Growing up in a House on Fire

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GROWING UP IN A HOUSE ON FIRE

Photo from US Fish & Wildlife Service, via Flickr Creative Commons

This is the (slightly edited and updated) transcript of a talk I gave to primary school staff in Norwich, on climate change, the youth climate movement, and supporting children to learn about and respond to the climate crisis. Numbers refer to slides in the original presentation, although the text is mostly self-contained, and I’ve linked to sources and graphics in place of the slides.

Nick Brooks, Garama 3C Ltd; Follow us @Garama3CLtd.

3 September 2019

(1) Good morning. My name is Nick Brooks, and I run a small company, Garama 3C, that advises organisations about climate change, focusing on how they can prepare for and adapt to it. Today I’m going to talk to you about climate change, what it means for our children, and how we as parents and educators can engage with them on it. I’m talking to you as teachers rather than directly to the children because (a) as educators you are better placed to know how to do this, and (b) I don’t mind terrifying you, as you’re all adults.

(2) I’m here today because in April I took my daughter out of school to join the local School Strike for Climate. The Climate Strike was started by a 15 year old girl named Greta Thunberg, who sat outside the Swedish Parliament every school day for three weeks in August 2018 to protest against the lack of action to tackle climate change, or what people increasingly are referring to as the climate crisis.

And what do you know? It turns out children really care about the world, and particularly about climate change. Greta Thunberg’s lonely vigil inspired young people across the world and spawned a global movement. In July there were school strikes in at least 802 locations in 101 countries.

The reason the School Strike has taken off so successfully is in large part because many children are deeply worried about their future, and share Greta Thunberg’s sentiment that there is little point going to school to prepare for a future that might not exist.

(3) I think the fear and anger felt by a lot of children is captured in this quote from a speech Greta Thunberg made at this year’s World Economic Forum:

Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.

Greta Thunberg, 2019 World Economic Forum

(4) So why are children – and some adults, let’s be fair – so concerned? What’s the nature of the problem?

Well, the problem is the release of greenhouse gases as a result of human activities. These gases – mostly carbon dioxide or CO2, but also methane, nitrous oxide and some other gases – are produced by the burning of fossil fuels, some industrial processes, and the conversion of land from forest and grassland to agriculture. The sun warms the surface of the Earth and this heat is then reradiated back to space, but some of it is trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. Without greenhouse gases, the Earth would be a frozen ball incapable of supporting life as we know it, so some greenhouse gases are good as far as we’re concerned. But as we put more of them into the atmosphere, we trap more heat, making the world warmer.

On the left we can see how CO2 has varied over the past half a million years, and how rapidly we’ve increased CO2 concentrations in recent decades. In fact, more than half the additional CO2 we’ve put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been emitted since 1988, which is around the time we first realised we had a potential problem with climate change. So we’ve caused at least half the problem knowingly.

On the right we see how the global average temperature has risen since the 1850s, expressed in deviations from the average over the period 1961-1990. So far, the world has warmed by about 1°C, and most of that has occurred since the 1970s.

(5) So why is the warming of the planet such a problem?

Well, there are lots of impacts associated with this global warming, linked to phenomena such as increased evaporation from the oceans, melting snow and ice, the fact that heating isn’t uniform across the globe, which affects things like winds and monsoons, and the fact that the world’s climate tends to organise itself in different ways at different average temperatures.

As the world warms, we’re seeing record heat extremes, such as the ones we’ve experienced this year, and also back in 2003. These are now much more likely, and may become the norm in the future.

We’re seeing wet areas getting wetter and dry areas getting drier. This is a problem for people living in semi-arid areas such as much of Africa, but also in Mediterranean, North America, Asia and Australia.

These trends are making droughts, floods, wildfires and some types of storm more likely, and more severe. In recent years we’ve seen record areas affected by wildfires in the US, Europe and Russia, and also in the Arctic, and fires are burning outside the usual seasons. We saw this with the unusual heat in the UK in February this year.

All of these impacts affect human societies. For example, drought has been implicated in the Syria conflict and in the surge in migration in Latin America, although its role is not straightforward. The impacts of climate change are only going to get worse as time goes on.

(6) Reassuringly, the world is trying to limit global warming. The Paris Agreement commits the world’s governments to limiting warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial values, and encourages them to aim for a lower limit of 1.5°C. The 2°C threshold emerged some time ago on the basis that humans have never experienced anything above it, and based on studies that concluded large, disruptive changes to the climate system were more likely to occur above this threshold. As the science has improved, it seems that some of these changes may occur at lower levels of warming, hence the 1.5°C threshold.

Not so reassuringly, if countries meet their existing commitments under Paris – and that’s a big ‘if’ – we’re likely to see a warming of around 3°C before 2100 – in the lifetimes of the children who will be coming back into their classrooms later this week.

If countries don’t meet these commitments, warming is likely to exceed 4°C before 2100. That’s basically the difference between the climate of our parents and an ice age, but in the other direction and 50-100 times faster.

(7) It’s worth briefly looking at some of the impacts we expect from different levels of warming, and these are just a handful from a much larger study that you can find online via the Global Carbon Project if you’re interested.

Last year, there was a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that looked at the difference in impacts between a 1.5°C and 2°C warming. An extra half a degree might not seem much, but it significantly increases some risks. For example, with a warming of 1.5°C we’re likely to lose 70-90% of the world’s coral reefs. This rises to over 99% at 2°C. So that half a degree could be the difference between having some coral reefs and not having them at all. With an extra half a degree of warming the number of people exposed to water scarcity in central Europe goes up from 17m to 41m, and the number of people affected by river flooding in India increases nearly 6-fold rather than just over 3-fold.

