Saturday, July 27, 2019

Don't kill climate deadlines

Sou | 1:14 AM Go to the first of 29 comments. Add a comment
I'm taking some time out from my time out to write about deadlines. Oddly, very oddly IMO, there are objections to deadlines coming from a number of quarters. Deadlines are essential for us to combat climate change. It should be obvious and it seems silly to have to argue the point. But it seems I do.

We are on a collision course with nature, a collision course of our own making. We need to change course. We've started, but we've not done nearly enough yet to prevent major damage. We need to do more and we need to keep planning how and set timelines and targets, otherwise known as deadlines. Then we have to carry out those plans.

We've missed opportunities and are suffering the consequences, with places running out of water, suffering unprecedented heat waves, drought and floods. That's with just over 1 C of warming. Urgent action is needed to avoid much greater harm.

Want to stay below 1.5 C? Then we'll need to cut emissions by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. Willing to accept an overshoot or let the world get a bit hotter? Then adjust those numbers accordingly and prepare to pay even more for disaster recovery and adaptation.

However much climate change we get will, to a great extent, be a decision by governments and ultimately a decision by all of us. Even no decision is a decision. That is, if we give up, that's a decision in favour of suffering, famine, war, disease and social chaos. We'll have decided to let the world as we know it disappear much sooner rather than eons later.

The anti-deadline crowd - aka climate action delayers

There was a recent very silly article in Nature Climate Change, which which I absolutely disagree. The authors, one of whom I've had a run in with before, are arguing against deadlines for reducing climate emissions. They put up multiple objections, which could be applied to any deadline for anything. Here are some analogies to the objections they've raised.

You don't like the deadline your supervisor has set for submitting your PhD paper? Tell her there's a risk you'll overshoot the deadline and, to avoid that, you'll steal someone else's work so the deadline will do more harm than good.

Your bank tells you you've got to pay your mortgage each month and you'll have to repay the entire loan within 20 years? Tell them you don't believe in deadlines because there's a risk you'll be so concerned about paying your mortgage that you'll end up robbing a bank to meet the payments.

Your fiance wants to set the date for your wedding. Tell him deadlines aren't something you believe in. You refuse to set a date because doing so alienates you and you'll decide you don't want to get married after all.

How pathetic. Makes you wonder how they manage their lives, doesn't it.

The authors finish up by implying the IPCC shouldn't have accepted the invitation from the UNFCCC to write a report about staying below 1.5 C. The IPCC shouldn't have asked scientists to work out the timeline for reducing emissions to achieve that goal the world is aiming for. In fact, these ratbags claim that by doing science, the IPCC is demonstrating it's not politically neutral.

What utter rot!

ATTP has written more about that delayer's paper, and has included some background information on the authors.

We need to meet multiple deadlines. It's called planning.

These delayers aren't the only people who object to deadlines. There was a recent article at the BBC, written by Matt McGrath, which drew criticism from some surprising quarters. This time the criticism didn't just come from deniers and delayers, it came from people who should understand the urgency of the task ahead. Matt McGrath wrote:
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C this century, emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be cut by 45% by 2030.

But today, observers recognise that the decisive, political steps to enable the cuts in carbon to take place will have to happen before the end of next year....

...As countries usually scope out their plans over five and 10 year timeframes, if the 45% carbon cut target by 2030 is to be met then the plans really need to be on the table by the end of 2020.
That's right. Political steps will need to be taken before the end of 2020 if there's any chance of staying below 1.5 C (though I doubt that can be achieved). As Matt McGrath explains, that's because of the timetable of the UNFCCC and the length of the emission reduction plans put forward by governments.

Whether the world decides to try for reducing emissions by 45% by 2030, or zero by 2050, or whether they set a softer target hoping to keep the temperature rise to 2 C or 3 C rather than 4 C or 6 C or higher, it will need planning. Planning takes time, and it's just the first stage. After that plans must be carried out. That also takes time.

 If you don't set any deadlines you most definitely won't meet them

Some people have expressed the view that by setting deadlines we risk not meeting them. I say, so what? If you don't set any deadlines you most definitely won't meet them.

