The new revolutionaries: Climate scientists demand radical change

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To prevent catastrophic climate change, Britain’s top experts call for emissions cuts that require “revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony”

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To prevent catastrophic climate change, Britain’s top experts call for emissions cuts that require “revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony”

by Renfrey Clarke

“Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.” That was in a blog posting last year by Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at Manchester University. One of Britain’s most eminent climate scientists, Anderson is also Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Or, we might take this blunt message, from an interview in November: “We need bottom-up and top-down action. We need change at all levels.” Uttering those words was Tyndall Centre senior research fellow and Manchester University reader Alice Bows-Larkin. Anderson and Bows-Larkin are world-leading specialists on the challenges of climate change mitigation.

During December, the two were key players in a Radical Emission Reduction Conference, sponsored by the Tyndall Centre and held in the London premises of Britain’s most prestigious scientific institution, the Royal Society. The “radicalism” of the conference title referred to a call by the organisers for annual emissions cuts in Britain of at least 8 per cent – twice the rate commonly cited as possible within today’s economic and political structures.

The conference drew keen attention and wide coverage. In Sydney, the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph described the participants as “unhinged” and “eco-idiots,” going on to quote a “senior climate change adviser” for Shell Oil as stating:

“This was a room of catastrophists (as in ‘catastrophic global warming’), with the prevailing view…that the issue could only be addressed by the complete transformation of the global energy and political systems…a political ideology conference.”

Indeed. The traditional “reticence” of scientists, which in the past has seen them mostly stick to their specialities and avoid comment on the social and political implications of their work, is no longer what it was.


Climate scientists have been particularly angered by the refusal of governments to act on repeated warnings about the dangers of climate change. Adding to the researchers’ bitterness, in more than a few cases, have been demands placed on them to soft-pedal their conclusions so as to avoid showing up ministers and policy-makers. Pressures to avoid raising “fundamental and uncomfortable questions” can be strong, Anderson explained to an interviewer last June.

“Scientists are being cajoled into developing increasingly bizarre sets of scenarios…that are able to deliver politically palatable messages. Such scenarios underplay the current emissions growth rate, assume ludicrously early peaks in emissions and translate commitments ‘to stay below [warming of] 2°C’ into a 60 to 70 per cent chance of exceeding 2°C.”

Anderson and Bows-Larkin have been able to defy such pressures to the extent of co-authoring two remarkable, related papers, published by the Royal Society in 2008 and 2011.

In the second of these, the authors draw a distinction between rich and poor countries (technically, the UN’s “Annex 1” and “non-Annex 1” categories), while calculating the rates of emissions reduction in each that would be needed to keep average global temperatures within 2 degrees of pre-industrial levels.

The embarrassing news for governments is that the rich countries of Annex 1 would need to start immediately to cut their emissions at rates of about 11 per cent per year. That would allow the non-Annex 1 countries to delay their “peak emissions” to 2020, while developing their economies and raising living standards.

But the poor countries too would then have to start cutting their emissions at unprecedented rates – and the chance of exceeding 2 degrees of warming would still be around 36 per cent. Even for a 50 per cent chance of exceeding 2 degrees, the rich countries would need to cut their emissions each year by 8-10 per cent.

As Anderson points out, it is virtually impossible to find a mainstream economist who would see annual emissions reductions of more than 3-4 per cent as compatible with anything except severe recession, given an economy constituted along present lines.

Four degrees?

What if the world kept its market-based economies, and after a peak in 2020, started reducing its emissions by this “allowable” 3-4 per cent? In their 2008 paper, Anderson and Bows-Larkin present figures that suggest a resulting eventual level of atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalent of 600-650 parts per million. Climate scientist Malte Meinshausen estimates that 650 ppm would yield a 40 per cent chance of exceeding not just two degrees, but four.

Anderson in the past has spoken out on what we might expect a “four-degree” world to be like. In a public lecture in October 2011 he described it as “incompatible with organised global community”, “likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’” and “devastating to the majority of ecosystems”. Moreover, a four-degree world would have “a high probability of not being stable”. That is, four degrees would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level.

