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I hope Inel enjoys this idea.

This is an argument which is familiar, I am sure, to many people who do work for charity, or are involved in financial planning, or many other areas.

You can do this in your head (a thought experiment), or do it for real.

Take an old-fashioned kitchen scale, the sort that has a place on one side for the weights and on the other for the ingredients. Have the weights handy, as well as a bag of sugar and a spoon. You can use a post-it note pad and a pen, too, if you want.

Put the 1lb weight (or 454g, if you wish) on the scale, where the weights usually go. This is to represent the sum of anthropogenic climate forcings and feedbacks. Write ‘forcings/feedbacks‘ on a post-it note to remind you, if you wish.

On the other side, put one of the smaller weights, the 4oz (112g) one might be good, labelled ‘EU‘. This is the amount of forcings offset by current policies and efficiency improvements in Europe.

What happens? Nothing.

Now add a spoonful of the sugar. It’s not easy to label this, so you can stick a note next to the scale with ‘efforts by individuals so far to reduce energy use/carbon footprint‘.

Still not much happening.

Add another weight; (20z, 56g): label: ‘reduced deforestation‘.

Another: ‘clean coal technology‘. Another: ‘alternative energy‘. Add one or two small weights as appropriate.

By now, there will be a pile of stuff on the scales, but they still won’t have shifted.

Add a few more spoonfuls of the sugar: ‘more people make an effort‘.

No quite there yet.

Now label the 80z (227g) weight ‘China, India, USA and international agreement‘. When you add it to the scales, it might tip the balance, it might not quite do it yet. You’ve probably got a scale which is nearly, but not quite balanced.

You can do this next bit one grain at a time, or a spoonful or more at a time. It is ‘Individuals around the world making their own contribution‘.

Eventually, the scale will tip, and a balance will be achieved. Well done; through a combination of efforts, we have managed to balance the forcings and feedbacks with a variety of responses.

What will happen if we take a spoonful of the sugar back?

What will happen if we take the 8oz weight off?

What will happen if we add even more sugar?

What would be the implications of adding more weight to the other side of the scales, labelled ‘atmospheric CO2 after 2007‘?

No individual effort will work. No effort, without international agreement, especially from the ‘big three’, will work, though it might make some nominal difference. Other observations can be made, depending on how you imagine, or set up, the experiment. But without the extra spoonfuls of sugar, the effect of the other efforts combined might hang in the balance…

Now, get a kitchen timer, clear the scales, and start again, setting the timer at 2 minutes. Can you get the scales to balance before time runs out?

Now, do it again, with the timer set to 30 seconds.

It isn’t just a matter of action, but timing, which matters in tipping the balance away from dangerous climate change and towards manageable impacts.

Now bake a cake…


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August 2007