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Prof. Myles Allen on climate change, flooding, and carbon capture as a 'silver bullet'

Today we talk with Prof. Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford's Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department.  He is a prominent and widely published climate scientist.  He also wrote a recent article in the Mail on Sunday called Why I think we're wasting billions on global warming, by top British climate scientist.  It began “we have campaigned tirelessly against the folly of Britain’s eco-obsessed energy policy. Now comes a game-changing intervention... from an expert respected by the green fanatics themselves”.  What’s going on?

We will come on to that interview later in this piece, but the first thing I wanted to discuss with him was the recent floods the UK has experienced.  Allen was recently involved in publishing a paper which looked at the extent to which climate change could be responsible for the 2000 floods. 

He told me:

“The 2000 floods were really the first major event that got people talking about the possible role of climate change in these events. But of course it’s always a difficult question to answer because floods have always happened. The UK has always had high rainfall variability and so in some seasons we get more rain than others and as a result we occasionally get floods.

So the question is whether what we’re seeing now is just the normal run of bad luck in British weather, or whether climate change might be playing a role in it. That was the sort of question we set out to answer in the study we published a couple of years ago.

The key point is you can’t say, as a lawyer might put it, that but for climate change this event would not have happened. Because these are all events that might have happened anyway in a hypothetical climate in which we hadn’t increased greenhouse gas levels.

UK flooding

But what we can say is to “what extent has climate change or human influence on the climate made this event more likely to occur, or probable”, and that was what we looked at in that study. We came to the conclusion that on average human influence on the climate through rising greenhouse gas levels had more or less doubled the risk of an event such as occurred in the autumn of 2000.

But there was a big range of uncertainty on that. It might have been more than double, it might have been a good deal less than double. But we were fairly confident that the risk had at least gone up and that was the conclusion we drew. As you can see, it’s a fairly complicated message! A lot of people like us to answer the question “was climate change to blame or not?” The bottom line is it doesn’t make sense, for a random event like a flood, to say climate change was entirely to blame or entirely not to blame. We have to look at how the probabilities may have been changed through our changing climate.

If, with the floods of 2000, climate change doubled the probability of those events happening, and we’re now 14 years further into the warming process, would one therefore be able to infer that the floods we’ve just had were made even more probable by climate change?

Just because one kind of flood has been made more likely by human influence on the climate, it doesn’t mean all kinds of floods have been made more likely. That said, the circumstances we’ve seen this winter are not dissimilar to what we saw in the autumn of 2000, so perhaps human influence has played a role, but we are actually running experiments at the moment to find out, and I don’t know what the outcome of those experiments will be. It’s reasonable to suspect that human influence might have played a role, but until we’ve got the numbers in we shouldn’t really say either way.

Do you still think that staying below 2° is possible and/or feasible?

You’re talking about 2°C, the internationally agreed goal of 2°C above pre-industrial temperature. To remind people that that means really not much more than 1° above today’s climate.

Prof. Allen explaining climate change to Will.i.amFirst of all, it would be a very good idea, very desirable for us to do that, primarily because as a climate modeller, I don’t really know what a climate 3 or 4 or 5 degrees warmer than pre-industrial would be like. That might not be the thing you would expect from a climate modeller, but as you will appreciate, the further we go from the kind of conditions which we can test our models on, the more concerned we are about trusting what they tell us. I would be very worried about relying on anybody’s projection of what a world 4° warmer than pre-industrial would be like in detail, and for that reason alone I think limiting warming to 2° would be a very good idea.

So I fully support the goal. You asked whether we think we’ll manage it. I think we could manage it. There’s no question we still could do it. The reality is it’s not too late. But that’s not to say we don’t have a problem or a very substantial challenge in meeting that 2° goal. Just to put it into simple terms for people, global temperatures are largely determined, in the long term, by the total amount of fossil carbon we’ve dumped into the atmosphere.

Back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we had around 3-4 trillion tonnes, that’s 3-4 thousand billion tonnes of fossil carbon sitting underground waiting to be dug up and burned to power the Industrial Revolution. Over the past 250 years, we’ve dug up and burned about half a trillion tonnes. Over the next 35 years, at the current rate, the way things are going, we’ll burn the next half trillion tonnes and the next half trillion tonnes after that will take us over 2°.

