Science-based targets

It may just be my bubble, but I seem to be encountering quite a lot of criticism of things like deadlines, net zero and carbon budgets from people who – as far as I can tell – support aggressive climate action. I have to admit to not fully understanding the arguments being made, but I think it has to do with these science-based targets not really telling us how to meet these goals. The idea, I think, is that we should be focussing on the socio-political (or socio-economic) barriers that have really been hampering efforts to address these environmental problems.

I certainly agree with the basic idea that science-based targets don’t tell us how to achieve these goals. I also largely agree that there are many barriers to making effective progress. What I haven’t understood, despite asking a number of times, is how focussing more on dealing with these socio-political, or socio-economic, barriers avoids turning this into ideological battle that potentially also undermines the ability to deal with climate change, and other environmental problems.

A reasonably common claim in the climate debate is that many who profess to be concerned about climate change are really just using this as a way of promoting their preferred socio-political ideologies. So, if we move away from highlighting science-based targets, to focus more on the socio-political barriers to action, how do we do so in a way that doesn’t lead some to simply say “told you so“?

Similarly, if we focus more on these socio-political barriers, this would seem to also run the risk of validating Lomborg-like arguments that suggests that the main way to deal with climate change is simply to make everyone richer and, hence, more resilient. In other words, if dealing with socio-economic inequality is seen as a key step to addressing climate change, why are Lomborg-like arguments not entirely valid options?

As I said, I may well misunderstand the criticisms of these science-based targets, and I may not have expressed my concerns as clearly as I could have. However, I do think that one advantage of the science-based targets is that they’re under-pinned by pretty robust evidence. If we largely dismiss these science-based targets, and we focus instead on dealing with the socio-economic barriers that are seen to be hampering action, how do you distinguish between solutions that have the potential to also deal with climate change, and other environmental problems, and those that do not?

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66 Responses to Science-based targets

  1. To clarify a couple of things. I largely agree that there are socio-economic barriers to effective action and that we should be looking at ways of addressing these. My issue is more with a sense that some seem to be almost dismissing the science-based targets, rather than finding ways to incorporate into their arguments for what needs to be done. The latter would seem more effective than the former, but I may well be missing something.

  2. What’s your plan for this situation? Do you want to keep the focus/discussion on science-based targets and hope the ideological battle lines established by the polluting industries break down in the face of a discussion of science-based targets? What did Deep Throat say? Follow the money?

  3. No, I don’t think we should focus only on science-based targets, but they would seem to be a key way to distinguish between “ideological” (for want of a better term) solutions that have the potential to address these problems, and those that probably don’t.

  4. The simple idea that comes to my mind is to simply enact significant taxes on emissions and allow industry and the market place to figure out how to navigate the terrain. The taxation level on emissions could be yoked easily to science-based targets in my opinion. Taxation levels could be modified over time as science-based targets are achieved. There’s not a lot of essential ideology in managing taxation to alter economic activity, except when certain political/ideological groups have taken the position that taxation is evil. What am I missing?

  5. David B Benson says:

    smallbluemike —- Unfortunately even minor taxes on emissions prove impossible to pass a majority of voters. Successful, but too small, in British Columbia, Canada, even with that example from a neighbor a corresponding tax failed here in Washington state. I don’t know what it will take to appeal to a majority of voters.

  6. File this one under: Easier said than done.

  7. Jon Kirwan says:

    Just did a quick skim and I think I had to stop at the end of the 2nd paragraph of this blog and take a moment’s thought.

    Climate change (and I don’t mean to trivialize it by treating it as “a thing” but English forces me) is a set of human-classified symptoms playing out in a variety of ways. But there are many other symptomatic classifications. Jeff recently did well in treading a fine line, taking careful note that climate change is an additional pressure but in no way the only one playing out.

    If we are to have a discussion where we may help each other to improve our vision of the situation faced ahead (and I have already benefited from some here), then I think the discussion/debate/argument will have to range over many difficult-to-traverse, but also highly inter-related, topic areas. I don’t believe we are in a position, not anymore, where the symptoms (and the disease we all know underlies them) can be usefully analyzed in isolation from each other. We will have to engage this as a more complex study project that cannot be reduced and boiled down so much that it becomes a useless caricature. Over-simplify or over-narrow your view and it will no longer usefully reflect the actual dynamic state and we should just spend our time elsewhere, instead.

    It won’t be easy. Everett said as much. It won’t be easy. But it is worthy. And I’d like to see it happen here.

  8. Jon,

    If we are to have a discussion where we may help each other to improve our vision of the situation faced ahead (and I have already benefited from some here), then I think the discussion/debate/argument will have to range over many difficult-to-traverse, but also highly inter-related, topic areas.

    Indeed, and I’m not suggesting that this will be easy. It just seems that the science-based targets help us to distinguish between those options that will also help to address climate change and those that won’t. So, I’m surprised by some of the criticisms of these targets. I may, of course, still be missing something.

  9. Joe Burlington says:

    Perhaps what is being missed is that we are losing (as if it were a battle) the biosphere to which humans and many other species are currently adapted – with utterly horrendous consequences for us and them.
    Worse, we – including scientists – are not taking the issues seriously. Pitifully inadequate measures and proposals distract from facing the reality. Minimal ‘gains’ are vastly outweighed the onslaught of losses.
    Most ideas attempt to answer a question of the type, ‘How can we (a minority of the world’s population) carry on acting much as we do now?’ while largely ignoring the devastation of the rest of humanity and of the biosphere as it is, and recently was.
    In 1940, the UK was losing WW2. Poland was lost, then Norway, Netherlands, Belgium. It was up to the armed forces; the rest still didn’t take the threat seriously.
    In May, Churchill came to power. In his first speech to parliament:
    1) He FORMED A COALITION GOVERNMENT – no more party politics
    2) He said ‘I PROMISE NOTHING but blood toil, tears and sweat’. ‘We will fight the war with everything we have’ (I paraphrase) – eg railings from every park and churchyard.
    Petrol was not just rationed, only essential motoring was permitted. Big houses and cars were requisitioned
    NOW: POLITICIANS ARE STILL PROMISING: airports and foreign holidays with no hint of restricting ownership of resource-squandering cars or limiting the extent of private polluting dwellings. On the contrary, consumption is still promoted remorselessly by advertisements directly and by television and social media indirectly.
    We need RATIONING of all kinds of resources and, as in war-time, people can still be happy if they are told the reasons for the restrictions.
    1940: Churchill did not wait for the Americans – ‘We stand alone!’
    NOW: If the UK acted, surely other coastal nations would follow. Every coastal community would care.
    We delude ourselves and others by ‘ambling slowly northwards on a southward hurtling train’.
    Future dates and goals are irrelevant unless and until enough of us take seriously the catastrophes that are unfolding for our children – let alone those already being overwhelmed.
    Might it work if there were to be a) a coalition government b) rationing or Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) c) unilateral action?
    Julia Steinberger and colleagues have shown ‘A global scenario. Providing decent living with minimum energy’: Ecological breakdown looms while the basic material needs of billions remain unmet. Yet, despite population growth, global use of energy by 2050 could be reduced to 1960 levels – and still provide decent living globally & universally

