Whilst some commentators have argued for the two degree limit as a benign symbolic representation of climate change, intended to facilitate the communication of complex science to the public and policy makers (Jaeger and Jaeger, 2010), this paper addresses discussion of the limit on the understanding that the manipulation of symbols is a means by which powerful actors seek to take control of shared understanding of risk. This manipulation of symbols is a key technique of social control; if the public accepts a particular definition of a problem then they will generally consent to the actions the powerful wish to take (Bronstein, 1984: 219). From this perspective the idea of a two degree limit serves an ideological and hegemonic function. Ideologically, rather than reflecting objective properties of the physical world, the ‘meaningless precision’ of clearly defined safety limits (Funcowitz and Ravetz, 1994: 93) constructs climate change in terms ‘continuous with the scientific perspective of quantitatively dominating the physical world’ (Ross, 1991: 208). This creates a hegemony, under which we do not seek to take control of the responses to climate change, because powerful actors have shaped viable responses as essentially technocratic (global measuring and monitoring of emission levels in parts per million, mitigation efforts dependent on large scale industrial infrastructure such as offshore wind farms and nuclear power stations) needing a governance structure that only global institutions can manage.


The Guardian recently reported that targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are ‘crucial to create the certainty needed for investors to back technologies such as sun, wind and tide; the current target is credited with spurring a huge rise in renewable generation’.

A strong argument, and who could deny that we are witnessing a rash of solar panels and wind farms spread rapidly across our landscapes?

But what is the quote above, and the article really saying, and what is the context?

1.       Targets are demanded by investors, ie the owners of capital. Thus, targets are essential for ‘solving’ climate change within the paradigm of neo-liberal economics. Targets are the language of neo-liberal economics. Neo-liberal systems cannot reproduce themselves without targets. To abandon targets would require a non-capitalist way of thinking about and responding to climate change. (Okay, state capitalist societies use targets, the old USSR, and China, but that is another debate).

2.       So to talk about climate change in the language of targets is an attempt to tame the beast, so it does not attack the capitalist hand that is feeding it.

3.       This attempted defence of targets is being mounted by The Guardian because in fact policy makers are watering down the targets for financing renewables. In other words, to frame the debate in terms of targets provides a very flexible framework for policy makers. The targets can be abandoned whenever they get inconvenient. If policy makers defined their response in terms of a clear set of values, it would be very difficult to change course. ‘Oh, we believed in a more equal and safer world yesterday, but today we changed our mind, because it would cost the richest 1% too much’.

4.       And in fact those targets are not working, as in the UK carbon emissions continue to rise despite the adoption of emission reduction targets 7 years ago at Kyoto in 2005

So someone please remind me again – why do we need targets?

People keep mistaking me for a climate sceptic.

Funny things happen when you question the idea of a single dangerous limit to climate change. Most people, and I am talking about people who worry deeply about climate change, people who campaign on climate change issues, academics, researchers, you name it, they instantly get the hump when I question the validity of building policy around the idea of a two degree dangerous limit.

For example, I commented on an article urging scientists to get better at communicating uncertainty http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2012/06/mark-maslin-on-communicating-uncertainty-ahead-of-ar5#comment-557384018 lamenting the fact that many people believe the two degree limit is a scientific fact. I received a rapid reply slapping me down for not accepting the seriousness of climate change and consequently advocating doing nothing. Apparently it is people like me who are stalling policy makers from taking the appropriate action.

I explained that it was the advocates of the two degree limit who didn’t take the problem seriously enough, that these advocates want to continue warming the world to levels more than double the warming currently experienced, a level of warming which has already sent weather patterns into chaotic, random and mad spasms.

I went on to point out that it is the advocates of the two degree dangerous limit who are stalling, by claiming that dangerous climate change is not here yet, thus legitimating the neo-liberal agenda of business as usual, and the utopian fantasy of some technological wizardry that it is going to make the horrible climate change monster go away without the rich having to surrender even one crumb of their wealth and power.

Needless to say, when I explained these points the respondent recognised he had been overly hasty in his response, and recognised the legitimacy of my position. But this wasn’t the first time my attempts to highlight the fallacy of the two degree limit has met with such impassioned reactions.

And that goes to show just how ingrained the two degree dangerous limit has become with ‘progressive’ climate policy and campaigning. To worry about climate change is to want to warm the world by two degrees, to the very edge of what the two degree advocates claim is dangerous climate change, and which I argue is way beyond dangerous.

That is no accident, it is a deliberate act of power designed to forestall immediate and massive political and social change. And the vast majority of academics, NGOs and ‘progressives’ have fallen for it, hook line and sinker.

No one asked me.

Nor you.

You probably weren’t even waiting to be asked.  

Asked what?

A question of immense historical importance.

Knowing what we know about climate change, how should we choose to live?

You weren’t asked. I wasn’t asked. No one was asked.

Odd really, given the enormity of the issue. Odder still, when we are supposedly free citizens of a democratic society.

