The Parallel Universes of Climate Change. Where do you live?


Some days my head hurts, as I shift between what feels like two parallel universes in the climate change debate. First I have these conversations with world-class scientists who calmly lay out the scientific view of the various risks posed by climate change and their relative scale and likelihoods. They tell me the science says it is almost certain the impacts will be serious and destabilising for our society and our economy. The science also describes a lower level of risk – which they find hard to quantify but generally say between 10% and 50% – that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic, perhaps even civilisation threatening. This could include widespread famine, war and economic collapse. Not certain, but a reasonable possibility.

It is very clear when you listen to these scientists and read their peer-reviewed reports that, on any calm and rational analysis, we should be preparing for a carbon reduction war. Yes, a war – with all that implies about focus, effort and sacrifice. The threat posed is, after all, a “clear and present danger” and the response should be strong, global and immediate. This should be a ‘whatever it takes’ moment.

Then I shift into the parallel universe.

I spend time in corporate boardrooms and listen to the analysis of business executives who explain how we mustn’t damage the economy by “over-reacting”. They explain their concern about protecting jobs and economic growth, how we must not jeopardise “our” (insert India, China, South Africa, USA, Australia etc) national competitiveness by acting “early” because, after all, without a global solution what difference will our actions make anyway? When I engage with policy makers, even those supportive of climate action, I get only a marginally stronger response.

Of course, each of these arguments has its narrow appeal. There’s always a bit of truth and rationality, and that’s why people use them. But the collective consequence of these arguments is the real story here – the story that historians will tell. We have had the risk thoroughly analysed and explained to us and we are choosing, with endlessly shifting reasons for prevarication and delay, not to act commensurate to the level of risk.

I wonder what it was like in the lead up to WWII, the last time we had a serious and clear global threat. When Hitler invaded Poland, did Winston Churchill order an economic modelling exercise to understand the implications of spending over a quarter of GDP on the war effort? When Pearl Harbour was bombed, did US industry argue we shouldn’t over-react, that America shouldn’t respond until there was a global agreement to act so as to avoid a disproportionate share of the cost?

No, fortunately for us, that wasn’t their response. In fact, just four days after Pearl Harbour was bombed, the auto industry was ordered to cease all civilian production in order to focus on the war effort. Such actions soon spread across the economy. I imagine US political leaders thoughts were something like this: “Well damn the objectors, this is a threat to our freedom and to our way of life. In fact, this is such a profound threat we will throw everything we have at it and make it work, even though we don’t know whether we will succeed nor the costs of trying.”

They would have said: “We will have to do this because if we don’t, our children will curse our lack of courage and our selfishness. If we act we may fail. But if we don’t act, we won’t be able to live with ourselves for not trying.”

In our present day to day lives, when the weather is a bit warmer than normal but often rather pleasant, and our economy is showing signs of improving, it is hard for most of us to think like this. The business leaders I talk to about this topic are not bad people. Nor are the policy makers grappling with the complexities of transforming an economy and the uncertainty of the outcomes. They are normal people with children and friends – they go to church, they volunteer in their communities and they care about the world. (OK, there are a few exceptions, but not many!)

But they still fall for the easy way out, the path of denial and avoidance. Not because they’re bad people, but because they’re not thinking clearly and courageously.

My message on this topic is clear and direct. We are at a crucial moment in human history. 2009 is to climate change what 1939 was to WWII. Poland has been invaded – the Arctic is melting, the bushfires are burning, the droughts are strengthening and the floods are sweeping away communities. There is only one question you have to ask yourself: “what will I tell my children?”

So now, imagine yourself in 2030. The world is teetering on the edge of geopolitical and economic chaos (this is not a certainty, but it is certainly a reasonable risk). You are talking to your children (add 20 years to their current age) and explaining what it was like in 2009 – what the scientific consensus was and how you personally responded, then and there, when the reality became clear. What did you do in 2009 and why?

In 2030, the parallel universes will have closed and there will only be one left. It will be called reality and you and your children will be living in it. Imagine the conversation. Do it now, then decide what to do.

“They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent…Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences …We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now…”

Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

25 thoughts on “The Parallel Universes of Climate Change. Where do you live?

  1. Anna Rose

    Great post Paul. The parrellel universes of science vs politics/ business are the most frustrating and crazy thing… I feel your pain!

