Sunday, December 1, 2019

COP25 Madrid: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and Why I Want to Go

"The drift towards near-term human extinction must be averted at all costs."


I confess. I am a COP junkie. In Copenhagen I stood for hours outside, in a blizzard, waiting for a special pass when normal passes were suddenly restricted mid-conference. I was in the Blue Zone cheering when the Paris Agreement was gaveled. I remember heartbreaking impasses in Cancun, Marrakech, Bonn and all the others. I know the shortcomings of Paris, the cheating with the Clean Development Mechanism, the scandalous manipulation of ignorance underpinning Sustainable Development Goal #8 (right to economic growth) and absurd framing of SDG#1 (eradicate poverty), as if poverty were a disease rather than something implicit in SDG#8, but all that hasn’t stopped me from going back for more.

I surely am aware that Sustainable Development is an oxymoron when one extends ecosystem thinking to planetary systems. In nature, nothing sustains. Rather, there is a progression from juvenile growth to carrying capacity, regenerative, steady-state systems, disturbance, decay, collapse, and repeat. We should never aspire to sustainability unless we first ask, what is it you wish to sustain? If what you wish is an impossible USAnian lifestyle for all imposed by militarism and nuclear weapons, well, good luck with that because that is unsustainable from simple biophysical realities — resource production and waste absorption on a single, unassisted planet.

 
The simple truth of it is, there is no way out of our climate emergency without an emergency committee to organize a coordinated global response. You might say the United Nations is a poor choice for that role and I would agree, except that all the other choices are far worse.

The United Nations of 2019 is not the United Nations of 1945 any more than Russia is the Soviet Union or modern Israel resembles the State of Israel in 1948. One could argue, and many do, that just as the League of Nations dissolved in disgrace after failing to prevent the Second World War, the UN should cease to exist now after failing to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, the War on Terror, or the climate crisis. I am not of that opinion, because I have watched the UN process for more than 70 years and I know that any new organization would have to go through exactly that painful process all over again. This time, there simply isn’t time.

As it has grown and matured from its original Rooseveltian vision, the UN has learned a thing or two. It has learned that its Security Council is an outmoded relic that is unfortunately hard-wired into its charter. It has learned that there are big bullies on this planet that think they have a God-given right to beat the UN up, berate and scapegoat it, starve it of dues, or ignore it whenever it pleases them. It has learned that the best way around those sorts of impediments is strong multilateral, multistakeholder multiculturalism; covenants on human rights, biodiversity, disarmament, climate change and indigenous peoples; and that from the scarce successes (11 Nobel Peace Prizes) and abundant failures, a well-honed process will produce ever-better agreements, enforcement mechanisms, and deterrents to miscreants. 

The 25th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was to have met in Santiago, Chile next week. Then Chile fell apart with street protests, initiated by a rise in the subway fare but exposing pent-up rage at neoliberal economics: rising cost of living, privatization of public resources, and escalating wealth inequality — to beggar the poor. The climate summit could have cancelled and postponed further discussions until COP26 in Glasgow in 2020, but the UNFCCC decided each meeting is too important to miss and instead made a last-minute switch to Madrid. 

The issues urgently needing to be discussed track an agenda established at the time of the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015 and evolving through the successive meetings in Marrakech, Bonn and Katowice. Like all COPs, the first week will be taken up with opening statements by each of the 198 parties to the Treaty, reports by various working groups and committees, and the latest catastrophic warnings from the top science advisory organizations. The first week is intended to endow national delegations with both the frustrations of how little has been accomplished and the paralyzing fear of what is coming at them very fast now. It is intended to stimulate an adrenaline rush of fight or flight. Get angry or go home. 

My hope is the US delegation will do both. More likely they will stick around, oil their monkey wrenches, and do whatever they can to postpone real action. It would not be anything the UN hasn’t seen before and is kind of expected, like Saudi Arabia opposing sanctions on oil subsidies or India claiming its 400 new coal power stations are within its development rights. The US, which supports both these positions and much worse, is generally seen as the bad boy, version 5.0 (Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Trump). US delegates often lie in stealth until the second week, and then pounce to break up any ambitious moves that could undermine their gas fracking business or adversely impact the political philanthropy (Greek: “man-loving”) of ‘Ol’ King Coal,’ Charles Koch.