No, we weren’t asked. We were told.

We were told by the same people who told us Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. We were told by the same people who promised us we had entered a new financial age of eternal milk and honey.

We were told:

You want to live in a world two degrees hotter than it has been for the last 10,000 years.

All the climate policies, all the carbon footprinting, all the windfarms? All designed to keep warming the world. Yes, to keep warming the world.

And then, when we have got enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere we will, as though the world is just one big oven, stop any more warming. Just turn the warming off.

Why two degrees?  Apparently climate change won’t become dangerous until after this point. Safe at 1.99 degrees. Safe at 2 degrees. Dangerous at 2.0001 degrees.

Convenient. A nice even round number. That makes things easier.

It’s also very convenient that it’s not a lower number. Two degrees. That might give us enough time to make some magic machines which will allow life to carry on as normal and get rid of all that nasty climate change stuff.

How do we know that this is the dangerous limit?

Because the scientists have worked it out. At least that is what the politicians, journalists and environmental campaigners tell us.  

Here’s a typical example, taken from a Guardian editorial shared with 56 other newspapers in Europe.

‘The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C’


It’s a lie. It is not a scientific fact.

Deciding to warm the world by an average of two degrees is an opinion. There is no ‘two degree dangerous limit’ for everyone. The world, people, ecosystems are all too complex, too varied, to be reduced to such a simple measure.

If the science tells us anything it is this.

Two degrees is too much. The world’s coral reefs bleach into extinction at 1 degree. The weather is already going haywire http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/03/22/448839/march-madness-unprecedented-event-modern-us-weather-records-began/

And we are only at 0.8 degrees of warming.

Climate policy has been dominated by the myth of a single dangerous limit. To no avail. The rate of emissions continues to set new records. We couldn’t be warming faster if we tried.

The single dangerous limit idea is an oppressive lie, that has emanated from the powerful institutions of the West. It must be resisted.

A new way of talking and thinking about climate change is long overdue.

I will set out some options for this new way of thinking on this blog.

It’s gonna be a long, complex and difficult path. 

Targets are the lingua franca of policy making. Education, health care, social care, economic performance; these are just some of the areas of public life subject to the logic of targets. It was therefore inevitable that as soon as climate change came to the attention of policy makers it would be defined as a phenomenon which could be controlled by a target based approach.  This belief has informed all discussion of climate change, from whatever quarter - government, scientists, business or campaigners. But what if they were all wrong? What if there are some issues that simply cannot be made to fit into the targets box? What if it isn't simply that the chosen targets are wrong, but that the very idea of thinking about climate change in the form of targets is wrong?

Prominent climate scientists and politicians I have spoken to, all very worried about the impacts of climate change, have described the targets as 'meaningless' and a 'deceipt'. Read on to find out more about why it is time to abandon the language of limits.

Targets promote an erroneous sense of control over the climate
The language of targets assumes there are certain impacts we want to avoid and that these impacts can be traced with particular amounts of warming. At x amount of warming these things will happen. However the models used to make these assumptions have been too conservative and are too abstract, can only deal with large scale average changes. They did not predict the 2003 European heatwave or the exceptionally cold winter of 2009-2010. The relationships between weather and warming are simply not as neat and tidy as the models suggest. This is not the fault of science, but the expectation of policymakers that the science can provide usable predictions.

There is little agreement on the relationship between the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere and the consequent changes that will arise. The hope is that a certain increase in the amount of GHG can be related to a certain increase in temperature which in turn can be related to a certain series of impacts. From such assumptions arises the belief that an atmospheric concentration of GHGs of 400 parts per million (ppm) will lead to two degrees of warming, which is a dangerous limit. Such simplistic assumptions are naive and misplaced.

Who decides on the targets?The most important target concerns how much warming we will all have to live with. Do you remeber getting the chance to vote on this? Policy leaders in Europe and elsewhere have decided that there is a dangerous limit to warming and that limit is two degrees of warming above the pre-industrial average. Others have argued 1 degree is the dangerous limit, whilst the Association of Small island States alongside other developing nations have sought to argue for 1.5 degrees of warming as the upper limit. These controversies show that there is little science behind the targets discourse, and that essentially deciding what is dangerous is a value based decision. Different people live in different circumstances and have different values and vulnerabilities to danger. How is it then possible to imagine one single dangerous limit for all the people of the world? 


Dangerous limits, parts per million, annual emission cuts, percentage increase in proportion of energy from renewables, fuel efficiency; these are just some of the forms the language of targets takes in the climate change debate. This is what is called an instrumentalist approach. It assumes climate change is a technical problem, like all the other problems we face, and that it can be solved by accurate measurement and the correct technologies. 
Describing climate change as a technical problem pushes questions of politics and values to one side. This is a mistake because climate change is an issue which  forces us to ask - how do we want to live? See here for a fuller description of the problem with targets.