  10. Ben McMillan says:

    Probably a bit orthogonal to the point of the OP, but “net zero”, while physically correct, puts a lot of emphasis on the “net-” and there:
    1) Isn’t much real “net-” available.
    2) There is a lot of fake “net-” available and discussion of possible future “net-” getting in the way of real emissions reductions now.

    So I’d be much happier with “zero”, with the “net-” reduced to a footnote. I.e. this is about rhetoric, not physics.

  11. izen says:

    The global impact of Covid19 provides an instructive viewpoint.
    Within a few months of the start of the outbreak the science-based targets to control the spread were evident.
    Lock-down work places, public spaces and indoor events.
    Wear a mask.
    Socially distance.
    Get vaccinated as soon as possible.

    How well these science-based procedures were followed depended on how effective governments were in coercing the population and how compliant the population were to government instruction.

    China showed how a coercive government could limit the spread, S Korea, New Zealand, and Australia showed how a compliant population could follow government instructions.
    Brazil, America, and the UK showed how government hesitation or opposition combines with a significant proportion of the population to undermine the science-based actions and lead to more deaths.
    India, Pakistan and S. Africa show how governments that lack the coercive power to impose real limits on their populations fail.

    While some economists complained the science based targets were worse than the disease, there was no organised group supporting the spread of Covid.
    In the case of CO2 emissions there is a large group of companies that make their money from continuing CO2 emissions who actively oppose the science-based targets. That combined with the varied socio-political coercive abilities and population compliance makes it harder to get any global response to a much more slow-moving threat.

    In the case of Covid, the science-based targets for action became a local political matter. The one global authority, the WHO, was largely ignored.

    I see little chance of any different response to the climate based scientific-based targets without a global authority with the coercive power, and a global population compliant enough, to follow those targets.

  12. Jon Kirwan says:

    The areas lit by science are in a continual state of flux. The current state of science isn’t a thing or a book or a reference — it is held in the minds of living people and those people don’t agree as science is never a settled thing. Some of it, given enough time for consensus to form, may appear settled for a time.

    Even consensus has its limits. As Einstein quipped when “One Hundred Authors Against Einstein” was published in 1931, to defeat him one didn’t need 100 scientists. Instead, only one fact was required. We don’t know what the future brings. And it only takes one good fact to rapidly alter prior consensus.

    A problem that relates to the topic at hand, though, is that by the time consensus has formed, it’s already old news. So, like a shooter taking aim through a cross-wind, one must recognize and account for the inherent lag that exists in consensus and adjust our aim, accordingly. To shoot in the right direction we must also account for the prevailing winds and aim away from the conservative side if there’s to be any chance of hitting closer to the target.

    This is your blog, not mine. So I don’t want to sway you from the phrase. It’s your call. Yet I’m a little concerned about the phrase “science-based targets” and perhaps an early step is to better define what qualifies and does not qualify.

    Honestly? I’m personally more interested in: (1) improving my (and that means with the help of others so perhaps a better word is “our”) vision of the hazards ahead by my (“our” now and future) grandchildren and, with that more clearly in view, (2) zeroing in on exactly what’s required to navigate those hazards well.

    Part of (2) for me is also identifying, discussing, and then jointly agreeing to eliminate from further view those things which have little or no chance of long-term success. And I want to be absolutely clear here that I’m not talking about climate success. There are many other pressures taking place, also terrible symptoms as bad as climate change itself, that have to be included in any truly viable solution set under consideration. To blinker ourselves will surely lead us down a false trail of hope.

    For example, we can spray sulfuric acid into the atmosphere or throw up a “space shield” of some kind, with the justifying idea of “buying time” for climate change. But doing so does only a very little (perhaps by slowing down the pace of increased climate pressures being added to others) for myriad ecologies under still more direct pressure by human activities. So traipsing off in that direction is, at best, incomplete and demands more be said about what else must also accompany it. More, it will drag our few remaining energies (and our mental oxygen) away from where they would have otherwise gone had we taken a more comprehensive view and made clear choices. it’s quite possible that we might do something entirely different had we considered more in the balance.

    This is why I think this is going to be very hard. Worthy. But very hard. And I do think that our worldviews cannot help but play a role. That doesn’t mean we avoid the issue, though. It just means we need to face our differences in worldview and hammer out a compromise worldview each can live with and share.

    For example, some may be perfectly willing to sacrifice (just to pick a number) 90% of the world’s species if doing so preserves their “way of life.” Others may take a very different view. I read a science article summarizing new information about the asteroid that formed Chicxulub crater and read, as a comment to it, this prayer:

    “Dear Space,
    It’s time for another one.
    The Earth.”

    These are “worldviews” that are difficult to reconcile. Yet reconcile them we must. Or we will never be able to find any shared consensus about the actions we take and when we take them. And believe me, these will have to be concerted efforts.

    So. I’d like to see something that handles all of the above. Although you almost write as though you hope to avoid conflict, I think you will have to embrace it. It won’t be easy. Of course, it won’t be. If it avoided ideological battles it also probably wouldn’t be worthwhile.

    I’ll write a separate summary of what emotionally motivates some of my perspective. The reason isn’t to push my particular view but rather to point out just how varied our experiences may be. That isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I think the heat that comes from having widely varying perspectives will (if channeled well) lead to a far better understanding than had they been too similar. With that, I’ll finish this and write the next.