Nonetheless, Paris was passed in spite of US monkey-wrenching, and its roadmap now calls for wholesale strengthening of responsive action in light of the latest science. Indeed, Paris was carefully crafted to ‘follow the science.’ As UN Secretary General António Guterrez has set out, countries gathered in Madrid are expected to:
  • “Listen to the Science” — Agree to the latest IPCC Roadmap and specifically,
  • Cut emissions 45% by 2030, 75% by 2040, net zero by 2050;
  • Adopt enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) before the Paris Agreement’s first 5-year Stocktake in December 2020;
  • Agree to a full moratorium on coal by end of 2020; 
  • Shift taxes from people to carbon and stop subsidizing fossil fuels; 
  • Improve Art. 6 — with strong rules on double-counting and social and environmental safeguards; 
  • Agree to a fixed timeframe for a decision on Common Timeframes; ie: when are account ledgers of all parties to be balanced for the planet?
If you look at these agenda items for a moment, you immediately grasp how many devils there are in details. And yet, the process to dispatch them, devil by devil, is moving ahead in earnest with 197 countries participating. 

Even if Extinction Rebellion were to achieve all its goals and shut down the machine, it would still have to go through this kind of process to avert extinction.

Even if Greta Thunberg’s School Strike won universal recognition and nations agreed to her demand that they listen to the science, a process like this would be required to make any lasting change in the way the global economy presently functions. In fact, the Paris Agreement already resolved to ‘listen to the science’ so what is happening at COP is what comes next once you actually do that.

Even if James Hansen, Naomi Klein, and other UN critics call the process a sham and urge people to boycott it, they cannot save us from our nearly certain fate without it, or something constructed very much like it — predicated on fairness standards such as transparency, equal access, equal vote, recognition of injustice-endowed disparities, and so forth.

And then there are the rogues, pirates, and other ne’er-do-wells. These are countries and transnational participants who are determined to game the UN system to their own misbegotten ends. They see the exercise as realpolitik in stark Kissinger or Bolton terms — winners and losers; rather than a drift towards near-term human extinction that must be averted at all costs, even to the point of sacrificing your own nation (as Kirabati, Marshall Islands, and Seychelles will) and dying with honor.

Fact: only 67 countries have committed to enhance their NDCs, even though the emissions reductions as presently committed would assure 5 to 7 degrees rise in global average temperature this century and extinction of all nations and their inhabitants well before then. Those 67 with honor represent only about 8% of current emissions. 

Among the 131 countries generating the other 92% of emissions who are missing: US, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Japan, EU, India, China, S. Korea. Apparently they think present goals are enough for now. Anything more is not politically possible, they think. And they know that anyway, they won’t meet even those lame goals, which is why they insist on only “non-binding” agreements.

At present, the world subsidizes fossil fuels to the rate of 7 trillion dollars/year, or about $150/ton of CO2 emitted, not counting military expenditures and veterans’ care. If all the non-agricultural and non-urban, marginal or unproductive lands were forested, and amended with biochar, atmospheric carbon could be taken below 300 ppm in approximately 40 years. Ice would start to reform at the poles. Greenland would stop leaking into the sea. Paying $150 per ton of carbon sequestered might accomplish that.

Amazingly, there are environmental organizations that oppose trees. Anything having to do with climate repair, like agroforestry, waste-to-energy, biochar, or direct air capture technology, is opposed by Biofuelwatch, Econexus, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Global Justice Ecology Project. Why? Planting trees lets the bad guys off the hook, they say.
Every year we see nothing but empty promises and non-binding commitments, while ecosystems and peoples around the world are devastated. Floods, fires, sinking islands, monstrous hurricanes are becoming the norm, while the UN, world governments and corporations continue business as usual.
But this year, the COP is adding insult to injury by putting forward so-called “nature-based solutions” schemes. Also called “business for nature,” these climate schemes are designed to commodify and privatize everything from forests to oceans to native grasslands. They plan to use them as carbon or biodiversity “offsets” to enable corporations and governments to continue polluting and destroying the Earth, while pretending they are part of the solution. These schemes also include the so-called “bioeconomy” including the use of deadly monoculture tree plantations to feed production of energy, chemicals, plastics and more.
So, to attend COP25, I will have to make my way through Madrid each day past the the sit-ins and the red t-shirt volunteers holding placards decrying biochar and trillion-tree initiatives. I will do that because we need to save them too, and I know their protests will not get that job done.


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Sunday, November 24, 2019

Islands in the storm

"Since 2005, winters in Mexico have been my Hemingway Machine."