At higher levels of warming the impacts jump up even more. If we take warming to 4°C, the number of species at risk of losing more than half their viable range increases enormously, as do economic damages from floods in the UK. At 3°C – where we’re currently heading – the duration of droughts in many parts of the world increases by many months, and heating over land in Asia goes from one and a half times to twice the global average.

(8) The risk that we accelerate warming through what are known as feedback processes also increases with warming. More frequent ice-free summers in the Arctic mean more heat absorbed by the ocean, further warming the planet. More frequent and protracted warm episodes over land in the Arctic mean more melting of ice and permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide and methane from previously frozen soils and organic matter, as well as potentially releasing ancient diseases and disrupting infrastructure.

In both the Arctic and the Amazon, extended warm periods can increase the risk of wildfires, which also release greenhouse gases from vegetation. In the Amazon, deforestation and deliberate burning has a similar effect, and makes the forest more vulnerable to drought and wildfires.

(9) Of course, melting ice, when it’s over land, contributes to sea-level rise, which is also driven by the expansion of the ocean as it gets warmer. If we keep warming below 2°C, it may be possible to limit sea-level rise to under a metre by 2100. However, if we don’t manage that, high-end estimates are for a rise in sea-level of 2 metres or more by the end of the century, and around 7.5 metres by 2200. In the longer term it could be much higher – the last time the world was 3°C warmer than pre-industrial times, sea-levels were somewhere around 20m higher than today. Even a rise of 1-2 metres is likely to be disastrous for some parts of the world – many of the world’s largest cities are on the coast and vulnerable to sea-level rise. Larger values would be very difficult or impossible to cope with without mass relocation.

Just for a bit of local relevance, I’ve produced some maps of Norfolk under different amounts of sea-level rise. [link to global map-based interface for examining sea-level rise risks].

The Broads and the North Norfolk coast are highly vulnerable to a 1m rise in sea-level. In fact, it’s widely said that we’ll lose the Broads as we know them as a result of climate change. Not much changes on the map with 2m. These images show likely outcomes within our children’s lifetimes in the absence of stringent action on climate change that currently isn’t happening.

As we increase sea-levels we lose more and more of East Anglia, and Norwich. And remember, this is what we’re currently on track for, although it’s likely to take many centuries for sea-levels to rise by 10m or more.

(10) Another impact that has been largely overlooked until very recently is the direct effect of very extreme temperatures and humidity. Critical to this impact is what we call the wet bulb temperature, which is the lowest temperature achievable through evaporative cooling. We essentially measure the wet bulb temperature by wrapping a standard thermometer bulb in a wet rag. This cools the bulb as the moisture in the rag evaporates. The lower the humidity of the air, the greater the difference between the wet bulb and normal or ‘dry bulb’ temperature. That’s why we can survive temperatures well above body temperature – the evaporation of our sweat can keep us cool even if it’s 40 or 50°C. Even at these temperatures, in dry air the wet-bulb temperature can be in the twenties.

However, once the wet bulb temperature gets above about 31°C we start to have problems. When it reaches about 35°C the body can’t cool itself sufficiently, and we get heatstroke. A healthy person can survive for a number of hours in these conditions, but ultimately a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C or more is fatal.

Luckily for us, nowhere on Earth has seen these conditions historically. That will change if we don’t limit warming in line with the Paris targets. In the event of such a failure, wet-bulb temperatures approaching or exceeding 35°C are expected by the 2070s in parts of Western Asia and South Asia in some seasons. This will mean people will have to be evacuated from these locations, stay entirely in air-conditioned buildings, live underground, or die in their millions.

(11) I’ve only scratched the surface of what we know about the actual and expected impacts of climate change. What we can say is a combination of long-term changes and periodic climate extremes will pose huge challenges for human societies. We will see long-term changes in water availability, agricultural productivity, habitability – as a result of warming, changes in rainfall changes, sea-level rise, and increased disaster risk.

We will also experience short-term disruptions to water supplies, food production, transport, infrastructure, services, supply chains and commodity prices as a result of increasingly frequent and severe climate extremes. These disruptions will be local and regional in nature, but they will also be increasingly global as the risk of multiple simultaneous disasters increases.

These impacts will combine and interact to affect human societies, and are likely to result in food insecurity, economic disruption and even collapse, social and political instability, large-scale displacement and migration, and conflict over resources and habitable land.

Increasingly, climate change is recognized as a threat to human societies in general, and to civilisation at large. This scientific paper talks about a ‘broad threat to humanity’:

…ongoing climate change will pose a heightened threat to humanity that will be greatly aggravated if substantial and timely reductions of GHG emissions are not achieved

…while this more policy-focused paper goes much further, and talks about the potential collapse of human civilization as a consequence of climate change:

Even for 2°C of warming, more than a billion people may need to be relocated and In high-end scenarios, the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end.

(12) So, what are our prospects of keeping warming below the Paris thresholds and avoiding these nightmare scenarios. These curves show some mitigation or emissions reduction pathways that keep us below 1.5°C (on the left) and 2°C (on the right).

You can see that if we want a decent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees we need very steep reductions starting now. According to these curves, we have around 9 years of emissions at current rates before we have to stop all emissions overnight, which is clearly impossible.

If we aim for 2 degrees instead of 1.5 degrees, we have more time and the curves look more manageable, but the reductions are still very steep – 5% per year.

And we’re nowhere near that. Last year emissions increased by between 2 and 3%, up from 1.2% in 2017, and following a period of 2-3 years when they didn’t change.

These curves look a bit easier if we include so-called negative emissions, in which greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere. The pathways to limiting warming to 1.5°C and 2°C above pre-industrial levels in the IPCC reports – and in the plans of various governments to achieve ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050 – assume the use of these negative emissions technologies. The problem is, these technologies are not yet available at anything close to the required scales, and are largely untested. We can make a significant dent in emissions by planting trees and rewilding, but forests take decades to grow, and again our current trajectory is one of increasing deforestation and habitat destruction, so we’re talking not just about doing better, but reversing current trends.