Reported in the Scotsman newspaper in 2009, he focused on the human element:

“I think it’s extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at 4C. If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4C, 5C or 6C, you might have half a billion people surviving.”

No wonder intelligent people are in revolt.

Market methods?

Anderson has also emerged as a powerful critic of the orthodoxy that emissions reduction must be based on market methods if it is to have a chance of working. His views on this point were brought into focus last October in a sharp rejoinder to United Nations climate-change chief – and market enthusiast – Rajendra Pachauri:

“I disagree strongly with Dr Pachauri’s optimism about markets and prices delivering on the international community’s 2°C commitments,” the British Independent quoted Anderson as saying. “I hold that such a market-based approach is doomed to failure and is a dangerous distraction from a comprehensive regulatory and standard-based framework.”

Anderson’s critique of market-led abatement schemes centres on his conclusion that the two-degree threshold “is no longer deliverable through gradual mitigation, but only through deep cuts in emissions, i.e., non-marginal reductions at almost step-change levels.

“By contrast, a fundamental premise of contemporary neo-classical economics is that markets (including carbon markets) are only efficient at allocating scarce resources when the changes being considered are very small – i.e. marginal.

“For a good chance of staying below two degrees Celsius,” Anderson notes, “future emissions from the EU’s energy system … need to reduce at rates of around 10 per cent per annum – mitigation far below what marginal markets can reasonably be expected to deliver.”

If an attempt were made to secure these reductions through cap-and-trade methods, he argues, “the price would almost certainly be beyond anything described as marginal (probably many hundreds of euros per tonne) – hence the great ‘efficiency’ and ‘least-cost’ benefits claimed for markets would no longer apply.”

At the same time, the equity and social justice implications would be devastating. Anderson points out.:

“A carbon price can always be paid by the wealthy. We may buy a slightly more efficient 4WD/SUV, cut back a little on our frequent flying, consider having a smaller second home…but overall we’d carry on with our business as usual. Meanwhile, the poorer sections of our society…would have to cut back still further in heating their inadequately insulated and badly designed rented properties.”

Energy agenda

In the short-term, Anderson argues, a two-degree energy agenda requires “rapid and deep reductions in energy demand, beginning immediately and continuing for at least two decades.” This could buy time while a low-carbon energy supply system is constructed. A “radical plan” for emissions reduction, he indicates, is among the projects under way within the Tyndall Centre.

The cost of emissions cuts, he insists, needs to fall on “those people primarily responsible for emitting.”[17] As quoted by writer Naomi Klein, Anderson estimates that 1-5 per cent of the population is responsible for 40-60 per cent of carbon pollution.

While not rejecting price mechanisms in a supporting role, Anderson argues that the required volume of emissions cuts can only be achieved through stringent and increasingly demanding regulations. His “provisional and partial list” includes the following:

  • Strict energy/emission standards for appliances with a clear long-term market signal of the amount by which the standards would annually tighten; e.g. 100gC02/km for all new cars commencing 2015 and reducing at 10 per cent each year through to 2030.
  • Strict energy supply standards; e.g. for electricity 350gCO2/kWh as the mean emissions level of a supplier’s portfolio of power stations; tightened at ~10 per cent per annum.
  • A programme of rolling out stringent energy/emission standards for industry equipment.
  • Stringent minimum efficiency standards for all properties for sale or rent.
  • World leading low-energy standards for all new-build houses, offices etc.

Enforcing these radical standards, he argues, “could be achieved, at least initially, with existing technologies and at little to no additional cost.”

