Climate Code Red – Urgent excerpts – Part 4 of 5 – Denialism and overcoming disempowerment

The following is part 4 of 5 excerpt collections from the Feb. 2008 report, Climate ‘code red’: The case for a sustainability emergency by David Spratt, policy analyst with CarbonEquity, and Philip Sutton, Director of the Greenleap Strategic Institute – published by Friends of the Earth (Australia).

We feel this is the best available, all-in-one, “brutal reality” source for the hard, undiluted truth about the URGENT GLOBAL EMERGENCY posed by climate change and the DRASTIC ACTION THAT MUST BE INITIATED ON A MASSIVE SCALE – RIGHT NOW – if humanity is to confront this unprecedented threat and mobilize to survive.

These excerpt collections are an effort to make the most essential, need-to-know info contained within the 70+ page report as accessible as possible. Ellipses (…) at the end and beginning of paragraphs, and after subsections, indicate material that has been excluded in the interest of brevity. You can reference the full report at

Climate Code Red – Urgent Report Excerpts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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3.2 A systemic breakdown?

3.3 What happens when what we need to do is not “reasonable”?

Table 1: Blocked at every turn

“When you warn people about the dangers of climate change, they call you a saint. When you explain what needs to be done to stop it, they call you a communist… everyone is watching and waiting for everyone else to move. The unspoken universal thought is this: ‘if it were really so serious, surely someone would do something?’… Who will persuade us to act?” — Author and policy analyst George Monbiot (Monbiot 2007b; 2007c)

Blocking: Being seen as crazy. Fear of being isolated. Being pragmatic. Going one step at a time. Only going as far as people can accept. Unwillingness to think the unthinkable and do the undoable.

See Table 1 on page 49 of full report (page 58 of PDF).

This is paradoxical, because the world’s accelerating slide into demonstrably dangerous climate change is now creating new, more favourable dynamics for advocacy and leadership. These days if one takes a stand that is well-based on climate science but that is currently seen as “extreme”, it will be only months or a year or two at most before evidence from the real world will show it to be reasonable and necessary. So one would hope that the uncomfortable feeling of being too far “ahead of the pack” will pass before too long!

The reticence that people feel about going beyond the bounds of acceptability results in the advocacy of solutions that, even if fully implemented, would not actually solve the problem. Actions are proposed consistent with scaled-down goals so that, for example, the “strong” position is for a cap on temperature increases of 2ºC, even though it is now clear that even if we achieve a 2ºC global warming, this will have already moved us into dangerous climate-change territory that may be beyond our control. NASA’s James Hansen, for example, says that if a rise of 1.7ºC is exceeded, “all bets are off” (Hansen, 2006a), a position modified downwards in light of the Arctic summer of 2007 (Hansen and Sato, 2007b; McKibben, 2007).

As we acknowledge in section 3.6 below, it is perfectly true that what needs to be done to deliver a safe climate, when taken as a whole, is not possible via politics and/or business as usual.

But that is precisely why there is such an urgent need to reconstruct the issue we face as a climate and sustainability emergency that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise.

…But in the case of sustainability issues, “pragmatic compromise” is a bad strategy. If you want to protect the lives of people and ensure the survival of species then there are simply limits to how much compromise is sensible. Any action (or inaction) that leads to a collapse in the ability of the environment to support large numbers of people and significant proportions of other species is not at all practical. With the climate issue, our traditional ways of being practical by compromising and cutting corners are leading to disastrous outcomes. But there is another way of thinking about “practicality”. And it means being “doubly practical”, a necessary requirement in thinking about paths to a safe-climate world.

3.4 Making effective decisions for climate action

…In seeking to overcome the advocacy dilemma, what lessons can be learnt? Five key approaches stand out: pursuing double practicality, facing facts with brutal honesty, putting the science first, overcoming disempowerment, thinking beyond the “business as usual” mode.

Pursuing double practicality: Proposed actions must both be capable of being implemented, and when fully implemented, must fully solve the problem. For example, a 3ºC cap may well be achievable logistically, but rather than solve the problem of climate safety it is very likely to result in global warming that is catastrophic, escalating beyond our capacity to affect it…

…no need for cheering dreams,” he wrote, “facts are better than dreams” (Best, 2002). The purpose of facing the facts is not to wallow in anguish, but to inform the creative process so that solutions can be crafted to have the maximum chance of solving the real problems, as they actually exist, and no matter how bad they are. The worse a problem is the more vitally important it is to know its real nature…

…Management researcher Jim Collins found that companies which survived enormous challenges and continued to thrive were, without exception, the ones that had the knack for not only facing the brutal reality that they were in, but also, driven by an enormously strong will to survive, for creatively developing solutions that were equal to the problems (Collins, 2001).

