Sunday, December 31, 2017

Peak México

"México is a poster child for the present schizophrenia."

The transformation of México in the second half of the 20th century reads like a fairy tale. The country went from being a tinhorn dictator puppet colony of the Great Powers — a lampoon backdrop in the films of Cantinflas — to a prosperous and trendy middle class democratic socialist country with less absolute poverty than the United States.

In recent years nearly as many USAnians have flocked to the medical centers, second home sites and loan-free universities of México as there are would-be gardeners and tradesmen slipping North. Not that long ago it appeared as though the two countries were in the process of exchanging populations.

In Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, William R. Catton called our modern humans Homo colossus — those among our kind living in industrial countries and consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels to motivate and control machines that do orders of magnitude more work than humans or animals could do otherwise. Homo colossus is gradually replacing Homo sapiens as industrial development spreads like a cancer across the Earth.
Fossil fuels artificially boosted carrying capacity for human occupancy, at least to outward appearances. It could never last.

Contrary to what Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis or other technoutopians might tell you, there is zero likelihood that current solar income can replace concentrates of ancient sunlight gathered and stored over millions of years. Nuclear power, with its dwindling supply-chain, nation-killing meltdowns, and Easy-Bake bomb potential, is a death wish. Renewables simply will not scale to a consumer society trying to fulfill the desires of seven billion Homo colossus. A reorganization is coming. 

One thing is certain. While Homo sapiens, with a stable population under one billion, might have stood a reasonable chance of being around for another two or three million years, Homo colossus hasn’t a prayer.

In 2004, the Astronomer Royal in Britain, Sir Martin Rees, assigned humanity about a 50/50 chance of surviving through the 21st century. He was being generous. Earth has already passed tipping points in seven of ten essential life support systems for humans — biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, ocean acidity, land fertility, and freshwater availability — and the other three — ozone, atmospheric aerosols and chemical/radioactive pollution — have yet to be fully quantified but may have already been exceeded as well.

In evolutionary biology a population bottleneck is where radical change to the environment causes a species to lose of all but the most hardy of its population; hardy, that is, in terms of the selection pressures arising from the change. If there are no sufficiently hardy individuals left, or the ones that manage to survive cannot reproduce sufficiently to repopulate, the species goes extinct. We are quickly approaching that reckoning but we have yet to understand what is happening, never mind change course.

México is a poster child for the present schizophrenia. On November 3rd the national oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), made headlines across the world: “Pemex makes México’s biggest onshore oil find in 15 years.” México’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto personally made that announcement, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his energy minister, Pemex’ chief executive, and a range of other government and union officials at the Tula refinery in Veracruz. He proudly announced that Pemex made its historic discovery by drilling its onshore Ixachi well near the municipality of Cosamaloapan, and that the overall field is believed to hold some 350 million barrels of proven, probable and possible reserves.

Pause for a second and consider that number. True, it is the biggest find in 15 years. Equally true it represents less than one year of the oil México produced at its peak, in 2003, and perhaps 18 months worth at present rates of production. In the United States, its largest trading partner, it would keep the lights on and the filling stations operating for all of 17 days, 18 hours and 20 minutes, unless it arrived at a holiday travel time.

But even the number 350 million is suspect. First, that number is “proven, probable and possible;” three very different categories. If it was all proven reserves, bankers would be lining up to lend capital to develop the find. Instead, México has had to go to Big Oil looking for venture partners, and dropped its expectations from a majority holding, to 49% and now 40% and still no takers.

México has a long history of remaining independent of the oil giants, going back to the 1930s, when Lázaro Cárdenas refused to be extorted by Franklin Roosevelt and built his own refineries. The Mexican miracle came in 1972, when fisherman Rudesindo Cantarell Jiménez complained to the authorities that his nets were clogged with black tar.
By 1981 the Cantarell complex was producing 1.16 million barrels per day (180,000 m3/d). However, the production rate dropped to 1 million barrels per day (160,000 m3/d) in 1995. The nitrogen injection project, including the largest nitrogen plant in the world, installed onshore at Atasta Campeche, started operating in 2000, and it increased the production rate to 1.6 million barrels per day (250,000 m3/d), to 1.9 million barrels per day (300,000 m3/d) in 2002 and to 2.1 million barrels per day (330,000 m3/d) of output in 2003, which ranked Cantarell the second fastest producing oil field in the world behind Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia. However, Cantarell had much smaller oil reserves than Ghawar, so production began to decline rapidly in the second half of the decade. Unfortunately, the nitrogen has migrated into the gas, lowering its heating value and thus, economic value, and soon will require treatment to remove the nitrogen from the gas, to be able to use the gas as a fuel.