That puts the challenge into perspective. We have to somehow work out what we’re going to do with all that fossil carbon underground that would be immensely profitable to dig up and burn if we’re not going to dump it all in the atmosphere very substantially greater than 2°C. That’s the challenge we have to face, we have to bear that in mind when talking about whether we’re going to meet the 2° goal. I think we could do it, but I’m not convinced that the current policy, that the majority of current policies are actually particularly helping towards that goal.

James Hansen has been arrested for trying to stop coal trucks in the US and Kevin Anderson has been quoted as saying that he feels that civil disobedience is one of the only routes to actually dealing with climate change. What’s your take on the balance, as a climate scientist, between stepping across into doing something about it or just documenting the process and gathering the science?

I’m pretty conservative on this one. I think it is our job to do the science as you described. I don’t think where we get our funding from or what our political views are really make much difference to the science we do, and we should always take very careful steps to make sure it doesn’t make much difference to the science we do. When I’m doing climate science I’m working in a community which is working together to understand the system as best we can and that’s very different. I don’t think my political views really come into it at that point.

Pollution

Just going back to Kevin Anderson for a minute, he was published recently about arguing that his sense is that economic growth and adequate response to climate change are incompatible with each other. What’s your sense of that – is it possible that you can still have a growing economy that is capable of staying below 2°C?

I absolutely do, yes. I respect Kevin’s views on this, but I don’t think there’s any hard evidence that economic growth and climate mitigation are incompatible. I feel as a matter of policy it’s very unhelpful to suggest that there are alternatives, because all of the countries in the world feel that economic growth is their imperative and understandably so, because they have a lot of poor people, a lot of mouths to feed, and if people tell them that doing something about climate change is an alternative to economic growth then many of these countries would, entirely reasonably, say “well let’s concentrate on economic growth first then”. So no, I don’t think there’s any incompatibility between a growing economy and addressing the problem of climate change.

You wrote a recent piece in the Daily Mail, in which you argued that the only route forward to talking climate change was carbon capture and storage but it’s still an experimental technology. Is there a danger with putting all our eggs in one basket in terms of risks, do you think?

In a sense we’ve only got one basket to put the eggs in, if you think about the problem from a perspective of the overall carbon in the ground. We started off with three and a half trillion tonnes of fossil carbon under the ground. We’ve burnt half a trillion tonnes, we’ve got three trillion to go, more or less, and we’re cracking through the remainder. If we want to limit warming to 2°C, we have to limit overall carbon emissions in the atmosphere to less than a trillion tonnes, possibly one and a half trillion but not more than that. That still leaves a couple of trillion tonnes of fossil carbon in the ground, available to be converted into useful energy.

That just really leaves us with three options:

  • We burn that carbon, dump the CO2 in the atmosphere and suffer the consequences in terms of climate change
  • We introduce a global climate mitigation regime that’s so stringent, so draconian that no-one ever in the world is allowed to dig up that fossil carbon and burn it.
  • We sequester the carbon before it enters the atmosphere

That second option is one which I would actually regard as pretty frightening in itself.  I find it very hard to believe that we would set up some kind of global carbon governance regime that is that strict. If we can’t do that, then we just have to accept that some of that carbon which cannot be dumped in the atmosphere is going to be.

We’re talking about building an industry from scratch in effect today (carbon capture and storage), comparable to the fossil fuel industry itself, and we need to do that over the next two or three decades, which is why we need to be getting on with it. Without it, we will not solve the problem of climate change because we will continue to use these fossil energy sources.

Carbon capture and storage

We might use them slower if we are successful in improving our energy efficiency and so forth, but the key point is that it really doesn’t make any difference using carbon slower if you still burn it all in the end. In the end it’s the total amount of carbon you dump into the atmosphere that matters, not the rate you emit in any particular year.

You’ve been involved in publishing papers on climate change since 1999 and know as much about this as many people, I’m sure. How do you live with it in your daily life? How does knowing what you know about climate change impact on how you live and how you live with that information?