To a large extent, the reliance on future negative emissions is about passing the responsibility onto the next generation, who we assume will develop these mythical negative emissions technologies, so we can carry on burning fossil fuels and using land unsustainably for longer.

The challenge before us is enormous, and the longer we delay, the harder it gets. But we are delaying, and passing the responsibility and the costs onto our children. As things stand, it looks very unlikely that we’ll limit warming to below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C. Right now, the choice we’re making is catastrophic climate change in our children’s lifetime.

No wonder they’re angry.

(13) We might just be able to avoid catastrophic climate change, but we’re running out of time. If we are going to succeed, we need to make some massive changes to the way our societies and economies are organised. Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the 1.5°C threshold stated that we need

rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems…[that] are unprecedented in terms of scale.

IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5℃, Summary for Policymakers, 17

Greta Thunberg puts it more succinctly when she says,

…we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.

Greta Thunberg, COP24 Katowice Climate Conference, 3rd December 2018

As adults, we’ve demonstrated that we’re very bad at changing the rules. It’s taken decades of scientists chipping away at government reticence, a decade of arguing over settled science, and finally the boiling over of people’s frustrations through movements like the School Strike and Extinction Rebellion, to get where we are today. Today’s children know that we don’t have time for more of the same, and they are a critical voice in the fight to change the rules.

And we have a moral responsibility to support them. As a recent editorial in the top scientific journal Nature put it,

The youth climate movement’s members are brave, and they are right…Younger generations know, perhaps better than the adults, that the world might not have another three decades to prevent climate impacts that will be even more serious than those we face now.

The three decades mentioned here represent the time since the world formally committed to address climate change, desertification and biodiversity loss at the Rio Earth Summit and the then with the establishment of the UN convention on climate change.

(14) Children are already playing key leadership roles in the fight against climate change and climate inaction. Greta Thunberg is the highest profile example. As she said at the last UN climate conference,

…we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again.

We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not… And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

Greta Thunberg, COP24 Katowice Climate Conference, 3rd December 2018

But Greta isn’t the only such leader. These are the words of eight year old (yes, eight year old) Havana Chapman Edwards, speaking at a rally in Washington DC:

In my elementary school, we talk about recycling and gardening, but that is not enough. We talk about protecting keystone species like elephants, but that is not enough. I hear the adults leading our country talking about how they care about my future, but not actually passing any laws to fight against climate change. That is definitely not enough.

The world cannot wait. Kids like me cannot wait. I may be tiny, but my voice is not.

(15) Given this leadership, and how quickly the climate change agenda is evolving, there are some critical questions we need to ask ourselves as parents and educators. Young people – including our children and pupils – are increasingly concerned about climate change. Many are better informed than adults. So, we have some catching up to do. We need to ask ourselves how we talk to children about climate change, given how serious an issue it is. We need to ask ourselves how we support children to cope with the anxiety they feel about the future. How do we support and empower them to play a role in driving the changes that are necessary to confront climate change, both now and in the future? How do we build their capacity to do a better job than we have done at running the broken world they’ll inherit from us? How do we prepare them for the consequences of our failure to address climate change and other critical problems? And what is our own moral responsibility to our children when it comes to our own behaviour?

(16) The first thing we need to do as adults is to make sure that we are informed. Climate change is a huge and complex topic, but the important stuff is accessible. Given the importance of climate change for our children’s future, and our culpability in causing it and failing to address it, we have a responsibility to try and understand and address it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told by colleagues and clients that policymakers and government members can only understand things when they are put in the simplest of terms. However, as that editorial in Nature points out:

[Greta] Thunberg makes a point of namechecking the IPCC and quoting paragraph and page numbers in speeches, as she did in an address to the French parliament at the end of last month.

As government delegates get ready for [climate conferences in] Delhi, Nairobi and New York, they must prepare to answer why, if children can understand the meaning of the IPCC assessments, adults cannot do the same?

(17) Only when we understand the issues will we be able to inform and educate our children. Our children who will be tomorrow’s leaders, but who will also need to live in the world we leave them. They’ll need some formidable skills to navigate that world.

They’ll need to understand the science of climate change, because that will be their guide to what decisions they need to take if their societies are to survive in it. How much warming can they expect, and how fast? What will the impacts of warming look like? What don’t we know?

They’ll need to know what actions they need to take to reduce and perhaps reverse warming – what technologies they can deploy, what behaviours they need to address, and how to manage natural systems to maximise their ability to draw down carbon?

They’ll need to know what options they have for adapting to unavoidable climate change. How do they identify, understand, and address risks associated with the impacts of climate change? How do they avoid decisions that increase these risks – what we in the business of climate change adaptation call ‘maladaptive’?

They’ll need strategies to address obstacles to action, whether these are political, economic, ideological, behavioural, or from other sources.

Most importantly they will need the skills to govern, manage and live in a world beset by large-scale environmental changes, economic instability, food and water crises, systemic conflict & mass migration & their knock-on effects – a world that is changed beyond the recognition of their parents.

(18) Just as important as educating our children is supporting them. There has been a lot in the media recently about what has been labelled ‘eco-anxiety’. This is described by Psychology Today as “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”, and by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. It’s worth mentioning here that climate change is unfolding alongside, and is linked with, other environmental crises such as mass extinction, habitat destruction, air pollution, and the tide of plastic waste.

One of things we need to do is look out for the emotional and psychological effects of climate change on our children. We can’t simply avoid the issue and hope it will go away, but we need to be careful how we respond, and engage with children on their terms, letting them initiate the conversation. We need to talk to them from informed positions and sensitively address the frightening aspects of climate change and environmental destruction.

