Climate scientists go for ‘human tipping point’

A group of scientists headed by pioneer global warming researcher James Hansen is challenging the consensus view that humanity can avoid serious danger by holding the average temperature rise to two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Warming should be limited to one degree centigrade to avoid “disastrous” consequences, Hansen and his colleagues write in an open-access paper published in December last year.[1]

Hansen et al also venture beyond the physical sciences to discuss the potential impact of global warming on human society and what should be done about it. They appeal to the public to act, rather than making the sort of “policy recommendations” to which society’s ruling elites usually try to confine scientists.

The danger to future generations is ultimately a “moral issue”, they argue. “As with the issue of slavery and civil rights, public recognition of the moral dimensions of human-made climate change may be needed to stir the public’s conscience to the point of action.”

Since the paper was published, Hansen has supported an attempt to sue the US government for failing to protect future generations against the effects of climate change. (His blog here  reports on progress.)

Tame as this all may sound to social and labour movement veterans, or to participants in radical environmental protests, I argue in this article that we should listen carefully to what Hansen and his colleagues are saying.

Fork in the road

We are at a “fork in the road to our energy and carbon future”, argue Hansen and his co-authors – who include not only climate scientists such as Pushker Kharecha and Makiko Sato but also the prominent sustainability researcher Johan Rockstrom and economists such as the shock-therapy-advocate-turned-development-wallah Jeffrey Sachs.

They ask: “Will we now feed our energy needs by pursuing difficult-to-extract fossil fuels, or will we pursue energy policies that phase out carbon emissions, moving on to the post-fossil fuel era as rapidly as practical?”

They estimate that carbon emissions need to fall by 6% per year from now onwards if the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere is to be kept at a safe level (350 parts per million

Yes, it really is melting. Photo by Nick Russill, Flickr Creative Commons

Yes, it really is melting. Photo by Nick Russill, Flickr Creative Commons

(ppm)). They also decry the time wasted in tackling the issue, claiming that, had an effective tax on carbon emissions been imposed in 1995, the annual emissions cut needed would be just 2.5%.

Hansen et al say it is “still conceivable” that dangerous climate change can be averted, by means of energy conservation, low-carbon energy use and technology to sequester carbon in the soil and in forest regrowth on marginal lands. “The alternative pathway, which the world seems to be on now, is continued extraction of all fossil fuels, including development of unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands, tar shale, hydrofracking to extract oil and gas, and exploitation of methane hydrates.”

If this goes on for another twenty years, followed by a 3% annual reduction in emissions between 2033 and 2150, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere would be 1022 gigatonnes (GtC),[2] more than twice as much as the level Hansen et al think is safe.

The paper also recites a litany of effects of global warming (and has a bibliography of the latest research on each): sea level rise, changing climate zones, the extermination of species, destruction of coral reef ecosystems, a rise in extreme weather, human health impacts, and aggravated impacts of fossil fuel mining.

One degree of separation

Hansen et al’s explanation of their target of one degree above pre-industrial temperatures – as opposed to the two degrees accepted by the intergovernmental summit on climate change at Copenhagen in 2009 and used as a marker in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – makes interesting reading.[3]

The distinctions are “much greater and more fundamental than the numbers 1° and 2°C themselves might suggest”, they argue, for four reasons:

■ Climate simulations (computer-generated models of how the climate will change), including their own, usually do not include “slow feedbacks” (trends that, once in motion, accelerate the entire warming process) such as reduction of ice sheet size (which reduces the amount of warming sunlight that is reflected back into space) or the release of gases such as methane from thawing tundra. It’s reasonable to ignore those effects with a one degree change, but a two degree change makes them much more relevant.

■ Limiting temperature rise to one degree implies limiting future carbon emissions to only 130 gigatonnes (see below). And that implies using easy-to-access coal, oil and gas, and leaving alone fossil fuels that are more difficult to mine. But scenarios for world energy consumption that lead to two degrees of warming “necessarily imply expansion of fossil fuels into sources that are harder to get at, requiring greater energy using extraction techniques that are increasingly invasive, destructive and polluting”. Another turn of the screw.

■ The biosphere, particularly forests, and the soil, naturally suck carbon from the atmosphere, i.e. counteract carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption and other human activity. Climate scientists measure the rate at which they do so as carefully as they monitor emissions. The rate can be assumed to stay the same with one degree of warming, but two degrees could let loose carbon cycle feedbacks that upset this process.

■ The warmer the atmosphere, the greater the level of emissions of non-carbon gases that contribute to further warming, the most important of these being methane (CH4), which has an especially powerful greenhouse effect.

Degrees, parts per million, gigatonnes

The scientific section of Hansen et al’s paper explains what they believe the one degree target means in terms of reducing carbon emissions.

