Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fighting Extinction

"This is a true challenge. If the story is told as one of avarice, private gain and exceptionalism, the human race will go extinct."

 At the G7 last week, the leading industrial nations agreed to cut greenhouse gases by phasing out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century. While that seem to many, ourselves included, as whistling past the graveyard, the mainstream press and many climate organizations are hailing the diplomatic triumph of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in bringing fossil foot-draggers Australia, Japan and Canada to a "Jesus, the climate!" moment.

On the final day of G7 talks in their Bavarian castle, and before rushing off to the secretive Bilderberg Group meeting, Merkel said the leaders had committed themselves to the need to “decarbonize the global economy in the course of this century.” They also agreed on a global target for limiting the rise in average global temperatures to a maximum of 2°C over pre-industrial levels, oblivious of the contradiction in those two positions.


Two weeks ago, at the St. Petersberg Climate Dialogue, Chancellor Merkel called upon the overdeveloped countries to draft a roadmap of how to meet the $100 billion bribe Hillary Clinton offered underdeveloping countries to acquiesce to President Obama's stalling strategy in Copenhagen in 2009. For five years now, Obama has declined to present such a plan, and not having one has undermined trust in both the UN process and the United States. At home, Obama’s popularity ratings are now below those of George W. Bush in his final year. The President’s legacy is likely to be that his name becomes synonymous with loss of trust. Merkel’s is likely to be associated with loss of ambition.

In fact, let us apply Merkel as the denomination for degrees of warming expected to result from heel dragging for the next 85 years. Thus, a rise of one-degree this coming century would be 1 Merkel. Six degrees would be 6 Merkels, and so on.

Scientific consensus recently concluded that even if CO2 and other greenhouse gases were stabilized in a time short of 85 years, surface air temperatures and sea levels will continue rising for at least another century and probably several. This means that even if we moved from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy by 2030 or 2050, further impacts on people and ecosystems will continue unabated. Hurricanes will continue to strengthen.
Heat transfer between Atlantic and Pacific across the Arctic may reveal a new tipping point. Both the Jet Stream and the Atlantic Conveyor will break weirdness records.

This might cause one to despair utterly, and then to psychologically block the consequences and perhaps even party like its 1999. Some speculate that is already what is going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 10 Downing Street. This assumes they are already in the acceptance mode of grieving for near term human extinction. In our view, that assumption is flawed and anybody’s despair for our race is pre-mature. Killian O'Brien, from the Permaculture and Resilience Initiative in Detroit, writes:

[A] last resort mindset [is] inappropriate when return to a stable Anthropocene, largely de-mechanized and far simpler than OECD nations currently enjoy, is still at least theoretically possible. Given it is feasible to return to sub-300 ppm by 2100, if not far sooner, and even to the mid-to-low 200's, which would bring on cooling, giving up (or 'going into hospice,' as Guy McPherson puts it), is an unethical, even immoral, suggestion, is it not?
Step one: zero GHG. Full stop. Step two: go beyond zero

John Holdren, who as White House Science Advisor has the Drone King’s ear, should be whispering words to the effect that a global fossil fuel extraction levy, applied at the ridiculously low price of $2/ton of CO2e, could easily generate $50 billion a year. That levy would need to increase substantially year on year as we phase out fossil fuels but it would shift the cost of fossil fuels from the victims to the industry and feedback favorably to accelerate the phase-out.

If the ultimate objective of the UN Convention is to repair the climate, not just to seem to be doing something, it would require actually reversing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and taking down concentrations to pre-industrial levels. Step one: zero GHG. Full stop. Step two: go beyond zero, to net-sequestration techniques like biochar, living roofs, bioenergy-to-carbon-storage, and regrarian farming. 


courtesy of Andy Singer
The IPCC has focused on setting a goal of 2°C for absolute increase, understanding that we are already at 0.8 - 1.1°C (call it one Merkel) and on our current trajectory we could see 4 Merkels by mid-century globally, and up to 10 Merkels in local regions, such as Mombassa, Mumbai, Damascus and Beijing. At 2 Merkels, half the world's coral reefs will disappear, small island states and populous coastlines will be submerged, Brazil’s soils will go from sink to source, and many indigenous societies will go extinct.

Even to have a 2 Merkel limit begs the question of whether are we aiming to achieve that with a probability of 90%, 66%, or something less, and what might each of those require? A 25-50% probability might require achieving net sequestration in something like 10 years (by 2025). Do non-scientists really appreciate what that means? Even to limit warming below 3°C a radical transformation of capitalism will be necessary. 


