Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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17 Oct 2007

The Single Most Depressing Thing I Have Ever Read.

bmRegular readers of **Transition Culture** will know that I try not to make a habit of presenting depressing or distressing information, but today I will make an exception. Yesterday morning I read Carbon Equity’s The Big Melt report which is basically a review of all the literature and studies looking at what happened to the Arctic ice this summer. It does not make for comfortable reading, and indeed it adds enormous urgency to to need to reduce emissions. It argues that to speak of 2 degrees being a safe threshold is nonsense, that we haven’t yet reached 1 degree, but already the Arctic ice is melting 100 years ahead of when the IPCC predicted it would.

Its other key findings from its executive summary are;

• Climate change impacts are happening at lower temperature increases and more quickly than projected.
• The Arctic’s floating sea ice is headed towards rapid summer disintegration as early as 2013, a century ahead of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections.
• The rapid loss of Arctic sea ice will speed up the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet, and a rise in sea levels by even as much as 5 metres by the turn of this century is possible.
• The Antarctic ice shelf reacts far more sensitively to warming temperatures than previously believed.
• Long-term climate sensitivity (including “slow” feedbacks such as carbon cycle feedbacks which are starting to operate) may be double the IPCC standard.
• A doubling of climate sensitivity would mean we passed the widely accepted 2°C threshold of “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate four decades ago, and would require us to find the means to engineer a rapid drawdown of current atmospheric greenhouse gas.
• Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are now growing more rapidly than “business-as-usual”, the most pessimistic of the IPCC scenarios.
• Temperatures are now within ≈1°C of the maximum temperature of the past million years.
• We must choose targets and take actions that can actually solve the problem in a timely manner.
• The object of policy-relevant advice must be to avoid unacceptable outcomes and seemingly extreme or alarming possibilities, not to determine just the apparently most likely outcome.
• The 2°C warming cap is a political compromise; with the speed of change now in the climate system and the positive feedbacks that 2°C will trigger, it looms for perhaps billions of people and millions of species as a death sentence.
• To allow the reestablishment and long-term security of the Arctic summer sea ice it is likely to be necessary to bring global warming back to a level at or below 0.5°C (a long-term precautionary warming cap) and for the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases at equilibrium to be brought down to or below a long-term precautionary cap of 320 ppm CO2e.
• The IPCC suffers from a scientific reticence and in many key areas the IPCC process has been so deficient as to be an unreliable and dangerously misleading basis for policy-making.

This is the up-to-the-minute, as-it-happens climate change argument, and it should be very useful to any of you doing Transition work who encounter the “well, it won’t happen in my lifetime” folks. Well it will, and it is, and it is happening so much faster than anyone thought it would. I would class this as essential reading, but not for the faint hearted.

I was talking to Ben Brangwyn of the Transition Network yesterday, and he talked about the “Peter Schmeichel factor”. Peter Schmeichel is a former Manchester United goalkeeper (during the year they won the treble, which is a very tenuous way of my being able to link to this and this). Apparently when he had a bad game, or made a howler, he was able to let it bother him for just 3o seconds, then he put it out of his mind and got on with the next thing. So, this report requires having a high Schmeichel factor, but is key reading nonetheless.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Tom Atkins
17 Oct 8:20am

Paul Kingsnorth has an interesting take on Climate Change he says:

“From a deep green point of view, I think there’s something to be said for this argument. Consider: the greatest threat to the health of the natural world is human beings. The human economy is vastly destructive. Rainforests are falling as you read this, fish stocks diminishing, soil being eroded, artificial chemicals pumped into the atmosphere, species going extinct every week. No amount of reformist ‘sustainablity’ is going to do much about this. There are six billion specimens of homo sapiens roaming about the place, and there will be 9 billion within a few decades. Each of these humans consumes more resources as the economy grows and wants are created to fuel that growth. Our appetites have always been enormous, and we are nowhere near sated yet.

What does climate change add to this mix? Well, it puts a very large spanner firmly in the human works. If it really kicks off it will wreck human agriculture, slow or stall the industrial economy and maybe even plunge us into a new dark age. It will, in other words, stop in its tracks the greatest threat to life on Earth.”

I tend to sit somewhere between Kongsnorth’s shock tactics and Rob’s positivity depending on which side of bed I get out on… not sure if I’m out of bed yet today though…

Shaun Chamberlin
18 Oct 2:04pm

Interesting link Tom – reminds me strongly of the challenging book I just read on Ben Brangwyn’s recommendation – Derrick Jensen‘s Endgame. While Peak Oil and Climate Change appear to be the biggest threats to modern civilisation, perhaps modern civilisation is itself the biggest threat to biodiversity and life on Earth..