  2. It is so much easier when you’re in the mainstream and you run with the ‘wisdom of the day’ the same thing can be said about the massive subsidies provided to the Australian house prices – no one wants a crash so let’s stop it (State subsidies, Federal Rebates, ATO tax breaks) . You do not want to recognise the ‘Truth’, of course that also assumes one persons Truth is another’s.
    And in your boardroom meetings you attend Paul I assume they are they are all mainstream, for profit and bonuses; they live in the corporation not the Global Warming Crisis world. Corporations live for the corporation. Until ‘they’ have an opportunity to add value to their business/corporation (and I am not talking about green washing) in the form of bottom line they will not ‘really’ be interested.
    Same idea with Climate Change… in that mainstream/corporations do not see it as ‘real’ yet so why worry let someone else work on green solutions then we will copy them – if we really need to. We don’t need to invest in it as it is not real yet, just a bit warmer and who cares about frogs living in the mountains of South America becoming extinct 25 years ago? It is not real so don’t worry.
    Until, we have a full scale Global Warming Crisis invasion in ‘my backyard’ the mainstream will worry about their BBQ’s, House Prices, Green Bags and Job Security. Not the fact that the weather is and has changed until Melbourne and Sydney are unliveable and house prices are junk in those respective cities, but not in our lifetimes right!
    I only live in the mainstream and I have seen this on the inside (Corporations) I get home and do my best to be greener, but I too suffer from the cult of the mainstream. I do not want Global Warming and I want my children to grow up in a cleaner greener world. But there is one problem and it is this.
    Exponential Growth.
    Corporations love growth, it means bigger better and profits.
    The world has too many people on it at about 9 billion already. I believe we are looking at another 5 Billion in 10-15 years!?
    Exponential Growth: Too many humans, too many emissions, not enough food, water…
    But classical economists demand we need more growth, consume more, spend more, develop more… but we do not have the room for it. We either have growth and GWC or we have a purported de-leveraging C02 GFC as we move to ‘alternative fuels. I think we have no choice but to find alternative fuels, foods and water conservation.
    So whilst Global Warming is an ever present and real danger, I believe the latent danger is that the exponential growth of human kind is the real issue. I lose hope when I think about this as your article clearly demonstrates we live in ‘Parallel Universes’ every day.
    We avoid what is real and tangible because it is easier to sit on the couch watch some crap TV and worry about the big little things in life like “BBQ’s, House Prices, Green Bags and Job Security” and how to make more money.

    Keep up the good work Paul we need you, and excuse my cartharcism I am losing hope in the world lasting. But all good things must come to an end. Nothing is forever, even carbon based life forms.

  3. Sylvia

    If we could hold our children and let them cry their hearts out when they are hurt, instead of saying “There, there, be a big boy/girl now, stop your crying,” if we could be happy with ourselves as old and wrinkled and grey instead of trying to be young and gorgeous forever, then we’d be closer to facing the truth in many aspects of our lives, instead of hiding from it or ameliorating it with science, pharmacy and denial.

    The other side of the parallel universe of denial that I heard about this week is this one. A young Austrian friend of my sister’s is on a student exchange program in the USA. His host family don’t prepare meals and they don’t keep leftovers. When you want to eat, you take a plastic plate and cutlery, go to the fridge, fill the plate with pre-prepared food from a deli, eat what you want and throw all leftovers and plastic plate and cutlery in the bin – sorry, the trash! When they want a hot meal they go out to a restaurant.

    Where do we start?!!

  4. Well done Paul!
    It is us and it is now (was this sentence from you?). The 1939 and 2009 parallel is powerful.
    We organize a “picnic sans carbone” (google it to find our site) in Bordeaux 4 october. we think this can be a bold event. Our message is we have to cut our CO2 emissions NOW (factor 4 for France).
    Thank you for sending a supporting mail for this, and for spreading the word.
    Thank you also for any suggestion.

  5. Jeremy Burke

    Agree, but we live in very different times than 1939.

    Somehow we have let ‘corporate capitalism’ dictate the majority of decisions taken by both Business and Government.

    If we entered a ‘War effort’ can you imagine the legal backlash from impacted companies that had to divert effort, and potentially lost profits? Would the Government have to pay compensation? Under what powers would the Government make the demands?

    I don’t know the answers but given the corporate environment we live in someone will be looking to make a profit!