 

As winter descends upon my refashioned yurt in Tennessee, I put away my planting and pruning tools, process the last of this year’s bamboo wastes into biochar, shut down my wood heater, and send myself south to warmer climes. I will be working in different parts of the Caribbean over the coming months but right now, in this week before the climate summit in Madrid, I am in a remote part of Southeastern Mexico where a friend who has moved to the city has given me the use of her small, one-room palapa. I can subsist reasonably well here on the equivalent of $500 per month — more than twice my take-home from Social Security — mostly coming from Patreon and other small gratuities.

This month the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellite (EUMETSAT), NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with funding support from the European Commission and support from France’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), will launch a new Airbus weather satellite. Sentinel-6a’s advanced surface altimeter data, refreshing with every 10-day orbit, will go directly to national meteorological agencies to produce weather forecasts. It will act as an early warning system for El Niño by detecting the encroaching bulge in warm surface waters. Storm intensity and the onset of heatwaves will be revealed by tell-tale signatures in sea-surface height. The satellite will also measure sea-level rise worldwide.

The Jason-2/OSTM satellite provided insights into ocean currents and sea-level rise with tangible benefits to marine forecasting, meteorology, and understanding of climate change. These observations are being continued by its successor, Jason-3. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech





“Global sea-level rise is, in a way, the most complete measure of how humans are changing the climate,” said Josh Willis, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “If you think about it, global sea-level rise means that 70 percent of Earth’s surface is getting taller — 70 percent of the planet is changing its shape and growing. So it’s the whole planet changing. That’s what we’re really measuring.” According to the NASA press release:
Decades of space- and ground-based observations have documented Earth’s surface temperature rising at a rapidly accelerating rate. The oceans help to stabilize our climate by absorbing over 90 percent of the heat trapped on the planet by excess greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, that have been emitted into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
As the oceans warm, they expand, increasing the volume of water; the trapped heat also melts ice sheets and glaciers, contributing further to sea-level rise. The rate at which it is rising has accelerated over the past 25 years and is expected to continue accelerating in years to come. 
Sentinel-6/Jason-CS will measure down to the millimeter how much global sea level rises during the 2020s and how fast that rise accelerates.
The tourist maps have this place I sit writing this marked as an island, and it once was, but storms over centuries and the depositions of a meandering river long ago closed the gap with the mainland, making it more accurately a peninsula. It was kind of the reverse of sea-level rise. Now I get to witness the ocean’s return. The whole of this fragile, narrow sand spit and its adjacent mainland lie within one of Mexico’s largest nature reserves, a sanctuary to jaguars, pelicans, manatees, flamingos, crocodiles, and many migratory birds and fishes. They are moving around too, but urbanization and land-use change prevent them from migrating very far.

Last summer I spent a week on the other side of the Atlantic, in Rye Harbour, Kent. I wanted to bicycle around Romney Marsh, home of my ancestors for untold centuries before they scattered to the Jamestown Colony in 1623 or the Massachusetts Bay in 1635. As I related in an earlier post, I documented my line only as far back as 1200, when the record trail dried up, but the Bates clan had lived on a harbor island, Lydd, for some centuries, and were generally engaged in seafarer service trades such as boatbuilding and ship chandlery. New Romney was then a principal Cinque Port connecting England to the continent. In 1287 a massive storm leveled the city, sank the fleet at anchor, and dammed the river, forcing it to push out a new channel towards Rye, west along the coast. The old harbor filled with sediment and created Romney Marsh, now known for the quality of its mutton and wool, and my ancestral island migrated inland several miles from the coast, becoming what is now the rustic, half-timbered village of Lydd. A church built on the island in Roman times, later damaged in the German Blitz, remains in weekly use near the town square. There are still families called Bates born and dying there. 

Six hundred sixty years after the great storm, I was conceived on one island (Hawai’i) and born on another (Oahu). It should, I suppose, not be surprising that I find myself drawn to islands. In a sense, the majority of my adult years were spent in a kind of cultural island — a hippy village in the middle of a southern red state’s poorest county.

I started coming to this place in Mexico a year after my mother died. She left me many lessons but one that has endured these past 15 years is where she chose to spend time in her 70s and 80s. She had checked India, Antarctica, Alaska, China, and Africa off her bucket list and most winters she made a timeshare in Mazatlan her base. Like me, she was a world citizen, not clinging to one spot or claiming a single allegiance. After diligently offsetting my carbon footprint in bamboo at home, I followed that model, learning from the good health, energy, and joy it had given my mother. Since 2005, winters in Mexico have been my Hemingway Machine. In my friend’s grass shack, with no phone, no heat, and only intermittent power, I have written six books and several hundred of these blog posts. 