  13. Jon Kirwan says:

    Ken, I am one of those who was fortunate to have lived long in the exact same location on Earth and in a pristine environment (at one time.) I also lived long enough to have gone from using a hand-cranked cream separator for the milk I got from our two cows, and fixing vacuum tube radios, to having been fortunate enough to be a small part of some very good teams of scientists.

    In just the last 30 years, my nearby mountains lost over 50% of their glacial mass balance. A nearby river (“Sandy”) had so many fish (smelt) running in it when I was a teenager that I quite literally (don’t imagine I’m joking with you) could fill a 5 gallon bucket with fish using a single, quick scooping motion. I’d scoop twice and the fish would last me for many months.

    There are no more smelt in that river. The river is still there. There’s just no smelt in it.

    I used to walk for days, alone, through our nearby mountains. (The tallest of them rises from sea level to over 3400 meters.) I knew some of the life here and there. And it has changed so profoundly I almost haven’t the words for it.

    But Oregon had been somewhat ‘preserved’ for me as a child through national neglect. People just didn’t move to Oregon. They moved to California. Or, perhaps, to Washington. But Oregon was left to its devices (the folks “back east” voted to preserve about half of it as national and state forest systems to make up for their poor stewardship elsewhere.)

    And Oregon is a big place — bigger than the entire UK. So I got to see what multiplying a population from 1 to 4.5 million does in an otherwise “pristine” ecology. Currently, the UK has 14 times the average density of Oregon. But 50 times the average density as when I was born here. The population of the UK has budged only slightly, from about 51 million to about 62 million, over my lifetime.

    But I’ve personally seen what multiplying a population by 4.5 actually does.

    And it’s not pretty.

  14. Joe,
    Yes, I agree that this a serious problem. I’m probably expressing myself poorly. I guess my concern is that whatever we do to address this, we probably need to be keep focussing on what the science suggests we need to do to limit our impact. Hence, the science-based targets. If, however, we start to focus more on the socio-economic issues that drive this, do we then run the risks of ending up in an ideological battle with others who also claim to want to address these socio-economic issues, but may be aiming to do so in ways that will exaccerbate the environmental problems? I really don’t know the answer to this, hence my post. My sense, though, is that this hasn’t really been considered, but I might have missed it.

  15. Ben,
    Indeed, there are many problems with the way “net zero” is framed. I think it is important to point this out and – as you say – to stress that the key thing is to get to “zero”. So, I have no problem with people challenging the way in which some are framing these science-based targets. However, some seem to be going further than this, and actually criticising the fundamentals, rather than the way in which they’re being used.

  16. Jon Kirwan says:

    In effect, I’ve been able to watch what happened in the UK over the period from about 1830 to the present day (a 4.5 multiplier in population), but instead compressed into one (still ongoing) lifetime.

  17. Jon,
    Actually, I used “science-based targets” because it was term used by someone else in a discussion about this. All I really mean is key information underpinned by the scientific evidence. For example, that stopping climate change requires getting to (net) zero. That having a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5C or 2C would require that we stay within some carbon budget. That given our current emissions, there is probably some deadline relatively soon when we’d need to have made substantive emission cuts.

    I’m also not suggesting that we shouldn’t interrogate these science-based targets, or that they provide all the relevant information. There are also lots of other factors to consider. Maybe I’m just mostly confused, but I tend to think that this kind of information should play role in determining what actions will be effective and what won’t, even if they don’t – by themselves – tell us what we should do and don’t tell us how to act in a way that is fair and equitable.

  18. Jon Kirwan says:

    “For example, that stopping climate change requires getting to (net) zero.”

    I’ll care about that when I understand the role it plays in a larger framework of actions. Standing by itself, it means too little to me. (Besides, it’s more a slogan.) Too much else is going on that will achieve worse results in less time, regardless of climate change. Climate change is the icing on a cake. I won’t belabor the details. You know them as well as I do.

    I need to return to my cave and tend to my deer, mountain lions, bioluminescent insects and fungi, coyotes, rabbits, and squirrels. (Four distinct species, including the Northern flying squirrel — a surprisingly gentle and silky animal.) I do sincerely apologize. Best wishes and I’ll definitely enjoy reading where you take this. I intruded into the wrong discussion. My apologies, again.

  19. Jon,
    No need to apologise. I certainly agree that there are many other problems and that (net) zero doesn’t tell us much by itself. So, I’m not suggesting that it does or that it should be the prime focus, but I’m still confused by why there seem to be an explicit criticism of it, rather than a recognition that it’s a key part of a much bigger issue.

  20. Jon Kirwan says:

    Net zero doesn’t mean much to me because I don’t know what it entails, yet. It’s jargon. It’s political. But it is not well-defined. Is it achieved by reducing emissions? Or something else? Or some unknown mixture? And those questions matter to me.

    So this gets back, perhaps, to your thoughts about “interrogation.” But even if you engaged in that process — interrogating the meaning of “net zero” — we would still be avoiding a serious discussion that must involve so much more if it is to have true meaning.

    I’ll instead choose to watch and learn from you, I think. Perhaps you will show me a trick or two and I will see how you bring this together into something that gets more of my attention. I need to see how this isn’t just moving deck chairs on the Titanic but instead can lead to meaningful change that positively affects the diversity and health of wildlife on our planet.

    For now, it just sounds like a slogan to make people “feel good” and, in terms of effect, more like putting just one oar in the water. We’ll have to leave it there, I suppose. I can learn from you. I just don’t see how on this topic, quite yet.

  21. Jon Kirwan says:

    I’ve personally seen what adding 6 billion people to a planet previously with 2 billion does to it. My personal environmental experience over a lifetime mirrors almost exactly that particular rate of change. I’ve seen the results. So it is quite personal to me.

    You start telling me how we proceed towards a productive discussion to help spell out how we can navigate towards an improving situation and you will have my abundant attention.

    Otherwise? Not so much.

    We need specific schedules, and then need to demonstrate the ability to hold to them in actual practice; ones that will positively alter our impact (and its rate of change in real-time) on the planet. Otherwise, it’s all just deck chairs to me.

  22. Chubbs says:

    The science-based targets are necessary but not sufficient for avoiding climate impacts. One problem is envisioning a net zero world. None of the scenarios used to explore the future is a good match for our current trajectory. Without a clear picture many are uncomfortable with drastic change. Hopefully that changes as non-fossil energy sources become more mainstream.

