Only Four Years Left to Save Environmentalism

by | Jan 22, 2009

Another sure sign that environmentalists are struggling to sustain a rational basis for their influence emerged last week. The pages of the Observer featured the opinion of NASA activist/scientist James Hansen in two articles [1 , 2] and an editorial.

Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. That is the stark assessment of Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen who last week warned only urgent action by the new president could halt the devastating climate change that now threatens Earth. Crucially, that action will have to be taken within Obama’s first administration, he added.

Of all the hopes pinned on Obama, ‘saving the world’ has to be the most revealing of the hoper, be it the Observer Journalist, the Observer, or Hansen.

As we pointed out last Thursday, the environmental movement’s only leverage is the prospect of catastrophe. It has no popular appeal in any real sense. So when it appears that governments are ‘on-message’, or in any way sympathetic to its concerns, the only way to sustain its undemocratic and unaccountable influence is to escalate the sense of urgency, or their function will become redundant.

This suggests that the hoper’s nervousness is owed, not to material facts about the state of the world – obviously – but their inability to explain the world, and their tenuous grip on the public agenda.

As an apparently sympathetic Obama steps to the fold, so we see the environmental protagonists escalating the sense of crisis.

“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead.”

After eight years of opposing moves to combat climate change, thanks to the policies of President George Bush, the US had given itself no time for manoeuvre, he said. Only drastic, immediate change can save the day and those changes proposed by Hansen – who appeared in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and is a winner of the World Wildlife Fund’s top conservation award – are certainly far-reaching.

So where did this ‘four years’ figure come from?

In 2006, the same Hansen had argued that

“I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change … no longer than a decade, at the most,” Hansen said Wednesday at the Climate Change Research Conference in California’s state capital.

Less than two and a half years later, the ten years is reduced to four years.

Shortly after Hansen made his ten year claim, UK and Dutch premiers Tony Blair and Jan Peter Balkenende wrote in a letter to the EU that

The science of climate change has never been clearer. Without further action, scientists now estimate we may be heading for temperature rises of at least 3-4C above pre-industrial levels. We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points. These would have serious consequences for our economic growth prospects, the safety of our people and the supply of resources, most notably energy. So we must act quickly.

The fact that science hasn’t – indeed, cannot – identify ‘catastrophic tipping points’ doesn’t bother politicians who use science in this way. The concept of a tipping point is only useful to politicians – it has little scientific meaning. It is a gun to your head. Do you trust the authority of the man holding it, or do you challenge it? If you don’t do as he says and you’re wrong, you might trigger the tipping point. You lose. But if you’re right to challenge it, the trust we have in politicians, and politics built around the myth of catastrophe itself disintegrates. You lose. Either way, the threat is that society breaks down, because either the climate will change, destroying our ‘fragile relationship’ with nature, or the myths on which authority is established are ripped from beneath it. This is the politics of fear.

Greens have presented themselves as radical alternatives to mainstream politics. But they use exactly the same language. In November 2007, we reported Caroline Lucas’s attempts to use ‘catastrophic tipping points’ to elevate herself.

Well, when you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here.

This was the second time we had picked up on Lucas’s claim that the planet had a deadline. Justifying her claim that climate change denial was equivalent to holocaust denial, she had said previously that

What’s prompted me is real concern that a recent opinion poll showed that half the population still don’t think that there’s scientific certainty about climate change; they still think there’s a real debate to be had there. And it worries me enormously because if we don’t have a population that really understands that 99.999% of international scientists do believe that climate change is happening and do believe that it’s human caused, if people don’t understand that then they’re not going to put the pressure on the politicians that is so desperately needed and so urgently needed because we’re being told we’ve literally got between five and ten years in which to put in place a proper policy framework to address climate change. And unless people are really convinced that it’s a problem they’re not going to act to change it.

Last year, vulcanologist Bill McQuire announced that we had just ‘seven years to save the planet‘ in a book of the same name. Amazon describe it thus,

‘Bill McGuire succinctly tackles a series of green queries… the book is an excellent first stop for getting clued up about climate change. ‘ METRO ‘ Bill McGuire points out that to salvage a civilisation capable of maintaining a semblance of organisation approximate to what we have now, we must achieve a near-zero carbon economy by 2050’. GREENEVENTS ‘McGuire makes telling points about the size of the challenge we face if we are to escape some of the nastier effects of climate change. And his sense of urgency is well-placed.’ FOCUS

(Where would McGuire be, if it weren’t for the end of the world? Certainly not making numerous appearances on TV shows, or selling books. Doom is big business.)