Back in 2005, the main industries here were fishing and weaving hammocks. The area was just opening to birdwatching, kiteboarding, wild side tourists. Today it is drowning in tourists, sinking under the weight of their concrete enclosures, and suffocating in their wastes.

We two-leggeds seem drawn to inhabit dangerous places despite their natural hazards, whether for the attraction of culture, as in Venice or San Francisco, or for the natural beauty, as in the forested hillsides near Yellowstone or Mt. Etna. Infrequent hazards do not spark our fight or flight reflexes, and we tend to ignore them. The people in Paradise, California reacted too slowly to a wildfire that destroyed their town, and it cost lives, but they were lulled to that false security by long experience of tranquil mountain forests, the speed of previous wildfire progression, and what had seemed a good evacuation plan — pre-Anthropocene.

It is the same here. Coming and going in season, year to year, I can see how far inland the coast has eroded in the last decade. I attribute frequently flooded streets more to sea-level rise than to the heavy rains typical of the tropics. Knowing a thing or two about climate science, I see how feeble the engineered response — “adaptation” — is in comparison with what is coming, or its speed. The island will be entirely underwater by mid-century if not sooner. Its highest ground is only two or three meters, and those elevated areas are few and far between. During Hurricane Wilma in 2006, there was no dry land remaining. As I look up from my laptop, this room has a watermark all around, a meter above the floor. 

Still, new hotels are being built. New restaurants are offering sushi and haute cuisine. Expensive apparel stores are opening on the dirt streets. With the flash fortunes being made in the Maya Riviera, the new business people are not necessarily climate deniers, they just believe they can erase any debt and reap profits long before the waves wash away their temporary holdings. And then they might even rebuild for another go, as people did after Wilma.

That may or may not be true. Like any place in nature ravaged by human industry, this piece of paradise suffers from too much change, too fast. The Mayan Reef that protects the shore and replenishes its sparkly white sands has been ruined. It is dead. The mangroves that cleaned the water and bred the fish were cleared to build swank residences. The octopi were drag-netted. Where once you could hook fish with rowboats or sail-craft or dive the reef, to be a fisherman here now means getting up in the night and going much farther out, with high-powered boats, to search and net scarce schools using sonars, satcoms, and GPS. 

There are good people in the nature preservation parts of the Mexican government, and they have designed and put into law some very good regulations. If implemented, these will ban plastic, pets, and night lighting on the beach. They will reverse the unchecked sprawl and reclaim the key ecosystem recharge zones. I really hope that happens, but like many people here I am skeptical because politics is warped by money, and here there is a lot of money working to make sure none of that good reclamation policy happens. In which case, the hotels will eventually drown in their refuse and sewage. Or another hurricane will level them again and the entire tale resets to where it was before I arrived, minus a lot of land and its beautiful biodiversity. 

I could try to draw some grand lesson from all this, but I will leave it to you to do that. For now, it is enough that I get to hang out with these beautiful birds and enjoy what a billion years of evolution has bestowed, before it’s gone.


Global sea level has shown a steady rise since the early 1990s to present as measured by Jason-2/OSTM and its predecessors and successor from the early 1990s to the present day. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

Earth’s climate is changing, and the study of oceans is vital to understanding the effects of those changes on our future. “Global sea-level rise is one of the most expensive and disruptive impacts of climate change that there is,” said JPL’s Willis. “In our lifetimes, we’re not going to see global sea-level fall by a meaningful amount. We’re literally charting how much sea level rise we’re going have to deal with for the next several generations.” 

In his testimony to Congress in 1988, climatologist emeritus James Hanson said sea level could rise as much as ten feet this century. He was ridiculed for that statement, but he has yet to be disproved. Ten feet would permanently evacuate lower Manhattan, about a third of Oakland and Alameda, all of Miami and a dozen other Florida cities, not to mention Venice, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, Mumbai, Basra, Alexandria, New Orleans, and Bangkok. All underwater. 

Mumbai underwater at daily high tide, 2050. Source: The New York Times
 
Storm events will augur the crux moments when humans will be forced to grasp some hard truths we now deny. Sentinel-6 is our spy atop the watchtower. It will tell us when the destruction is coming but it cannot stop it. 