  23. I think a lot of antipathy to net zero is based on an assumption that the status will be achieved with insufficient real world/real time decrease in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. If there is a disconnect or loose connection between emissions and offsets that companies or countries might claim to show that they have achieved a net zero status, then that system can be gamed.

    As long as we can all see results in atmospheric concentration, it’s not a problem, but there is not much evidence at this point that our changes are doing very much. A carbon or emission tax appeals to me because there is very little disconnect between an emission and the penalty/opportunity moment that arises from the emission. That is harder to game.

    In terms of your confusion about why there is criticism of net zero, I would look at the question about how this idea could be gamed to maximize profits and to avoid truly paying for externalized costs. If you need more background on why some of us are critical of the net zero game, look at the income/tax game that our species plays to fund essential services and then reflect on how some people don’t want to play fair and will hide their wealth and income to avoid paying their fair share. Two words on that. Pandora Papers? Panama Papers? you choose.

    Net zero looks a lot like three card monte to me.

  24. ATTP says “some seem to be going further than this, and actually criticising the fundamentals, rather than the way in which they’re being used.” Can you share a few links to where you are seeing this, so that I can get a better idea what you are referring to?

  25. It seems pretty clear to me that when people get frustrated that the science-based emissions target is “net-zero”, it’s mostly because “something else” is underlying it. Almost always regarding “negative emissions”.

    The moral hazard thing. The discomfort with the uncertainty of needing/relying a solution that is unproven. Or the antipathy of even the philosophy of using a deliberate technological intervention in Earth’s carbon cycle to deal with the consequences of what initially an accidental (albeit enormous) one. Genuine concerns about capacity (although, the IPCC Special Report on CO₂ Capture and Storage indicates this is unlikely anywhere near an issue for geologic storage), or ecosystem disruption (BECCS), etc. Or the amount of energy and resources that would need to be diverted. Or that it’s a get-out-of-jail-card for the dastardly Snidely Whiplash’s we cast the fossil fuel companies in to assuage the blood on our hands. Or the idea that it might be a capital intense endeavour and that might favour more – curses! – capitalism.

    I’m sure there are others.

    But here’s the thing. What I think is *really* going on here is that people are in fact *actually*, in fact, not mad with the net-zero framing, but rather the that the remaining carbon budgets are so tight that they leave us so few options to get to zero without a *LOT* of negative emissions. *That’s* what’s frustrating them.

    And it’s not just the frustration or guilt or blame that we left it so late that now we are in this bind.

    Because, although there is some truth to that, I think a lot of people either forget or are unaware how recently we even realized that to stabilize temperatures we’d even *ever* need to get to zero-emissions. And it was only when that realization really *began* taking hold in the scientific literature – about 2008 (e.g. Caldeira and Matthews) – that the idea we were facing some kind of fixed carbon budgets even took hold. (e.g. Allen, et al., Meinshausen, et al., 2009)

    Because it is easy to forget that it didn’t have to be this way.

    For a long time, the assumption was that the carbon cycle – particularly the deep marine part of the cycle – was going to give us some buffer, and we we could maintain almost indefinitely a long tail of residual (albeit still significantly reduced) emissions.

    Again, remember that in ~2004, this was considered practically state-of-the-art, ambitious mitigation.

    So zero-emissions – net or otherwise – was not even on the table until recently. Had the physics and carbon cycle science found differently, we would have a *lot* more time and flexibility to figure out what to do with the hard-to-mitigate emissions.

    But here we are.

    And, for all the antipathy towards the physical fact that zero can also mean net-zero which can imply negative emissions, people should keep in mind that we’re not even *certain* that net-zero stabilizes temperature. It could have been – and still could be – that we need to go to somewhat net-zero just to stabilize.

    Would people be so biased against negative emissions if the science was telling us they weren’t an optional nice-to-have, but a necessity?

    And don’t rule that out. We don’t have really anything on offer to significantly reduce our N₂O emissions – an unavoidable byproduct of agriculture, and a powerful, long-lived (like CO₂) climate forcing that is about 7% of our current CO₂-eq forcing (and about 10% if compared with just fossil CO₂ emissions).

    There’s not much proposed for how to deal with this – and if we don’t, temperature keeps rising even is CO₂ is zeroed out. Not much, that is, except using enough ongoing CO₂ removal to offset the radiative forcing from the N₂O.

    How do you like “science-based targets” and negative emissions now?

    As I said at the outset, I think a lot of the aversion is literally withdrawing in discomfort at what the science has served up in just the past decade or so.

    (I still remember the 2009 Nature cover👇, which simultaneously had both the influential Allen, et al., and Meinshausen, et al., papers detailing the reality of tight, fixed carbon budgets. Roughly 1 trillion tonnes of cumulative carbon emissions for 2.0°C. I thought the visual was apropos, because that realization hit me like a ton of bricks. But this was not really that long ago. I think people forget this or are unaware when they shout at the moon in anger about net-zero and negative emissions.)

  26. mrkenfabian says:

    I think having the emissions targets based on science and having proposed means assessed with reference to that science has no credible alternative. I also think having science based emissions targets is more important when we remain uncertain of how they will be reached.

    Flexibility of means has to be maintained, even as near term investments are in keeping with the overarching goal – which surely should be climate stability, with emissions targets based on what climate science tells us will achieve it. Which target does look like… getting to (below net) zero emissions before temperatures rise so much that serious carbon feedbacks make things much more difficult. There is a need for interim targets too – the overall target isn’t going to be reached without them. The interim targets are where the near term efforts (including activism) and investments must go, but flexibility is needed for efforts a bit further out. Not a detailed plan but a firm commitment tied to a flexible framework.

    Since I think a clear plan set in (low emissions) concrete is impossible at this time demanding one first becomes a justification for not having the targets, in a unhelpful feedback loop. I would think more of the demands for a clear plan (and costings, no less) as prerequisite to targets comes from opponents of strong action than from proponents, for that reason – eg the current Australian Prime Minister, (whilst carefully passing over the point that it has been his government’s responsibility to make plans). So far their “plan” is to divert clean energy funding to CCS and use CCS to justify growing fossil fuel mining. They will likely SAY they commit to net zero emissions, whilst making it clear (in deniable phrasings) that they are only doing so because of interfering outside forces. It will be delivered like an ironic and insincere bowing down before political correctness or wokeness or whatever insult term they are calling it when people take things seriously and try to do something about it.