One thing’s for sure, the bulk of my carbon footprint is spent going to IPCC meetings, which is ironic but also highlights the difficulty of relying on personal behaviour to address the problem. Until the problem is addressed at the source, until we essentially engage the fossil fuel industry in solving its own waste disposal problem rather than asking individuals to tighten their belts and reduce their carbon budgets, we’re not really going to make a serious dent in it. While I think, obviously, there’s an excellent case for people diversifying their energy supplies and reducing their energy consumption, there’s an excellent economic case for doing that, an excellent energy security case and so forth. But we also need to be realistic. We need to recognise that we’re not going to solve the problem of climate change until we solve it at source, until the fossil fuel industry essentially is required to take responsibility for the waste products of the products themselves.

For the rest of us, what will characterise living with climate change over the next 20 years, do you think?

The consensus prediction is reasonably clear, that we should be expecting to see a higher frequency of warmer summers and wetter, warmer winters. But there’s obviously a lot of variability around that, and we’re still a long way from seeing, as I said at the beginning, weather events that simply wouldn’t have happened without climate change.

In the UK at least, because there’s a lot of weather variability in this part of the world, I think detecting the effects of climate change on the UK will take a while. In some respects it’s one of the hardest parts of the world to see the impacts of climate change coming through. I think it will be much more obvious, and already is, the impact of climate change on places with less year to year variability such as Africa and Australia for example”.

[Editor’s note] In the interest of balance, I’d like to close this piece with a link to Joe Romm’s fierce response to Allen’s Daily Mail article, and to Allen’s proposal that all other attempts to reduce carbon emissions through demand reduction, renewables and so on are a waste of time, with carbon capture and storage being the only solution.  It is an essential companion piece to read alongside this article.  

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Comments

Robert Alcock's picture

What about plants?

It seems to me that there are already a lot of specialists in Carbon Capture and Storage around who have been doing the job for millions of years, for free, and providing a huge amount of fringe benefits into the bargain.

They're called plants.

What I don't understand is, why, in all the debate about climate change, hardly anybody seems to be pointing out that what "we" (not sure who this "we" is really, but I assume it refers to the whole human race) aren't doing what's obvious and vitally necessary: reforesting all the degraded lands of the Earth.

Of course it's not the whole solution, but it must be a big chunk of it. Yet you almost never hear reforestation mentioned when people talk about responses to climate change. It's always energy technology, sequestration, carbon trading... basically, tinkering about with machines. I suspect the reason is that there are too many engineers and too few ecologists working on the problem.

 

Pauline Schneider 1's picture

Denial isn't just a river in Egypt

 

I think it's great that Romm pointed out that publishing in a climate denial rag like the Daily Mail is ludicrous if one is a serious scientist.   I thought I was having some kind of senior moment reading the Climate Change quiz after Allen's piece.  It was phrased exactly like a Republican survey we get here in the US; "Are you concerned that everyone will have health care on the cheap?"  

 I'm not sure that Allen or Romm realize the real crisis we are in.  There is really no solution. We are damned if we do and damned if we don't. Solar and wind take fossil fuels to create, and old Earth minerals. Any ideas of renewable energy is going to be a dismal failure when faced with that reality. 
The ONLY thing that could stem the temp rise is to stop doing everything right now. 
Just shut the whole thing down.  Stop mining, stop burning, stop producing, stop waging wars, but keep flying (planes actually create airosols that reflect light back into space and are therefore beneficial), stop driving, etc....  
Of course that would mean the end of civilization as we know it.  But we seemed to do fine without civilization before, and four great civilizations sprouted up without the help of fossil fuels (for those who really like being lorded over and want to sustain this sick arrangement of stratified power). 
 The critical thing now is to across the board shut down all nuclear reactors as soon as possible. 
I was at a panel in NYC with the former NRC regulatory chief, with  Arnie Gunderson, with Ralph Nader and the former PM of Japan. I asked them how long it would take to decomission a nuclear power plant and they consulted briefly and concluded that on average it could take 60 years.  If the power company has the money...
If not... Well, then it could take forever.... Or until the plant has a melt down.... At which point the citizens pay for it since the plants are uninsurable. 
Gunderson's comment about 40 years and one bad day at a nuclear plant is enough to know that these time bombs are a terrible idea.  

Jim Hansen seems to be terrified enough by climate change that he's willing to embrace the nuclear monster.
I think that in itself is the most telling thing about how screwed we really are by climate change....  

