Hanging on by our fingernails


Location of Lake Toba in Sumatra. Map from Wikipedia

Climate has almost extinguished mankind in the past.  The Pleistocene, the seventh major Ice Age that geologists have recorded, started perhaps some 1.7 million years ago, although scientific opinions differ and the cooling may have begun much earlier. About 73,500 years ago, during the Pleistocene, a super-volcanic eruption in the Lake Toba region of the Indonesian island of Sumatra triggered severe further cooling.[i] The vast clouds of gases and ash emitted from the volcano included sulphur dioxide which was converted to sulphuric acid in the upper atmosphere. This formed a barrier between Earth and the sun’s energy, sending heat straight back. The eruption may have cooled the Earth by 3 to 5 degrees C, a cataclysmic event resulting in species extinctions and probably a drastic reduction in the numbers of humans. They died from suffocation by ash and gases, and from the long-lasting catastrophic impact on their food sources.

The ecological recovery from the Toba eruption was probably slow because of the cold climate over much of the world. The Pleistocene itself ended 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, at the dawn of our historical memory when some humans lived in settled communities, and no longer spent their time as nomadic hunter gatherers. As the ice sheets receded, new lands appeared and humans colonised them.

Any significant climate alteration, no matter how it is caused, can threaten the viability of life as we know it. The strands of natural and human-generated climate change are exceedingly complicated to unravel, but over the span of geological time, natural changes have been colossal and, in our terms, both catastrophic and unstoppable.


Lake Toba now: photo by Abang Ringo, m-explorer.blogspot.co.uk

Although scientists’ warnings about climate change become more strident year by year, too many politicians continue to bury the issues as deeply as they dare.

Back in 2006, the World Bank[ii] issued warnings about the impact of natural disasters, both climatic and geological:


“The impact of natural disasters on economic well-being and human suffering has increased alarmingly. In the past year alone, the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed an estimated 200,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless, catastrophic flooding and mudslides in Guatemala killed hundreds of people, and a massive earthquake in Kashmir killed tens of thousands more in Pakistan and India.


“The death tolls are staggering, and the costs to the human and economic development of the affected countries are huge and rising. Natural disasters are becoming more costly: in constant dollars, disaster costs between 1990 and 1999 were more than 15 times higher ($652 billion in material losses) than they were between 1950 and 1959 ($38 billion at 1998 values). The human cost is also high: over the 1984-2003 period, more than 4.1 billion people were affected by natural disasters. The number affected has grown, from 1.6 billion in the first half of that period (1984-93) to almost 2.6 billion in the second half (1994-2003), and has continued to increase.”


Four years later, in 2010, the World Bank and the United Nations jointly published Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: the Economics of Effective Prevention. The report overview makes strange reading, because it assumes that economic growth will continue. The World Bank did acknowledge the threat of climate change, but ignored other hazards such as diminishing fossil fuel supplies, environmental destruction and acute financial instability. The report looked at dangers that are already present, such as monsoon and hurricane flooding, and assumed that the resources to cope will be available. The introductory release on the report quotes task team leader Apurva Sanghi as saying:


“Growing cities will expose more people and property to hazards, but growing cities also suggest growing incomes, which means people are better able to adapt. A rise in vulnerability is not inevitable, if cities are well run.”


The messages are that cities will be larger but wealthier, and that wealth enables people to buy security. The report does not indicate where the new wealth is to come from, but it does offer several “common sense” measures, including better weather forecasting; provision of land titles to individuals, who would thus be encouraged to invest in safer structures; removal of rent controls to give landlords incentives to maintain buildings; and reorientation of public spending on maintenance tasks such as mending potholes, painting bridges and cleaning drains.

In essence the report calls for more financial transfers from the public to private sectors. It has some useful ideas for limiting the impact of disasters in the context of oil-rich civilisation. After all, who would argue against better weather forecasting, or cleaner drains? These responses are nowhere near adequate enough, though, to mitigate future disasters in a crowded, polluted, and thirsty world.

In the UK, Sir Nicholas Stern co-ordinated a review for the Treasury on the impact of climate change. The review, published in 2006, included a discussion paper called ‘What is the Economics of Climate Change?’[iii] The question cannot really be answered because the ecology of the biosphere changes in unpredictable ways. Any system can display “behaviour that is unpredictable from an observation of the interactions of its component parts”[iv] because interactions between system components can create hitherto non-existent emergent properties.

Trying to reduce the complexity of climate change to costs in familiar dollars or pounds, as Sir Nicholas was tasked to do, creates an illusion of control, on the lines of ‘if we can measure the impacts, then surely we are half way to overcoming them…’. But we cannot measure what is impossible to forecast.