  27. Jon Kirwan says:

    I don’t trust a process where the vision has not yet been laid out, but where various factions seem perfectly willing to toss out specific objectives hoping to see what sticks to the wall and what doesn’t.

    It doesn’t work well in business. (It’s a sure way to eventually squander resources and fail, my experience.) And it won’t work here, either.

    I can easily see ‘net zero’ as an important milestone deduced from a clear vision of where we want to go. But there must by a guiding mission and there must be other objectives also set in place that are equally important, as we will almost certainly not succeed in all of them.

    Net zero is an objective. But what’s the vision that necessitates it? What kind of a planet do we want? Whatever we decide that is, that’s the mission and vision. And it will guide the rest.

    Even in much less complex situations, it’s been my experience that lacking the light of a guiding vision most times means you eventually find yourself far from the desired path. In a situation this complex and with highly inter-dependent moving parts? There’s no possible way of success without a guiding vision. The objectives do not define progress. They are but shorter-term instruments to sharpen our local focus of energy. But every so often, one must raise back above the daily efforts and see again if motion is still in the right direction. And for that, you need a guiding vision.

    So to me, net zero is putting the cart before the horse.

    (Sorry to be flogging ‘net zero.’ It’s just a convenient metaphor.)

  28. andrewm says:

    [I know this is long and don’t expect people to read it] I’m not sure who is saying that strategic arguing against Net Zero targets is to go for unscientific methods of dealing with climate change. I don’t mean this as a criticism but I read a lot around this and don’t see that much at all. What I do see is a lot of people arguing against Net Zero, sometimes on scientific grounds, usually accepting the science, even in fact being scientists, but still deeply concerned about Net Zero. This is primarily on the basis that Net Zero political manoeuvres and policy “commitments”, and for that matter, the discussion around this, are lovely strategic movements for those who don’t want to act on climate change. It can in fact also be simply that some think the targets are not scientific enough at times (or that there are perfectly respectable scientific disagreements about them). I’m thinking Kevin Anderson for example as someone arguing on all these bases. There are many others. I also say this living in Australia. We are well known for the climate reactionary nature of our governments, since probably at least 1996. The current PM is the one who only I think 4 years ago held up a lump of coal in parliament in told everyone not to be afraid of it. We have approved three new coal mines here during the past month (I think). And now they are thinking they might make some kind of net zero commitment, basically because of international pressure, and there is an election coming, and not because almost any of them really want to. That will be a little on the basis of some kind of science (that suits them the best, and they have corralled climate science within the national science organisation, and more .. although we have many really terrific climate scientists of course). But Net Zero, whatever its value in theory, will only be yet another stalling tactic for any kind of action, of the kind that is needed now, even if we were to be going for a Net Zero later. The Labor party here is better on climate, but actually not as much better as it would seem, as they also have strong coal/gas factions as well. Science—especially in fact good, up to the moment science—is simply no guarantee of social/political change. On the contrary. It’s necessary (and itself complex and a lot of it changing obviously) but way insufficient. Most of the arguments I’ve seen against Net Zero take science but also politics seriously, but together. They tend to argue for more action, sooner (on the basis of science + political-social realities), not less. Isn’t that the point? Or have I missed something? (this is always possible of course). Beyond this we have to think with a little more complexity of the social. Not always but far too often I see scientists discuss the social and political as some kind of add-on to physical events, and with sometimes, certainly not always, highly simplistic understandings of the social, and political. The same goes for communication and media. I get this. After all we’re all social, and political, and we all communicate and use media. However, this is a bit like saying but we all breathe air and have ideas about that so we know about atmospheric science (well the comparison is not really fair but you get the point). And this is where social theory (I confess I am in part a social theorist, working on climate comms) is often sadly lacking in trying to act on climate change. For a start most persuasion is directed either at individuals, or perhaps governments or corporations, but seldom at the complex realities of the social (this is based on what many media and communication thinkers, and practitioners, will tell you is a highly simplistic if very common series of notions). And I do think these complex social realities are the “other” place—the real obstacles to action—to which one has to go to begin to address the climate change. So two “pillars” if you like. Sciences related to climate. And complex social realties. (too often, for good historical reasons, we still begin in science vs denialism, which is important but now way secondary, or tertiary, or something). What are complex social realities? I see two main aspects to this, neither being about persuading people the science is right (and then they will act!). The first is the one many here have mentioned. Governments, corporations, institutions—either through malice, or just the usual inertia and bad habits of practice (which are really just as bad), are going to slow down or stop action, even if increasingly “climatewashing” this in the process. Another of many problems that are largely ignored is that governments and so forth change. As we saw with Trump, with each change any action that was moving along well can be put into reverse, or just stopped (or in fact worse). We’ve seen this time and again in Australia. And no “culture” wants to change (social activists very often miss this point). It means a huge drop in both effective (able to do things) and hierarchical (having power and status over others, internally/externally) powers, both for the individuals and groups involved, and for the particular social formation and how it fits into general culture (industry, ways of managing things, political culture, international relations, etc). Changes in energy infrastructure, for example, are famously confronted by the deep longstanding entanglement of fossil fuels, political power and global political constitution (just one example is Middle East politics, although another is Russia and oil). It’s been really hard, and it’s still a work in progress even to get universities to divest. The second aspect of “complex social reality” is less discussed. Simply put, and in some ways it’s really simple, people will not act, and will not support action, *if they can’t*. And very very often, they simply cannot. They might genuinely not have time. This is not trivial. And/or people have very real psychosocial limits. When I was working until recently in a university, even teaching a course on climate change communication, I often worked 7 days a week, and I simply had no time for “action”, and then became burnt out after doing this kind of thing for 25 years (and did not have the capacity for other reasons). Yet I am one of the better positioned people around, by far. Some people can’t act or support action because they are very simply highly insecure. Their focus is literally on survival, sometimes, today, often this week or month. And although these points are simple, they enter, with other points, into a highly complex social reality, in which “information” and “persuasion”, as they are often thought, and often deployed, are kind of next to useless. [thanks for the discussion btw .. it’s very interesting].

  29. Andrew,
    Yes, I agree that some of it is valid criticisms of the way in which net zero is being manipulated to generate pathways that are claimed to deal with climate change, but almost certainly will not. I certainly agree with this. However, some of what I’ve seen to go beyond this. Also, I do agree that we do need to address the social complex issues. So, I’m not arguing that the science-based targets are all that we need to consider, or that we shouldn’t be highlighting the importance of addressing these other issues. I’m mostly just trying to better understand the arguments being made by those who seem to be suggesting that we move away from these science-based targets (for want of a better term).