Economic growth

For a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees, Anderson maintains, wealthier countries would need to forgo economic growth for at least ten to twenty years. Here, he bases himself on the conventional wisdom of “integrated assessment modellers” – and arguably gets things quite wrong. Leading American climate blogger Joseph Romm last year came to sharply different conclusions:

“The IPCC’s last review of the mainstream economic literature found that even for stabilization at CO2 levels as low as 350 ppm, ‘global average macro-economic costs’ in 2050 correspond to ‘slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points’.  It should be obvious the net cost is low. Energy use is responsible for the overwhelming majority of emissions, and energy costs are typically about 10 percent of GDP.”

At a time when jobless workers abound, and large amounts of industrial capacity lie unused, mobilising resources and labour to replace polluting equipment could sharply increase Gross Domestic Product. Moreover, account needs to be taken of the absurdities of GDP itself – as a measurement tool that counts as useful activity building prisons and developing weapons systems. Anderson senses some of these contradictions when he states:

“Mitigation rates well above the economists’ 3 to 4 per cent per annum range may yet prove compatible with some form of economic prosperity.”

Indeed, reconstructing our inefficient, polluting industrial system could allow the great majority of us to lead richer, more rewarding lives.


Where Anderson is not wrong is in anticipating, at various points in his blogging and interviews, that any serious move to cut emissions at the required rates will encounter fierce resistance. Huge industrial assets, primarily fossil-fuelled generating plant, would be “stranded”. Already-proven reserves of coal, oil and gas would need to be left in the ground.

Like the scientists accused in 2009 in the spurious “Climategate” affair, the people who spoke out at the Radical Emission Reduction Conference can now expect to feel the blow-torch of conservative reprisals.

Along with Anderson and Bows-Larkin, a particular target is likely to be Tyndall Centre Director Professor Corinne Le Quéré, who presented the scientific case for rapid emissions reduction. Four Australian academics who contributed via weblink, including noted climate scientist Mark Diesendorf, have already come under venomous personal attack in the Daily Telegraph.

The “offence” committed by the Tyndall researchers is much greater than the loosely phrased e-mails that were seized on as the pretext for “Climategate.” With others in the climate-science community, these courageous people have shredded the pretence that polluter corporations and their supporting-act governments care a damn about preserving nature, civilisation, and human life.


  • Climate scientists like Kevin Anderson may call for “changes at all levels” and even “degrowth” but I have yet to see any climate scientist in the UK or elsewhere mention the word capitalism let alone suggest that we would have to abandon capitalism and replace it with an entirely different economic system to get the sort of changes we need to save the humans. I hope this particular change will happen soon because that is the public debate we need to be having right now. Phil has a point that my post appears to lump Anderson together with James Hansen, Rajendra Pachauri and other climate scientists who promote carbon taxes. I apologize for this ambiguity. That was not my intention. I thought it was completely clear from Clarke’s quotes that Anderson strenuously opposes carbon taxes as “doomed to fail.” My target was, rather, Hansen and the pro-carbon tax crowd. Still, what I said was climate scientists “imagine that carbon taxes and similar fiddling can save us.” I put Anderson’s call for “strict energy/emissions standards for appliances and industrial equipment” under the “fiddling” category. We need all those, of course. But, as I said, and have written in my papers, despite impressive gains in energy efficiency, these gains have been and tend to be regularly outstripped by ever more growth. What we really need, for example, is not so much new energy-efficient cars as fewer cars — massively fewer, hundreds of millions fewer cars, with virtually no production of new cars (and also no more new planes, ships and so on) for a very long time, till emissions drastically fall. That’s the ONLY way GHG emissions in the transport sector can be massively wrenched down by 2050. But of course, changes like that are incompatible with capitalism and would require a new, post-capitalist economy. If climate scientists are going to venture into discussion of the economy, that’s what we need to be talking about.

  • “Revolutionary” climate scientists? I wish.

    Climate scientists are not ecosocialist revolutionaries yet but the implacable logic of capitalist destruction of the planet is driving them in that direction. I just wish they would move a little faster. We don’t have a lot of time for remedial classes.

    I read every abstract and watched most talks at that conference. There were plenty of calls for “radical” cuts in emissions and consumption. But when the conference turned from the climate science to the social science, there was no talk of radical economic change, let alone revolution. When the conversation turned to the economy, radicalism vanished.