There are also really constructive things that we can do. Taking positive actions to reduce our own emissions, and getting involved in groups working for climate action both give people a feeling of agency and can reduce feelings of helplessness and anxiety. So, we can work with children to make positive changes at home or at school – either leading or letting them lead us. For example, the school might set up a staff and student council for climate action, that looks at actions the school can take to reduce its climate impact and respond to climate change in other ways.

Critically, we can support children’s involvement in activist movements like the School Strike or Extinction Rebellion. And remember, even the world’s top scientific journal endorses these movements. These are great ways of linking with others who share their concerns and are working for change. Getting involved in such groups increases children’s agency, gives them a sense of empowerment, and makes sure they are not isolated in their anxiety. Hopefully, it also makes a real different politically. If you’re in the UK, one very tangible thing you can do is to sign this petition asking that young people be consulted when the government makes climate change policy.

And if we’re really serious about supporting children, we can think about our own personal choices, and how these relate to the climate crisis. This might involve decisions to fly less, switch to green energy, examine where we put our savings and investments if we’re lucky enough to have any, where and how we shop, what we eat, whom we vote for. Making positive choices about our own lifestyles is an example to children of the small actions we can take, and demonstrates our support for them in their struggle to protect their own futures. Individual action alone won’t solve the climate crisis, but it’s not a case of either-or when it comes to individual versus collective action. Both can help, and they are closely interrelated.

(19) As this talk is about children and climate change, I’m going to let Greta Thunberg have the final word.

The year 2078 I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible there is no hope.

…I’ve learned that you are never too small to make a difference and if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.

Greta Thunberg, COP24 plenary session December 12 2018

Thank you.

Links to resources & further reading

Simple video explainers

General reading and resources for understanding climate change

Opposition to climate action / climate denial

Climate extremes

Climate change and extreme weather in general

Climate change and extreme winter weather:

Eco-anxiety and talking to children

Climate change education and resources for schools

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What if best-selling authors stopped pretending they knew anything about climate change?

(With apologies to those who do).

“Lord, grant me the confidence of an award-winning novelist with a hot take on climate science”, tweeted Leo Barasi, author of The Climate Majority, in response to Jonathan Franzen’s recent New Yorker article, titled ‘What if we stopped pretending.” 

What we should stop pretending, argued Franzen, is that we have any hope of keeping global warming below 2ºC above pre-industrial values, the upper limit enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Once we accept that this goal is unachievable, argued Franzen, we should focus on individual actions that collectively will “make the immediate effects of warming somewhat less severe, and … somewhat postpone the point of no return.” Instead of investing billions in large-scale renewable energy projects, we should invest the money in disaster preparedness, reparations, humanitarian relief and conservation.

Franzen’s article has attracted derision from many quarters, particularly climate scientists, advocates of climate justice and supporters of the Green New Deal. It has been described as muddled, scientifically illiterate, and the product of white male privilege. Muddled because it advocates responses that are likely to be overwhelmed by the scale of the changes this proposed approach would invite. Scientifically illiterate because of the way it treats 2ºC as a hard point of no return, a sort of magic switch that, if flipped, automatically sends us into irreversible catastrophe (the climate system is highly non-linear, but the 2ºC limit is to an extent quite arbitrary – informed by science but decided by policy). The product of white male privilege because it eschews large-scale structural changes (thus effectively advocating the socio-economic status quo), fails to address the impacts of climate change on those who are most exposed and most vulnerable, and ends with a eulogy to a small organic enterprise whose produce Franzen enjoys (albeit one with an admirable purpose).

On the other hand, Franzen’s article has gone down rather better in discussion groups dedicated to Deep Adaptation, whose members advocate, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and dread, accepting the reality of civilisational collapse and possible human extinction as a result of unstoppable climate change. Topics on these forums range from how to cope with the ‘knowledge’ that your children are doomed, to how society can be rebuilt once extant human civilisation has been swept away leaving just a few of us. Between these extremes of despair and apocaloptimism, there are discussions about how to prepare for the coming collapse while still striving to prevent it.

In keeping with current norms, Franzen’s article has been rather polarising. And he sets up a few dubious dichotomies himself: individual versus collective action, small versus large scale, mitigation versus adaptation, a ‘safe’ climate below the 2ºC threshold versus unstoppable catastrophe as soon as we exceed it.

Perhaps most importantly for discussions around climate action is his dichotomy between dangerously naive activists in denial about the reality of where we heading (whom he compares to religious leaders peddling false salvation), and hard-headed realists who accept that “the climate apocalypse is coming.” (Of course, in his use of the term ‘apocalypse’, Franzen himself draws on a rich tradition of theological manipulation.) The apocalypse is coming, he says, because avoiding it would require governments to do very difficult things and people to go along with them, which would require a change in human nature. Since the Rio Earth Summit and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) we’ve had three decades of knowledge and warnings, not to mention warming, and we’ve not acted, so why should we do any different now?

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, we may well be too damn cheap and lazy to save the Good Earth (or, more accurately, this iteration of human civilisation and the systems on which it depends). Those of us who have been working at the coal face (bad metaphor, I know) of climate change for the best part of those three wasted decades, and who don’t have the platforms or privilege afforded to bestselling authors, have plenty of reasons for pessimism. I recall a conversation about adaptation back in the mid-1990s with a senior colleague, who believed that governments would surely do the right thing once they understood the risks, and that advocating adaptation was a counsel of despair. I wasn’t so optimistic, and argued that adaptation would be where the action was in a few decades (we’re not there yet – adaptation is still the poor relation to mitigation, but that’s not through lack of need).