What should replace the language of targets? A positive language which highlights the benefits that will accrue from moving towards a more equal, less competitive and less acquisitive way of living. The work of the Equality Trust provides ample evidence that more equal societies are happier societies, healthier societies. Current Western ways of life are economically bankrupt. People have ceased getting happier since the 1970's. Communities are breaking down, families are torn apart by the need to work long hours, politically the world is becoming increasingly unstable.  We have all the marvels of technology at our fingertips, and yet 'have we ever felt so impoverished and isolated? (Zerzan, 2002). Has the future ever seemed so precarious? Has the reason for optimism ever been so difficult to locate?

Now is the time to be brave, to imagine how our world could be better, how we might truly live in a way that honours our ancestors and offers hope and joy to the generations yet to come. Let us not ask how much of the modern world we can keep, and still avoid catastrophe. Let us ask how little we need to keep in order to be happy, and build a life worth living, that will be a testament to those who are to follow us.

This report from the BBC reveals the ongoing futility of attempting to agree on cuts needed for avoiding more than two degrees of warming

Gulfs remain after UN climate change talks in Bonn

Friday, 11 June 2010 20:59 UK

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News.

UN climate talks have ended, with delegates speaking of an improved mood but with major gulfs remaining between various blocs.

A last-minute spat between Russia and Japan and the G77 bloc of developing countries showed the differing goals in play at the talks in Bonn.

But six months after the fractured Copenhagen summit, some were relieved that the process remained alive.

Many delegates played down prospects of a new UN deal by the end of this year.

The last day saw publication of a new document covering many of the most contentious issues, which may eventually form the basis of a negotiating text going forward to the next UN climate summit, to be held in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year.

"Fifty-fifty is what I'd give this last week," said Grenada's delegation chief, Dessima Williams, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).
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Even as the BP oil disaster continued... some oil-exporting countries were so desperate to protect the oil industry that they blocked efforts to expand studies of the climate change problem

Annie Petsonk International counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund

"We really revived a spirit here of wanting to work, of rebuilding confidence and trust," she told BBC News.

"But the [new] text did not accommodate sufficient views, and is very imbalanced in favour of developed countries."

Many other developing country delegates agreed; while on the other side of the coin, the US said some elements were "unnacceptable".

Yvo de Boer, the outgoing executive secretary of the UN climate convention (UNFCCC), made one last plea to Western nations to raise their game.

"The fact remains that industrial country pledges fall well short of the 25-40% range [from 1990 levels by 2020] that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said gives a 50% chance to keep the global temperature rise below 2C," he said.

"It's essential that current pledges grow over the next few years, otherwise the 2C world will be in danger, and the door to a 1.5C world will be slammed shut."
Public disagreement

The meeting was prolonged many hours by a dispute concerning a proposed workshop to examine further emission cuts under the Kyoto Protocol, which involves all developed countries except the US.
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Russia, with Japanese support, argued that the workshop should cover emission cuts by all countries.

What might appear a minor issue became a major sticking-point, with developing countries insisting that the rich countries had a historical duty to review and increase their emission pledges.

Such issues have dogged the UN climate process for years, and led Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Commission's chief negotiator, to ruminate on what might transpire in Cancun.

"The worst case is we would not see an outcome, we would not be able to conclude on the many items we are discussing," he said.

"What the chances are of this is hard to say, but there many be things that are pointing not to convergence [between blocs] but to divergence.

"We heard demands for example that 6% of our GDP should be transferred from rich countries to poor - these are extreme demands and... we only have two weeks negotiating time left before we meet in Cancun."

On Wednesday, there was an unusually public disagreement between developing countries over whether to commission a technical review of options for meeting the AOSIS-favoured target of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5C - a move that the Gulf states blocked.

"The discouraging news is that even as the BP oil disaster continued to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, some oil-exporting countries - including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar - were so desperate to protect the oil industry that they blocked efforts to expand studies of the climate change problem," said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Mystery surrounded a subsequent incident in which Saudi Arabia's nameplate was apparently broken and placed inside a toilet bowl.

The Saudis demanded an investigation, a request to which the UNFCCC agreed, with delegations of all flavours condemning a serious breach of diplomatic etiquette.

But who was behind it remains unclear; and photos that are heavily rumoured to exist were kept under wraps.

The UN process reconvenes in August for a week-long meeting in Bonn; there is likely then to be another preparatory meeting in China in October before eyes turn to the Cancun summit.


Well, so I got the site live today, feeling pleased with myself. Went down into the kitchen, put the radio on, and there was a programme on Radio 4 about a new report, The Hartwell Paper. And what does the paper argue - that instead of focussing on trying agree targets through international institutions and conferences, we should instead focus on easy, quick and popular fixes and adaptation. Sponsored by a range of different industries, and chaired by a member of Lawson's sceptic think tank, the essence is for business as usual, with much reference to reducing the 'carbon-intensity' of our industrial economy.

After much anguish, I realise that actually these ideas can be included as part of the 'what do we replace targets with?' discussion this project is all about. What is needed is to develop responses to this paper.