Still, if so I still see solutions like the Transition Towns and TEQs movements as critical in trying to recover a way of human life that isn’t fundamentally at odds with Gaia.

Oh, and by the way, Rob, while you know I’m generally in agreement with your perspective and opinions, I was very disappointed to note your clearly very deliberate omission of this link

[…] Big Melt (PDF) Carbon Equity’s report, summarized here, points to a climate sensitivity much higher than expected and disastrous consequences for Arctic […]

21 Oct 12:12pm

Hi, I posted this to Peak
It has rattled cages.
On going live responses viewable at

21 Oct 12:15pm

please amend!
sorry that should have been

John Hanks
22 Oct 4:55pm

The political stresses of global warming may lead to a nuclear exchange. That is the way a species of crooks, suckers, and lazy cowards meets its end.

22 Oct 5:12pm

Yes, chilling news indeed. Reading this report sparked me to write a letter I’ve been mulling over for a while – sent to New Scientist magazine, but also to different places on the web.

“Fossil fuels should stay underground”

Let’s face it: the Kyoto Protocol has been a dismal failure. Riddled with loopholes like “carbon credits” that let rich countries off the hook from cutting back their domestic emissions, it was nonetheless decried as unfair by big polluters in those same countries, who lobbied against it so well that it took 7 years to be ratified by a quorum of signatory nations. Even then, its emissions targets are a fraction of those needed to meet its stated goal of “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. With Kyoto being renegotiated amid dire news about the already-observed and projected effects of climate change, a fundamental rethink is imperative.

Kyoto stands in total contrast to its forerunner, the Montreal Protocol, which former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reportedly called “Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”. Indeed, by eliminating ozone-depleting chemicals which are also greenhouse gases, the Montreal Protocol has actually had more impact on climate change than several Kyotos (“Plugging the ozone hole cut global warming too”, New Scientist, 05 March 2007).

One critical difference between the two protocols – which may partly account for this difference – is the fact that Montreal regulates production, not emission, of CFCs. Imagine a Montreal-style treaty which allows industry to produce CFCs in unlimited quantities, but makes governments responsible for ensuring that they don’t get released into the atmosphere: doubtless such a treaty would rival Kyoto in its worthlessness. Montreal works because it targets the manufacturing of CFCs, the only stage of the process where regulation can be effective. Even so, continued manufacture of illegal CFCs represents a serious problem (“Illegal CFCs imperil the ozone layer”, New Scientist, 17 December 2005.)

Kyoto, on the other hand, set itself an impossible goal: to regulate the entire carbon cycle of the planet Earth, a vastly complex and often poorly-understood set of both natural and artificial processes; and to do so at the level of emissions, a globally distributed anti-bottleneck in the system. Not since the days of King Canute – or the Indiana House of Representatives’ 1897 attempt to legislate for the value of pi – has there been such a hubristic mismatch between governments’ ambitions and their capabilities.

To successfully halt climate change – and failure to do so is a prospect awful to contemplate – government action must be clear, effective and foolproof. Using Montreal as a model, an effective successor to Kyoto could be a treaty which regulates countries’ rights to manufacture the substances mainly responsible for climate change: in effect, mandating substantial cuts in worldwide extraction of fossil fuels. This would not correct all the anthropogenic imbalances in the Earth’s climate system – but it would deal with the lion’s share and, more to the point, unlike Kyoto, it would be clear, unequivocal, and probably work. Other treaties on other aspects of the problem might also be necessary – why should one document be expected to do everything?

Of course this would be difficult to achieve, since it amounts to mandating a global economic crisis – or if you believe the predictors of “peak oil”, exacerbating one which is already upon us. But the effects of such a crisis would be minor compared with the likely impacts of climate change, and there is at least one example – Cuba – of a nation that has successfully navigated major cuts in fossil fuel use, while largely maintaining its quality of life (“World failing on sustainable development,” New Scientist, 03 October 2007). This is largely a matter of people’s willingness to work together for sustainability – and we are more likely to do so if we voluntarily jump off the oil cliff than if we are pushed.

What is necessary, then, is that enough fossil-fuel-producing nations should be convinced that it is in their own (and the world’s) best interest to become fossil-fuel-stewarding nations instead: keeping their reserves underground where they are now, to be extracted later when more is known about how much we can safely burn, and how best to use it. In fact, given rising trends in oil prices, this approach may be economically justified for the countries in question, quite apart from considerations of climate change; or there may be climate-concerned investors who are willing to pay countries to artificially limit their production, either buying the oil, gas or coal itself (with the intent of leaving it in the ground), or purchasing options on its production that expire at a certain date in the future. But whatever happens, citizens concerned about climate change need to wake up to the fact that we can’t afford to rely on scientifically dubious carbon offsetting or sequestration, or on bending over backwards to limit our own emissions in the naive hope that the rest of the world will follow suit. The only safe place for the world’s remaining stocks of fossil fuels is to stay where they belong – underground.