I recall another conversation, from the early 2000s, with UK government staff from No. 10, the Treasury and DEFRA (Department for the Environment etc.), about the 2ºC threshold, long before it was formally adopted as a central pillar of climate policy. I and other scientists were presenting the case that to have a half-decent chance of staying below this threshold, we needed to keep atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations below about 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent. The man from the Treasury responded that “we can probably do 550 [ppm]”, but that 450 ppm wasn’t economically or politically feasible. He seemed to think he was negotiating with the climate system, and we were its representatives. Or perhaps avoiding ‘dangerous climate change’ simply wasn’t worth inconveniencing his bosses.

Incidentally, 550 ppm of CO2 equivalent is likely to take us to somewhere around 3ºC of warming. The last time the Earth was that warm, sea levels were some 20-30m higher and the planet was a very different place. Coincidentally, the mid-range estimate of warming if all countries meet the commitments they have made under the Paris Agreement is just over 3ºC. And there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical that countries will meet these commitments. So, don’t make any multi-generational investments in low-lying coastal areas (this amount of sea-level rise would take centuries – pessimistic estimates for 2100 are around the 2m mark).

Staying below 2ºC requires countries to ramp up their actions over time to deliver accelerating climate action. From where we are now in 2019, staying below 2ºC would require reductions in greenhouse gas in the region of 5% per year until they’re all but zero. (This assumes no kicking the can down the road by relying on future removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through a combination of re-wilding, tree planting, and technologies that are currently either non-existent or untested at scale.) Things were looking good in 2014-2016, when emissions reached a plateau, but then they increased, by 1.2% in 2017, and by 2-3% in 2018. Not only are we not doing enough – we’re heading in the wrong direction altogether. At this rate we’re likely to hit 1.5ºC (the other, more stringent target in the Paris Agreement) in the 2030s, 2ºC sometime around 2050, and 3ºC around the 2070s, and certainly before 2100. A warming of 3ºC may not be stable, as feedback process triggered by warming result in further warming.

So, given all the above reasons for pessimism, why be so down on poor old Jonathan Franzen? His proposition that we’re fated to breach the 2ºC threshold is hardly outrageous. However, his effective dismissal of those who advocate radical, transformational action to curb emissions as delusional is more problematic.

No-one I know who works on climate change and has any half-decent knowledge of the science expects us to stay below 2ºC of warming, let alone 1.5ºC. I’m currently working on a paper that argues countries need to base their adaptation actions on the assumption that we will exceed these thresholds, failing to meet the goals in the Paris Agreement that currently frames climate action. (This isn’t intended as a plug – unless you’re a climate wonk you’ll no doubt find it really quite turgid. But if you are a climate wonk, hit me up.)

The activists pushing for radical action on emissions, whether in Extinction Rebellion, the School Strike movement, or mainstream politics, are doing so not out of some naive belief that saving the world is easy, but precisely because they know how close to failure we are. It’s urgency that drives them, not delusion. They are not, as Franzen suggests, indulging in delusional hope. Instead, they are exhibiting something much more important and active, something that is much more likely to result in change, something that we need much more than hope, namely courage and determination in the face of fear and grief.

Even if we fail to to stay below the 2ºC threshold, it’s still worth taking action on a large scale. Many of the 2ºC pathways that are seen as viable mitigation options involve ‘overshoot’, in which we initially exceed the threshold and then bring temperatures back below it over time. These are riskier than those that don’t involve overshoot, and the impacts will be greater, but they are still potential options. A world warmed by 2ºC is likely to be pretty bad for a lot of us; a world warmed by 3ºC, 4ºC or more will be much worse. The 2ºC limit isn’t a fixed physical threshold, as Franzen seems to believe, but an imperfect policy guardrail. Breaching it might be a very bad idea, but it doesn’t mean all is lost, any more than breaching the 1.5ºC, 1.99ºC, 2.01ºC, or any other threshold does. Even moving from a 4ºC to a 3ºC trajectory is better than inaction. Slower rates of warming at least give us more time to work on those carbon sucking unicorns and to pursue strategies such as re-wilding and forest rehabilitation/expansion. As a last resort, we have the dirty and embarrassing option of geoengineering, which has the potential to be hugely problematic, but might just about get us out of a runaway warming hole. Of course, the best option is to do all we can to limit our emissions starting now.

Franzen acknowledges that some action to limit emissions is still desirable, but only as a moral imperative to delay the final end times, and only so long as this mitigation is limited to small-scale individual and local actions and keeps government out of the picture. This on the grounds that large-scale interventions are costly, may be ineffective and damaging to the environment, and will require behaviour changes that people are not willing to make.

But how informed is this self-declared realism? Is massive investment in renewables and infrastructure transition so impossible or doomed to failure? Certainly there are resource constraints. For example, a recent study found that converting just the UK vehicle fleet from fossil fuels to electric power would require nearly twice the annual world production of cobalt, and that’s just one problematic element. Clearly some hard choices and massive lifestyle changes will have to be made in the face of these and other obstacles – we can’t just do what we’re doing now but with clean energy. However, some obstacles may be overcome more easily that Franzen leads us to believe, with a bit of effort.

It is true that, to date, despite all the knowledge and rhetoric around climate change, we have utterly failed to address it on anything remotely near the scale required. But is this all just down to human nature, to our species being collectively too cheap and lazy? Not entirely. Two very obvious obstacles come to mind. The first is the protracted, coordinated and very well-funded campaign by fossil fuel interests to sow doubt about the science and lobby against climate action. This has set such action back decades. While there is a sizeable partisan lobby in countries such as the US that still buys into such denial, the jig is pretty much up for the architects of climate denial such as Charles Koch and Robert Mercer. They may still have power and influence, but their dissembling about the science is far less convincing than it was now that they have been unmasked and public and policymakers alike are increasingly wise to their tricks. The world, with some clear and notable exceptions of course, is moving on without them.

