Routefinding the future: reflecting on the climate futures forum

By Gareth Renowden 05/04/2011

Two busy days in Te Papa last week, and a lot to think about. The Climate Futures Forum organised by the Climate Change Research Institute at VUW was fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. Fascinating because it’s hard not to be interested when a lot of very smart people are feeding you information, and disturbing because they provided a stark reminder of how hard is the task that confronts us all. Below the fold: some reasonably random thoughts on the forum, interviews with some of the key speakers, and a summing up based on Jonathan Boston‘s remarks at the close of the forum.

The conference opened with a traditional mihi, and after a welcome from Wellington’s new Green mayor Celia Wade-Brown, climate change minister Nick Smith took the opportunity to announce that the government would be formalising its commitment to a target of a net emissions reduction of 50% by 2050. He seemed a bit surprised to be greeted by at least one person hissing disapproval, but would have done himself, the government and the people of New Zealand a bigger favour by staying to hear the presentations made by professors Martin Manning and David Karoly. Manning, the outgoing head of the CCRI, examined the balance of risks confronting us, with special reference to recent extreme weather events, while David Karoly explained that atmospheric carbon was a stock problem, not a flow problem. Because CO2 is a very long-lived gas in the atmosphere, we can only emit about another 1,000 billion tonnes in total (ie ever) if we want to have a reasonable chance of staying under 2ºC of warming — and that has some interesting implications for the way we think about emissions, as he explained to me in this short interview:


The afternoon’s proceedings were concerned with the communication of climate issues. Erik Conway led off with a brief canter through the story told in Merchants of Doubt. Here’s a short interview with Conway, in which he reflects on the vicious nature of the campaign to derail action:


Fred “Climate Files” Pearce was next on stage. After emphasising that there had undoubtedly had been a “powerful” and “corrosive” campaign to derail action on climate change, he then proceeded to call Steve McIntyre a “data libertarian” with a straight face. Perhaps Fred has never noted the fact that McIntyre’s first contact with the George Marshall Institute (the original mercantilists dealing in manufactured uncertainty) came in 2004, and that he’s been up to his neck in contacts with doubt merchants ever since. Favourite moment of day one: David Frame and David Wratt in one of the break-out sessions, each with microphones leaning in towards Pearce to ask pointed questions about his take on “climategate”.

Day two opened with a series of presentations on human behaviour and how it conditions our actions and reactions to climate change. Professor Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, gave a memorable presentation: “The Dragons of Inaction: Why We Do Less Than We Should, and How We Can Overcome”. Here he is, discussing some of those dragons:


One more interview: Dr David Frame, currently at Oxford University but set to take over the reigns at the CCRU later this year, gave an interesting presentation about what might happen if you look at the climate problem as having three international “actors” — and the potential that offers for scenarios he describes as a Mexican standoff or a low carbon race. The latter would be most people’s choice. Here he gives a summary:


So: to Jonathan Boston’s summary. He pulled out three key requirements:

  • the need to take account of the nature of the issue: that it can be framed in different ways, and that it can be both long, slow and relentless and yet show up in extreme weather events
  • that we have to take the “human condition” seriously, recognise the cognitive issues that make action difficult
  • that ethics and morality are of critical importance, especially in coming to terms with the intergenerational nature of the problem.

Boston also noted the need for an independent, science-based institution to inform government policy making (along the lines of the UK climate change committee, perhaps), commented on the importance of considering cumulative carbon emissions, and wondered if China was positioning itself to win Dave Frame’s “low carbon race”.

From my perspective the two days were extremely valuable. I was staggered at how many of the delegates were Hot Topic readers: it seems that Bryan and I have a small but select audience. I shall have to be careful about blogging after a glass or three of wine in future… ;-) In some respects it was like going back to college: my middle-aged self remembering the excitement of learning new things, and thinking new thoughts. But it was, more than anything else, a great relief to remind myself that a lot of very smart people are working on this issue, and that if all took to prevail was the application of intelligence, there would be no problem to confront. But it takes more than that. We have dragons to slay…