Collins drew lessons from the experience of Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking US military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Observing his own strategies for survival, and those of his fellow prisoners, Stockdale concluded that “you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” (Collins,2001).

This approach can be thought of as a combination of “strategic optimism and tactical pessimism”. There is a dogged determination to work for a positive outcome — “failure is not an option” —coupled with an assumption that any number of things can go wrong unless they are actively prevented.

Collins asks: “How do you motivate people with brutal facts? Doesn’t motivation flow chiefly from a compelling vision?” The answer, surprisingly, is, “No.” Not because vision is unimportant, but because expending energy trying to motivate people is largely a waste of time… If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated. The real question then becomes: How do you manage in such a way as not to de-motivate people? And one of the single most de-motivating actions you can take is to hold out false hopes, soon to be swept away by events… Yes, leadership is about vision. But leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted (Collins, 2001).

To reiterate Collins’ finding, because it is so central to climate policy advocacy: one of the single most de-motivating actions you can take is to hold out false hopes, soon to be swept away by events…

…Currently climate policy is generally framed as solving the impasse between “the science” and what is “politically possible” by which is meant what is economically acceptable to governments around the world who are largely captured by corporate and bureaucratic interests…

…An inverted problem is putting too much faith in technological fixes to solve all problems, including global warming. Post-enlightenment delight at the progress and capacity of technology has produced a cultural impediment to climate action: a technological over-optimism or determinism that clouds understanding of what is now required by changing human behaviour.

Overcoming disempowerment: Some say it is better not to talk about an impending disaster because you don’t want to depress people or disempower them or cause panic. But if people are really faced with a serious situation and there is some possibility that preventive or even adaptive action could betaken, then not informing people leaves them living in a fool’s paradise, unable to take useful action. If people are faced with a very bad situation it is reasonable and healthy that they should feel upset or despondent for a bit, but we know from human experience that people do not usually stay depressed if they can see a hopeful course of action or are able to engage constructively to change their circumstances. People are especially likely to restore their morale if leadership figures are actively engaged in confronting the problem, which is why people can keep their spirits up even in times of war and other disasters. And whether people panic will depend on whether or not they feel isolated, abandoned, unsupported and without any meaningful way forward.

Furthermore if we do not allow people in on the secret that climate change, if left uncorrected, is going to cause disastrous impacts, we get caught in a democratic trap. If political leaders keep problems quiet, they cannot put forward effective policies to solve them because people are not informed or capable of giving them active support. And it is doubly impossible for the bigger political parties to provide effective leadership if many scientists, the main sources of “objective” information, do not tell the full story and environmental and climate change social advocacy groups put forward policies and demands that cannot fully solve the climate problem.

Thinking beyond “business as usual”: When confronted with the need to go beyond “business as usual” many people argue that it cannot be done because “you have to be realistic”. But this is a self-referencing argument. One of the things that makes “business as usual” such a powerful mode of operation is the widely-shared assumption that things will go on much as they have been. However, given that humans have been able to survive through a long history that has involved a great many crises it is obvious that it has been possible to break out of “business as usual” in the past when new ways of acting were needed — or we wouldn’t be here now!

Humans developed many of their characteristics because we were dependent on environments that were very vulnerable to abrupt climate change events including ice ages and rapid deglaciations, with sea levels rising and tumbling by tens of metres. William Calvin suggests this led to a premium being placed on cooperation and creative action within human social groups and to the massive expansion of the human brain to support these strategies (Calvin, 2002). It is clear that humans would have had to repeatedly move from the “business as usual” to crisis mode; those people and bands that failed to make the transition perished and those who were able to effectively harness their capabilities to adapt survived. We are the descendants of those who succeeded, which suggests we should have the capacity to switch out of “business as usual” mode to a productive crisis mode. The big question mark over our ability to respond is whether we have to wait till a crisis is fully upon us or whether we can anticipate it and act preventively…

…While the new “business as usual” mode is in many cases a well-intended response to the emerging climate and sustainability crisis, it is still an avoidance response in relation to the deeper nature of the crisis. The question then becomes can we, being both brutally honest and doubly-practical, get beyond “business as usual” in either its traditional or “new” form to build a truly sustainable society?