  6. Paul, I note the irony that you say we are in a 1939 moment, whereas the Churchill quote you end with is from 1936. Is it already too late for mass extinctions? Probably – we should have converted to clean energy 40 years ago. But that is no reason to give up. Thank you so much for this post about living in the parallel universe. It does more than make my head hurt. It is soul crushing, to know with certainty that we are digging our own graves with every molecule of toxic gas we throw into the atmosphere, whereas most people are oblivious to the inevitable looming price we will pay. It is a comfort to know I am not completely alone in my universe.

  7. Wow! You inspire me almost every time I read one of these missives Paul – and, not just an intellectual inspiration, but in my gut, physically – DO SOMETHING my being is screaming.

    Its so curious that before America’s involvement in WWII the mind set was almost the way it is now. A sector of the population wanted to “do the right thing” but new it would be “unpopular” (read: not getting re-elected – even then!). Politicians used this and the majority in Congress against Roosevelt forcing him to wait, and wait and wait until the call to action was irrelevant. America had to do something, and by European standards too late. American veterans of WWII have shared how pissed off the English in particular were when we did not join into help earlier, and siad as much. I cannot blame them.

    In these paradoxical times, the US stands at the brink of what some consider the most moral of acts – making healthcare universal/affordable to all in the country, and we debate the merits, costs, models and “what-ifs” of that. The conversation – because that is still what it is – around Climate continues to be hi-jacked in the US by the same system – politicians, business, thought leaders and those with reputations at risk – looking for exactly the data and proof you mention above – “Now, show me how this is going to work?”

    What if we do the wrong thing? What if? The ambivalence around not doing is going to kill us sooner than later. At least we can make a move away from the next war and toward the unknown. Check out a conversation and meeting in Europe that explores the relationship between dialogue, leadership and community in light of these new paths we need for new direction and action – I invite you to join us via skype for what promises to be some really fun ideas about how these three things connect, relate and provide insight into the “doing”. Keep at it Paul – you are FAB! Chris

  8. Richard Denniss

    well put Paul, and great use of a great quote. resolved to be irresolute…kind of sums up the political as well as business view. You dont hear the language any more, but really we are still stuck in ‘no regrets’ policy. Lets do the fun stuff, the visible stuff and maybe the stuff that will create some jobs – but dont touch the hard stuff. imagine how silly we would feel in 2030 if we did the hard stuff and steve fielding was right. sigh

  9. Klem

    This is idiotic. No one has established that humans are responsible for the current changes in climate (I say current because there have been at least 10 climate changes over the last 20,000 years since the last glacial period). There is speculation and plenty of gut feeelings but no one has been able to show conclusivley that CO2 controls the climate. So stop blaming yourselves and worrying about the future of your children and whether we can have a no carbon picnic. Sheesh! This is one creepy blog.

  10. Rockfish

    Douglas Adams imagined a wonderful device: The S.E.P. field.

    It could be deployed to make anything seem to be Somebody Else’s Problem, and thereby invisible.

  11. Catalina Bosch

    I’m delving into this subject more deeply for the first time as part of my marketing research to find a solar solution for water heaters both residential and commercial applications to be a part of the Grid Problem Conundrum solution. It is both overwhelming and interesting to get a reality check, in that reality is not what appears to be, and making assumptions can be very dangerous indeed. Pursuing your line of thinking on “What will I tell my children?”, I find that Indeed in my reality my wholehearted intent is to be part of the solution, as a housewife, mother of three and a dog, I question myself everyday about my carbon footprint and how I can in small ways make a difference. And perhaps that is the answer, not to take on the whole of the problem, but instead to divide it into bite size pieces so that you, and I, my neighbour and everyone in our planet can effect change by the way we eat, cultivate, transport, bathe, dispose of so called “trash”, I propose that the reality is in the details of every moment of every day and the small decisions from brushing your teeth and leaving the fawcett open to bathing and leaving the water on till it warms up enough to shower. Beyond this scenario is up to entrepreneurs, large corporations and the government to devise policies that make sense and begin this shift. The sad thing is that even government doesn’t see the urgency as you point out . The resignation of Van Jones the “green jobs” czar points inevitably to government apathy despite the nay sayers that claim racism is the culprit. Let’s call it like it is, let’s start assigning ourselves responsibility in small ways as individuals and large ways collectively, we do share this universe with billions of people, plants and animals. I propose that we care one minute out of a day, one person, one plant, one animal, one body of water at a time. My hope is to be able to tell my children, I made a difference, I am always working on making a difference, you too can make a difference.

