You say climate chaos is HOW close?!

In my previous post, I discussed some new modeling which shows that avoiding climate chaos — limiting average global temperature rise to 2 degrees, generally agreed to be the threshold of danger — is still possible, but just barely, and only with massive, immediate, coordinated global action.

Can we make the radical changes necessary to meet that challenge? No, say climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows in a recent commentary in Nature Climate Change, not “within orthodox political and economic constraints.”

There is no political or economic constraint more orthodox than the primacy of economic growth. No solution to climate change that threatens economic growth can get any traction at all — even the most “alarmist” climate hawks fear to tread there. Which is too bad, Anderson and Bows say, because “climate change commitments are incompatible with short- to medium-term economic growth (in other words, for 10 to 20 years).” What’s worse, “work on adapting to climate change suggests that economic growth cannot be reconciled with the breadth and rate of impacts as the temperature rises towards 4 °C and beyond.” In other words: We either give up economic growth voluntarily for a little while or suffer a climate that will reverse economic growth long-term.

Yikes. I’ve cited papers by Anderson and Bows before, in my “brutal logic” series. They are extremely pessimistic about the chances of constraining temperature rise to 2 or even 3 degrees. They identify several ways that most climate modeling downplays the severity of the challenge, but their difference with, say, the U.K. group I wrote about yesterday is not so much over projections as what the projections mean in political economy terms.

The U.K. group stresses that 2 degrees is still possible. Anderson and Bows stress that, “within orthodox political and economic constraints,” hitting such a target is wildly unlikely. Absent some pretty revolutionary political and economic changes, it won’t happen. For obvious reasons, scientists shy away from saying this kind of thing in public. They don’t want to depress people or come off as “political.” However, say Anderson and Bows, “away from the microphone and despite claims of ‘green growth’, few if any scientists working on climate change would disagree with the broad thrust of this candid conclusion.”

Should scientists speak up more about this harsh reality? Anderson and Bows note that “academic training has begun to foster the ability of researchers to embed quantitative analysis within a wider sociopolitical and economic context.” Nonetheless, scientists remain reticent, often assuming that “the most effective way of engaging is by presenting evidence, without daring to venture, at least explicitly, broader academic judgment.” This kind of just-the-facts reticence, Anderson and Bows say, is neither warranted nor wise given the urgency of current climate circumstances:

[W]e need to be less afraid of making academic judgments. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era.

This would be controversial enough in itself. Various social and professional incentives work against academic researchers speaking out beyond their narrow specialties. And there is an entire cottage industry devoted to scolding climate scientists for going “beyond the science” to political analysis or policy advocacy. These latter sins, they are warned, threaten their status as “trusted brokers.” (Because the trusted-broker thing is working so well so far, climate-wise.)

What else can you do, though, when danger of such unthinkable scope and permanence is looming and humanity’s actions in the coming decade will determine the fate of future generations? I mean, it sounds like a sci-fi movie, but it’s real. What can you do if you’re one of the scientists who understands how dire the situation is? These are not ordinary times.

Anyway, as controversial as it is to ask climate researchers to venture broad social and economic judgments, the specific critique that Anderson and Bows offer is even more likely to make some of their straight-laced colleagues wince. It has to do with the “catastrophic and ongoing failure of market economics and the laissez-faire rhetoric accompanying it.” Specifically, market economists (and the politicians and scientists in thrall to them) suffer the “misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2°C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives.” They urge their colleagues:

Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

Anderson and Bows say we are in the midst of a “paradigm shift” that will eventually supersede market economics like Einstein superseded Newton. Sounds exciting!

Unfortunately, and rather incredibly, they don’t tell us what the audacious new paradigm is. They don’t so much as hint at it. In a paper with “paradigm shift” in the title, I find that rather anti-climactic. (I assume they are fans of some version of steady-state economics, but I’m only guessing.)

I don’t know that I fully agree with Anderson and Bows, either about scientists becoming socioeconomic commentators or the imminent death of market economics. At the very least both subjects warrant far more discussion.

I do think, however, that it’s instructive to see how unsettled some climate scientists are becoming. They see that we need a massive response, and soon, and they don’t see current social and economic institutions as capable of mustering such a response. Do you?