In August last year, policy director and head of the climate change programme at the New Economics Foundation, Andrew Simms announced that we had just ‘100 months to save the world‘.

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 followed the latest data and trends for carbon dioxide, then made allowances for all human interferences that influence temperatures, both those with warming and cooling effects. We followed the judgments of the mainstream climate science community, represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on what it will take to retain a good chance of not crossing the critical threshold of the Earth’s average surface temperature rising by 2C above pre-industrial levels. We were cautious in several ways, optimistic even, and perhaps too much so. A rise of 2C may mask big problems that begin at a lower level of warming. For example, collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is more than likely to be triggered by a local warming of 2.7C, which could correspond to a global mean temperature increase of 2C or less. The disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet could correspond to a sea-level rise of up to 7 metres.

Is it four years or is it six? Or is it ten or fifteen? The tipping point is being used by everyone. The only thing that differs is when this tipping point is supposed to occur.

The idea of a ‘tipping point’ began as scientific speculation that climate systems ‘flip’ from one ‘state’ to another, rather than change as one variable – the concentration of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere – changes. This idea armed environmentalists with the threat that a changing climate would suddenly – rather than over the course of millenia – reach a point where climate change was so rapid that natural processes on which human society depends would in turn collapse, leaving us starved of resources, and unable to cope with the new conditions.

The problem for environmentalists is that no such ‘tipping point’ has been identitifed by climate science, and the social consequences of moving past tipping points remain poorly defined. The NEF, for example, cannot point to any scientific literature which identifies tipping points. Instead, their 100 month calculation is formed from a variety of headline statements and studies taken from here, there, and everywhere. (They invent a tipping point).

Take for example, the figure of 2 degrees which Simms says is the point which must not be exceeded. The more technical document accompanying his article and campaign website says that this figure,

… is the maximum acceptable level of temperature rise agreed by the European Union and others as necessary to retain reasonable confidence of preventing uncontrollable and ultimately catastrophic warming.

The report doesn’t say where the rationale behind the figure of 2 degrees can be located, nor why we should take the EU’s word for it. Moreover, what is the ‘reasonable confidence’ that the NEF want to ‘retain’ about the future? It implies that what lies beyond 2 degrees is not ‘reasonable confidence’ of there being a catastrophe, but less certainty about there not being one. In other words, it says nothing about climate – 2 degrees is not a tipping point, but an arbitrary point, beyond which we can be less certain about the end of the world than before it. We might just as well observe that ‘catastrophe’ is less likely before a 1000 degree rise in global temperature than after it.

We’ve pointed out before that this is ‘politics by numbers’. In this game, all you need to do to elevate yourself over your opponents is add one to their offer. This done by commissioning someone with the appropriate letters after their name to do back-of-an-envelope calculations using the figures which have already been ‘established’ by other players in the game. It is voodoo science, and it only means anything if you already actually believe it.

Once you have performed the ritual which establishes the new magic numbers, you can present your manifesto. And so it is with the NEF. Their ‘Green New Deal‘ document is

Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programme launched in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, this modernised version is designed to tackle our current crash: the interlinked crises of climate change, recession and energy depletion.

It goes on…

The global economy is facing a ‘triple crunch’: a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil. It is increasingly clear that these three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, with potentially devastating consequences.

As we pointed out recently, one of those three crunch factors – high oil prices – is already a non fact. Like Hansen, the NEF and the Green New Deal Group elevate themselves with these kind of statements. But soon their forecasts will catch up with them.

Following Obama’s inauguration, and the NEF’s attempts to cast their ideas as the contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal it seems appropriate to answer Hansen’s demands to the new president with words from Roosevelt’s inuagural address.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Obama himself mentions fear:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

If Obama is really to choose ‘hope over fear’, he will have to challenge the influence of the likes of Hansen. Can he do it? Well, we hope so.


  1. geoff chambers

    Following your link above to the Observer editorial, I came across your excellent comment there, where you say “… like an infant, environmentalists fail to make a distinction between its failure to assert its will over the world, and the end of the world”. A nice bit of Freudian analysis. Except that Hansen, by writing a personal letter to Obama, and getting worldwide publicity for it, seems rather closer to asserting his will over the world than most elected heads of government.