  12. As I read your thoughtful post, I started to wonder what the proverbial frog (or in this case “a corporation of frogs”) thinks as it is being boiled alive. For clearly that is what we face.

  13. Paul

    Great post. Its turned up in blogs in NZ.

    I am an environment lawyer with 2 kids, third on the way. I argue about environmental risk every day and the bizarre dual reality is evident.

    “You are talking to your children (add 20 years to their current age) and explaining what it was like in 2009 – what the scientific consensus was and how you personally responded, then and there, when the reality became clear. What did you do in 2009 and why?”

    I have asked myself exactly the same question.

    My answer:

    Its the right level of cut in personal emissions, painless financially, painless morally (easier than deciding whether or not to use the car for deliveirng kids to school), and you have to explain yourself to friends and colleagues.

    Tom Bennion

  14. Louise

    The denial and excuses must end!

    It is so frustrating being an citizen of a world full of people who, as you point out in your great war effort analogy, can do anything if they just put their minds to it. People, as individuals or collectively, have achieved incredible things in every sphere: travel to the outer reaches of the solar system; the irradication of countless diseases; art, architecture and music crossing all cultural and linguistic barriers to inspire and approach something divine.

    What is going to jolt us into getting together and saving our own mother, earth?

    Is it true that we have the technology now to save her, and it is only mutual procastination preventing us from actually doing it?

    I do my little bit to minimise my carbon footprint, but I know it is a drop in the ocean when I hear that a new coal-fired power station goes online in China every week.


  15. “We are still stuck in ‘no regrets’ policy. Lets do the fun stuff, the visible stuff and maybe the stuff that will create some jobs – but dont touch the hard stuff.”

    That’s a great summary of the policy zeitgeist, Richard.

  16. Thanks Paul. It’s a useful analogy, though the reality was of course far more complicated. First, things did not start on September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland. Western Europe tried to appease the Nazis years before in order to avoid war–which only emboldened them–while the Soviets and Germans made a secret pact to split up Eastern Europe.

    Churchill didn’t need to order any economic studies when Poland was invaded because Great Britain had already begun its military build up months before. And sure, the ability of the US to turn over its manufacturing on a dime to the war effort in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor is an amazing thing to consider. But Roosevelt was planning and laying the ground work for war long before.

    I’d love to believe that Obama and other world leaders have been planning behind the scenes, but when the government opts to give away trillions of dollars to the financial sector and bail out the auto industry rather than put that money to use in building a green jobs workforce, I don’t see that as a sign of anyone “getting it,” at all.

    2009 may be like 1939. But the US didn’t get formally get involved until the end of 1941. And it wasn’t until we were attacked that Roosevelt had the political cover to directly engage. In the interim, Congress had passed laws forbidding the government from “taking sides” by providing any financial aid to the Allies. And that’s what we have with ACES–an attempt at appeasement, this time for entrenched corporate interests, for which we will be sorely judged by future generations.

    This challenge is far bigger than WWII, both logistically and politically. By the time people feel “attacked” by global warming, it’ll be too late to avoid it. Unlike the auto plants of the US in 1941 and 1942, the atmosphere cannot turn on a dime no matter what we do.


  17. Within a few years the debate is not going to be “do something, or do nothing?”. It is going to be “emissions reduction, or geoengineering?”. It is possible to have both. But it is reasonable to ask whether emissions reduction alone is in any way at all enough (especially if you’re a 350-ist); and once you consider geoengineering, it is reasonable to ask whether anything else matters.

    To be informed on the topic of geoengineering, the very first step is to differentiate, as Britain’s Royal Society did in its recent report, between “carbon dioxide removal” and “solar radiation management”. Carbon dioxide removal is the real solution, it’s the endgame. It’s what trees do, it’s what rocks do (but too slowly), it removes the real problem – the excess CO2. “Solar radiation management” refers to everything else, and even the best options here, like cooling aerosols in the stratosphere, are just temporary offsets that do nothing about ocean acidification.

