Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Club of Rome: seeing the climate elephant in the room

A view of the meeting room of the National Bank of Romania, in Bucharest, where the Club of Roma is holding the meeting titled "The Power of the Mind". On the screen, a portrait of Aurelio Peccei, co-founder of the Club (photo by Ugo Bardi).

The Bucharest meeting of the Club of Rome is in full swing as I am writing this post. Yes, the Club of Rome, the one that sponsored the first "Limits to Growth" study, back in 1972. The study was often vituperated and always ignored by policy makers but, 40 years later, it is coming back to attention. Its views and predictions are starting to come true; giving us a new vision of what is going to be our future.

In addition to a new awareness of the LTG study, the urgency of the climate problem is permeating the Bucharest meeting. Once thought as a minor problem, less important than resource depletion, the recent data on the North Pole melting have changed everything about Climate. What we thought was to occur by the end of the century is happening now. We are seeing the climate elephant walking in the room; right in front of us.

The acceleration of the climate problem calls for emergency measures. We must act now, otherwise it will be too late. The situation is clearly explained by Ian Dunlop in the talk he gave on the first day of the meeting.

From www.clubofrome.org

Climate Change – Emergency Leadership Needed Now

The latest evidence on climate change demands a radical reappraisal of our approach.

By Ian Dunlop

The Arctic has been warming 2-3 times faster than the rest of the world. In the last few weeks melting of the Arctic sea ice has accelerated dramatically, reducing the area and volume to levels never previously experienced.  Some 80% of the summer sea-ice has been lost since 1979; on current trends the Arctic will be ice-free in summer by 2015, and ice-free all year by 2030, events which were not expected to occur for another 100 years. More concerning, the Greenland ice sheet this year has seen unprecedented melting and glacial ice calving, adding to a trend which will substantially increase sea level rise.

Beyond the Arctic, the world is in the fifth year of a severe food crisis, largely climate change driven, which is about to become far worse as the full impact of recent extreme drought in the US food bowl works its way through the global food chain, leading to substantial price rises.  Drought around the Mediterranean contributed to this food crisis, and has played a large part in triggering the Arab Spring, and the Syrian conflicts. Globally, the escalation of extreme weather continues.

Science is clearly linking these events to climate change, with human carbon emissions as the prime cause.

Does any of this matter? Yes – It is the most urgent issue now confronting the world, for the evidence indicates that climate change has moved into a new and highly dangerous phase. The polar icecaps are one of the vital regulators of global climate; if the ice disappears, the absorption of far more solar radiation accelerates ocean warming, with increasing risk of large-scale release of carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost. This in turn may initiate irreversible runaway warming. Energy, food and water security are also poised on a knife-edge in both the developed and developing worlds

These changes are occurring at the 0.8oC temperature increase, relative to pre-industrial conditions, already experienced, let alone the additional 1.2oC which will probably result from our historic emissions. The “official” target, of limiting temperature increase to no more than 2oC, is way too high.  Current policies, proposed by governments around the world, are far worse and would result in a 4oC plus temperature increase. Official panaceas, such as carbon capture and storage, are not working.

Political and business leaders glibly talk about adapting to a 4oC world with little idea of what it means – which is a world of 1 billion people rather than the current 7 billion.  Not much fun for the 6 billion departing.

To paraphrase Churchill: “— the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. We are now in an age of consequences”. We know how to establish genuine low-carbon economies, which would stave off the worst impacts of climate change, but we have left it too late for gradual implementation. They have to be set up at emergency speed, akin to the mobilization of economies on a war-footing pre-WW2.

Yet we hear nothing of this from the political, business or NGO institutions who should be leading our response. Why?

Financial incentives are the main culprit, in particular the bonus culture which has spread through the Anglo-Saxon world since the early 1990s.  Recently there has been some recognition that this might be a problem. The Chairman of Rio Tinto acknowledged that “the spiral in executive remuneration over the last two decades, simply cannot continue”, and chief executives are graciously deciding to forgo their annual bonuses in the light of adverse corporate performance.  Very worthy, but the damage caused by this culture is far more insidious than a debate about quantum. It threatens the very foundations of democratic society.

The bonus mentality inevitably led to short-termism – few directors or executives are prepared to give serious attention to long-term issues such as climate change when their rewards are based almost entirely on short-term performance. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it”.

Many privately agree that climate change needs far more urgent action that we are seeing, but few are prepared to speak out for fear of derailing “business-as-usual”. This is a fundamental failure of governance – directors have a fiduciary responsibility to objectively assess the critical risks to which their companies are exposed, and take action to ensure these risks are adequately managed.  But if they acknowledge climate change as a serious risk, they are bound to act, which requires a radical redirection of business away from our addiction to high-carbon fossil-fuels, powerful vested interests losing out in the process.  Better then to stick to absolute denial, irrespective of the consequences.

This flows through to politicians, NGOs and bureaucracies, who are subjected to immense pressure from the corporate sector not to rock the  “business-as-usual” boat, the result being politically expedient and contradictory climate policies.

Ethically and morally indefensible it may be, but that is what a deregulated market has delivered, and why it is so dangerous for the health of democracy.