  30. jacksmith4tx says:

    Might as well start thinking about Plan B. Humans are naturally attracted to quick fix solutions which explains why global debt is approaching 300 trillion dollars or 260% over global GDP. (Does anyone think we will ever pay that off?). Anyway I think humanity will look for technological solutions to control the climate once we realize we lack the discipline to tackle the root of the problem – over population. In the meantime there is already funded research to explore carbon removal and solar dimming.

    I would add a third way, bioengineering. Using genetic engineering to modify the biosphere to metabolize green house gases. It might be possible to create plankton and algae that could sequester GHG hundreds of times faster than anything available today by turning the oceans into giant bioreactors. In fact genetic engineering could also solve the primary causes of pollution, habitat destruction and resource depletion by modifying the human gestation cycle. My idea would be to move and shorten the fertility period for both sexes to the mid thirties and triple the gestation period for females. Over the next 50 years we could see the human population drop to a much more sustainable 2-3 billion. Sure it looks like science fiction now but with tools like CRISPER and AlphaFold I can’t rule it out.

  31. at Jack Smith:

    interesting ideas. How are you doing with buy in from women on a 27 month pregnancy?

    On a serious note: I think techies and engineer/physicist types have trouble wrapping their head around the complexities and nuances of the kind of wildly complicated and diverse eco system that can develop on some small planets under the right conditions.

    Everybody wants to go to heaven, nobody wants to die.



  32. Willard says:

    I think that we should leave appeals to ignorance to contrarians, Mike.

  33. Jon Kirwan says:

    “I’m mostly just trying to better understand the arguments being made by those who seem to be suggesting that we move away from these science-based targets (for want of a better term).”

    It’s my impression that been like ships passing in the night on that topic, and your words perhaps stimulating different resonances like struck bells giving different tones you may not have been looking for. So perhaps this means that you may need to re-phrase the question or find another way to communicate what’s in your mind?

    Just a thought.

  34. Ben McMillan says:

    I still can’t tell what the people who don’t like targets or deadlines really want, except that they don’t seem to like science headlining the agenda, or anything quantitative or specific. Maybe because it all seems a bit technocratic? The scientists are bad because they are a bit too close to the capitalists?

    If there were a good argument, I think someone would be able to make it in a concise and articulate way.

  35. Jon,

    So perhaps this means that you may need to re-phrase the question or find another way to communicate what’s in your mind?

    Possibly, although Ben make’s a decent point above. If there is some good argument, then surely there is some expectation that it’s made in some way that others who are interested can understand. If this is about a more effective to convince people to take action, then surely this should be reasonably easy to articulate.

  36. Jon Kirwan says:

    Having specific, concrete objectives are essential in delivering on a mission. A Brownian walk is pointless. Targets are absolutely essential. But they must flow out from a guiding mission.

    What’s the point of agreeing to “paint this room blue” (which everyone agrees the room needs and would improve it) if it’s not done as part of an overall set of goals for the structure(s)? There needs to be mission plan, out of which intelligently made specific commitments are evolved to achieve it?

    Otherwise, it’s just a Brownian walk. Maybe you get somewhere? Likely not. You might “feel good” because, well, because now the room is pained blue and it looks nicer. But the rest of what was also done doesn’t coordinate, at all, and standing back it is almost as though nothing really productive was done in the end.

    There has to be a mission plan. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch “stuff.”

    The big picture here is that we cannot continue to increase the sheer meat-mass of the human population on Earth. We are displacing pretty much every single large mammal on the planet. To a 0th order approximation, for every pound of human flesh there’s a pound of similar meat-mass lost to some other wild species. We are now eating into the planetary savings account at a prodigious rate (I’m avoiding being quantitative, by design) and displacing much already, besides. A plan that does not address this issue isn’t important because, in the end, exponential equations pretty much dominate all of nature — every single interaction boils down to exponentials. It was one of my own moments of sudden understanding when I finally recognized just how fundamental this is in quantum interactions and how all emergent phenomena arise through its light.

    Do I care if we manage to meet some artificial target created without any concept about where we want to head and where we have AGREED to head? No. Not really. What does it matter if we manage to reach some accounting idea of “net zero” if, in the end, we continue to kill off the entire interwoven tapestry of life on this planet that sustains us? Great. We got to net zero. But the rest of the planet is in free-fall and it basically won’t matter in the end.

    I need to see fisheries getting healthier and more robust. I need to see entire systems of forests increasing in health and the diversity they support increasing, once again.

    So, I need to see the mission. No mission, I don’t care about the rest.

    Because it’s all deck chairs, then. And I’ll just stand back and watch rather than play in that game.

  37. Willard says:

    > Having specific, concrete objectives are essential in delivering on a mission. A Brownian walk is pointless.

    Most human endeavors lie between these two, starting with commenting on blogs.

  38. Jon Kirwan says:

    There is quite a difference between blog comments — which are perhaps better approximated as Brownian — and existential in importance and large scale global efforts, which almost by definition MUST purport to do better than that. Or they are pointless.

  39. mrkenfabian says:

    Jon I have to disagree. We need the commitment to the overarching goal (climate stability) and the zero emissions target that is compatible with it. I see that commitment as the one thing in all this that should not be compromised.

    We have near term objectives that are achievable – rapid increase in wind and solar mostly – that are compatible with longer term goals for which much detailed planning is contingent on how developing technologies pan out. The alarmist fears of RE dependent electricity networks being unreliable and expensive are not playing out – serious challenges have emerged but they’ve been faced and overcome so far and the source of rising energy costs right now is fossil fuel price volatility (imo).

    The developing technologies include cost competitive SMR’s – which look about 5 decades overdue, so it must be a lot harder than it seems, but unlike fusion, does appear within reach. I’m not so convinced Hydrogen will be a major part, even as it plays a crucial part in iron smelting and chemical feedstocks, so I would be concerned by having it all planned out if the plan relies heavily on it. Batteries WILL get better and cheaper – not one new best battery but different kinds of best for different roles. Bill Gates suggested a fivefold increase in clean energy R&D – and I think for batteries we are seeing that level of commitment already; whoever cracks it will get richer than oil barons. Halve the cost and the intermittency issues – the longer term planning we aren’t yet able to put detail to – look a lot less daunting. EV’s will be inevitable. Double the energy density and battery electric planes start looking inevitable. I note that Li-ion costs halved 3 times in one decade.