Only we can do that.


Its not too late to register for my Permaculture Design Course in Belize in March, or you can catch me at various talks during COP25 in Madrid. 


You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Waterboarding Flounder

"Serious oxygen loss between 100 and 600-meter depths is expected to cover 59–80% of the ocean area by 2031– 2050"



If you have ever
been in a smoke-filled room and wanted nothing more than to go outside and get a breath of fresh air, you can relate to the experience of your average flounder.

It’s floundering.

Fish don't breathe air, but they still take in oxygen dissolved in the water around them, and if those oxygen levels drop too low, they can strangle.

When we try to think about the effect of the climate emergency on oceans, we tend to imagine warming seas, bleaching corals, algae blooms, super-hurricanes, and inundating coastlines. We don’t often think about oxygen. And yet, major extinction events in Earth’s history have generally been associated with oxygen-starved oceans, most often during climate change epochs.

In the process of  absorbing a majority of the excess carbon dioxide we’ve produced, the open ocean gave up an estimated 2 percent, or 77 billion metric tons, of its oxygen over the past 50 years. That is an astonishing number, but one seldom noticed unless you are a water-breather.

Oxygen levels at a depth of 300 m in the Baltic Sea

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 56285633 (2014). Red = OMZ; Black = Anoxic
As a result, oxygen-minimum zones (OMZs) expanded to cover areas in aggregate about the size of the European Union (4.5 million square kilometers). Anoxic dead zones (devoid of oxygen) have more than quadrupled. For your average fish, this means trying to steer clear of OMZs and dead zones, mainly along the coasts where corals and mangroves once provided optimal conditions for life but now suffer inundations of topsoil, agricultural chemicals, plastics, radioactivity, and deadly algal blooms. Adaptive avoidance patterns make the schools easy targets for the sophisticated sonar systems and satellite services affordable to every fishing boat. Fisherman merely glide to the edges of oxygen-starved zones and wait for the catch to come to them.

Just the upper 3300 feet of ocean has lost up to 3.3% of its oxygen since 1960. If you are at sea level, the air you breathe is about 20% oxygen. Removing 3.3% would be like hiking up 5000 feet. That is still breathable—similar to the summit of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire—but consider that the recent 3.3% change was over just the past 60 years, and is accelerating. There might be an 6 or 8% difference from the 20th Century in another 30 years, which would be like climbing Pike’s Peak. We can still breathe, but for how much longer? At 10 or 12 percent deficit we would need to bring oxygen tanks to climb any higher. What is a flounder going to do?

If we are concerned, and we should be, there are things we can do right now to reverse this. The IPCC’s Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere, released earlier this year, said:
Increased nutrient and organic matter loads in estuaries since the 1970s from intensive human development and riverine loads have exacerbated the stimulating effects of ocean warming on bacterial respiration, leading to expansion of low oxygen areas.

The first thing we can do, then, is arrest nutrient runoff into rivers and estuaries. A number of cities are using large biochar filters to span urban outfalls, intercepting nitrogen and the particulates that biochar is so good at capturing, adhering, and storing.

IPCC reports that serious oxygen loss at between 100 and 600-meter depths (328 to 1970 feet) is expected to cover 59–80% of the ocean area by 2031– 2050. While some of that can be attributed to algae blooms deriving from all the fertilizer washing off land (extreme rain events boost the effect), the 400 lb. gorilla in the room is climate change. If we want to slow the process, we’ll need to address that.

A review by Denise Breitburg and 21 co-authors in the January 2018 issue of Science observed that ocean warming reduces the solubility of oxygen.
Decreasing solubility is estimated to account for ~15% of current total global oxygen loss and >50% of the oxygen loss in the upper 1000 m. of the ocean. Warming also raises metabolic rates, thus accelerating the rate of oxygen consumption. Therefore, decomposition of sinking particles occurs faster, and remineralization of these particles is shifted toward shallower depths, resulting in a spatial redistribution but not necessarily a change in the magnitude of oxygen loss. Intensified stratification may account for the remaining 85% of global ocean oxygen loss by reducing ventilation—the transport of oxygen into the ocean interior.…
Breitburg and colleagues make a number of excellent recommendations:
Local, national, and global efforts are required to limit further oxygen declines, restore oxygen to previously well-oxygenated environments, and enhance the resilience of ecosystems affected by deoxygenation. At their most basic level, the actions needed to address deoxygenation — reducing nutrient loads to coastal waters and reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally — have substantial benefits to society above and beyond improving oxygen conditions. Improved sanitation can benefit human health directly while also reducing coastal nutrient loads. Eliminating excess and inefficiently applied fertilizer can reduce costs to farmers and emissions of N2O and may decrease nitrogen loads to waterways. Eliminating emissions from combustion of fossil fuels can reduce greenhouse gas production and may result in decreased atmospheric deposition of nitrogen that stimulates primary production in coastal waters. Reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions can, more generally, lower the threats from global warming and ocean acidification and, simultaneously, reduce ocean deoxygenation. Improved management of fisheries and marine habitats that are sensitive to the development and effects of low oxygen helps to protect economies, livelihoods, and food security.