Average global temperature is determined by the earth’s energy balance, and over the last 200 years that has been upset: less energy has been going out than coming in, because carbon and other atmospheric gases reduce the earth’s heat radiation to space. The main cause of this warming is human combustion of fossil fuels. Other factors affect the energy balance too, including the the use of aerosols (which slow down global warming), and natural factors such as the earth’s surface albedo (reflectivity) and solar radiation changes.

To prevent average temperature rising beyond 1°C above pre-industrial levels, the level of carbon in the atmosphere, currently above 400 parts per million (ppm) – up from about 320 ppm in 1960 – needs to return to 350ppm.[4] That number has been rising for the last 200 years, causing an average temperature increase of roughly 0.8°C. Fossil fuel combustion accounts for 80% of the change; most of the remainder results from deforestation and other changes in land use.

In terms of curtailing fossil fuel use, the number that matters most is the cumulative total of carbon released into the atmosphere – known in the trade as the “carbon budget”. (Politicians like to talk about annual rates of growth of emissions and other numbers that, in the big picture, don’t do much except to deceive people about the issues.)

Hansen et al calculate that, on top of the 370 gigatonnes of carbon released from fossil fuel combustion since the industrial revolution, humanity can comfortably release another 130 GtC, to make 500 GtC in total.

That’s the figure from which they derive their proposal to cut carbon emissions by 6% a year, and their observation that it could have been 2.5% if coordinated action had been taken in 1995.

The IPCC says that the world economy can work with a “carbon budget” of 840 GtC from carbon dioxide emissions, i.e. 370 GtC released so far and another 470 GtC to go. Hansen et al dispute this,[5] arguing that it could push the global climate “far outside the Holocene range”, which would be “dangerous and foolhardy”.

On top of their concerns about the two degrees target, they highlight problems in the key research papers used by the IPCC’s latest (fifth) report to determine the carbon budget that the two degrees target implies.[6] The papers use varying and uncertain assumptions (inevitably, since they are plotting the future); Hansen et al say the risk is too great.

Hansen et al also comment on calculations by environmentalist Bill McKibben, who accepted the two degrees target but concluded that the remaining “carbon budget” was not 470 GtC, but 128 GtC – almost exactly the same as Hansen et al’s 130 GtC using a one degree target.

The three main reasons for the discrepancy are (i) that Hansen et al make more optimistic assumptions about reforestation and land use changes ameliorating the effects of carbon emissions; (ii) that Hansen et al have ignored the additional effect of the greenhouse effect of gases other than carbon dioxide; and (iii) that the different research papers use different calculations of probability.

This is the point where climate science deniers shout: “they don’t even agree with each other!” To which I would reply: “well of course they don’t, you clowns. They are scientists. It’s their job to find out stuff, and to challenge, check and refine their own and each others’ findings.”

The difference between Hansen et al’s one degree target and the IPCC’s two degree target pales into insignificance when one considers the paralysed response of the world’s governments to global warming. Since the failure of the Copenhagen summit, governments have been committed to do little or nothing, and have allowed fossil fuel combustion to expand unimpeded. All the climate researchers appear to agree that this “policy” carries the danger of warming of between three and six degrees – all nightmare scenarios. What matters is how humanity is going to move from the path to which these governments are condemning it.

Scientists and society

When it comes to what should be done about climate change, Hansen et al call for “broad public support” for change, rather than keeping to the format of “policy recommendations” usually used in scientific papers. They highlight the “intergenerational injustice” implicit in global warming – “young people and future generations inheriting a situation in which grave consequences are assured, practically out of their control, but not of their doing”.

The paper’s specific policy proposals are in line with the “green new deal” (mainly, a carbon tax, see footnote below). That’s not a framework I accept, as I’ve written elsewhere on this site (e.g. here). But the important point to my mind is Hansen et al’s emphasis on taking these issues to a wider audience, outside of academia, outside of a privileged discussion between academics and politicians. Climate researchers in the UK also made such an effort recently, with the Radical Emissions Reduction conference organised by the Tyndall Centre. (See report here.)

There is scope here for building an alliance between scientists and social and labour movements, without which the sort of drastic social and political change required to steer humanity away from climate change will never happen. GL, 11 May 2014.

Footnote: carbon taxes

The main policy proposal in Hansen et al’s paper is for a gradually-rising fee, or tax, to be paid on each tonne of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, so that these costs are “internalised within the economics of energy use”. A very readable book-length argument for the tax by the economist Shi-Ling Hsu, one of the paper’s co-authors, is cited.[7] In the book, Hsu reviews arguments for and against carbon taxes, and the experience of a carbon tax levied in the Canadian state of British Columbia. That one included a scheme for returning the revenue to the population and businesses via tax credits, with the aim of making fossil fuel consumption more expensive than other forms of economic behaviour.