    Pumped hydro looks like it will play a major part, giving depth of storage that batteries – even better batteries – will struggle with but until the commitment to zero emissions with heavy use of wind and solar looks irreversible I think it won’t get sufficient investments. And vice versa; if it has to be done it is doable, but if it remains optional it won’t. I think nuclear will be like that too – that despite the near term explicit commitments to solar and wind in the Net Zero targets an irreversible commitment to zero emissions helps it more than any holding out for nuclear as the near term goal. Which overlaps with use of nuclear as rhetorical blunt instrument for attacking renewables by opponents of strong climate action, for whom doubts about RE are a means for delaying commitment.

    What’s the military saying, that no plan survives contact with the enemy? We need that overarching commitment and flexibility more than we need a mapped out plan.

  40. Jon Kirwan says:

    “Jon I have to disagree.”

    Then we simply will have to remain in that state until we can each imagine a bridge we do not each see, as yet. (I have no idea what the future brings, so saying we disagree now doesn’t mean one of us finds a way to move closer, later.)

    In the final analysis, we very well may show ourselves to be no smarter than bacteria in a petri dish.

    If we hope to avoid that, it will require us to do a lot more than isolated, sporadic, and disconnected actions in fits and spurts. There needs to be a clear vision of where we want to go. Only then we can marshal a very very limited capacity and give ourselves a shot. There is no way we get out of this without a plan in mind.

    So we leave it there, I suppose.

  41. Jon Kirwan says:

    “What’s the military saying, that no plan survives contact with the enemy? We need that overarching commitment and flexibility more than we need a mapped out plan.”

    That doesn’t work here. Two reasons.

    (1) One hopes it does not, if taken literally. If the stresses result in war, then all bets are off and things are solved a different way, of course.

    (2) But I don’t think you meant it literally. So if this is a metaphor, then it doesn’t apply. The situation is one where we do have a lot of information and we are not fighting an enemy that may do unpredictable things. This is about a natural world where we have a great deal of knowledge (not enough) and where, if anything, nature is perhaps the most consistent teacher imaginable. It does not care if we cry. It does not care if we moan. It is immune to our hopes, our wishes. It just does what it does. And it does so, with more consistency that any human could hope for. So the situation doesn’t apply.

    I’m not buying this point, either.

  42. David B Benson says:

    Brazil, etc., incompetence if not corruption:
    The Brazilian Federal Police are supposed to prevent this where “illegal” but are obviously failing.

    Send in a NATO force! If the other members of NATO are too wishy-washy, just use your own military. This is an emergency!

    Go check whether that has the least bit of traction with your representative. Mine has been diagnosed with COVID-19 just now and so is pre-occupied…

  43. Willard says:

    > There is quite a difference between blog comments — which are perhaps better approximated as Brownian — and existential in importance and large scale global efforts, which almost by definition MUST purport to do better than that.

    Your contributions are far from being Brownian, Jon. Yet they are conversational, which means they’re not exactly mission oriented.

    Also, it’s far from clear under which definition an existential threat implies specific objectives. In fact the very idea of requiring concrete and specific actions for large scale global efforts might be bound to be unsatisfied.

    So once again we’re left with having to compromise between top-down and bottom-up approaches, without having to root for any of them, trying many at the same time to see what stick.

  44. Jon Kirwan says:

    “Your contributions are far from being Brownian, Jon.”

    They are Brownian, when taken in juxtaposition with other posts here. Collectively, including the initial post by Ken, they are mere resonances among a few who take a moment to read or write or both. There is a kind of ‘dance.’ But it isn’t in any way concerted.

  45. Jon Kirwan says:

    “Yet they are conversational, which means they’re not exactly mission oriented.”

    I don’t have the answers. And I’ve not heard of some good ones, yet. That’s the whole point. If I had a mission, I’d tell you. Believe me. I would tell you.

  46. Jon Kirwan says:

    “Also, it’s far from clear under which definition an existential threat implies specific objectives.”

    I never wrote anything at all like that. So I’m not sure what you mean. Could you expand on this?

  47. Jon Kirwan says:

    “So once again we’re left with having to compromise between top-down and bottom-up approaches, without having to root for any of them, trying many at the same time to see what stick.”

    That’s your dilemma, not mine. I don’t even see things in such black and white terms. Again, can you expand on this?

  48. Ben McMillan says:

    Well, there are pretty clear plans (like the IEA scenarios), but some people don’t like them, and would prefer to have Thanos in charge.

    More broadly I guess the pushback is because these targets/deadlines don’t centre their particular set of concerns, and have been set by people who are outside their group.

  49. Steven Mosher says:

    Taxation levels could be modified over time as science-based targets are achieved.

  50. Willard says:

    > They are Brownian

    Brownian motion evokes a random process:

    Brownian motion is the macroscopic picture emerging from a particle moving randomly in d-dimensional space without making very big jumps.


    Your messaging has been too consistent to be Brownian.


    > I never wrote anything at all like that.

    Here’s what you said:

    Having specific, concrete objectives are essential in delivering on a mission. A Brownian walk is pointless.

    Either we live in a world in which we have to choose between Brownian movement or specific and concrete objectives, or we live in one where there’s a full range of possible rational action between these two alternatives. I suggest that we live in the second world. In other words, I am saying that your argument rests on a false dilemma.

    “Net Zero” is good enough for messaging. Is it fit for purpose? Depends on the specifications we’d require. Messaging can’t replace specification, and vice versa.

    I said “specifications” because we might need more than one. But even then, we can’t predict how the players will try to game the markets. And we should not require something we know we can’t do.

  51. Jon Kirwan says:

    “Either we live in a world in which we have to choose between Brownian movement or specific and concrete objectives, or we live in one where there’s a full range of possible rational action between these two alternatives. I suggest that we live in the second world. In other words, I am saying that your argument rests on a false dilemma.”

    That’s much clearer to me. Thanks.

    I was speaking not to be technically accurate, but to caricature what I see going on. Sometimes, a cartoon image gets the point across more quickly and better than a long diatribe.