3.5 Climate solutions

…To restore a safe climate we need to make changes, as fast as possible, that will result in the Earth cooling by at least 0.3 ºC compared to the present (14 A “Hansen cooling”, named after James Hansen who first proposed the idea, uses a modest human-induced cooling to turn the natural positive feedbacks in the climate system into reverse (so they cool the system rather that warm it), for example such that the Arctic summer sea-ice and the permafrost begins to grow back…

3.5.1 Stopping additions to heating: cutting emissions to zero

…125,000 wind turbines around the world each year until 2020; a daunting technological task, though certainly achievable when compared to the 65 million cars produced each year (Brown, 2008)…

…The solar thermal industry is already well established, is by far the lowest cost option for solar electricity and is on the cusp of some remarkable scale-up breakthroughs, such that it is predicted to be cheaper than coal within five years…

Recycling: Natural systems have evolved to achieve extraordinarily high recycling rates. For example carbon recycling in natural systems is over 99% (Kump et al., 1999). The scale of the human economy is now so huge that the same imperatives will necessitate a shift to a closed-cycle economy. For example, the explosive growth in the production of mobile phones is leading to critical shortage of the geological reserves of some of the rare minerals used in the advanced electronics and recycling is beginning to look like the only way to keep the mobile phone sector viable (Cohen, 2007). Generally much more energy is required to create virgin resources than recycled resources. And to tackle the climate issue a great deal of physical transformation needs to occur — inefficient buildings, cars, products and infrastructure needing to be retrofitted or replaced in a relatively short period of time — which could involve a large new burst of CO2 release unless the old materials are efficiently recovered from the scrapped assets and are recycled into new assets…

3.5.2 Reducing the current heating processes

…Today we have most of the technology, and ideas needed, to build a new carbon-free economy. It is now a matter of whether we have the political will to drive a rapid transition.

3.6 Can “politics as usual” solve the problem?

“I am old enough to notice a marked similarity between attitudes over sixty years ago towards the threat of war and those now towards the threat of global heating. Most of us think that something unpleasant may soon happen, but we are as confused as we were in 1938 over what form it will take and what to do about it. Our response so far is just like that before the Second World War, an attempt to appease. The Kyoto agreement was uncannily like that of Munich, with politicians out to show that they do respond but in reality playing for time.” — environmental scientist James Lovelock (Lovelock, 2006)…

…Such a transition would be characterized by a managed but rapid speed of change. Speed is of the essence, so the emphasis is not just on a transition to a safe-climate economy, but a rapid transition. If it isn’t as rapid as humanly possible, it will fail to solve the problem. Global warming is already dangerous at a rise in global temperatures of 0.8ºC with at least another 0.6ºC locked into the system and impossible to avoid, and more to come given the inertia of the world’s energy and political systems. If it takes the world 10 or 15 years to stop increasing the rate of emissions increasing and another 40 or 50 years to stabilize atmospheric carbon levels, it is very likely that the resulting stabilization temperature level (an increase of more than 2ºC) and the rate of temperature increase (0.2–0.3ºC/decade) will be too much for many ecosystems, let alone triggering positive feedbacks in the climate system that will escalate warming beyond control. There is even a 50% chance that warming will exceed 0.3ºC for the decade 2004–2014 (Smith, Cusack et al., 2007).

We are in a struggle against time and our analysis suggests that the world will only get one shot at the major restructuring that is needed. We have to act with great speed and get the broad outlines of the needed change right the first time…

…The question is how can we make this rapid transition. Can the present workings of our political system and the imperatives of a deregulated market economy make this happen very quickly? To be blunt, the short answer is no.

Look around for the proof. It isn’t happening anywhere at the necessary scale and speed. Even in those countries that have worked hard to improve energy efficiency and build renewable energy capacity and better transport options, the capacity of human beings to invent new ways of using energy works against these advances: the fast-growing, high-polluting air travel sector, the air conditioner boom, or the plasma TV binge are just three examples. And in the West our conventional mode of politics is short-term, adversarial and incremental, a culture of compromise which is fearful of deep, quick change; which suggests it is simply incapable of managing the transition at the necessary speed…

…We hear the mantras endlessly: public sector bad, privatization good; lower taxes good, government spending bad. But as Robert Reich, the US Secretary for Labor 1993-97 notes: “free markets… have been accompanied by widening inequalities of income and wealth, heightened job insecurity, and environmental hazards such as global warming” (Reich, 2007). The neo-liberal market economy, shed of democratic control and with a fetish for monetary growth and “shareholder value”, has failed the test of sustainability.