How many times have you not met a deadline but still completed the task, even if a bit late? How often has this happened when you didn't have a deadline to meet? Or, to put it another way, how many times have you failed to achieve something because there was no imperative to do so?

Think about this:
  • If you haven't set a deadline you've not fully defined the goal. We could get to net zero emissions by 2050, or we could have no deadline and get there when fossil fuel runs out or when the world is too chaotic to burn any.
  • Complaining timelines are meaningless is not only totally wrongheaded, it favours delayers and deniers, not action.
  • Rather than get caught up in worrying about how to explain the world not ending if a deadline is missed, worry about what happens if the world doesn't bother to make plans to reduce emissions.
  • Don't let governments get away with avoiding their responsibilities - insist on plans and deadlines. We should do whatever we can to help nations reduce emissions and work out how to get there and commit to it (which is all largely outside the purview of science).
  • Science has for decades been pointing to the need to cut emissions and cut them sooner rather than later. This won't be achieved by wringing of hands or vague pleas to "do it now or do it soon", it will only happen if action is taken. That takes planning. Random unplanned actions would be worse than useless.
I know there are people who are scared of deadlines because they worry scientists will be attacked if the world doesn't end if a deadline is missed. That is, they want to avoid arguing logical fallacies, the bread and butter of climate science deniers. I say it's better to put up with attacks on science from the usual quarters if the world doesn't end than be attacked for letting it happen. In any case, if deadlines aren't met it's on nations and governments, not scientists. No-one can complain scientists haven't warned us.

Shorter deadlines are better

Research shows that setting more immediate deadlines is better than setting deadlines a long time ahead. If the deadline is too far away it is likely people will think it's harder to achieve, will take more resources than it really does, and people are also likely to procrastinate.

My career involved a lot of planning work, so I'm all for deadlines. I'm also in favour of setting milestones along the way, each of which can be regarded as a deadline. If there's a slip up somewhere, then provided you've a plan you can always reset and keep heading toward the ultimate goal, step by step.

Planning takes more than a deadline

Maybe a problem is that the people who object to deadlines don't have any conception of what has to go into reducing emissions, from a whole of government perspective. It takes a heck of a lot more than writing a number on a piece of paper with a future date. It takes complex analysis, planning, coordination, setting targets/timelines/milestones and getting all government agencies on board (an extremely difficult task). I challenge anyone to map out a detailed path to reducing emissions without including any timelines.

If you approve just one more coal mine will it be all that bad? What will be the effect of changing regulations to allow more wind farms this year vs in five years time? What about incentives for electric vehicles, or does the government just let market forces ride? When electric vehicles take over, where will the road maintenance budget come from in 3 years, five years, ten or twenty years? And that doesn't even touch the surface of mitigation. On top of all that, governments also have to plan and budget for adaptation and disaster recovery. None of these things happen by magic.

I get impatient with people who say it's all too hard, or people who only want to put up barriers to achieving anything. I'd much rather see people help work out how to do the impossible than bleat and moan that the possible can't be done, and worse.

References and further reading

Zhu, Meng, Rajesh Bagchi, and Stefan J. Hock. "The mere deadline effect: Why more time might sabotage goal pursuit." Journal of Consumer Research 45, no. 5 (2018): 1068-1084. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucy030

Asayama, Shin, Rob Bellamy, Oliver Geden, Warren Pearce, and Michael Hulme. "Why setting a climate deadline is dangerous." (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0543-4

It’s dangerous! - ATTP, July 2019

Climate change: 12 years to save the planet? Make that 18 months - article by Matt McGrath, BBC, July 19

Global Warming of 1.5 ºC - IPCC Special Report


  1. I'm only repeating myself these days, but this is probably a good place to leave this brief anecdote. Almost exactly two years ago I attended a seminar given by Eelco Rohling about the progression of warming caused by fossil fuels. He made many, many points that should curdle the blood of any thinking person, but the one that stuck with me the most was his comment that given the trajectory at the time, the locked in warming, and the current policies and lack thereof, there was (then) at least 1.7 C locked in. Given the political backsliding since then in a number of Anglophone countries I'm sure that figure is now a forlorn minimum, even though there is a positive amount of work from the technological sector that could start to assist, over previous expectations, in mitigation.

