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Climate Change: Invoking Uncertainty Can Be Perilous

David Hone's picture
Chief Climate Change Adviser Shell International Ltd.

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member of the International Emissions Trading Association...

  • Member since 2018
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  • May 17, 2017

The past weeks have seen something of a storm of protest directed at Bret Stephens of the New York Times, following the publication of his first column for that newspaper which happened to be on climate change. In the article Stephens does note ‘By now I can almost hear the heads exploding’ and that is exactly what happened.

While he could have easily avoided some of the petty criticism by not using words such as ‘modest’ to describe the extent of warming over the last century, his somewhat clumsy venture into the world of probability and uncertainty led many commentators to accuse him of climate denial – in fact they labelled him with the very names that he was cautioning were part of the problem with regards public disinterest in the climate issue itself. Stephens had noted;

Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating sceptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

While I don’t subscribe to the way in which Stephens put together his story, he was nevertheless correct in his assertion that ‘much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities’. This issue is also a problem when it comes to discussing mitigation strategies.

While it is very clear that the Paris Agreement sets a goal of ‘well below 2°C’ and also challenges society to attempt to limit warming to 1.5°C, the current reality is that the world is not on track for this outcome and none of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) submitted to date are aligned with the ambition that emerged from Paris. Yet there is almost no possibility of discussing the implications of such an outcome for fear in the minds of many that the discussion could become a slippery slope to reduced ambition. So there is a return to the language that Stephens encountered.

In my forthcoming book, Putting the Genie Back: Solving the Climate and Energy Dilemma, I do actually explore this issue. The discussion emerges from the world of climate probability and uncertainty, which is at the heart of the work of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. Unfortunately, the use of a 2°C reference point has now become politically rigid, to the extent that it is hardly possible to explore what the number really means, let alone talk of surpassing it. The most common argument is that if 2°C is passed then society must be on a certain pathway to catastrophe. Talk of catastrophe and hopelessness can distance an audience, exactly the point that Stephens is making. Even the IEA 450 Scenario is based on probability; the mitigation pathway it delivers gives a 50% chance of limiting warming to 2°C; it is far from a guarantee of 2°C success.

By contrast, MIT have demonstrated that even a modest attempt to mitigate emissions could profoundly affect the risk profile for equilibrium surface temperature. They looked at five mitigation scenarios (see below), from a ‘do nothing’ approach to a very stringent climate regime (Level 1, akin to a 2ºC case). In the ‘do nothing’ approach, mid-range warming by the end of the century is some 5ºC compared to the late 20th century, but with a wide distribution, which means that there is a small probability of warming up to 8ºC or more – almost certainly a catastrophic outcome even when accounting for the small probability that it might occur. But even modest mitigation efforts, while not shifting the mid-range sufficiently for an outcome close to 2ºC, nevertheless radically changes the shape of the distribution curve such that the spread narrows considerably, with the highest impact outcome dropping by almost 5ºC. As mitigation effort increases and the mid-range approaches 2ºC, the distribution narrows further such that the highest possible outcome is limited to 3ºC (more like the IEA 450 case).

Climate Risk
This is not an argument for limiting the global effort to modest mitigation, but recognition that if modest mitigation is the best that can ultimately be achieved, the risk reduction it delivers has very high value to society. It also highlights that a singular focus on a very difficult-to-achieve goal can be counter-productive if it results in a breakdown of the efforts that deliver a less ambitious outcome. Some thought along these lines may be required as the current US Administration ponders the Paris Agreement.

Perhaps a more pragmatic discussion about effort and outcomes would also garner more interest from a broader swathe of society and offer renewed interest in climate change for the 64% of Americans who Stephens notes do not care ‘a great deal‘ about the subject.

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Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on May 17, 2017

David, do you an idea what sort of CO2 per capita emission limitations are required to achieve level 4? With global population of 9 billion?

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on May 18, 2017

Considering that one of the most famous climate scientists, James Hansen from NASA, states 43 deaths by Chernobyl, etc.,*)

Just to to show falsely that nuclear has a lower death footprint than other methods of electricity generation, his climate predictions are very dubious to say the least.

*) UN nuclear promotion organization IAEA stated, after it organized a Chernobyl forum conference in 2006 to end the stalemate with new nuclear, 4K death.
Then came with impossible to estimate with any accuracy…
And now (via 8K) states a careful estimate of roughly 16K deaths due to cancers alone, so total death >20K (as ~30% get other fatal diseases, just as with smoking).

The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences publicized a more accurate estimation, based on an elaborate review study by 3 leading radiation professors from the concerned countries. They considered thousands of published papers and concluded: 825K deaths before 2006.
That implies more than a million deaths due to the long latency before health damage shows, just as with smoking, asbestos, etc.

Note that the Chernobyl forum restricted itself to only a few hundred papers who served its goal, and excluded all not directly involved people.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 18, 2017

Bas, Hansen is a scientist with over 100 international honors to his credit. You’re not.

Scientists work in an evidence-based realm, you work in an imagination-based one. The two aren’t compatible – just ask Galileo.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 18, 2017

David, though “much that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities”, Stephens is guilty by omission: everything that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. Once that fundamental truth is accepted, we can begin the more tedious pursuit of establishing what those probabilities are, and assess their relative importance to our global well-being.

If we must. I’m afraid a more pragmatic discussion about effort and outcomes would quickly put Royal Dutch Shell out of business and you out of a job, given the complicity of your products in permanently altering the earth’s climate. A pragmatic discussion would discuss ways of generating energy which don’t involve extracting ancient carbon at all – so we can expect only more fanciful, unrealistic ideas from Shell, with the company’s more immediate priorities as their drivers.