    Andrew Simms of The New Economic Foundation called for “green growth” (viz. throw out everything you have now and buy new “green” stuff). Others talked of “degrowth”, “personal carbon trading,” “using the power of shame” to pressure people to cut consumption.

    Kevin Anderson called for “radical reductions in energy demand” and a Marshal plan to convert to renewable energy.

    Alice Bows-Larkin showed how shipping could be technically upgraded to reduce emissions. I liked the paper on “low carbon fun” the best (really).

    Naomi Klein, in her keynote address, gave a rousing call for a “radical movement to push for those radical emissions cuts.”

    One paper hinted that the climate change debate was “missing the knowledge of political economy.” (Indeed!) But there was no discussion, or even mention of the word that must not be mentioned if scientists want to keep their jobs: capitalism. There was no discussion, or even mention of the radical systemic change out of capitalism, that would be necessary, as prerequisite, to enforce those radical cuts in emissions.

    It’s all very well if we adopt energy saving lightbulbs, cars, ships, and airplanes (as several participants suggested). But what difference does it make, really, if industries are free to produce ever more lightbulbs, cars, ships, and planes?

    Dozens of scientific studies have shown that all the energy gains of the past three decades have been outstripped time and again by ever more growth — less polluting planes but ever more planes means ever more pollution. William Stanley Jevons showed why that tends to be the case back in 1865.

    You would think climate scientists and environmentally focused social scientists would have read this stuff by now and moved on to grapple with the deeper systemic problems are driving ecological collapse: the growth imperative of capitalism, the inability of corporations to commit economic suicide to save the humans, what would happen to our capitalist economy if we all really did “stop shopping” to save the planet, the imperative need for large-scale economic planning, even on a global scale, to deal with the global ecological crisis we face, the need to smash the treadmill of consumerism so that we can really have some time off to enjoy that “low carbon fun,” and so on.

    But for all their brilliant understanding of climate change, climate scientists seem remarkably daft about the most obvious basics about capitalism and the reality of money and political power in capitalist society. With shocking naïvete, they still, at this late date, imagine that green taxes and similar fiddling can save us, that giant multinational corporations who buy and sell politicians and entire governments like so many prostitutes, would ever allow the enactment of serious carbon taxes that would savage their profits or even drive them out of business. James Hansen is particularly bone-headed in this regard with his endless loop mantra about carbon taxes.

    Those scientists need to be disabused of their illusions. And they need our help to give them the backbone to stand up against the politicians and funders who will come down on them for even suggesting that capitalism is a problem, let alone the problem.

    We need to call them out at their conferences, pile into their inboxes, push these people to grok the understanding that the engine of planetary collapse is the capitalist system and that the only alternative to global ecological collapse, if not our actual extinction, is global social revolution, the (peaceful non-violent) overthrow of the capitalist world order and it’s replacement with a global eco-socialist civilization — and asap.

    As they’re always telling us, time is short.

    • A lot of what Richard Smith writes is fair comment, but there are two things he says that I want to challenge. One is that climate scientists who make a political stand will necessarily put their jobs in jeopardy. I’m not sure this is the case, at least in the UK: it may be different in the USA and Australia. In the final analysis, it depends on the balance of forces, i.e. if there are enough people willing to act in their defence if they are victimised for their political positions. It may not be a useful starting point to suggest that speaking out is so hazardous!

      Secondly, Richard has missed the important difference between James Hansen’s position and that of Kevin Anderson and his colleagues. Renfrey Clarke’s report shows that Anderson argues strongly against carbon taxes on grounds of their ineffectiveness in the face of the intensity of the climate crisis. I think that is a strong argument. Hansen has been careful to present his carbon tax proposal as redistributive, in an attempt to render it immune from criticism as socially regressive. This makes arguments about whether or not it would work more important and Anderson and colleagues seem to be saying it won’t.