    The obsession with tipping points is typical example of science being regurgitated by a half-educated elite as millenarian religious imagery. What’s a tipping point? It’s the sharp bit on a graph (cusp, or whatever) when things go chaotically non-linear. It’s what happens when we educated non-scientists start worrying about things we don’t understand. When life was smooth and graphs were gaussian or sine waves, you could surf into the future with a certain degree of confidence. You’ve only got to glance at the jagged stuff coming at us from Hansen and co to know that if you touch it, you’ll prick your finger and die. That’s the level of reflection to be found in the average Guardian/Observer Environment article.

    You say: “..the environmental movement … has no popular appeal …”. But it has, when it sticks to saving cuddly beasts, keeping footpaths open, and abolishing famine in Africa. But none of these admirable activities on their own provide a solid base to satisfy the political or intellectual ambitions of a Lucas, a Hansen or a Monbiot. Only catastrophic global warming can do that, by federating disparate minority interests around an Incontrovertible Truth.

    The big issue for me in the Observer interview and article was the abject servility of the interviewer, who failed to ask any questions about Dr Hansens’s abysmal 25 year prediction record, his implicit rejection of the IPCC “consensus”, or his grotesque lie in a British court that Kingsnorth power station would eliminate 400 species.

  2. Alex Cull

    Very good points, Editors and Geoff. To which I’ll add (re Obama’s inauguration and media servility) media distortion as well.

    Check out this story at Harmless Sky to find out how the BBC appears to have spliced together sound bites from different parts of Obama’s speech, to make it appear he said something he actually didn’t:

  3. Ian Wilson

    Perhaps you’ve commented on this figure already elsewhere in another article since there are several having a (justifiable) go at Lucas. But her statement that 99.999% of international scientists do believe climate change is happening and its man made beggars belief surely?

    That means 1 in 100,000 does not. So this means she has got a survey of more than 100,000 international scientist respondents? (with only 1 negative/positive? view). I’m trying to figure out how a survey with a smaller sample size could have worked out this number, but I haven’t come up with an answer yet.

    Its statistics like this that bother me enormously and is an area you’ve picked up on before I know. Keep up the thought provoking articles.

  4. Luke Warmer

    I find the 2 degC “target” from the EU a very strange thing for another reason – best practice with environmental management systems such as ISO14001 is to recognise you cannot manage the impact (e.g. temp. change) but you can manage the aspect (e.g. CO2 release) causing it.

    Thus improvement objectives and targets are set for the significant aspects of your organisation because you can control/influence these directly.

    The EU (and the Lib Dems) cannot control China nor any other non-EU country’s emissions (and supposed concomittant temp. impact/rise) so to set any target based on global temp. change is clearly illogical. Not that I’ve come to expect politicians to be logical.

    It brings to mind King Cnut (even though I know he was trying to show that he wasn’t all powerful). Stupid Cnuts!

  5. Editors


    We picked up on Lucas’ statement at the time, and ‘did the math’:

    “Lucas speaks as though a consensus on climate-change allows her to say whatever she likes about the future. Her 99.999% figure is, of course, entirely made up. If it were true, it would mean that 1 in 100,000 climate scientists were sceptical, and we can think of enough sceptics to put the number of climate scientists in the world well into the tens of millions. Lucas has absolutely no idea what proportion of climate scientists constitutes the consensus position because no poll of scientists has been taken.” –

    How Lucas sustains a public profile without being called to account for her wild and fictional statements is a total mystery. She has a PhD in literature, so maybe she’s tapping into something existential.

    Geoff, you’re right to point out that Hansen is getting control. We’ve pointed out elsewhere that Monbiot is too. Yet he is still in a tantrum.

    What we would suggest (if we were to continue the Fruedian idea) is that their influence over the establishment is one thing (the elite are pretty much on side) but that it can’t move too far against the public as a whole. After all, they want to sustain the idea that there is a democracy. So, George, for example, will point to an hour of TV programme a week (Top Gear) and one of a small number of publications which offer a sustained criticism of environmentalism (eg, Spiked-Online) to explain the failure of millions of people – to which the establishment is accountable – to respond to his demands.

    You’re probably right about environmentalism having popular appeal when it’s about charasmatic mega-fauna – but that’s Disney, rather than deep ecology.

    Alex, that is an outragous story. Thanks for pointing it out. We’ll put up a link to Tony’s blog in a post.

  6. StuartR

    The old clichéd description of a nervous scientist reluctantly shaking off his dandruff and venturing out into the world to make it aware of an Earth shattering discovery may not be breaking a new barrier. Although in Hansen’s case, he always seems to want to frame everything relative to himself in an egotistical way. Which I must admit, makes me distrust him more, I can’t think of anybody else who has had this same tendency and has been proven right.