Robert Alcock
Bilbao, Spain

22 Oct 7:26pm

Sea level rise will be the only thing that removes the final klingons of denial. I live on a coast where only a modest rise will displace millions, and flood the best farmland we have. The worried talk of inevitable inundation is actually on everyone’s minds and lips here now, so it’s no surprise that the most active people at hammering the message of the Big Melt into the heads of inland politicians are those with literally everything to lose. Carbon Equity sounds great, but is an ideal concept largely over-ridden by the rude realities of geography.

23 Oct 9:41pm

Tom – Paul Kingsnorth and the last 4 of his 7 comments there (so far) have got it spot on. Kingsnorth is, eloquently as ever, verbalising what many people have been mulling over for ages. Peak oil and climate change could be the only things powerful enough to check the reinforcing feedback between human population growth and the voracious industrial monster.

Some people take exception to the idea that human numbers are a problem, which is sheer wilful blindness really, as everyone likes to have space. it’s no accident that poor people are forced to live in overcrowded places, whereas those who can afford it buy bigger houses in spacious green locations.

[…] is gonna get Wells-ed, anyway, but I thought this was interesting. The Single Most Depressing Thing I Have Ever Read.
9 Nov 9:23am

[…] a lot of this stuff out there. but heinberg for says it best. my friends rob and graham have covered similar ground in slightly less depth.) No Comments so far Leave a […]

[…] [TransitionCulture]  Yesterday morning I read Carbon Equity’s The Big Melt report which is basically a review of all the literature and studies looking at what happened to the Arctic ice this summer. It does not make for comfortable reading, and indeed it adds enormous urgency to to need to reduce emissions. It argues that to speak of 2 degrees being a safe threshold is nonsense, that we haven’t yet reached 1 degree, but already the Arctic ice is melting 100 years ahead of when the IPCC predicted it would. […]

[…] makes a point of posting positive, action-oriented info on his blog, which is why I read it. He is active internationally in helping communities prepare for peak oil […]

24 Apr 12:53am


ive read the IPCC reports and ive done a LOT of research on the actual primary research articles written by scientists and there is no validity to the claims you are making up there. wtf man. there does appear to be warming based on data in align with rising CO2 levels but there is more uncertainty in this realm of climate change then anything else. Oh yeah, and the IPCC along with many many scientists and primary research articles i have read from the actual scientists suggest that the antarctic has shown NO significant decrease in ice over the years. They have found other data to suggest global warming but the antarctic is NOT one of them.

24 Apr 1:05am

ps, im actually a entering graduate student in the biomedical sciences and a scientist in training. you shouldn’t just take all data and reports for what they say….especially when there is an agenda at hand. not saying there isn’t climate change and that we shouldn’t do anything about it, just that you need to think more critically about this and NOT get any info from blogs! Even the official sites such as the IPCC or this “big melt” report you need to think more critically about. the name itself from this report implies to me that it is agenda driven not pure science driven. global warming could be real but there is more uncertainty than you realize and it is so much more COMPLICATED than you think. this society and the media are completely butchering real science and a lot of scientists are aggravated about it!

24 Apr 10:09am

The single most depressing idea I have ever had is this: if the scientists are right, we’ve totally screwed the planet. And given the slow uptake of any life-changing reduction activities (beyond those which are so small as to be rather laughable), even if everyone who reads this does all they can, the planet is still going to change.

But the really scary thing is that nobody seems to be talking about or planning for a changed climate future, so it seems like we might very well get there totally unprepared.

Given that ‘we’ who are within the top 10% richest in the world are most of the problem, the best solution might just be for us to stop existing – which at least would allow everyone else resources to use.

wayne rhyne
30 Apr 1:35am

this entire melt down, is only tem, we are comeing out of the last ice age, we have been headed this way for 5,000 years,this melt down or natural melting, will end up filling the oceans with fresh water, its colder, then the salt water, when we make ice cream we add salt to the ice, too frezee, thus ice cream, on a hot day, with thousands of tons of cold fresh water, the salt water will, be forced to the serface, this, holds the salt water closer to the surface, the salt crystals reflect the sun lite,the colder salt water, starts the reverse ice world.