New Internationalist

Degrees of delusion

Issue 419

Scientists are warning that two degrees of warming could be catastrophic. Yang Ailun from China and David Spratt from Australia explore why world politicians are setting their thresholds so much higher.

David Spratt: I think the sad truth is that Western governments’ view of the climate is largely delusional. They don’t understand the evidence. And in many cases they don’t understand that they don’t understand. Many climate scientists say that at 2oC, we’ll actually go over the dangerous tipping points. If, as many policy-makers are suggesting, we allow warming to 4o, we won’t recognize our planet: no rainforests, no ice sheets, most species dead. Scientist James Lovelock says once you get to 4o you’ll go up to 6o or 7o because you’ll lose the algae in the upper layer of the ocean which draws down carbon. The only parts of this planet that will be habitable for humans will be south of Melbourne and north of London.

Yang Ailun: In China there isn’t really a debate about whether the threshold should be 2o, 3o or 4o. The Government openly questions whether 2o should be the objective. It says that Chinese scientists haven’t looked into this scenario enough to say whether it is the right target. But the deeper reason is that if the world accepts the 2o objective, it means a very dramatic change to the way that we live. I think that the Government is concerned about limiting its economic growth.

David Spratt: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last year said it could be reasonably expected that the ice-sheet on the Himalayas would be gone by the middle of this century. This will have devastating impacts on China, given that half the population live in the two main valleys that depend on glacial melt for water, particularly in the dry season. Is that understood and being talked about?

Our political process can’t get to grips with solving fundamental problems anymore. It’s about getting to the next election, the next news cycle

Yang Ailun: Yes. Greenpeace China has led three expeditions to the Himalayan region in the last two years. We were really shocked by what we saw. We took a picture with us that was taken 30 years ago: the ice there was simply gone. When we showed this to the Chinese people, they were really concerned. We have seen a very dramatic change in climate over the last two years. So across the country there’s a lot of talk now about environmental protection. For the last 20 years it’s very much been about economic development and growth. Government officials at different levels are the ones benefiting from our current development model. It’s a struggle to break this tie. But in order to stay in power, it’s in the interests of the Government to see that environmental damage is not just something that’s nice to talk about: it’s really threatening local development and, in some areas, starting to create social instability.

David Spratt: In English-speaking countries there’s an absolute belief in the unfettered role of the market, so politicians don’t get the right bureaucratic advice. We even have environment groups who say: ‘We will not suggest anything on climate unless we have an economic argument in our favour.’ So rather than the state going out and doing what is necessary [to fight climate change], there’s a fetish with carbon trading.

In addition, our political process can’t get to grips with solving fundamental problems anymore. It’s about getting to the next election, the next news cycle. If there’s a deep-seated problem, it’s about solving 10 per cent of it, putting it off or blaming the Opposition. We’ve seen it in the (UK) Stern Report and the (Australian) Garnaut Report where both said: ‘Here’s the science. It’s really severe. Here’s what we should do but that’s too economically difficult, so let’s do something that’s really weak and won’t work.’ And that contradiction is accepted. It’s as if these people have had a lobotomy.

Yang Ailun: That whole pragmatism about economic development you’ve just described – the Chinese Government is exactly like that. But added to this is the fear China might not get an equitable deal. So there is the feeling that first of all China needs to develop its capacity to protect its own people – striking the best balance between development and climate protection for China itself. But this is a very selfish point of view.

David Spratt: I suspect in the cases of China and India, those Governments are saying: ‘If we develop really quickly and build those coal-fired power stations now, we can pull our people out of poverty before the carbon issue gets really, really serious.’ So it’s an attempt to jump on the train while it’s still at the station.

Yang Ailun: The Chinese Government has actually introduced some very progressive policies. It has announced that by the year 2020, it wants 15 per cent of energy from renewables. But China depends way too much on coal – 70 per cent. There’s a huge demand for energy, and the newly installed capacity of coal-fired plants is scary. These things are going to emit CO2 for the next 30 years.

David Spratt: A trial run is not an option. This is like war. You’ve got to do enough at once to win or you’re dead. And that is not understood sufficiently. With life and death problems, not being honest with people is in itself a death sentence. We need an honest public conversation. If we had one, that would be the first sign that we’re on the right track.

This is an edited version of an interview that NI co-editor Chris Richards recorded with David Spratt, co-author of the book Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action, and Yang Ailun, Climate and Energy Campaign Manager from Greenpeace China. Hear their fascinating and much fuller discussion in the Cool Change series of interviews at

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This article was originally published in issue 419

New Internationalist Magazine issue 419
Issue 419

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