Not unrelated to the above is the fact that the continued dominance of fossil fuels over renewables is not down to their intrinsic superiority or cost effectiveness, but rather the the huge subsidies they attract. If just a fraction of these subsidies were diverted to renewables the impact would be enormous, accelerating transitions in energy systems that are already underway as renewables become cheaper than fossil fuels in many contexts.

Organised climate denial and fossil fuel subsidies are not ‘human nature’. Rather, they are specific obstacles to climate action that it is in the power of governments to remove, if they so decide. To do so they will need public support, but that is growing, as evident in movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the School Strike for Climate, growing demands for a Green New Deal, and polls that show increasing public concern over climate change (not to mention shifts towards plant-based diets and all the fuss about plastic and palm oil).

We may be taking things to the wire, and we may warm the world by more than 2ºC in our, or our children’s, lifetimes, but that need not be an irreversible death sentence. To suggest that we should accept climate apocalypse at the very time that the tide is turning towards climate action, people are on the streets demanding it, and obstacles to that action are looking less immovable, is deeply irresponsible. Franzen over-simplifies the science, and misses a whole ocean of detail and nuance relating to both it and the political economy of climate change, not to mention the entire field of resilience and adaptation. He draws a bold and dangerous conclusion from a woefully inadequate understanding of the subject about which he is writing, and his recommendations are, dare I say, somewhat cheap and lazy.

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Climate change, Syria and the conflicts to come

Recognition of climate change as a key trigger for the war in Syria is not new. A 2009 report from IISD identified increased risks of conflict in Syria and surrounding countries as a result of the impacts of climate change on food security and water availability. A paper by Peter Gleick published in 2014 concluded that “water and climatic conditions have played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria’s economic conditions.” A paper by Kelley et al., published in March 2015 went further:

There is evidence that the 2007−2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone. We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.

These studies deserve an airing now, given the current focus of attention on the latest refugee crisis to face the Middle East (and Europe if you listen to the hysteria about letting moderate to tiny numbers of refugees into the EU and its member states), driven predominantly by the conflict in Syria.

Of course the links between climate change and the Syria conflict are neither simple nor deterministic. If the Assad government had responded better to the worst drought on record – outside the norms of long-term climate variations – that destroyed the livelihoods of farmers and livestock keepers and resulted in food insecurity and economic crisis, conflict might have been avoided.

But disasters and conflicts arise from the interaction of triggers or hazards with underlying social, political, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are everywhere, and not just in Syria.

Climate change is accelerating, and we are just experiencing the beginnings of a massive global climatic transition that will see unprecedented droughts, floods, storms and other forms of climatic (and hence societal) disruption come thick and fast. This is just a breathing space before the shit really hits the fan.

When the next big climatic transition really gets going (the last one was over five thousand years ago, and very different in nature, but not necessarily in some of its consequences), we’re likely to look back at the numbers of refugees and migrants we’re fretting about today and think “wow, we had all that fuss over those tiny numbers?”

This underscores the importance of addressing climate change through a combination of mitigation (reducing the greenhouse emissions that are causing it), and adaptation to the climate change we haven’t prevented (and that’s going to be a lot of change, given the continuing failure of mitigation). Adaptation will include so-called ‘incremental’ adaptation to protect and preserve existing systems and practices, as well as ‘transformational’ adaptation which will see existing systems, practices, settlement patterns and economic activities abandoned or replaced with something else where they are simply unviable under a changed climate. Somewhere in the mix will be migration, one of the principal means through which humans (and plants and animals) have adapted to climatic and environmental changes for as long as they have been around.

We need to recognise that migration will be a key element of adaptation, and we need to embrace, facilitate and – as far as possible – manage it, for example through helping migrants to move and ensuring that services, facilities and infrastructure to cope with their arrival are in place in destination regions. We can’t close our eyes to migration and pretend it’s someone else’s problem. But this is precisely the attitude of many European governments to the Syria refugee crisis. Again, let’s be clear that the crisis is a humanitarian one located in Syria and its neighbours, and along the migration routes that are the products of policies designed to limit migration and make it somebody else’s problem (e.g. by ensuring refugees can only apply for asylum once they have arrived in Europe, meaning they have to make dangerous journeys facilitated by unscrupulous people traffickers and cross European borders illegally before they can even think about applying).

It’s perverse that those most vocally opposing the migration of what some will call ‘climate refugees’ (a problematic term, but let’s go with it for now) tend to be those who are most hostile to action on climate change and transitions to cleaner forms of energy (see for example the UK government’s recent slashing of support for renewable energy), and keenest on extracting and burning more fossil fuels (see for example the same government’s strong support for fracking). This is the opposite of joined-up thinking, let alone policy making, by those who do not, and apparently cannot, understand the world that is forming around them, in large part as a consequence of their own actions and inaction.

Even those whose job it is to address climate change and fund responses to it are failing to grapple with the ‘wicked problem’ of migration. Mention it to any of the major donors involved in dishing out climate finance and they’ll usually pull a horrified face and throw their hands up as if to say, “What? We can’t touch that – it’s way to difficult and controversial!” At the same time, many mainstream migration researchers are reluctant to bang the climate change drum on the grounds that historically, climatic and environmental change is just one factor among many that influence people’s decisions to migrate. This may be true in the period for which the most evidence is available, but given the massive changes in climatic and environmental conditions coming our way historical analogues are arguably of limited relevance.

Syria and its refugee crisis is a humanitarian disaster that needs addressing now. But it is also very likely a harbinger of things to come. If we can’t cope with this crisis, we’re going to be pretty screwed when it comes to dealing with the wider societal implications of climate change.

Finally if you want a summary of the role of climate change in the Syria conflict in comic form (perhaps the best way of explaining the situation to above mentioned policy makers), this is very good, and very succinct:

http://www.upworthy.com/trying-to-follow-what-is-going-on-in-syria-and-why-this-comic-will-get-you-there-in-5-minutes?g=2

Additional note: Biff Vernon delved a bit deeper into this topic than I have in a series of blog posts in 2013, the first of which can be found here. Thanks for the heads up Biff.

