Romm misunderstands Klein’s & my view of climate change & economic growth

Having read the interview with Naomi Klein, Joe Romm’s commentary on the interview and Klein’s succinct rejoinder, I do not want to unnecessarily extend the discussion prior to the publication of Klein’s forthcoming book. However, Alice Bows and I do want to respond briefly to Romm’s suggestion that “green groups disagree” with our conclusion that “dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within [developed] nations” because they think our “view of economics … is wrong”. Our disagreement with Romm’s assertion stems from two related arguments.

1) We engage regularly with NGOs at many levels, as we do with others intimately involved with climate change, including scientists, policy analysts, politicians, civil servants and economists. Once we quantify the 2°C probabilities and carbon budgets underpinning our analysis (and provided there are no nearby microphones and it is not a public fora) seldom is there any serious disagreement with either our analysis nor the broad thrust of our conclusions. Consequently, it is not, as Joe Romm asserts, that others simply consider our “view of economics is … wrong”. Rather, that when in more open fora, many people, including NGOs, find it either uncomfortable or unproductive to challenge the doctrine that ‘growth is compatible with combatting climate change’. On the few occasions where disagreements with our conclusions do remain, they stem typically from: 1) a strong belief in the efficacy and very rapid diffusion of negative emission technologies; 2) a suite of abstract assumptions on early mitigation accompanied with a higher probability of exceeding 2°C (see below); or, 3) a nebulous framing of climate change and unquantified rates of mitigation.

However and in contrast, by far the most common view expressed privately, is that we have left it too late to meet our 2°C commitments without unacceptably high rates of decarbonisation (i.e. rates incompatible with conventional economic growth). This position is shared by many senior scientists and economists advising government. 

NB For the record, we disagree with this position and contend that a slim (and rapidly dwindling) chance of not exceeding 2°C remains. It requires some ‘luck on the science’ (i.e. a lower climate sensitivity) and mitigation rates for the wealthier (Annex 1) nations beyond those many economists assert are compatible with economic growth. Provisional Tyndall Centre research suggests such mitigation rates may be economically viable, even in the short term (this it the subject of a forthcoming Radical Emission Reductions conference at the Royal Society.

2) Our conclusion that “… dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within Annex 1 nations” was premised on a series of highly specified and explicit assumptions. Pivotal amongst these were the estimates, by Stern, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change and others, that mitigation rates in excess of 3% and 4% p.a. are incompatible with economic growth (we are unaware of any IAM that, for a reasonable probability of 2°C, outputs a prolonged mitigation rate over 4% p.a. – and most are well below this). So for Romm to justify his statement that “the literature, as well as [his] own experience helping companies reduce carbon pollution for two decades” doesn’t support our conclusion, he must demonstrate, a) Stern et al are wrong in their judgment that mitigation rates above ~4% p.a. are incompatible with economic growth; b) our choice of 2°C probabilities and accompanying carbon budgets is inappropriate; or c) our estimates of the 2°C mitigation rates for Annex 1 nations is flawed.

If it is either b) or c), then Romm has to make a case as to which assumption underpinning our analysis he disagrees with. In this regard, I point Romm directly to our Royal Society paper Beyond Dangerous Climate Change for a detailed account of our assumptions. However, to simplify, if it is judged appropriate to accept both a 50:50 chance of 2°C and that non-Annex 1 nations peak their emissions in 2025, then just one of the CO2-only scenarios delivers a 2°C budget (C+5 in the paper). This scenario requires immediate reduction rates of over 8% p.a. from Annex 1 nations, with non-Annex 1 nations delivering similar reductions in their emissions from fossil fuels from 2025.

In many respects we agree with the broad thrust of Joe Romm’s views as expressed in his Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost. However, the rates of reduction he is referring to are still well below those necessary for the Annex 1 nations not to renege on their international commitments on 2°C. Consequently, we hold to our original conclusion, noting only that given fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2013 are likely to be almost 3 billion tonnes higher than they when our analysis was published (online in 2010), the necessary mitigation rates will be more challenging still.


For more information see:
A new paradigm for climate change  – a commentary published in Nature Climate Change that sketches the need and opportunity for a radical transition from the status quo.
EU 2030 decarbonisation targets and UK carbon budgets: why so little science? – a commentary providing a little more detail to the arguments underpinning the scale of 2°C mitigation necessary for Annex 1 nations.

***Tyndall Centre Radical Emission Reduction conference***
If you’re academic attempting to understand how rapid transitions have, do or could occur, or a practitioner attempting to bring about step-change reductions in energy consumption, the forthcoming Tyndall conference may be of interest. The event is at the Royal Society in London in December 2013