Pierre-Louis Lemercier's picture

Growth and untested "solutions"

"I don’t think there’s any incompatibility between a growing economy and addressing the problem of climate change". In that case, why nothing has happened and things are getting worse every day after 20  years of talks, meetings and deliberations ?

I believe that it is quite unrealistic to trust that a system which only cares for its short term profit and growth would imagine on its  own to invest and deal with climate change that requires a degrowth ??

Increadible to believe that as CC requires we decrease our overall consumption while the system depends on its ever increase.

I do not understand the logic in this sentence: How one could state so strongly that "the only route forward to talking climate change was carbon capture and storage" and continue saying "but it’s still an experimental technology".

Being so, this technology could therefore worsen the issue and therefore many other solutions would be much better, isn't it ?

Hence that is playing with fire. We first refuse to recognise that our level of consumption is unsustainable and therefore it is THE issue. We then imagine an untested technology that will allow to pursue our unsustainable growth. We then hope for the best like a fairy tale ???

We don't really need such "environmentalist" who just throw powder in our eyes.

Indeed "We need to recognise that we’re not going to solve the problem of climate change until we solve it at source, until the fossil fuel industry essentially is required to take responsibility for the waste products of the products themselves" therefore why refusing the carbon tax which would force the change and promoting a loop hole through carbone capture and storage that would permit more CO2 production? Here too I do not see the logic.

Why TC, which I thaught tries to prmote a consumption decrease and carbon descent does not question such "expert who promote growth and untested technologies that would permit the latter.

I would like to know why ??

Regards PL

 

 


Rob Hopkins's picture

Why we spoke to Myles

Hi Pierre-Louis,

Thanks for your comments.  You ask "Why TC, which I thought tries to promote a consumption decrease and carbon descent does not question such "expert who promote growth and untested technologies that would permit the latter".

It's a good question.  The first reason we talked to Myles was firstly because he is one of the foremost scientists doing work in terms of the recent flooding the UK experienced and whether or not they are connected to climate change, which is topical and interesting.  

The second reason is that I feel it is important to hear from people whose views we might not necessarily agree with.  I don't want this blog to always be a platform just for people we agree with 100%, I think we learn more by hearing from a range of voices.  

We might have a sense that climate scientists are all alike, but as this piece shows, that's not the case.  While I personally don't agree with his views on Carbon Capture and Storage, it felt, given the profile the Daily Mail piece achieved, useful to hear his perspective.  It also felt important, for balance, to give a link to Joe Romm's rebuttal of it.  At the end of this week we will be hearing from Sir David King, the UK government's climate change ambassador, who works within government circles.  It's a fascinating interview, and again, although we may not agree with everything he says, it is very useful and insightful to hear from where he sits in these debates.  In selecting people to speak to on this blog, my aim is to try and inspire, provoke, generate discussion and to put what we do in a wider context.  I hope that we can continue to do that, and that people will continue to find that useful.  

Thanks. 

Rob Hopkins's picture

Why we spoke to Myles

Hi Pierre-Louis,

Thanks for your comments.  You ask "Why TC, which I thought tries to promote a consumption decrease and carbon descent does not question such "expert who promote growth and untested technologies that would permit the latter".

It's a good question.  The first reason we talked to Myles was firstly because he is one of the foremost scientists doing work in terms of the recent flooding the UK experienced and whether or not they are connected to climate change, which is topical and interesting.  

The second reason is that I feel it is important to hear from people whose views we might not necessarily agree with.  I don't want this blog to always be a platform just for people we agree with 100%, I think we learn more by hearing from a range of voices.  

We might have a sense that climate scientists are all alike, but as this piece shows, that's not the case.  While I personally don't agree with his views on Carbon Capture and Storage, it felt, given the profile the Daily Mail piece achieved, useful to hear his perspective.  It also felt important, for balance, to give a link to Joe Romm's rebuttal of it.  At the end of this week we will be hearing from Sir David King, the UK government's climate change ambassador, who works within government circles.  It's a fascinating interview, and again, although we may not agree with everything he says, it is very useful and insightful to hear from where he sits in these debates.  In selecting people to speak to on this blog, my aim is to try and inspire, provoke, generate discussion and to put what we do in a wider context.  I hope that we can continue to do that, and that people will continue to find that useful.  