While some long-term marine ecosystem changes cannot be avoided, others are yet reversible if we act quickly. So, for instance, if we follow the recipe laid out by Kathleen Draper and I in Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth (Chelsea Green 2019), we could within a few decades be withdrawing 50 or more billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (50 GtCO2) from the atmosphere (and oceans) annually through a new, regenerative, revitalizing, circular carbon economy, using processes we’ve termed carbon cascades, tailored to target the Sustainable Development Goals. If at the same time nations muster the will, such as through meetings like the upcoming COP25-Madrid, to halve emissions from 39 GtCO2 to 20 GtCO2, we could be net subtracting 30 GtCO2 annually.

That might give our friends the flounders a breather.



You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. Kathleen Draper and I will be attending the climate summit in Madrid and giving talks there. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.




Sunday, November 10, 2019

Of Warnings and their Ripple Effects

"We need wooden ships, char-crete buildings, bamboo bicycles, moringa furniture, and hemp clothing. We need to elegantly craft those things to last for centuries."

Greta Thunberg appearing  before the House Ways and Means Committee on September 18, 2019, based  upon a photo by Alden Meyer, Union of Concerned Scientists

In her testimony to the US Congress, Greta Thunberg did not prepare a statement for submission to the record. Instead, she submitted the most recent scientific report, issued by the IPCC three weeks earlier. She said simply, “I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science.  And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.”

Alden Meyer, an elder statesman of environmental advocacy that I have been running into at every climate meeting since Rio in 1992, called it the shortest and most powerful testimony he has heard anyone give in Congress during his decades in Washington.

This week another headline blazed across newspapers and social media sites: World Scientists Warn of Climate Emergency.

Reading this newest installment in ecologist William Ripple’s series was a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, I was delighted that he and Chris Wolf at Oregon State, Tom Newsome at the University of Sydney, Phoebe Barnard at Conservation Biology Institute and the University of Capetown, and Bill Moomaw at Tufts were able to enlist 11,258 co-signatories from 153 countries for their paper published in BioScience on November 5th

The first such warning, organized by Alden Meyer and the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992, had 1,575 prominent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates, co-sign. The second, by Ripple, Wolf, et al in BioScience in 2017, had 15,364 signatories from 184 countries, which begs the question: Why fewer this year?

In my humble opinion, the problem with this warning, and perhaps also why it is shedding supporters, is that it says all the right things but feels like it is speaking to an empty room. It has all been said before. I confess I have the same issue with street protests. Somewhere in the world, there may be someone who has never heard of climate change or doesn’t take it seriously, and might change their thinking after seeing a million people in the streets, but frankly, I don’t know who that person is or whether they are worth the effort. 

It is all well and good to engage in awareness-raising, but at some point, you have to put down the placard and actually do something about the situation. 

The issues identified by Ripple

The Scientists’ Warning is that we humans are either threatening or have already collapsed several essential prerequisites for continued human existence on Earth. The 1992 report cited ozone depletion, declining freshwater availability, unsustainable marine fisheries, ocean dead zones, forest loss, dwindling biodiversity, climate change, and population growth as shocking indicators that should stir us all to action.