Jonathan Sinclair Wilson, former managing director of the publishers Earthscan, made some fundamental points in his written evidence[v] to the Stern Review:


“Climate scientists have proposed various ‘safe’ levels of concentration [of CO2] that will restrict potential temperature rises to no more than 2ºC – at 550ppm,[vi] 500ppm or even a mere 430ppm – but as the whole biosphere is involved, in truth very little is known about the interrelated and cumulative feedback processes that may be triggered at particular levels and temperatures.


“In fact, if the most recent annual increases in CO2 concentrations represent a trend, the rate of increase is accelerating, which itself could be an early sign of positive feedback mechanisms reinforcing the warming process.


“This surely raises the question of whether economic models are able to capture the significance of climatic changes, if those [changes] set limits or constitute threats to the conditions for our collective survival.”


Scientists at the UK Meteorological Office’s ‘Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change’ conference in Exeter in 2005 heard from Dr Malte Meinshausen, then of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology,[vii] that an atmospheric concentration of 400 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide equivalent would be a probable danger threshold. The measure ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ refers to the carbon dioxide, plus the other greenhouse gases converted mathematically to a carbon dioxide standard. Professor Keith Shine, at Reading University, was reported to have calculated this figure at 425 ppm for early 2006 – already beyond the likely danger threshold.[viii] Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors put the 2010 figure at 467 ppm,[ix] almost 10% higher. In June 2013, the carbon dioxide equivalent was at 478 ppm, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Professor Ron Prinn.[x] That’s a rise of one-eighth since 2006.


“What’s not appreciated is that there are a whole lot of other greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have fundamentally changed the composition of our atmosphere since pre-industrial time: methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons.  The screen of your laptop is probably manufactured in Taiwan, Japan, and Eastern China by a process that releases nitrogen  trifluoride – release of 1 ton of nitrogen trifluoride is equivalent to 16,800 tons of CO2.”[xi]

Emissions of greenhouse gases must be zero by 2200, warned the UK’s Environment Agency and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.[xii] Their report ‘Climate Change on the Millennial Timescale’,[xiii] predicting likely changes to the year 3000, drew attention to the risk of sudden, dramatic climatic shifts which could happen long after emissions have stopped:


“Abrupt changes may be triggered many decades before they actually occur. Even after emissions have completely ceased there is still a legacy from decades past – a ‘sleeping giant’ in the climate system.”[xiv]


Politicians and corporations, with a few exceptions like former US presidential candidate Al Gore, take no notice. They may express intentions to force emissions cuts, but little happens.

Carbon trading is often regarded as a means to reduce emissions. Carbon trading allows organisations to sell  unused portions of their ‘allowances’ of carbon dioxide to those whose emissions are greater than their allocation, and in the European Union a carbon trading scheme for heavy industries began at the start of 2005. The scheme had little impact because the allowances doled out by the EU, for free, were too large and thus many polluters had no need to buy in extra pollution permits. Greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, and emissions trading became another arm of the unsustainably inflated financial derivatives market. An inter-agency report in the USA, published in January 2011, stated confidently that the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (responsible for the emissions ‘market’) could rely on its enhanced authority in the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to regulate the carbon derivatives market in an effective manner.[xv] That is hardly reassuring.  As journalist Jeremy Warner put it,[xvi]


“the carbon market is based on lack of delivery, of an invisible substance, to no one. Since the market revolves around creating carbon credits, or finding carbon reduction projects whose benefits can then be sold to those with a surplus of emissions, it is entirely intangible”. This market in invisibles is, he said, “wide open to abuse and scams”.


The carbon market failed to curb emissions. Countries like the UK reported nominal emissions cuts, achieved as a result of industrial relocations to economies with cheaper labour forces, notably China.

Banks have lost interest. At least ten banks in London had closed or shrunk their emissions trading operations by November 2013.[xvii] Between 2009 and 2013 there was a 70% fall in the number of London-based carbon traders, the Climate Markets & Investors Association reported.[xviii]  Too many permits were issued, and the cost of buying them collapsed. Freedom to carry on polluting.

The Coalition government in the UK prioritised economic growth above emissions curbs. The European Union Commission was, in spring 2014, trying to force the UK government to stop compensating firms for the costs of emissions permits.[xix] Chancellor George Osborne introduced a scheme to reimburse some companies for up to 80% of the costs of the carbon price floor[xx] and the emissions trading scheme. The EU Commission cited rules prohibiting state aid, except in sectors such as iron and steel, chemicals, plastics and paper, where an agreement covers the whole EU.  Industry leaders in the high-energy sectors not covered by EU-wide agreement, such as cement, gypsum, ceramics and glass, made the usual complaints that taxing emissions damaged their competitiveness and their future investment plans.