The Bonn draft text, taking its G7 cue, supports phasing out fossil fuel emissions and transitioning (equitably) to 100% renewable energy by ... 2100? 2050? -- that will be the central Paris negotiating point if the G7 and Bilderberg conferences didn’t already decide it. Given what we know about the net energy of renewables and Jevon's paradox from the Swedish study mentioned here last week, it is hard to imagine even a 2050 target representing anything less than 3 Merkels.


courtesy of Andy Singer
Progressive nations like Switzerland plan to reduce emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by 2030, with 30% to be achieved domestically, and the rest through offsets (paying other countries to reduce). This is 10% more ambitious than the EU as a whole, but as the Climate Action Network asks, "If the whole world needs to decarbonize by mid-century, what makes Switzerland think there will be enough offsets available?"

Some, like India and Japan, believe that fossil fuels can be used for some time to come and we will still achieve a 2°C target. India is expanding its coal-fired electric grid by leaps and bounds. Japan is massively subsidizing a coal build-out to help underdeveloping countries further underdevelop and covertly plans to frack SE Asia, on the way derailing antifracking laws, which is a lot of what TPP,  TTPP and TiSA are about. Either these countries have a steep learning curve to even comprehend the science, or less charitably, they are merely partying hard towards the Apocalypse.

Japan’s P.M. predicts that by fifteen years from now, 20-22% of his country’s electricity will be sourced from nuclear power, despite Fukushima. Coal will provide 26% more energy than renewables in 2030 Japan and extending the operation of old nuclear power plants to 60 years and/or building new nuclear plants is slated to the fill any gaps. Good luck with all that. We are getting our protest bandana out of mothballs.

To accord with both ethics and science, OECD countries should cut emissions by 106-128% immediately, the IPCC reports.  If that seems extreme, it really is not such a heavy lift, policy-and-popularity-wise. The current $5.3 trillion fossil fuel industry subsidy for 2015 -- $10 million per minute -- is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.

Or compare the cost of Exxon blackmail to the cost of the Iraq War, at about 1 trillion per year (and a civilian death toll of an estimated 176,000 to 189,000)  -- about $1.9 million per minute (although arguably the Iraq War was another fossil fuel subsidy). Subsidizing fossil fuels is like running 5 Iraq wars simultaneously, for the next 85 years!

But remember the Gilens and Page study, described here last week.  Whether the public supports or distains a particular policy has no effect on its likelihood of becoming law. The same is true of international law.

Algeria: "Thank you Mr. President and fellow representatives. I am very glad to talk to you about my country's opinions on unsustainability. It seems as if we are running out of water. And all of our schemes to try to combat energy and renewable resources and climate change – we just need more money. We need more cash. We can use it to come up with new solutions. If only we had more money and investment we could solve all of these problems. If only there was more money we could combat the food issues, the people starving all over the world; hungry, hungry people everywhere."

- Extraenvironmentalist Episode #86, Slow Money Part C (May 26, 2015).


Imagine a group of people in a disaster shelter. If they go outside they will not likely survive, but to stay within means learning to get along, despite their differences. Two of the people are very wealthy, and they inherited that wealth by their parents enslaving or otherwise mistreating the parents of several of the other people in the shelter, engendering feelings that linger as simmering anger.

But, those two people are learned and skilled at the process of organizing groups to work towards a common goal, and they get everyone to agree to join and discuss what needs to be done. Certain things are obvious priorities: food, water, sewage management, personal security, and First Aid for the injured. Other things, like working through the emotions of those old hatreds, are less immediate but still need to be addressed for the process to move along.

Many in the group feel that although they have not achieved the wealth of the two wealthiest, they are on the path to achieving it, or were before the disaster struck, and when the disaster is over, they still intend to pursue that goal.

What happens? Every issue that the group takes up – from the smallest to the largest  seems to arouse animosity more than a spirit of cooperation. The two wealthiest, and many of the would-be wealthy, feel sorry for those who have nothing, but they are not willing to share the food and water they have brought with them. They are happy to provide first aid assistance, but reticent to have hands-on involvement in pollution management, infrastructure maintenance and health care, other than by designing systems on paper, and they would like to be paid for that.