Hothouse Earth by Steffen, et al, 2018
The 2017 report spotlighted climate change as the most likely to do us all in, but also drew attention to deforestation and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption—as if they were separate, and also decried the Sixth mass extinction event. The 2019 report again hones in on climate change as our biggest problem, but this time connects the dots to human population, total fertility rate, ruminant livestock population, per capita meat production, world gross domestic product, global tree cover loss, Brazilian Amazon forest loss, energy consumption, air transport, divestment, global CO2 emissions, per capita CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions covered by carbon pricing, fossil fuel subsidies, atmospheric CO2 , atmospheric methane, atmospheric nitrous oxide, surface temperature change, minimum Arctic sea ice, Greenland ice mass, Antarctica ice mass, cumulative glacier thickness change, ocean heat content, ocean acidity, extreme weather events (frequency and economic losses), sea-level change, and total area burned by wildfires—as all part of that one big problem we have yet to face. Somehow they completely overlooked plastics.

Okay, so we are warned. Now what? My gripe with protest movements, even by distinguished scientists, is that even if they succeed beyond their wildest expectations and topple governments, they don’t have either an agreed plan to replace the current system or a transition roadmap to follow. Ripple says:
“Governmental bodies are making climate emergency declarations. Schoolchildren are striking. Ecocide lawsuits are proceeding in the courts. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change….”
Yes, all true. So then what? 

The 2019 report says “The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle.” Well, that is very true and surprisingly honest. I imagine most in Extinction Rebellion would agree with that. I also imagine most scientists who signed this would cluster among the top 1% most wealthy individuals on the planet. Ripple, et al, then opine:

To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live, in ways that improve the vital signs summarized by our graphs. Economic and population growth are among the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion; therefore, we need bold and drastic transformations regarding economic and population policies. We suggest six critical and interrelated steps (in no particular order) that governments, businesses, and the rest of humanity can take to lessen the worst effects of climate change. These are important steps but are not the only actions needed or possible.
The steps Ripple proposed are all good. They are strong, they are honest, and they are realistic:

Energy: leave remaining stocks of fossil fuels in the ground and replace them with massive energy efficiency, conservation practices, and clean energy. 

CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal): While this is buried in the energy section, Ripple et al advocate we “carefully pursue effective negative emissions using technology such as carbon extraction from the source [biochar, straw buildings, holistic management] and capture from the air and especially by enhancing natural systems.”

Slash short-lived pollutants: By sharply curtailing emissions of methane, soot, and hydrofluorocarbons (refrigerants) we could potentially reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades, Ripple says. 

Rescue nature: We need more phytoplankton, coral reefs, forests, savannas, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, soils, mangroves, and sea grasses. We need reforestation and afforestation at enormous scales. Going by the calculations the late Frank Michael and I made ten years ago, now repeatedly confirmed, we need to add roughly four Spains in additional global forest annually; a trillion trees per decade. There is no map to avert Hothouse Earth that does not include this.

Food: The scientists suggest “eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products, especially ruminant livestock,” and eliminating food waste. “Cropping practices … that increase soil carbon are vitally important. “ This needs to be unpacked a little because in my view the problem is less about animals as food than about feeding them grains. Until wild stocks can be rebuilt, domestic livestock are vital surrogates in natural ecosystems.

World Water Crisis — The New York Times 6 Aug 2019
Population
: “[W]orld population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity.” Amen. Probably needs to be lower than most are ready to acknowledge, and will get there by unhappy means unless a graceful glide path is selected and followed assiduously.

Economy: This is possibly the biggest sticking point, so let’s quote the entire warning by the scientists:
Excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems, driven by economic growth, must be quickly curtailed to maintain the long-term sustainability of the biosphere. We need a carbon-free economy that explicitly addresses human dependence on the biosphere and policies that guide economic decisions accordingly. Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality. (emphasis added)
Now that is a very noble statement and one that drives to the core of the denialist and obstructionist agenda. One of neoliberalism’s most benighted spokesmen, Bill Clinton, famously said, “You can’t get elected by promising people less.” He could have easily as said, you can’t win over an audience by insulting their religion. The religion of the consumer culture (now global) is growth. More. Then more. Then still more. The Scientists’ Warning, after pleading with everyone to do with less, says:
“The good news is that such transformative change, with social and economic justice for all, promises far greater human well-being than does business as usual.”
The statement may be absolutely true, and it is a philosophy I have been flogging for the past 40 years, but it makes very little difference. To get the needed change now, at this late hour, will require far greater sacrifice than possibly any human society has ever shown before. Go to the darkest days of the London Blitz or the Siege of Leningrad and multiply that times ten. We have to cut emissions in half by 2030, half again by 2040, and to net-zero by 2050. That means switching energy systems to clean and renewable, surely, but it also means no more air travel. No more fleets of aircraft carriers and B52 bombers. Sail-powered commerce across oceans. Solar-powered rail across continents. Just as in the Special Period in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union, imagine food calories cut by a third. The longer we delay, the steeper the descent.