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Agricultural transitions in a changing climate

Over at the Garama website I’ve written an opinion piece in response to the African Development Bank’s recent statements about the importance of transitioning from traditional subsistence to modern commercial agriculture in Africa. While commercialisation is not necessarily bad in and of itself, the history of development policy in Africa offers us some cautionary lessons. These are particularly pertinent in the context of climate change. Check out the article here.

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Mainstreaming climate change – training course

There is a lot of focus on ‘mainstreaming’ climate change into development planning these days. The idea of mainstreaming climate change is to ensure that its implications are routinely considered by those responsible for designing and implementing development investments, strategies, plans, policies, programmes and projects. The aim is to identify and reduce climate change risks associated with such initiatives, and to make sure than any opportunities such initatives may present to build resilience to climate change are taken.

My company, Garama 3C Ltd, is offering a 3-day training course on climate change mainstreaming, aimed at development professionals who need to address climate change in their work, and organisations that want to develop their own mainstreaming systems, processes and mechanisms.

The course is held in Norwich, UK, and cost £1200 including 4 nights accommodation (£800 for those arranging their own accommodation). The next course is planned for 15-17 July 2013, and the course will be repeated from 8-10 October 2013. The plan is to run the course several times a year.

We can add dates to the calendar if there is sufficient demand, for example if an organisation wants to send a number of staff on the course.

We are also offering a mobile version of the course that can be run at a location chosen by the client, such as a regional headquarters or country office.

See the Garama website for full details of the course, including a draft programme, or download the information here as a pdf.

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Good and bad causes (and a new paper)

I’ve heard it said the the road to Hell is paved with false dichotomies, and this appears to be particularly true of academic theories about causality, a subject on which I was invited to speak at a workshop in Copenhagen about this time last year. The workshop also resulted in a special issue of the Danish Journal of Geography, which has just come out, and in which I have a paper.

Specifically, the workshop addressed causality in human-environment interactions, wrestling with the question of whether we can say a particular environmental change or stress can be said to “cause” a particular societal outcome.

Plymouth

Environmental change is just one factor that influences people’s decisions to migrate, but sometimes it can be the dominant factor. Photo: building buried by ash and pyroclastic flow in Plymouth, Montserrat. The town is now abandoned.

To anyone who has lost their house in a hurricane, or seen their crops wither and die in a drought, this question might seem ridiculous or even offensive. However, those who study human-environment interactions will point out that, somewhere along the line, a decision has been made to build a house in an area exposed to hurricanes, or to grow crops in a region prone to drought. It is the interaction between the vulnerability of human activities and infrastructure resulting from such decisions (to exploit or inhabit risky areas), and the occurrence of an environmental hazard or stress that results in risk, and in negative societal outcomes. In other words, environmental hazards only affect human activities or infrastructure that we put in their way.

The problem becomes more complex when we’re talking about the role of environmental stresses in larger-scale phenomena such as migration or the collapse of human societies. Droughts may act as triggers for food crises, but droughts of similar magnitude and duration can have very different societal impacts depending on the vulnerability of the exposed population. This is apparent in regions that have experienced meteorologically similar droughts in different years, with very different outcomes due to changes in government policies or the introduction of effective early warning and response systems. Can a drought be said to have caused a famine in one year, when a similar drought some years later leaves the same country or region relatively unscathed? It is widely accepted today that famines are as much man-made as they are natural disasters, even where drought acts as a trigger.

When it comes to climate change, the debate still rages on. Using terminology from the migration literature, on the one hand are what we might call the ‘maximalists’, who argue that climate change will ’cause’ migration and conflict, among other things. On the other are the ‘minimalists’, who maintain that climatic and environmental change represents just one set of factors among many that influence societal outcomes. Minimalists often go so far as to say that there is no point trying to separate environmental factors from other drivers of societal change, because of the multiplicity of factors contributing to these changes and the complexity of their interactions. The minimalist position seems to be gaining the upper hand, largely because of flaws in maximalist attempts to quantify the numbers of people who might be displaced, killed or otherwise affected by climate change.

Despite these flaws in maximalist thinking, there is a danger here that the triumph of minimalism will lead to a kind of nihilism, which will discourage people from examining the wider societal impacts of climate change. It may undermine attempts to quantify climate change damages, an approach that could be deployed to hold polluters to account and thus drive the large-scale behavioural changes that are required to tackle climate change effectively. And there is a further problem.

While the minimalist camp has evidence and subtlety on its side, it tends to ignore the fact that our empirical understanding of environmental drivers of phenomena such as migration is based on a very limited time window, namely the past few decades. The recent historical period is a poor guide to understanding how people react to massive, severe, and sustained changes in climatic and environmental conditions, as such changes have been few and far between in recent decades and even centuries (while there have been plenty of climatic and environmental shocks, the basic configuration of the global climate has remained essentially unchanged for millennia). Put simply, we don’t have any decent historical analogues for what’s coming, as the global climate reorganises itself over the coming decades (and centuries) in ways that we are struggling to anticipate. Somehow we need to extend the evidence base so that we have examples of how populations – and indeed societies at large – respond to such huge changes in climatic and environmental conditions.

In my paper from the Copenhagen workshop, I suggest that we might learn from the last period of global climatic reorganisation, which took pace between about 6400 and 5000 years ago. This did not involve any large changes in global average temperatures, and was driven by natural processes relating to changes in the Earth’s orbit and the distribution of solar radiation across its surface, rather than the buildup of greenhouse gases from human activity. However, it did involve profound shifts in climatic and environmental conditions across much of the globe, including the desertification of the northern hemisphere subtropical region (southern North America and today’s desert belt stretching from West Africa to China), harsher (and colder) conditions in Europe and other middle and high-latitude regions, and the establishment of a regular El Niño. People practiced small-scale farming and herding, as do billions of people today, and urban societies existed (and became more common and extensive as conditions deteriorated).