Thanks. 

Philip.Barnes's picture

Science, Technology, and Climate Policy

Professor Allen is asked what his views are on "doing something about [climate change] or just documenting the process and gathering the science."  His response is that he's "pretty conservative on this one. I think it is our job to do the science as you described."  He then goes well beyond "do[ing] the science" and advocates for a clear climate change policy, namely carbon capture and storage.  I'm confused.  Is he a pure scientist, as he claims, or is he a scientist-activist?  Own it, Professor Allen!!

I disagree with Professor Allen that we should pursue carbon capture and storage.  First of all, there is very little about the technology that is socially just.    It is a tail-pipe techno-fix solution that does not address the root cause of the problem which is the extreme fossil-fueled lifestyles we enjoy.  I do agree that the less developed nations must pursue growth and that will require energy and resources, but a more equitable distribution of those resources is the appropriate climate change policy.  Carbon capture and storage preserves and perpetuates the currently inequitable distribution and if you believe a sustainable society (whatever that means) must also be a socially just one, then carbon capture should not be a serious option.

Second, we can't possibly predict the unintended consequences of carbon capture and storage.  In Donald Rumsfield speak, there are bound to be many "known unknowns" with the technology.  And once it is in place and operational, there's no way to undo what we've done once the "known unknowns" arise, as they inevitably will.  It'll be locked in to our society, economy, and politics.  E.F. Schumacher and Lewis Mumford would not approve!

James Young's picture

Who.is.he?

I don't know why, on the Transition website, it's necessary to interview or debate a person such as Prof. Allen, whom I would classify as Climate Change Denialist, Version 2.0.

In this new version of the Denialist, they openly accept that climate change exists and that it is manmade, because at this point to deny it, one would appear insane. What version 2.0 does now is attack the certainty around the severity of effects. Or whether existing evidence (like 100-year floods and 100-year droughts occurring regularly) is really tied to climate change.

You can see this deception unfold when he says:

"we're still a long way from seeing... weather events that simply wouldn't have happened without climate change."

It's a clever conceit because, of course, the bar should never be set at the unrealistic height of 'weather events that we have never seen before', although that would undeniably be pretty conclusive. We don't need 100% undeniable proof it has already happened. It would be too late. What we need is an early warning.

What the bar should be set at, and what we should be looking for first is extreme weather events that previously didn't happen very often, happening much more often. Like the mentioned UK extreme floods happening in 2000 and now in 2014.

We should be looking at the frequency, severity, and unusualness of weather events; not finally waiting for events that never happened before because by then it will be too late.

These denialist positions are spoken very neatly by Prof Allen. Neat, like his hair style, which I mistrust; way too 'styled' to be a legitimate intellectual. Everythings well put toghether. He appears more into the PR end of things. I think he cares more about the effect of hair crèmes than the effects of climate change. That picture with Will.i.am confirms it.

It would seem he needs to appear cleancut and presentable to boost his legitimacy. I say this half jokingly because most college professors I've known were frumpy. Some closer to being 'mistaken for janitor' rather than 'Will.i.am's confidant'. Presumably because their legitimacy came from their intellect not their wardrobe. Perhaps I'm being shallow, but I'm sure Prof Allen plays well to the crowd who doesn't appreciate the science behind climate change.

Prof Allen's key point for his position against renewable energy is:

"We might use [fossil fuel] slower if we are successful in improving our energy efficiency and so forth, but the key point is that it really doesn't make any difference using carbon slower if you still burn it all in the end."

Doesn't matter if we use it slower? Really? So if we use it 99.99% slower, buying us centuries of time to investigate and adapt to the problem, perhaps even find a sustainable solution, that doesn't make a difference? Hmmm. Sounds more like prep-college flunky rather than seasoned academic speaking.

It's kind of like saying there's no difference between driving your car until the engine runs the gas out vs. lighting the whole tank off in one large explosion; both (potentially) can get you to the same destination, so rate of fuel burn doesn't matter.

Personally I think the rate you use energy, specifically fossil fuel energy, makes a big difference in our ability to find a solution, even a crazy carbon capture type solution. Time is all we have after all, and burning slower buys us time, but I don't have quite the head of hair as Prof Allen to back that up.