    1.7 is the absolute in-practice minimum. Biologically and ecologically this is a disaster, and the climatological consequences are no less serious - the almost constant repetitions these days of drought, wildfire, and extreme storm and other weather events are still just the planet clearing its throat for a future gothic opera. I expect that one day I will lose all that I have to fire. When I look at the projections for my part of the planet, and objectively look at the environment in which I live, it's an inescapable conclusion. I was only one brisk wind away from experiencing it this year...

    But it's worse for future generations. We're probably going to sail past 2 C will little effort, and by then the geopolitical strife that is attendant will really start to bite as well. Heck, I read today that even BHP is putting out urgent warnings of the need to act:


    But we've already missed too many deadlines. I've spoken to three completely separate oceanographers now in the last 12 months, literally in the corridors of work, and each has expressed their private concerns that we're locked into the sort of smack-down that, by 2030, will result in consequences that will shock the world into belated serious action. But it'll be too late then to prevent the extinction crisis to which the biosphere is already committed, and it's already to late to prevent hundreds of thousands and even millions of premature deaths from climate change sequelæ. And whether a concerted response finally kicking off in another 5 or ten years will have any hope of achieving anything substantial... well, the feeling seems to be that one should probably also write a letter to Santa...

    We started missing deadlines 20, 30 years ago. We started missing serious deadlines ten years ago around the time that Tony Abbott's Liberal/National Party Coalition in Australia took it into their heads to use anti-science propaganda for political ends, and to Hell with the death of the planet as a result. They're still doing it, although they these days they pretend that they don't. Indeed, it seems that in Australia's conservative body politic at least, there is indeed an appetite for bringing on Armageddon...

    Well, they're going to get their wish, but there'll be no reward in any sky-fairy palaces for any of them, and if humanity isn't going to spent the end of its existence in a real life hell-on-Earth it has to face the fact today that the deadline for no longer passing deadlines has passed...

    1. Agree with everything you've written, BJ. What is more concerning is that the opposition party in Australia is no better than the government. It is not opposing coal mining, though there are signs that'll fail sooner rather than later (hopefully).

      It seems to me there are very few, if any, people in politics who really understand the gravity of the situation.

  2. Thanks for the new post Sou, great job.

    I think it's pretty clear (and has been for quite some time) that humanity has been hogtied to indifference and corruption, by the very people that are tasked with leadership.

    This has a major trickle-down effect when existential threats like climate change exist. What "we" want, need, or even can do, isn't in parity with what "they" want or do.

    There is a huge churning chasm between the two and in that voracious mouth, all of our good will seems to vaporize.

    Here is America, it's almost taboo now to speak of climate change, extinction, or the future of humanity in honest terms. Doesn't matter what real-world effects are being experienced or measured in some distant land. Science has been muzzled by the corruption mentioned above. Media goes along with it for the most part.

    America has zero chance of a "plan" by 2020. Whoever actually runs against the current Idiot in Office will NOT be able to run on any kind of climate change / mitigation platform of any significance. Radical right wing governments are on the rise again elsewhere in the world too, with the same slash and burn agenda found here. Looking to politics for change? Don't count on it.

    Nothing much is going to change now, except what I've always said, it's just going to get worse and worse. It's literally baked in - in our institutions, our political processes and in the climate record.

    I very much wish it could be different, but there's no impetus to avoid our own extinction. Hard to believe, I know, but it's true. The people are going to go along with what the political rulers demand.

    However, I'm not a defeatist, despite how it sounds. A realist perhaps. If we mean to fight, it cannot be the same way as we've always done, because it's clearly not going to work (and hasn't).

    That is the message that needs to be adopted, by science, by policy makers, by industry leaders and by citizens the world over. We are all in the fight of our lives and it's time we acted like it, and lived it, otherwise there will be no tomorrows for our grandchildren. ~Survival Acres~

    1. Thanks, and I agree. Let's not give up. Whatever progress we can achieve will be better than none at all. It's all hands on deck.

      I hope there are enough young people who will act. Going by elections around the world, not enough of them are awake to the problems so far.

  3. Semi-slightly related to my commentary:


    Propaganda has replaced common sense, science, facts. Fiction becomes the new reality in millions of minds, including the Idiot in Chief. But it's like this all over the world...