    While the following is quite selective and shows only the narrowest of views and focuses on climate issues which, I assert, are merely one important part of many equally or more difficult problems faced, witness:

    U.S. asks OPEC to increase oil production:

    China orders coal mines to increase production:

    Fossil fuel demand shakes off pandemic in blow to climate fight:

    IMF about fossil fuel industry subsidies:

    I see no common vision and not even a hint of a coordinated effort indicative of a common vision. And those pulling at the other end of the rope are major, powerful, global scope players. They also pull harder.

    In any case, I do accept your point that there is a range of behaviors and that I can’t say (i’m pretty stupid when it comes to predicting emergent human behaviors) what the future will bring (besides, my crystal ball is definitely still broken), I don’t buy the idea that what emerges will be in any way sufficient.

    Love to be wrong.

    I think it will be:

    Epitaph: Bacteria in a petri dish.

  52. russellseitz says:

    ATTP: “No, I don’t think we should focus only on science-based targets, but they would seem to be a key way to distinguish between “ideological” (for want of a better term) solutions that have the potential to address these problems, and those that probably don’t.”

    “Want of a better term” ?

    Why give euphemizing demands for behavior modification, social engineering and the end of captialism a free pass?

    Get woke–semantic agression in the service of ideology been around a lot longer than climate activism,

  53. Jon Kirwan says:

    “Get woke–semantic agression (sp?) in the service of ideology been around a lot longer than climate activism,”

    I don’t even know what “woke” is. (See news titles once in a while, but it’s meaningless to me so I don’t read them.)

    I want to better understand now in order to understand better your point. So I tried to look up something (with google):

    Only thing I’ve ever skimmed on the subject.

    I’d like to know if that article is helpful for someone trying to understand the term or if I should go look elsewhere.

    Sorry for my ignorance and thanks.

  54. Willard says:

    I suggest we leave the W-word for another blog, say Russell’s.

  55. russellseitz says:

    Willard . I am content to excerpt The W-word from blogs that feature articles incorporating it.

    Brace yourself , Jon Kirwan, elsewhere is where some of them are coming from :

  56. Willard says:

    Cryptic drive-bys are fine, Russell, as long as it’s one per thread.

    Baiting hippies to better punch them isn’t.

  57. an_older_code says:

    i thought good article on the limits of scepticism and targets

    “Had we begun to reduce carbon production in 2010, the required annual reductions would have been 3.7 per cent. Waiting until 2020 to begin already means that future reductions would need to have been 9.0 per cent per year. Waiting for another decade to take action would mean that hitting the same goal would require annual reductions that are likely impossible.”

  58. Jon Kirwan says:

    Quoted from the “Beyond reasonable doubt” linked article:
    “Waiting for another decade to take action would mean that hitting the same goal would require annual reductions that are likely impossible.”

    It’s already impossible.

    According to the article, their computations of of 3.7%/yr and 9.0%/yr properly arrive from an interpretation of the Paris Agreement. I won’t argue that. Perhaps it is so. But there are a few things to consider:

    (1) Even if true, we are already past the point where it would be insane to imagine even the remotest chances that collectively we will turn on a dime and start reductions at a rate of 9.0%/yr. That’s simply NOT going to happen. I predict that any argument pretending it could happen will either be based on assumptions one or more of which will be patently false at the outset or else will apply invalid logic. Either way, I believe the argument will not be sound. Would very much enjoy being shown, otherwise.

    (2) The Paris Agreement numbers are old, now. Much has changed in the 6 or 7 years since. More has been added. And the bias between the two dates (then and now) is far more on the side of “assumptions made then were overly optimistic” than on “assumptions made then were overly pessimistic.” Likely, we would need to do more, not less, just to meet expectations then. And frankly, I didn’t think it went far enough anyway.

    I’m obviously not holding my breath. And I certainly don’t believe that “it becomes impossible in a decade from now.” It’s already crossed that line. The top line goals of the Paris Agreement are already just so much shredded paper.

    That ship has already sailed.

  59. David B Benson says:

    Jon Kirwan —- And yet nobody agrees with forcing Brazil to do the right thing for the Amazon rainforest. See my previous post, which received no response.

  60. Jon Kirwan says:

    David, I spent many many weeks studying some small part of Dr. Lovejoy’s work (circa early 1980’s) in Brazil during the period when the forests were being quilted rapidly due to the law there allowing anyone to cut down “half” of their land — the other half they’d sell to someone else who would then cut down half, again. (He speaks fluent Portuguese.) He developed some interesting quantitative metrics by the end of the 1980’s with respect to size of area and rates of species decline. I’m not sure if he’s still at Woods Hole. Last time I called in, he was on the board of directors there. Here’s a web link I quickly found in case you’d like to put a face to the name:

    With respect to sending military forces into Brazil, that’s way beyond my pay grade. But you can’t “force” people to do anything if you don’t have both motive and opportunity present together in the same actor. You mentioned NATO. Perhaps you know them better than I do. I’m quite ignorant about them. Can you inform me about how NATO pulls together both motive and the opportunity to go into Brazil and force them? Or, perhaps, do you know of any other actor with both motive and opportunity for that kind of action in Brazil? If not, I’m not sure what can be discussed about it.

  61. russellseitz says:

    Jon, NATO’s original remand is the North Atlantic, since stretched as far as the Black Sea.
    As the alliance declined to react to Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands on Britain’s behalf, it falls on Portugal to make the case for intervention in its former empire.

    That’s about as likely as the EPA invoking the Monroe Doctrine and dispatching the U.S. Coast Guard up the Amazon

  62. David B Benson says:

    russellseitz —- The Amazon River flows into the North Atlantic:á
    NATO countries unite! You have nothing to lose but the hemisphere’s rainforest!

  63. russellseitz says:

    David, for purposes of navigation, which is something NATO navies do a lot, the North Atlantic is divided from the South Atlantic by the Equatorial Countercurrent which flows 8 degrees North latitude..

    The Wiki agrees, but the northernmost branch of the Amazon Delta indeed flows a few miles north of the town of Equador for the last 30 miles of its course.

    The Amazon rain forest starts in Para, well southwest of the equator.

  64. Ben McMillan says:

    How about reducing the demand for the things that the Amazon is being cut down to make? Or making cheaper substitutes elsewhere?

    Or more generally, reducing the pressures on forest land by changing the economic incentives so it is worth more standing. And empowering the people who see the forests as their home.

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