Adversarial politics and corporate myopia are incapable of addressing life-threatening issues such as climate change.  It is time for communities to go around these barriers and demand leadership prepared to take emergency action, before the poisoned chalice we are passing to our grandchildren becomes even more toxic.

Ian Dunlop is an independent commentator, Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, Director of Australia21, and a Member of the Club of Rome.  He chaired the Australian Coal Association 1987-88, the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading 1998-2000 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors 1997-2001.


  1. "Once thought as a minor problem, less important than resource depletion, the recent data on the North Pole melting have changed everything about Climate."

    Worse thing would probably be to see these two "problems" as disconnected, as they are essentially the same thing :

    There is a big fire necessary to our current "way of life", the smoke is a major issue and the fuel stock is decreasing rapidly and becoming much harder to replenish.

    Concretely policies making sense : burning less fossile fuels, are valid for the two aspects.

    One could consider that CCS or geo engineering would cure the climate aspects allowing to continue on the burning frenzy, but they most probably are all false good solutions that will never see the light. Just take CCS, it means something like 30 or 40% more resource consumption for the same energy produced (plus the fact that pollution due to coal isn't limited to CO2 by far, so that CCS would increase for instance mining pollution by so much).

    And burning less fossile means making them more expensive relatively (through volume based taxes on energy or CO2 content), to push efficiency/conservation measures (insulation, much lighter smaller less powerfull cars for instance), or alternative energy production (renewables), without even having to define them.
    (and for instance removing taxes on work in parallel).

    Can the economy go through this ? Big open question.

    1. Yes, coal plants produce, among other things, plenty of mercury that ends up in the ecosystem and nobody really knows what effects it will have on the ecosystem. Just one of the many pollutants generated by coal

  2. Also underestimated in the original and the reissued version of LTG is the tipping point of pollution. Put another way, the ability of ecosystems to absorb it without collapse was underestimated. The ocean is in collapse from acidification and eutrophication (Co2 and the N and P inputs), and the forests are collapsing from tropospheric ozone and acid rain (primarily Nr emissions). Tree decline has been accelerating for a few years, but now it is so bad that more people are finally noticing. The significance of these twin, parallel collapses as existential threats to most species on earth cannot be emphasized enough, and they are both more imminent threats to food security than climate change, as dangerous as that is. newest photos here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-final-puff.html

  3. Correct, Gail. The "base case" scenario of 1972 is by now obsolete as a description of what could happen from now on.

  4. "These changes are occurring at the 0.8oC temperature increase, relative to pre-industrial conditions, already experienced, let alone the additional 1.2oC which will probably result from our historic emissions. "

    it might be far worse, as there is the solar dimming from thousands of crisscrossing aircraft contrails to take into consideration. as with happy motoring, the end of careless zombie air travel is in sight. but what will it expose when this industry has been forced by reality to end its pillage? humans could have caused a 1.5c increase already.

  5. That 1.2°C from our emissions to date may well be unduly optimistic for a couple of reasons:

    1: The total greenhouse gas forcing is *already* enough to take us to 2°C, but it's currently offset by cooling from short-lived atmospheric aerosol pollution, which could be eliminated by 'clean air' legislation aimed at protecting public health;

    2: The 1.2°C figure takes account of fast feedbacks (mainly sea ice albedo, clouds and atmospheric water vapour IIRC) but not slow feedbacks such as CO₂, CH₄, ice sheets and vegetation changes. Palaeoclimate data from the Pliocene suggests that the ~400ppm of atmospheric CO₂ of that time was associated with a climate 3°C warmer than today, making Earth's full climate sensitivity more like 7 or 9°C from a doubling of CO₂, rather than the 3°C which is the best estimate from fast feedbacks alone.

    Not good news.

  6. Too many elephants to contend with! They are arrayed in squads: energy resource depletion, other resource depletion, environmental pollution, to name the bigger ones. With environmental pollution by CO2 comes climate change and its elephants - food shortages, sea level rise, etc. How many elephants do you think we can handle at one time, Professor Bardi?

  7. The granddaddy of all elephants is overpopulation. In small numbers we could only wreck small areas of the Earth. At 7 billion and counting, we can trash the entire planet.

    I have been idly skimming around Google Earth, and it's really quite disturbing to find that areas you might think would have large areas of wilderness left are just full of people, houses, farms, roads... where is wildlife supposed to exist, as we leave hardly an acre of land untouched by human activity?

    1. Wilderness? there's hardly anymore such a thing... I travel often around the world for passion, and I never managed to go far enough from the human settlements as to find an uncontaminated natural environment. And I've been one month in the amazon rain forest. But if you try to assess quantitatively such trends it's even more impressive. For example, Smil calculated that, back in 1900, the zoomass (in live weight) of wild terrestrial mammals was similar to that of humans+domesticated animals. Today, the weight of the wild terrestrial mammals is just 2% of humans+domesticated animals. In just one century we managed to almost wipe out everything not human-centered from the face of the planet.

  8. diego. i hope you can see the extreme irony in your comment.