Last week, Ida Auken, Member of the Danish Parliament (Folketinget), writing for the World Economic Forum borrowed a page from Transition Network to try to imagine the world of 2030 that we could have. She called it “CO-topia.”
It is cheaper for you not to own your own car, which, in turn, reduces congestion so you arrive at your destination more easily and quickly and don’t have to spend time looking for somewhere to park. You can also choose to travel by bike, scooter or public transit. 

The air you breathe in the city is cleaner because there are far fewer cars on the streets and the rest are electric – all electricity is green in fact. There is less noise and much more space for parks and pedestrian streets since all the parking space became available. For lunch you can choose from dozens of exciting meals – most of them are plant-based, so you eat more healthily and are more environmentally friendly than when lunch meant choosing between five types of burger.

Single-use plastics are a distant memory. You still grab a to-go coffee, but it comes in a reusable cup that you turn in at the next coffee shop to get your deposit back. The same system applies to plastic bottles and other take-away containers. At home, all of your household appliances have been turned into service contracts. If your dishwasher is about to break down, it is no longer your problem. The service provider already knows about the problem and has sent someone to fix it. When the machine no longer works, the provider picks up the old machine and installs a new one.

People are trying out new types of living arrangements with more shared functions and spaces. This means that more people can afford to live in cities. More houses are built with wood, which makes them nicer to live in and much better for the climate than concrete buildings.

When you buy something, you buy something that lasts; you buy it because you really need it and want to take care of it. But because you buy far fewer things, you can actually afford products of better quality and design.  


***

Much of the land formerly used to produce animal feedstock has become available. As people in cities have started to value going into nature, tourism, hunting and angling now offer new types of income for people living in rural areas. Forests and nature are again spreading across the globe. People travel more in their region and by train, so air traffic has started to decline. Most airlines have switched to electrofuels, biofuels or electricity. 

Best of all, because citizens have stopped buying so much stuff, they have more money to spend on other things. This new disposable income is spent on services: cleaning, gardening, help with laundry, healthy and easy meals to cook, entertainment, experiences and fabulous new restaurants. All of these things give the average modern person more options and more free time to spend with their friends and families, working out, learning new skills, playing sports or making art – you name it and there’s more time to do it.
If we consider what the future could be, picking up the mantle against climate change may not seem so bad after all.
Rather than “a carbon-free economy,” during all that heroic deprivation we must strive to create a carbon-intensive economy, as Kathleen Draper and I argued in Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth. We need to start intercepting carbon before it gets back to the atmosphere and instead incorporate it into everything we build, buy, or clothe ourselves with. We need wooden ships, char-crete buildings, bamboo bicycles, moringa furniture, and hemp clothing. We need to elegantly craft those things to last for centuries.

As Daniel Christian Wahl describes it, what is required is a new regenerative economy:
At the heart of true transformation is always a release of patterns that no longer serve — a dying of a former self or way of being — and simultaneously a living into new patterns — a being born into a new cycle of existence. We are challenged collectively to fundamentally redesign the human presence and impact on Earth within the life-time of the generations alive today. In doing so, we have — as Joanna Macy has put it — the dual role of acting as hospice workers and midwifes. We have to give care to a dying system while simultaneously co-creating a life sustaining human presence on Earth.
One of the leading lights showing the way individuals can do something right now is Nori. You can go to nori.com on your phone and purchase carbon removal for your past month, or your past year, or your whole next year. The calculator on the Nori site helps you estimate your footprint based on what you did or plan to do. Then Nori arranges to pay carbon sequestrators to retrieve your carbon back from the atmosphere and put it somewhere it will stay and won’t go back. Nori already does, or may eventually do, all of those CDR strategies that politicians aren't even talking about yet. Doing just that simple 5-minute exercise on your phone can do much more for the planet than getting arrested with Jane Fonda or publishing yet another warning signed by umpty-ump famous scientists.

The sacredness of our growth economy is precisely how Congressional deniers and delayers chose to attack the little Swedish mermaid as she sat defiantly before them in September. Their staunchest argument, their line drawn in the sand, was that the Paris Agreement is bad for the economy. Whose economy? What kind of economy is that, that is killing us all?

It is not the economy that Greta Thunberg’s generation wants. If they get their say, it is not the economy they will have. 
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