifting the ban on fracking:

    Alternatively, we could take a leaf out of Jim Hansen’s book, who has tirelessly worked to bring the issue into the public domain. E.g. his campaign for a rising fee on carbon:

    We may reduce our own individual carbon footprints, but we cannot solve this problem on our own. Somehow the message has got to become mainstream – we should be putting as much effort into getting the message out there, as we are putting into the research itself.

    I have seen the film ‘The Age of STUPID’ and that just about sums it all up.

    If you and your colleagues would like to put together a roadshow that highlights the reality of the situation, I would gladly offer our church building as a venue for you to promote the message.

  2. Chris Cook permalink
    December 15, 2012


    The global economy is not resilient. It died in October 2008 and has been in zombie mode since then as banks have stealthily moved away from a role as risk intermediaries to a new role as ‘risk service providers’ through passing risk to unsuspecting investors.

    The fact is that a transition to ‘Peer to Peer’ credit and ‘Peer to Asset’ investment (neither of which is the same thing as the P2P lending popularised by Zopa) is actually in the interests of the intermediaries themselves, since as service providers they need only sufficient capital to cover operating costs.

    That is why they are doing it.

    Enough of the City Speak.

    What does this transition mean in practical policy terms? What is the next ‘adjacent possible’ to which banks are rushing headlong, like lemmings?

    Well, I reckon there will be two ‘Big Trades’ of the 21st Century.

    The first is the ‘Resolution Trade’ which will resolve unsustainable property debt. We see older generations who are ‘long’ of property, but ‘short’of care (both for them and their home) and younger generations who are ‘long’ of care, and ‘short’ of property.

    It is quite straightforward, I believe, to make the necessary exchange without needing to involvw either Private=Plc or Public = State as middlemen.

    The second is the Transition Trade – which is the exchange of the Intellectual value (IP and skills/experience) for the value of carbon energy saved.

    This article this week sets out how the latter may be achieved without middlemen, through a Green Deal that will actually work

    Resilience is an interest of mine at UCL.

    I was pleased to set out last month at Schumacher College my take on how the necessary networked and resilient economy may be achieved.

    In my view, 21st century problems cannot be solved with 20th century solutions. I find it ironic therefore that the solutions in fact may be found through updating structures and instruments that pre-date modern finance capital by hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

    So, all is not yet lost.

    We must simply – as J A Wheeler has it – put the right questions to Reality.

  3. Shaun Biddiscombe permalink
    December 17, 2012

    Hi Chris,

    I think the general public and governments may react more if the extreme weather systems were highlighted as a consequence of global wraming.

    A 2 degree change in temporatures is not an extreme enough change event for people to identify it as an issue to take real action. But People have experienced and felt the impact of extreme weather systems.

  4. January 19, 2013

    I’ve been drifting towards the same conclusion myself Chris. Still need to keep on doing the renewables and efficiency stuff, but now need to include other planning to cope with a radically changing climate…


  5. Rod permalink
    October 16, 2013

    Hi Chris, great site and blog!

    Having become aware of Peak Oil in 2005 I have spent the last 8 years voraciously reading everything I could about the broader topic of energy. This included a Masters degree in Sustainability Sciences. I came to the conclusion that it was too late when Copenhagen failed. Naively (I suppose) I stored great hope in Copenhagen and was bitterly disappointed at its outcome. Since then I have become somewhat resignedly sanguine about our future. One of our friends here in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney is the Environmental correspondent for the ABC. Greg has come to the same view. Our objective is now to live day to day as well as we can, preparing as well as we can and advocating for more sensible policy from our leaders as much as we can.

    At its core the problem really is about growth. Population growth has a symbiotic relationship with economic growth and both are dependent on growth in energy supply/efficiency. Put simply, there are too many people in the world and a die back is inevitable. What is the long term carrying capacity for humans on earth? When and how we reach that number will determine the quality of our lives this century.

    I am genuinely sorry my kids will likely have compromised lives. There is really very little I can do about it. My advice to them is to look at the bottom of Maslo’s hierarchy when choosing their careers; and they all seem to have taken that on board.

  6. Stephen Watson permalink
    February 4, 2014

    Indeed, Chris.

    As Caroline Lucas (MP!) asked many years ago – “Could we be the first species to monitor its own extinction?”

    Looks like we’re conducting an ongoing global experiment as our best effort to answer that question.

    You may like to have a look at this, if you’ve not done so:

    When I gave Peak Oil talks back around 2005 I would end by saying that the solutions to PO (and Climate Change) are not technological, they are spiritual. We need to make new (or perhaps, old) relationships with each other and with the planet. I believe that it’s the only way we have hope. Luckily we have everything we need to do that already! 🙂

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