At least, there’s an extremely high probability of it.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on May 18, 2017

That’s scary as it implies that he is chasing honors, trying to make a big name. Which implies he will manipulate facts (as with Chernobyl) if it can bring him more honors.

Furthermore that he may have/had, with his evidence manipulations (as regarding Chernobyl), big influence on ideas around the climate…

Which make climate warming statements rather dubious.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on May 18, 2017

Shell is expanding in wind. Last year won a 750MW offshore wind farm.

They were in the nineties also active in solar panels, but apparently made the wrong choices. French oil-giant Total did better. They own Sunpower, one of the outstanding solar panel producers in the world.

Randy Dutton's picture
Randy Dutton on May 18, 2017

David, your article omits any negative global warming effects of environmental policy such as: growing food for fuel, which dramatically increases N2O emittions (296X worse than CO2) from fertilizer used to grow plants on marginal land; the increased net drawdown of aquifers that end up increasing atmospheric water vapor (the most significant GW gas); the CO2 increase from placing wind turbines and their ~40 tons of concrete per base (~80 tons of CO2); the damage / destruction of many of America’s $1,5 trillion open-cycle engines caused by ethanol (per the OPEI report); the 2007 Congressional barring of National Forest biomass for biomass burning, which ultimately increases CH4 emissions from forest rot. Sometimes ‘doing nothing’ is better than implementing ‘bad policies’.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 18, 2017

Bas, your attempt to spin five decades of honors as an extended ego trip might qualify you for a job as Secretary of Alt-Reality in Trump’s White House.

Like promoting renewables, it’s a frustrating position without much of a future.

David Hone's picture
David Hone on May 18, 2017

Even Level 4 requires a return to net-zero emissions, but the time frame in which to do it is considerably longer. At level 1 you need to get to NZE well before the end of this century, but Level 3-4 probably allows another 40+ years in which to achieve it. So by the end of this century you are probably somewhere around 15 GT CO2 and declining for NZE in the 2130s. In a world of 10 billion in 2100, that’s about 1.5 tonnes per capita. But that takes you way past the current goal of the Paris Agreement, although it does at least change the risk profile somewhat. That may well be a pathway that is achieved anyway by letting the energy technology trends just play out, although there is considerable risk of a very long tail of modest emissions as coal use continues in certain places around the world.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on May 19, 2017

Well, it seems to me that Trump can learn from James Hansen; lying about death numbers with a factor ~25,000!

It’s like stating that US traffic causes only one or two death/year.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 20, 2017

Ah, Bas is repeating the numbers from the un-peer reviewed, un-vetted translations of Russian papers that the NYAS now regrets ever having published and will never reprint.

It’s almost like Bas is helping the Russians sell expensive natural gas to Germany in lieu of cheap uranium.  Nuclear fear-mongering is good for Gazprom; it probably only took them a few hundred thousand rubles to get a return of literally billions.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on May 20, 2017

A single number to describe global warming invites misunderstanding the impact.If the global average is 2C, that will be around 3C for the Northern Hemisphere, and 1C for the southern. If you further divided the globe, you’d find around 6C in the Arctic. And that is certainly going to change weather patterns in some densely populated and developed regions which have a big investment in infrastructure no longer suited to climate.

John Oneill's picture
John Oneill on May 21, 2017

‘..wind turbines and their ~40 tons of concrete per base..’
According to this article, this 5 MW offshore wind turbine has a 2,200 tonne concrete base.
Another estimate I saw for a smaller on-shore turbine was about 50 truckloads, over 500 tons, of concrete for the base of a 2.3 MW onshore turbine.

John Oneill's picture
John Oneill on May 21, 2017

Actually Hansen’s paper used a figure of 1800 deaths in OECD Europe, and 460 in the former Soviet Union, though arguing that that may well be an overestimate. In any case, they claim that deaths avoided by the use of nuclear power are between four and seven million, in which case it would still be a net benefit, even using your mortality figures.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on May 21, 2017

Yes, that makes the size of James Hansen’s etal fraud less:
An ~400 times lower nuclear deaths estimate than reality.

Yes, but only if you assume that they didn’t fizzle with the other figures, which is highly unlikely as those figures are far more easy to up-/downgrade by interpretations, etc.

Anyway it’s clear that far more deaths would have been avoided if the world had concentrated earlier on wind, solar & storage as those are far more safe.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 22, 2017

You promulgate bogus texts and grossly faulty theories of causation in support of p-hacked epidemiological “results”, and have the gall to accuse ANYONE of fraud?

Hypocrisy, thy name is Bas Gresnigt/Bentvels.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 23, 2017


James Hansen from NASA, states 43 deaths by Chernobyl…


J. Oneil:

Actually Hansen’s paper used a figure of 1800 deaths in OECD Europe, and 460 in the former Soviet Union, though arguing that that may well be an overestimate…


Yes, that makes the size of James Hansen’s etal fraud less…

So you know the 43 fatalities from acute radiation poisoning are not the only fatalities sited by Hansen, but continue periodically to post the number ’43’ as the sum total fatalities claimed by Hansen. You know this is lie. Retract.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 23, 2017

The five, 6 MW offshore wind turbines in US waters each have steel foundation mass 1400 tons (steel production also 2:1 CO2 by mass), with four piles per turbine driven 60 meters into the sea floor.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on May 23, 2017

Read the Hansen paper and John’s comment above more accurate before you write. Then you don’t write such accusations.

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