Is the climate change academic community reluctant to voice issues that question the economic growth paradigm?

Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute is hosting an international conference on 1.5 Degrees: Meeting the Challenges of the Paris Climate Agreement, Sept 21-22, 2016 I submitted an abstract to the event, reasonably confident that the issues I intended to raise would not be covered elsewhere. I hoped that those reviewing the abstracts would find my context-setting agenda worthy of an oral presentation. Anyway, I gather they received far more requests for presentations than could be squeezed into the two days and in the unenviable task of sifting through the numerous submissions my abstract ended up on the cutting room floor. 

Nevertheless, I thought it worth making the abstract open for others to potentially reflect on in the hope that it may catalyse a wider discourse. I certainly know of many colleagues intimately engaged on issues of climate change who broadly share my concerns. I also find it interesting that when we actively endeavoured to attract academics to submit papers to our earlier Radical Emission Reduction (RER) conference (December 2013 I repeatedly encountered the retort that ‘our work simply doesn’t say anything about such a rapid rate of decarbonisation’. 

The RER event was focused on mitigation levels associated with, at best, a 50:50 chance of 2°C. The Oxford conference relates specifically to 1.5°C – with even smaller carbon budgets – yet widespread engagement from across academia is evident. As one colleague wryly observed, with the Paris Agreement’s support for 1.5°C, new funding opportunities now exist. By contrast the framing for the 2°C (RER) conference expressly raised questions about whether rapid and deep mitigation could be reconciled with the dominant economic paradigm. In that sense, presenting at it perhaps risked alienating (UK) researchers from their prime source of academic funding – the research councils – institutions whose strategic goals increasingly align with the Government’s fixation on economic growth (see Appendix 1).



Paris, carbon budgets and 1.5°C: is there an alternative to Dr Strangelove’s beguiling NETs? 

The Paris Agreement’s inclusion of 1.5°C has catalysed fervent activity amongst many within the scientific community keen to understand what this more ambitious objective implies for mitigation. However, this activity has demonstrated little in the way of plurality of responses. Instead there remains an almost exclusive focus on how future ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs) may offer a beguiling and almost free “get out of jail card”. This presentation argues that such a dominant focus, evident for 2 and 1.5°C, reveals an endemic bias across much of the academic climate change community determined to voice a politically palatable framing of the mitigation landscape – almost regardless of scientific credibility.

The inclusion of carbon budgets within the IPCC’s AR5 reveals just how few years remain within which to meet both the 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” objectives. Making optimistic assumptions on the rapid cessation of deforestation and uptake of carbon capture technologies on cement/steel production, leaves between 3 and 13 years of current energy emissions before the 50% and 66% budgets of exceeding 1.5°C are surpassed. To put this in context, the INDC’s are not scheduled to undergo major review until 2023 – eight years, or 300 billion tonnes of CO2, after the Paris Agreement.

Despite the enormity and urgency of the 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” mitigation challenges, the academic community has barely considered delivering deep and early reductions in emissions through the rapid penetration of existing end-use technologies and profound social change. At best it dismisses such options as too expensive compared to the discounted future costs of a technology that does not yet exist. At worst, it has simply been unprepared to countenance approaches that risk destabilising the political hegemony.

Ignoring such sensibilities, the presentation finishes by offering a draft vision of what an alternative mitigation agenda may comprise.


APPENDIX: How aspiring to support economic growth dominates the framing of research funders’ programmes

The notes below are taken from a personal email response (prior to Paris 2015) I sent to an overseas colleague enquiring about my comments on how the economic growth dogma has infused the previously intellectually independent research councils. The informal notes should be treated as such. I acknowledge that my reading of the research council’s strategy documents, mission statements etc. may be too selective; the original email was intended to give a flavour rather than a definitive account of the changing research-funding landscape. 

Funders and funding

There is huge pressure on academics (including those on tenure) to attract evermore income to universities. We are quantitatively judged against such income and compared individually, at a school and faculty level and across different universities. Tenure does not insulate against the increasing financialisation of university life. Many universities have now established ‘load models’ – where any reduction in an academics research income is met with increased teaching, admin and service duties.

In many respects academics are simply subject to the same changing pressures that our institutions typically face – nowhere is this more obvious than in the framing of research funding.

The UK’s research councils all now have economic growth deeply embedded in their strategies, mission statements, etc. – putting increasing pressure on the academic community to ensure their research proposals fit with the government’s agenda. This is a notable shortening of the historically precious “arms length” separation between the near-term aspirations of government and the longer-term objectives set by the research councils (the funders).

So whilst scientists may be operating objectively, they do so within potentially very subjective boundaries: boundaries that increasingly are prescribed by short-term political objectives.

Below is a brief review of the three UK research councils that fund most of the UK’s academic (non-medical) research, with a quick mention of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. All demonstrate an economic framing that risks constraining the boundaries of the analyses they support. 

EPSRC (engineering and physical sciences research council): Its Delivery Plan and Strategic Plan have a strong economic dimension, with the Strategic Plan’s closing and highlighted quote taken from the previous Business Minister; “our leading universities” need to “become centres of innovation and entrepreneurship, generating commercial success to fuel growth.”  Throughout the EPSRC’s Delivery Plan the importance of scientists and engineers to “growth” is emphasised; similarly, the Strategy Plan points to EPSRC’s research having a pivotal role in the betterment of “society and the economy” – as if the economy is separate from society rather than a tool to help deliver a good society. The EPSRC’s “mission” reinforces the importance of the economic driver, specially linking its research with contributing to “the economic competitiveness of Our United Kingdom and the quality of life” – again an odd priority. Surely quality of life is what matters – regardless of “economic competitiveness”.

ESRC  (economic and social research council): Has three headline “priorities”, the first of which is “Economic performance and sustainable growth”. In similar vein the opening paragraph of their 2015 Strategic Plan outlines the “challenges” of research, the first again being “how to achieve sustainable economic growth”. Turning to their latest Annual report and “growth” is peppered liberally throughout; interestingly, on one occasion, as “employment, growth and prosperity”. Apparently, prosperity and employment aren’t adequate markers of a good society. Abstract “growth” is now an essential indicator in itself.

NERC (natural environment research council): Even NERC feel obliged to demonstrate how their “natural environment” research helps “meet the UK’s innovation needs and support economic growth with responsible environmental management”. In describing its “strategic research” the opening line notes how NERC supports research into “areas of major economic and societal importance.” NERC’s strategy document is blatantly titled “the business of the environment” – in which they proudly conclude their research helps “deliver sustainable economic growth and public wellbeing –  a refrain it repeats on several occasions.

 Horizon 2020: The language across the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding mirrors that of the UK’s research councils – with the opening description of the programme noting, first, that it is a “means to drive economic growth”. 

So where doe this leave us …?

There is a very clear understanding amongst virtually all of the academics I engage with, whether directly on projects or simply through discussions following seminars etc. that  “growth” is sacrosanct. Economics trumps physics – and given, from a funding and career perspective, it is unwise to suggest that our scientific conclusions beg questions of the ‘immutable economic logic’ of modern society, we find ways of reconciling the two. Not by fiddling data but typically by adopting expedient assumptions – from the ubiquitous use of BECCS and very early global peaks in emissions through to using increasingly low probabilities of meeting 2°C and recourse to magical build rates and technical utopias. Perhaps most disturbing of all – the more we reluctantly subscribe to such expediency the more we begin to forget we’re doing so reluctantly, and the more the rhetoric becomes the only ‘reality’ – very Orwellian!