Socialists, including me, have serious worries about this sort of policy proposal. In a capitalist economy, the most important choices about energy use are taken by large corporations. Both energy workers such as coal miners, and energy “consumers” (most of the rest of us, at least in developed countries) are trapped in a set of economic relationships over which we have little control. As long as those corporations call the tune, it’s difficult to see an effective tax that they would not sabotage.  And as a consumption tax, a carbon tax would always hit the poorest – notwithstanding the well-meaning schemes, of the sort discussed by Hsu, to compensate for that.

Perhaps socialists’ biggest problem with proposals for carbon taxes, though, is that they amount to a call for a type of Keynesian regulation of capitalism that history has swept past. In keeping with our larger view of the world, we see the transition away from the fossil-fuel-dominated economy in terms of a transition away from capitalism, together with all its other evils and inequalities.

A socialist critique of the carbon tax proposal is therefore pretty straightforward … and has been made at length by the economist Richard Smith, here and here. Fair play to Smith for taking up those arguments (a continuation of his critique of Herman Daly’s “steady state economics”). I worry, though, that he is missing the larger point: that scientists such as Hansen and his co-authors are appealing to society at large – instead of to “policymakers”, governments, etc – and this is an appeal we should welcome.

OK, so the climate scientists are mapping out strategies for social change within the liberal framework that they understand. They are not radical activists. They are probably unaware of, or indifferent to, some of the ideas about social change that people like Richard Smith and I spend our lives thinking about. But let’s underline the positive. Scientists are deciding not to hide away in their research labs or address themselves to political elites alone. They have shaken a leg and spoken their minds on political issues – arguing that “broad public support is needed”, that “as with the issue of slavery and civil rights” public recognition of the scale of the moral issue is needed, and that disaster awaits “unless a human ‘tipping point’ is reached soon”.

Surely we can take that away and run with it, offering our own interpretations of how such a “tipping point” can be achieved? GL, 15 May 2014.

See also “A Galileo for our time” (review of James Hansen’s book)

[1] Full title: “Assession ‘dangerous climate change’: required reduction of carbon emission to protect young people, future generations and nature” (Public Library of Science, 3 December 2013). There’s also an interview with James Hansen here.

[2] A gigatonne is one billion tonnes.

[3] In the sub-section of the report entitled “Implication for Carbon Emissions Target”, page 11

[4] See the Earth System Research Laboratory site, which updates the monthly average, here.

[5] See “Discussion” at the end of the paper

[6] The fifth assessment report is in the process of being published. See here

[7] Shi-Ling Hsu, The Case for a Carbon Tax: Getting Past Our Hang-Ups to Effective Climate Policy (Island Press, 2011)

One Response to Climate scientists go for ‘human tipping point’

  1. philw53 says:

    This is a useful summary of Hansen’s views. I just want to make a couple of observations.

    Firstly, the reference to “the use of aerosols” as mitigating global warming is a bit misleading. I don’t quite know what is meant by the phrase, but it seems to suggest aerosol spray cans, which certainly don’t have this effect. Most of the gases used in them are greenhouse gases, although not as bad a the CFC’s they replaced under the Montreal Protocol from 1988. I think Hansen is referring to stratospheric aerosols, sulfates in particular, which do have a cooling effect, as shown by the year or so after the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1998.

    The second point is about Hansen’s carbon tax. I agree that it probably won’t work, but it is appealing to some socialists as it does include a dividend component more comprehensive than the one in British Columbia and will benefit the poorest most, as it is a flat fee, rather than done by manipulating income taxes.

    I think the tax needs to be examined more thoroughly. Hansen cites a spreadsheet which is meant to model its effects (for the US economy). My fleeting efforts with it seem to show that its parameters may not be correct (it is bourgeois economics, after all). Thus, Hansen’s suggestion of a $110 per tonne carbon dioxide tax, equivalent to $1 on a US gallon of gasoline (a 25-30% rise), produces a 15% cut in use in the model. In fact, from 2008 to 2011 gasoline in the US did rise in price by over $1 and the cut in use was only 3%, despite there being no compensation for this rise.

    I do not understand why a fall in fossil fuel use with a carbon tax is expected when there is such compensation. As you say, decisions about energy sources are made by big corporations, not consumers. Furthermore, if such a tax were introduced and the expected falls in fossil fuel use not achieved, the big temptation would be to remove the dividend component of the policy.

    Finally, the BC carbon tax needs to be looked at in detail. It was introduced immediately at the start of the financial crisis, so perhaps cuts in carbon emissions would be expected anyhow. In the few years after 2008, the Canadian government claims that there were cuts in Canada as a whole, which are attributed to the recession, so it is likely that the BC tax’s effects have been small.

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