    I am fairly certain that if the human race decided to drain the excess CO2 from the atmosphere at high speed, we could do it, any time we chose to do so. The quantities are vast; the amount of excess CO2 that’s up there now, in solid form, adds up to something like a small continental mountain range. But there are also huge holes in the Earth, the places where we dug up all this stuff to begin with. If we can’t find any more efficient and economical way to do it, we can put it back where it came from, in neutralized form. (I am particularly thinking of ‘mineral carbonation’, whereby CO2 is induced to interact with minerals and form solid carbonate compounds.)

    To be honest, I think this will all be over by 2030 anyway, because we are going to have advanced nanotechnology by then. And that is going to make the situation completely different. Draining CO2 from the atmosphere will be cheap and easy, but that will also be the least of our troubles. But even if you don’t posit the near-future existence of advanced molecular technologies (even though we are palpably heading in that direction), it is clear that we can start building large CO2-draining and -sequestering infrastructures any time we choose, on any scale we choose. And this ought to be part of the thinking of people who are trying to see the paths open to us.


    Corporate entities not only control our economy but are given the legal status of a person, but when their irresponsibility is seriously challenged the entity can declare itself invisible. Here’s a Churchillian call to action that I’ve held onto:
    Eyeweekly, Toronto, June 8, 2006 Editorial
    “Our finest hour. The PM wants to back out of Kyoto — we suggest a different approach”
    My fellow Canadians:
    I address you tonight to confront a grave danger to our civilization. I have asked the leaders of the opposition parties to join me, for the crisis we face is beyond politics, beyond ideology.
    It is global warming.
    There can be no mistake about the severity of the threat: already, the polar ice caps are melting at an exponentially increasing rate; the number of severe hurricanes has doubled in recent decades; glaciers are disappearing before our very eyes; droughts and forest fires are spreading; animal species are vanishing — I am determined that humanity not be among them.
    The enemy we face in global warming presents a danger unrivalled by the darkest depths of human tyranny, almost unimaginable in scale. If we do not act, our grandchildren will burn; their children will drown. The great cities of the world will be submerged in the oceans or swallowed by the earth. Our civilization will be crushed. The price of inaction is certain death.
    But, my fellow citizens, there is hope. We have not chosen this fight, but fight we must, and fight we will. I say to every Canadian, and to everyone who does business in Canada: your nation and your planet call you to serve. Victory in this battle will require the toil and tears and sweat of every woman, every man, every child in the country. Every agency of the government, every large corporation and small business, every church and school and social club must devote itself to the fight.
    This will require sacrifice. Some will see their prosperity threatened as we move dramatically to sever our dependence on oil. There is no honour without sacrifice: those who have grown rich in the service of our enemy must now join in our defence against it. We can tolerate no treasonous disloyalty in the name of greed. We say to all captains of industry: you are either with us or you are against us.
    And we will need to marshal the resources of our brightest minds in the service of our mission. For a time, attention must be diverted from other necessary projects as we embark on an entire rebuilding of our infrastructure. Massive investment will be required, and also massive effort.
    Even the common householder — even the smallest child — has a role to play. A vital role. We must examine every detail of our lives in battling this emerging evil. No action is so small that it does not help, no level of neglect so small that it does not contribute to our defeat.
    Nothing in our national history will have been more difficult or more expensive. And yet nothing has been more necessary.

  19. Simon Gunson

    Klem you are right about this being a creepy blog. It’s hysterical pseudo science as well. In 2007, I became curious about claims that flying was the great carbon emission evil. I took a typical domestic flight in my country New Zealand over 260 nautical miles and calculated the carbon which this flight would emit, then compared it with what if every passenger paired with another to hire a car. The same journey by that many people would have emitted 23 times more carbon, or 43 times more carbon if they each drove a car. For a train journey over the same distance the carbon emission was 15 times greater than by jet. Trains are only efficient hauling bulk freight, not passengers. The net result of forcing everyone to stop flying would result in a forty fold increase in emissions. These high priests of psuedo science seem incapable of applying common sense or reason.

    The answer is not emotional over reaction. I for one do not accept that carbon emission is causal to climate change, but even if that were so, Market forces already are pushing society to use hybrids and alternate energy sources.

    Even Al Gore himself said you only have to reduce emissions by 7%. Grounding the world’s airlines destroys commerce and it is commerce which is driving the uptake of new technologies. If the cure is going to kill the patient then count me out.

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