The poorest, many of whom are used to maintaining good hygiene despite difficult circumstances, are unwilling to perform work for the wealthy that the wealthy are unwilling to perform for themselves. They would prefer to suffer from bad sanitation than from indignity.

These things play out on the international scale just as they play out in a small group. Unless differences can be put aside, as they were not in Bonn but must be in Paris, there is little hope for the survival of our species, and many others.

If, on the other hand, these things can be put aside for this moment, and we can find common ground and a spirit of shared sacrifice, much is yet possible. This is a true challenge. If the story that is told is one of avarice, private gain and exceptionalism, the human race will go extinct. For this story to end happily it must be a story of our noblest attributes, elevating us above our history.

In his message to COP20 in Lima, Pope Francis said there is a “clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act.” In 4 days, on June 18, Francis will issue a new encyclical, “Laudato Si,” on the future of our planet and people. It will speak of climate in the context of human moral development. It could not be more on point. 

3 comments:

Sheila chambers said...

So folks still believe that we can go on with BAU using high technology "renewable" energy? I don't think so.

I would like to challenge someone, anyone, to build just ONE high technology renewable energy device from start to finish.
They would have to be able to mine, refine, smelt, manufacture, assemble, transport etc all they require to build such a device without using ANY fossil resources.

My bet is that they cannot do it, so called "renewable" "green" energy generators cannot be built without having to use fossil resources because those devices cannot produce enough energy to replace themselves, they are also totally dependent upon not just fossil resources but a high energy, high technology civilization with reliable electricity 24/7.

Another problem is that these devices require raw materials made from OIL like plastics, some raw materials like iron ore requirer a massive amount of energy to transform into steel, renewables are low energy devices of low density, you can't smelt steel or even melt glass with solar cells or wind turbines.

Yet another problem is we will have to use massive amounts of fossil fuels just to manufacture these devices adding even more C02 into the atmosphere which is exactly what we DON'T want to do!

So who will be the first to step up to the plate & produce a green, renewable eletric generator without using ANY FOSSIL RESOURCES?

Joe said...

Aloha Sheila,

The argument that we are using fossil fuels to produce renewable energy equipment is a 'straw man' argument. Every energy transition is based on the energy sources available at the time the transition began. Just because an energy source is used to produce the equipment to provide energy from another source does not make it an energy source that is essential forever. I challenge you to name one product of modern civilization that cannot be made from renewable energy, even in theory.

Your last sentence asks who will produce a renewable electric generator without using any fossil fuels? The answer is that it was done about 165 years ago, when the vast majority of the energy in use was from biomass. In 1850 it was easy to make an electric generator that used no fossil fuels. Modern electrical generators were in use by 1870, when the oil industry was a minor contributor to world energy supplies and natural gas was not even used. Anything that can be done with coal can be done with charcoal, usually better. Even today a huge amount of steel is manufactured in Brazil using biomass derived charcoal as fuel.

There are many good reasons to doubt the probability of a transition to renewable energy in time to prevent the collapse of our global industrial civilization. The scale, cost and time factors are all good reasons to be suspect. There are many other reasons to doubt renewable energy as a panacea, but the fact that we now use fossil energy to do just about everything, including manufacture renewable energy equipment, is not one of them.



Joe said...

Aloha Sheila,

The argument that we are using fossil fuels to produce renewable energy equipment is a 'straw man' argument. Every energy transition is based on the energy sources available at the time the transition began. Just because an energy source is used to produce the equipment to provide energy from another source does not make it an energy source that is essential forever. I challenge you to name one product of modern civilization that cannot be made from renewable energy, even in theory.

Your last sentence asks who will produce a renewable electric generator without using any fossil fuels? The answer is that it was done about 165 years ago, when the vast majority of the energy in use was from biomass. In 1850 it was easy to make an electric generator that used no fossil fuels. Modern electrical generators were in use by 1870, when the oil industry was a minor contributor to world energy supplies and natural gas was not even used. Anything that can be done with coal can be done with charcoal, usually better. Even today a huge amount of steel is manufactured in Brazil using biomass derived charcoal as fuel.

There are many good reasons to doubt the probability of a transition to renewable energy in time to prevent the collapse of our global industrial civilization. The scale, cost and time factors are all good reasons to be suspect. There are many other reasons to doubt renewable energy as a panacea, but the fact that we now use fossil energy to do just about everything, including manufacture renewable energy equipment, is not one of them.


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