    Climate science still hasn't done a good enough job at countering the propaganda and disinformation. For some reason, they haven't realized just how serious this fight really is. If they have - they sure don't act like it.

    They, like most of the world, still "believe" that by following the current (failed) methodology of producing "science" for policy makers, that they will eventually come around to the realization that fundamental changes must be made.

    However, it's clear that this hasn't worked - and isn't going to work, but so far, they've shown little impetus to change their approach, which is too bad, because they're the real experts in the subject.

    This is the chasm where all is being lost, and it keeps happening, year after year, making any "deadlines" or scheduling or planning moot. Neither science nor the people have any leverage to change this.

    But they could have if they really wanted it through exposure (expose the wrong doers and muzzling internally and externally), boycott (quit working en masse) and organization (globally) and by stop helping to spread the lies (dishonesty) about our "chances".

    It isn't optimism that we need now - it's pessimism, the fifth man who doesn't care about process, procedure, decorum or rules. That can no longer helps us, but alarmism can.

    We all know that their publications are severely watered down to pass the internal and external censorship. What we need is brutally honest voices in unison to speak up (step outside the scientific method and speak to what is going to happen without varnishing the truth).

    This is but one avenue from the science community that would elevate the global interest and awareness. There are many, many more.

    1. There are scientists who have for years been trying to get people to wake up to what's happening. It's really up to the rest of us to pick up the slack, IMO. We need more journos to translate what the scientists find and public figures to hear and act. (I just looked through the latest IPCC report and it's not an easy read.)

      Maybe the answer is in personalities, who will grab the attention of the world. (I'm still not used to personalities leading the charge, but it seems to be the way of things these days. The risk is they'll burn out, while scientists keep plodding along doing their work.)

  4. I am sorry to try your patience, but recent political events have convinced me that a sufficiently large part of humanity are so utterly brain dead there is zero chance of us avoiding the collapse of our civilisation that destroying the environment we depend on guarantees.

    1. You could be right, Andy. I don't think human nature has changed much over the last few centuries. It just means all those who aren't brain dead will have to carry the rest, as usual :(

  5. Replies
    1. Yes, an awful lot of harm has been caused because the world has not met deadlines, because we keep shifting them, because emissions are still increasing, because we're not moving fast enough.

      Eric, it's obvious you get your kicks from death and destruction. For years now, you've devoted your waking hours to trying to cause more of it.

      Only sadists and ghouls are amused when they learn about lives lost in disastrous floods, killer heat waves, raging fires, farmland damaged by floods and drought, lives destroyed and species extinguished. It wouldn't surprise me if you put a notch on the wall every time you count another 1000 lives have been destroyed.

    2. No, my sympathies are with people whose lives are blighted by climate policy, such as the poor people who rioted in 2008 when hastily scaled back biofuel subsidies caused widespread starvation.

      The Guardian: Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis.

      Perhaps this kind of disastrous policy response is what Mike Hulme was thinking about, when he suggested deadline-ism leads to "rashly declared" climate emergencies and politically
      dangerous consequences.

    3. No, you can't get out of it that easily, Eric.

      It's obvious you don't care about the damage climate change is doing. Even now, you're trying to shift attention to avoid solving the problem, pointing at squirrels while you continue to laugh at devastation.

      In your writing over the years, you have constantly treated climate change and the harm it is causing as a joke at best, and something you've been doing your best to worsen.

      Don't pretend you "care" about people. You don't. Your every waking hour is bent on causing people harm.

    4. Here's another thought for deniers and climate disinformers to ponder.

      There will be more attempts by governments that will be regarded by some people as political mis-steps. If enough action had been taken before now, the shift to modernise the economy to be climate-friendly would not need to be as seemingly radical. The more time goes by without sufficient action, the more extreme the solutions will need to be.

      The blame for this can be laid fairly and squarely on the people who want climate change to wreck the world - the disinformers, deniers and delayers.

      Will the Eric's of the world ever feel any remorse or shame for the damage they've already caused and continue to work for? Probably not. I doubt most of them have a moral bone in their body. They have no conscience. No ability to feel shame. They only take delight in destruction and chaos, not in helping solve humanity's problems.