The logic of imposing emissions payments with one chancellory hand and trying to reimburse the bulk of those payments with the other hand reflects the triumph of style of over substance, of publicising financial penalties for emissions while aiming to subsidise heavily, with public money, those same payments, to promote business as usual.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to explain the risks of paradigm shifts in Earth’s climates. ‘Climate Change 2014’, published by the IPCC’s Working Group 11 on March 31st 2014, listed key risks as

  • Storm surges, coastal flooding and sea level rise
  • Inland flooding
  • Breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, health and emergency services
  • Extreme heat
  • Food insecurity and breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, precipitation variability and extremes
  • Loss of rural livelihoods due to insufficient drinking and irrigation water, reduced agricultural productivity (especially by producers with little capital in semi-arid regions)
  • Loss of marine and coastal ecosystems and biodiversity, affecting fishing communities notably in the tropics and the Arctic
  • Loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems and biodiversity

Even the super-rich will be affected by changes such as these, because their favoured haunts will not escape. Rising seas will swamp low-lying tropical islands. Melting snows in the mountains will launch avalanches. Gated communities are as vulnerable as slums to severe climate events.

Climate change cannot be reduced to a simple action-reaction equation:


“Understanding future vulnerability, exposure, and response capacity of interlinked human and natural systems is challenging due to the number of interacting social, economic, and cultural factors, which have been incompletely considered to date. These factors include wealth and its distribution across society, demographics, migration, access to technology and information, employment patterns, the quality of adaptive responses, societal values, governance structures, and institutions to resolve conflicts.”

IPCC Working Group 11, Climate Change 2014, p.11

We are stumbling, blinkered, into the unknown. Will governments take note of Working Group 11’s opinion that “many estimates [of the economic costs of climate change] do not account for catastrophic changes, tipping points, and many other factors”? Will governments also heed the advice that “Indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change”?


[i] See www.arch.ox.ac.uk/TOBA.html, the Oxford University School of Archaeology, accessed November 18th 2010, and ‘Toba supervolcano and climate change’ by Jim Andrews, 13th September 2010, www.accuweather.com.

[ii] Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank, Hazards of Nature, Risks to Development: an IEG Evaluation of World Bank Assistance for Natural Disasters, April 21st 2006. Extract is from the Executive Summary.

[iii] Discussion paper published January 31st 2006.

[iv] Brian Goodwin, ‘From control to participation’ in Resurgence No.201, July/August 2000.

[v] www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/F7A/5F/climatechange_sin.pdf.

[vi] Parts per million.

[vii] Dr Meinshausen moved to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in 2006 and was researching there and at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 2014.

[viii] Professor Shine’s calculation is reported in ‘Greenhouse gases are already past threshold that spells disaster’ by Michael McCarthy, The Independent, February 11th 2006.

[ix]www.dbcca.com, accessed November 20th 2010.

[x] ‘400 ppm CO2? Add other GHGs and I’s equivalent to 478 ppm, by Professor Ron Prinn, http://oceans.mit.edu/featured-stories/5-questions-mits-ron-prinn-400-ppm-threshold, June 6th 2013, accessed April 21st 2014.

[xi] Prinn, op.cit. p.1

[xii] ‘New science shows urgent action needed today on climate change’, release from the Environment Agency and the Tyndall Centre, February 16th 2006.

[xiii] Report to the Environment Agency of Tyndall Centre Research Project T3.18.

[xiv]Tyndall Centre, as above

[xv] ‘Oversight sufficient for US carbon derivatives market: report’, www.platts.com, January 19th 2011.

[xvi] ‘Here comes the next bubble – carbon trading’ by Jeremy Warner, www.telegraph.co.uk, February 19th 2010.

[xvii] ‘London banks quit carbon trading’ by Jim Pickard and Ajay Makan, ft.com November 18th 2013.

[xviii] ‘London banks quit carbon trading’, op.cit.

[xix] ‘EU blow to UK energy-intensive companies’ by Brian Groom, Andy Sharman and Alex Barker, ft.com, April 21st 2014.

[xx] The carbon price floor (CPF) was a Coalition government policy for an additional tax on greenhouse gas emissions. It was supposed to be £15.70 per tonne of CO2 equivalent in 2013-14, rising in steps to £30 in 2020-21 and £70 in 2030-31. The Chancellor backtracked in the March 2014 Budget, setting the level at £9.55 a tonne for 2014-15 and £18.08 until at least 2020.


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