At a book launch in late 2007, Ian Dunlop, a former international oil, gas and coal industry executive, and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 1997–2001, named the crucial issue of the next few decades as being how to “bring runaway capitalism into alignment with the sustainability of the planet and global society, and indeed with democracy?” He noted that “the political and corporate structures we have created render us uniquely ill-equipped to handle this emergency” and that “perverse [corporate] incentives have led to a paranoia with short-term performance… Organizations previously highly-regarded for their long-term thinking, have dispensed with that expertise, in the process losing valuable corporate memory.” Henceforth, he argued “the rules must change to ensure long-run sustainability” and identified a number of implications:

  • genuine sustainable development must become a cornerstone because conventional growth is untenable;
  • success must be re-defined based on long-term sustainability, not short-term consumption;
  • markets must be re-designed to enhance the local and global “Commons” (Dunlop, 2007).

The corporate agenda runs politics, as Reich has articulated: “Democracy, at its best, enables citizens to debate collectively how the slices of the pie should be divided and to determine which rules apply to private goods and which to public goods. Today, those tasks are increasingly being left to the market… Democracy has become enfeebled largely because companies, in intensifying competition for global consumers and investors, have invested ever greater sums in lobbying, public relations, and even bribes and kickbacks, seeking laws that give them a competitive advantage over their rivals. The result is an arms race for political influence that is drowning out the voices of average citizens. In the United States, for example, the fights that preoccupy Congress, those that consume weeks or months of congressional staff time, are typically contests between competing companies or industries… While corporations are increasingly writing their own rules, they are also being entrusted with a kind of social responsibility or morality. Politicians praise companies for acting “responsibly” or condemn them for not doing so. Yet the purpose of capitalism is to get great deals for consumers and investors. Corporate executives are not authorized by anyone — least of all by their investors — to balance profits against the public good. Nor do they have any expertise in making such moral calculations. Democracy is supposed to represent the public in drawing such lines. And the message that companies are moral beings with social responsibilities diverts public attention from the task of establishing such laws and rules in the first place” (Reich, 2007).

In short, “business as usual” is no substitute for the state establishing such “laws and rules” as are necessary to protect “the pubic good”, in the present case embodied in the need for a healthy planet. Yet such a step seems beyond the political process in its usual mode. In short, “the imperative of large-scale [climate] responses clashes with the current fashion of seeking to minimize the role of the public sector” (Ackerman, 2007).

Carbon pollution is a product which, while privately enormously profitable, wreaks such public damage as to be capable of changing our planet beyond recognition. Orthodox economic theory would demand that the rational course of action is to place a price (tax) on that pollution where the marginal abatement curve (cost of reducing the damage) meet the marginal damage curve (the cost of doing more damage). This is likely to be very high — Stern says it may be over $A100 per tonne of CO2 — but in fact if the cost of the marginal damage (destroying the Earth’s ecosystems) is beyond value and of infinite cost, then the amount we should be prepared to pay to stop it — the abatement price — should also be infinite. But this logical conclusion, based on orthodox economics, is not top of mind for most people managing the orthodox economy.

To drive the transition, carbon must be squeezed out of the economic equation, either by putting such a high price (tax) on it that demand for it rapidly drops as other options becomes more attractive, or carbon is rationed in decreasing quantities — “cap and trade” is a fancy name for rationing — until the economy is decarbonized.

But there is a problem. We are addicted to the lifestyle of our high-carbon economy, which means — like cigarettes and alcohol which are highly taxed — that you can increase the price of carbon-intensive products a lot and people will still keep on buying them because they can’t/don’t want to go without it and they are unaware of the low-carbon alternatives. Technically, our addiction to the high-carbon lifestyle means carbon emissions have high price inelasticity and therefore simple price mechanisms are not an effective or fair means for rapidly reducing consumption towards zero. For example, the demand for petrol is highly inelastic, such that a doubling of the price of petrol only reduces demand for petrol by 10% in the short-term and 40% in the longer term as people switch to more fuel efficient cars, other means of transport, and so on. That is, to reduce the demand for petrol by just 40%, governments would need to double its price, and that is equivalent to a price on CO2 emissions of around $500 per tonne. In the world of “politics as usual”, that isn’t going to happen.

So how can we make the needed rapid transition happen and where and when did we last act in a similarly decisive way to protect life from a critical threat?

The world wars are the obvious case. When life is threatened, even quality of life, people en masse know how to go beyond “business as usual” and do what needs to be done…

…What is salient is in all these cases — in both war and peace — is the key role of governments in planning, coordinating and overseeing the transition, the very opposite of leaving the deregulated market to its devices and doing “business as usual”. Voluntarily measures, “business as usual” and aspirational goals will not eliminate carbon emissions from production; they will have to be squeezed out by strong regulatory and investment actions by government. The particular nature of that government will depend on the capacity of people to build its democratic character, to provide national leadership when “politics as usual” fails to do so…

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Read the rest of our excerpt collections:

Climate Code Red – Urgent Report Excerpts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5


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