    5. The link Eric gave us doesn't say the riots were caused by "hastily scaled back biofuel subsidies". It says that starvation was caused by use of food as biofuel.

    6. Expecting a committed propagandist to accurately report an event in full context is silly.

      Simple propaganda 101.

    7. The full conversation goes something like this:

      Politicians: We need to do something about climate change.
      Greens: We need to get people out of their cars.
      Motor Lobby: We can burn food for fuel.
      Greens: No there are all manner of advantages to society if we reduce car use.
      Motor Lobby: We think you are wonderful: have some money for 'party funds'.
      Politicians: Yes, you are right, lets burn food for fuel.

      ... people starve...

      Eric Worral: Bloody greens!

    8. Very good, Andy :)

      However, you may find the push came more from the farm sector than the vehicle manufacturers.

      In Australia, there was a push from sugar cane growers for government support for ethanol to prop up their industry when sugar prices were low. (It's not just produced from cane waste here, but that's been part of it.)

      I don't know that the transport sector cared much one way or the other. They did have to adapt vehicles to be able to use ethanol.

    9. Yes, a more accurate summary has the farming lobby saying burn food, while the motor lobby said burn diesel (and kill people with air pollution). And Eric blames the green lobby for both.

    10. But we do all agree the current biofuel policies are at best a complete waste of time, and at worst, destructive to the environment and to humanity, right?

    11. Oh yes: the difference is that we want what's best for humanity, the climate change denial lobby want what's best for the fossil fuel industry.

  6. I'm skeptical about targets which are 20 or 30 years away. It's like me saying, I promise I will be thin in 2025. How we laughed. Instead I think we need to have annual targets. For example, to achieve a 45% cut by 2030, we need to cut emissions by 5.5% per annum, compounded, i.e., by 5.5% each year on the previous year.

    If we continued to cut emissions by 5.5% per annum compound, by 2050 we would have cut emissions to 18% of current levels.

    In other words, to achieve those long term targets we need to commit to short-term ones. Unless we cut emissions by 5% a year, we're not going to make it.

    Can we cut emissions by 5% a year? Yes, if we want to. If we target 100% renewable electricity by 2030, that will cut 3% per year. If we switch heating from gas to electricity over the next 15 years, that will reduce emissions by 1.5% per annum. And making every car have an electric motor will cut emissions by 1% per annum, accelerating as the global car fleet is replaced. When I say, making every car have an electric motor, it doesn't necessarily mean a pure electric car. A serial hybrid such as the Nissan Note, which has a small range-extender petrol engine, while an electric motor drives the wheels, gets an extraordinary 80 mpg, while being cheap to buy because it's battery is small.

    Once generation, heating and transport have been sorted, that will leave air and sea transport, cement and iron & steel production, and largest of all, agriculture. Those will be harder, but we can start with electricity generation, where in 2009, solar's LCOE was 3 times as expensive as coal, but is now 1/3rd the cost. We must target a 100% green grid (or as near as dammit) by 2030. Everywhere, including rapidly growing developing countries.

    1. Calculating LCOE uses two key variables:

      1. All-in cost for the system. Include financing costs and deduct any incentives received, such as tax credits and deprecation.
      2. The amount of power the solar array will produce over the period.

      But, it does not take into account the cost of the backup power needed for non-productive periods, nor the upward pressure on the cost of that backup power as the takeup of solar increases.

      Nor does it take into account the massive upgrades of the distribution grids required as disseminated solar generation increases.

      Solar power may be good, it may be useful, it may be many things, but in the long term, it ain't gonna lower your power bill, or slow the rate at which that bill is increasing.

  7. This is how to approach it, NPT, isn't it. Break the big job down into smaller pieces and keep chipping away.

    1. This is the ONLY way to approach it. ANything longer than an annual target is too easily pushed into the future, which is exactly how we've got to where we are since I became actively interested in cliamte policy back in the early 1990s.

      The clock is ticking. Every day that we don't act is a lash of the whip in a death by a thousand cuts.

  8. Sou I agree with you completely. Deadlines are an aid to planning. The fact that some have decided to criticize them for spurious reasons is astounding.

  9. July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded history.
    Just sayin'.


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