    Hansen seems to be claiming significance of something that is even more latent / hidden, than anything you may think could be possible,. The world cools but he knows the signs are fooling us. I would have thought this could make his job harder and his powers of persuasion more subtle, instead, when he isn’t accepted at face value, by an admittedly skeptical GW Bush administration he cries that he is being censored.

    I certainly remember a moment (forgive the lack of reference, but I could find if pushed :)) when he wanted to run ahead after processing some new data to claim an extremely warm year which implied some support of a new tipping point narrative a few years back. He was apparently prevented by the then pen pushing NASA administration, so he went on to make a claim to the newspapers that his NASA bosses censored him under government influence, whereas it could have been interpreted it was for the more mundane reason that he was being too hasty to make a scientific judgement in the timescale and with relevant data.

    It wasn’t further investigated, his word was taken (it was GWBs NASA after all!) This was what was reported then, and has now become the legend of Hansen.

    I see a running theme of speed with him. Maybe he generally thinks that we are all on a runaway train and he is the guy to be the advisor to the engine driver. Otherwise I could take the conclusion that he of the type of the worst kind of charlatan who harangues old ladies to get their roofs re-tiled whether needed or not.

    Hansen is a scientist of the Lysenko school in my opinion, maybe he won’t get anyone sent to Siberia or shot, but it would’ve been the same with Lysenko if he was transported to today’s world. He couldn’t have plied his influence in modern day America.

    He would need to change a few paradigms first ;)

    *BTW I suspect mentioning Lysenko and Hansen in the same breath could become a new kinda Godwins law

  7. geoff chambers

    to StuartR
    If we’re going to have a Godwin’s law in discussion of global warming, let’s apply it to big oil money, watermelons, Koolaid, flatearthers, and a million other references less interesting than Lysenko.
    You hit the nail on the head with the reference to speed. Hansen is an old man in a hurry. There’s something rather tragic about basing your life’s work on forecasting an event you’re not going to live to see, spending your last years hoping your predictions of death and disaster for everyone else will be realised. Luckily for Hansen, (and all us wrinklies), most people are too polite to point out the comic aspect of his mutterings.
    Even if there were any truth in Hansen’s ramblings, he’d still eventually fall victim to the Gerontological Principle, or Chambers’ law of Aging, which states that by the time you’ve accumulated sufficient wisdom to have anything interesting to say, you’ve become a boring old fart that no-one wants to listen to.

  8. StuartR

    @Geoff Chambers
    Yes I agree, a Godwin’s Law for those well poisoning examples would be a better idea. Like Godwin’s, it could just signify a helpful reminder to people that their thinking is becoming lazy.
    I feel a bit guilty about applying Lysenko to Hansen, it is ad hominem I guess, but when I see his repeated advocacy in the social and economic realms, then I can’t help thinking of the comparison. It would be nice if more people studied history and applied the lessons learned, I think this would save so much time. But people seem awfully convinced by, what seems to me, a flawed argument. I could feel more persuaded by him if he put more effort in providing the compelling evidence and data that would help support his case. I may be a typical foolish example of the skeptical average Joe, but I don’t think if there was a real imminent preventable danger on the horizon (4 years?), of the scale he claims, then the evidence would not be so recondite even to the layman public.
    However on the contrary, his offices have been seen to make some human errors, and I have seen enough following Climate Audit to suspect that his practices are not exactly rock solid. He seems very prone to confirmation bias. I think he should submit himself to some element of external oversight, but he appears to become upbraided by this talk, and falls back into accusatory ‘denier’ rhetoric to support himself.

    As you say about the ‘law of aging’ , he seems to want to circumvent this dawdling normal boring scientific option, and go on straight to glory

  9. Alex Cull

    Good comments from all here. Chambers Law of Aging, I like that.. :o) James Lovelock is getting a little like that, I think, with his pronouncements that more than 6 billion of us will die before the end of the century. I can’t help but be reminded of the John Laurie character in Dad’s Army, who keeps muttering darkly that “we’re doomed. Aye, we’re all doomed…”

  10. geoff chambers

    Alex Cull:
    6 billion of us will die before the end of the century? Of course we will! We’re mortal! How anyone can take Lovelock and his resurrection of the goddess Gaia seriously is beyond me. He presumably doesn’t realise that even the ancient Greeks found her an embarrassment. Since CR has been caught going in for Freudian analysis, I’ll venture this: environmentalists who personify the greasy creaking sphere we inhabit as a woman have fearsomely ambivalent unconscious feelings about peeking underneath the old lady’s mantle. Stop poking around, you’re killing her!


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