Apart from the banal exercise of predicting that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that I am 90 per cent likely to have a cappuccino in the next day or so, I do my best to eschew predictions. They so often fail spectacularly, and I wrote an essay about failed predictions about climate change some time ago. But I recently came across such a beauty of the kind that I thought it was worth following up. On August 1st 2008, more than eight years ago, someone called Andrew Simms wrote a piece in The Guardian which told an apprehensive readership that there were ‘only 100 months to avoid disaster’ and that humanity was in ‘the final countdown’. Andrew seemed to be speaking for ‘group of global warming experts’, and what he and they had to say was pretty ‘confronting’, as today’s TV news presenters like to say. I’ll give you some little bits of it.
… in just 100 months’ time, if we are lucky, and based on a quite conservative estimate, we could reach a tipping point for the beginnings of runaway climate change. [For the puzzled, I think ‘lucky’ is used here in its ironic sense.]
Currently, approximately 1,000 tonnes of CO2 are released into the Earth’s atmosphere every second, due to human activity. Greenhouse gases trap incoming solar radiation, warming the atmosphere. When these gases accumulate beyond a certain level — often termed a “tipping point” — global warming will accelerate, potentially beyond control.
Andrew then talked about the ‘feedback loops’ that amplify warming, and what would happen in consequence, a decline in albedo leading to the melting of icecaps, a rise in sea-levels, doom and so on.
So, how exactly do we arrive at the ticking clock of 100 months? It’s possible to estimate the length of time it will take to reach a tipping point. To do so you combine current greenhouse gas concentrations with the best estimates for the rates at which emissions are growing, the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases allowable to forestall potentially irreversible changes to the climate system, and the effect of those environmental feedbacks.
We found that, given all of the above, 100 months from today we will reach a concentration of greenhouse gases at which it is no longer “likely” that we will stay below the 2C temperature rise threshold. “Likely” in this context refers to the definition of risk used by the IPCC. But, even just before that point, there is still a one third chance of crossing the line.
What should humanity do, or rather, what should Britain do? Andrew’s solution, no doubt also constructed by the group of faceless and nameless global warming experts, was somewhat on the draconian side.
[We need to] launch a Green New Deal, taking inspiration from President Roosevelt’s famous 100-day programme implementing his New Deal in the face of the dust bowls and depression. Last week, a group of finance, energy and environmental specialists produced just such a plan.
Addressed at the triple crunch of the credit crisis, high oil prices and global warming, the plan is to rein in reckless financial institutions and use a range of fiscal tools, new measures and reforms to the tax system, such as a windfall tax on oil companies. The resources raised can then be invested in a massive environmental transformation programme that could insulate the economy from recession, create countless new jobs and allow Britain to play its part in meeting the climate challenge.
Goodbye new airport runways, goodbye new coal-fired power stations. Next, as a precursor to enabling and building more sustainable systems for transport, energy, food and overhauling the nation’s building stock, the government needs to brace itself to tackle the City.
That’s just the beginning. Next comes a rolling programme to overhaul the nation’s heat-leaking building stock. This will have the benefit of massively cutting emissions and at the same time tackling the sore of fuel poverty by creating better insulated and designed homes. A transition from “one person, one car” on the roads, to a variety of clean reliable forms of public transport should be visible by the middle of our 100 months. Similarly, weaning agriculture off fossil-fuel dependency will be a phased process.
You get the flavour. Now we need to remember that this symphony of doom was composed a year or so before the great Copenhagen Climate Conference, and in the middle of the global financial crisis. Both those events have faded a little from contemporary anxieties, but I taste the flavour of Andrew’s brew whenever I hear one of the more passionate Climate Botherers speak out — for example, lamenting the failure of either candidate in the American Presidential elections to spend time — any time in any of the debates — on the most important issue of all, climate change.
Why is it worth spending time on Mr Simms’s essay? Well the one hundred months have passed, if my arithmetic is any good. We didn’t reach a tipping point for the advent of runaway climate change, and indeed, no one much talks about tipping points these days. That sort of language has gone, along with the notion of ‘runaway global warming’. If the subject interests you, start here. Nor is there much sign of the amplification he referred to. The strong temperature rise of the 1980s and 1990s has gone, to be replaced with a small up-and-down fluctuation. Yes, there has been a rise since 1998, but it’s not much at all. Andrew didn’t go into climate sensitivity, but most of the recent papers on that tortured subject are pointing to something around a 1.5 degree Celsius increase for every doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. There don’t seem to have been any ‘irreversible changes to the climate system’ in the past eight and a half years.
And his program to cure our climate ills has disappeared from sight. If you read it all (I have only provided a little of it) you are likely to be astounded both at its optimism and its far-reaching ambit. That you could have in Britain a ‘visible’ transition from cars to ‘clean reliable forms of public transport’ in eight years seems to me extraordinarily optimistic. And after the South Australian electricity outage in September, the combination of ‘clean’ and ‘reliable’ is perplexing. Of course, Andrew he wrote the piece years before the outage.
No elected government could put into place such a program without there being an imminent disaster that the whole electorate could see. There isn’t one, and therefore there is no point reminding people of what Britain did during the Second World War or what America did with the New Deal — these were vastly different conditions. I came across an American equivalent of Mr Simms’s appeal to see what is happening in climate (whatever it is) as a dreadful crisis facing humanity only the other day. I don’t think it resonated with many people.
The piece in The Guardian told readers that they go could go to onehundreddays.org if they wanted to find out more, and how to take action, and who else was supporting the endeavour. When I went to the link I found that onehundreddays.org had disappeared, and an alert hustler on the Internet asked if I would like to buy the domain! I thought about it for a micro-sec0nd.
And what about Andrew Simms? Well he survives, and is still on the staff of The Guardian, which says this of him: Andrew Simms is an author, analyst and campaigner. His books include The New Economics, Tescopoly, Ecological Debt, and Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to prosperity. his new book We Want More Than This will be published in 2017 by Little Brown. He co-founded the New Weather Institute, is a research associate at the Centre for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex, and a fellow of the New Economics Foundation. It seems that crying doom from a green perspective has been profitable for Mr Simms. He now blogs at The Guardian, and his prediction lives on in the title of his blog: 100 months to save the world. A monthly blog about the effects of climate change. Maybe it is the next one hundred months. Plainly, he is a believer.
And The Guardian? Well, I understand that its is losing about £100 million a year, but then all mainstream newspapers are more or less financially moribund. You’d think being spectacularly wrong with a prediction might have made both the writer and the newspaper somewhat more reticent in their claims. In fact, nothing has changed, since both still say much the same things, presumably to much the same readership. But both the paper and the readership are shrinking…