The paper summarises evidence from a number of regions suggesting that climatic and environmental change had a profound effect on human societies during this period. The strength of this evidence varies with location, but it is enough for us to construct convincing narratives of environmental change as a dominant driver of social change during key periods. These changes are not always in the same direction – in some places people become more mobile in their search for resources, while in others they retreat to refugia and become more settled. In some locations people give up farming for mobile herding, while in others such herding is abandoned or integrated into a more sedentary lifestyle based on irrigated agriculture. And the effects of large changes in climate go far beyond societal collapse, although that particular outcome has dominated discussions of the impacts of climate change on past societies.

The point is that we can talk about environmental influences on the development of human societies (for better or worse, depending to an extent on your perspective), without falling into the trap of determinism. Another important lesson is that it is naive to stick dogmatically to either a minimalist or a maximalist position. Climatic and environmental changes certainly interact with other drivers of societal change, but the relative importance of these drivers varies over time. Looking to the more distant human past helps us to think about the possibility that some environmental changes may be so great that they overwhelm other drivers of change, even if such a situation is temporary. This certainly seems to have been the case on a number of occasions five to six millennia ago, and I’m prepared to bet that it will be the case again soon.

Here is the first page of the paper (with abstract) – contact me if you would like a full version. References for this and other of my papers on similar topics below.

Brooks, N. 2013. Beyond collapse: climate change and causality during the Middle Holocene Climatic Transition, 6400-5000 years before present (BP). Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography 112(2): 93-104. View abstract/1st page, or contact me for an electronic copy.

Brooks, N. 2010. Human responses to climatically-driven landscape change and resource scarcity: Learning from the past and planning for the future. In I. P. Martini and W. Chesworth (eds.) Landscapes and Societies: Selected Cases, pp. 43-66. Springer, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York, 478 pp. Access chapter via Google Books.

Brooks, N. 2006. Cultural responses to aridity and increased social complexity in the Middle Holocene. Quaternary International 151, 29-49. Download pdf (324 kb).

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A few updates

I’ve added details of a few reports to the website, including reports for the African Development Bank (AfDB) on (i) climate change, agriculture and natural resources, and (ii) climate change, energy and transport; a 2011 report for UNDP on climate change and migration (prepared with Alex Winkels); reports of the Pilot Programme on Climate Resilience (PPCR) Expert Group on country selection for participation in the PPCR.

You can download the UNDP migration report from this website. Links are provided to the PPCR website, from which can download the PPCR reports and other PPCR documentation. If you’re interested in seeing the AfDB reports let me know and I’ll ask AfDB and International Development UEA (who managed this contract) whether this is possible.

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Hurricane Sandy, attribution, and resposibility for climate change damages

There has been a lot of discussion about whether Hurricane Sandy can be blamed in whole or in part on anthropogenic climate change. In short, the consensus among people who work on climate change seems to be that this sort of storm would form in the absence of climate change, but that climate change (warmer oceans, changing weather patterns due to Arctic sea-ice melt) amplifies the severity and mediates the character of such events.

Coming hot (sorry) on the heels of a severe drought, Sandy may be concentrating the minds of at least some Americans on climate change. If these sorts of droughts and storms are to become more common (and maybe even a “new normal”), responses are required. Adaptation will be vital, but it is still worth taking action to reduce the magnitude of human-induced climate change. And that requires political and economic action.

Some years ago, I attended a meeting at which the idea of “fractional attributable risk” (FAR) was raised. Put simply, FAR involves estimating the frequency and severity of extremes under conditions with and without anthropogenic global warming, and taking the difference to see what fraction of damages from extremes in the real (warmed) world can be attributed to the influence of elevated greenhouse gas concentrations. Once you can attribute damages to emmisions, you can pass the costs of those damages on to those responsible. The scientist who presented the idea of FAR said that he believed such attribution of costs on a “polluter pays” principle was much more likely result in action to reduce emissions than any amount of global climate negotiations and agreements (think Kyoto).

Attribution of specific events – at least partially – to climate change is becoming more feasible and more routine, as this article in Bloomberg Business Week (yes, that’s right) illustrates.

This seems particularly pertinent given the multi-billion Dollar impacts of Sandy, and the growing chorus of indignation (at least among some sections of the electorate) that climate change has been completely absent from the debate leading up to next week’s Presidential election.

How can the people of America get their representatives (I use the term advisedly) to do something to address intensifying risks such as those they have experienced this year? The science of attribution of extremes provides one answer.

US citizens need to demand action on climate change from their government, and prosecute for negligence politicians who ignore it, and lobbyists (and their corporate clients) who lie about the science with the sole aim of preventing action to tackle it. Suffered losses because of an event caused or amplified by climate change? Then sue those responsible. That means the primary begetters of greenhouse gas emissions, and those who have deliberately obstructed mitigation through emissions reduction. In principle it’s simple, now that the science of attribution is more advanced.

Related link: http://www.climateimc.org/en/original-news/2011/10/27/climate-change-fractional-attribution-risk-and-russian-heat-wave

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Welcome

Welcome to my new website, which pulls together information about my research and consultancy activities. I’ll be adding more content soon. In the meantime you can use the tabs above to find out more about me, to see details of some reports prepared as part of my recent consultancy commissions, and to see a list of some my publications. Or check the About page for more links and information, including about my consultancy work through for GARAMA 3C Ltd.

If you are looking for the SAND & DUST blog, which until recently was hosted at this address, you can find it at its new, dedicated WordPress domain:  sandanddust.wordpress.com.

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