The rational middle

My most recent post, “The other end of the spectrum”, which reported on a Tyndall Centre conference, is quite possibly my most read post ever and certainly the most commented on. The post was written following my attendance at the Radical Emissions Reduction Conference, where the word “radical” was, at least by some, interpreted as part of the invitation rather than part of the solution. The flood of blog comments (30+, where 3-5 is my norm) that followed was something of a surprise. What does this say about the state of the climate debate?

The reason for the post was to make the point that the people who frequent the two ends of the climate change discussion aren’t really helping. Rather, there is an apparent delight in throwing rocks at each other (the “sceptic / denier” rock and the “activist / loony socialist” rock to name two), with the group in the middle left to keep their heads down and make some attempt at crafting a solution to the CO2 issue that we have. But as if on cue, many of the 30+ commentators who took the time to read my post and offer their own thoughts, did so by launching a barrage of their own rocks. For the most part I wasn’t the target, rather it was the conference attendees whom I had written about.

Some readers were surprised that I was apparently surprised by the “activist” end of the climate discussion. In reality, it wasn’t the content that was a surprise as I have heard it all before, but I was caught off guard by the concentration of it at a Tyndall Centre meeting hosted by the Royal Society – both institutions that carry considerable weight and credibility here in the UK. Perhaps I had mistakenly put the Tyndall Centre, or at least this part of their work, in the same category of climate research groups that I have more regular exposure to, such as the MIT Joint Program in the USA.

Irrespective of how it came about, the exchange highlights the two ends of the climate discussion, with the rational middle struggling to be heard. The world either seems to have a catastrophe on its hands or the science is a hoax, which when translated to the similarly polarized mitigation discussion becomes a debate about temperature – i.e. we either have to be under 2°C or 4+°C and global downturn will surely follow. Of course 4 doesn’t follow 2 and in any case, neither may be the outcome. For example, the recent Shell Mountains scenario talks about a world in which emissions trend down from the 2030s, reaching near zero by 2100. In this scenario cumulative CO2 emissions from 1750-2100 are 1.25 trillion tonnes carbon, which although not a 2°C trajectory, clearly isn’t 4°C either. Yet this is a plausible view of the future, certainly requiring a strong hand in the application of CCS, but not needing a return to communal agrarian lifestyles as some were hinting at the Royal Society event. The latter notion, not surprisingly, brings a strong rebuke from the so called “deniers”.

Moving past a discussion that is seemingly focused on “hoax or catastrophe” and “<2°C or 4+°C” needs to happen quickly if there is going to be any reasonable attempt to mitigate and eventually contain anthropogenic CO2 emissions. So strong is the rhetoric from both sides that the rational middle has shifted much of its focus to clean and green (efficient use of a broader energy portfolio), which while useful in terms of better managing the global energy outlook, may not result in the necessary downturn in emissions. The Shell Oceans scenario posed this dilemma, where a world undergoing a rapid transition to solar PV (in particular) and implementing enhanced energy efficiency measures driven by higher energy prices, manages to exceed the cumulative emissions of the Mountains case, simply because of the much later arrival of CCS.

One manifestation of this end weighted spectrum of views is the very limited progress in dealing with rising CO2 in the atmosphere. Carbon pricing is struggling to gain widespread acceptance, CCS projects are few and far between and the UNFCCC process now has little to show for years of work. It may be interesting for the Tyndall Centre to hold a Radical Emissions Reduction conference, but if it acts as a catalyst for an even deeper division of views, then it really hasn’t helped anybody.

On that note, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Hopefully there is a bit more convergence in 2014.