Pemex spent US$6 billion in 2017 to arrest Cantarell’s decline at around 325,000 nitrogen-contaminated barrels per day but nothing can prevent eventual collapse of the field. The shortfall is having a negative effect on México’s annual government budget, its sovereign-credit rating, and the exchange rate of the peso (it dropped 25% just this week against an also-weakening dollar). México’s trade balance was 10.7 billion dollars in the red after the first 11 months of 2017, 50.6 percent of that from imported petroleum, which explains why the small discovery in Veracruz was so important to Peña Nieto. Earlier in the year an attempted auction of offshore leases — a political football punted away by every president prior to Peña Nieto — failed when no buyers showed up for the plays being offered. Another auction is scheduled for January.

The billions of pesos México had been receiving for crude export revenue once contributed as much as 40 percent of its budget. It paved roads, built parks and schools, and allowed still more exploration for new reserves. Now that figure has dropped to under 20 percent and the pinch is being felt at every level of society. The public has lost confidence in police and only 7 out of 100 crimes are reported. Of those reported, only 4.46 percent are caught and convicted. Police are unable or unwilling to stem gang violence.

“The high levels of violence not seen in years and the impunity with which crimes are treated put investment at risk,” a spokesman for the Mexican wine industry told the Financial Times of London. The director of the National Association of Private Transportation, which includes the main users of road freight transport, told the newspaper that it is not only the robberies, but that criminals “are selling these products in illegal markets below the price of production and compete with our products.”

Gang violence hurts tourism, México’s second cash cow. Rising petroleum prices will kill tourism, and not just in México. As one big field after another goes into terminal decline, and the best technology in the world cannot find more, squeeze more, or make more at a price anyone can afford, the airline industry will be one of the first to feel the higher prices. Bargain flights from Paris to Cancun may be replaced by train trips to mountain castles in Bavaria.

It is hard not to notice that all of México’s most popular tourist destinations lie closer to the sea than New York City or Miami. The most intense Atlantic Basin storm ever measured, Hurricane Wilma, hit the Mayan Riviera in 2005, dropping beachfront high-rises like dominoes.

How is the Mexican government responding? Drill, baby, drill.

When Peña Nieto beat populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by less than one percent in the election of 2006, he ended the long-running feud between national oil company champions and bankers by siding with the bankers. He introduced reforms to denationalize parts of Pemex and sell them off to the highest bidder. These reforms temporarily reinflated state revenues that had begun to falter after the 2003 peak and drove Peña Nieto’s popularity to a 6 percent lead over Lopez Obrador in the election of 2012.

In 2018, the two meet again in a grudge match with Obrador and his National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) now the favorite. Peña Nieto has become deeply unpopular for a series of conflict of interest scandals, the discredited investigation into the mass murder of 43 student protesters, a collapsing economy, a tepid response to major earthquakes, and general mistrust of police and other authorities’ abilities to keep people safe or provide even the most basic services. When the government stopped regulating retail oil prices in May, 2017, pump prices spiked 20 percent over the course of a weekend. Looting and riots followed.

Peña Nieto is betting the next election on scoring some big gains in the energy sector in 2018 and redeeming his bet to de-nationalize and de-regulate. But in 2013, a month before the Mexican Congress passed the constitutional changes that paved the way for the landmark opening of México’s reserves to foreign ownership, Lopez Obrador sent letters to chief executives at 10 international oil companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron among them, warning them against signing new contracts in México. If the recent failed auctions are any indication, oil company executives can read presidential polls as well as anyone. Why buy a former state asset that could be re-nationalized a few months later?

Peña Nieto’s Plan
Ultimately, the differences are a matter of degree, rather than direction. Peña Neto’s projected reforms would increase net output by soliciting investment in unconventional sources. Obrador would do the same, but without foreign ownership. Both candidates act as if they are ignorant of the Paris Agreement and the legal commitment México made to decarbonize its economy by 2050.

It is as if two thieves are standing outside a jewelry store. One says the best way to rob it is to break the window and stuff as much in your bag as you can before the police arrive. The other says the best way is to cut the alarm, sneak in the back and be quiet, then take your time filling your bag.
Obrador’s Plan

Either way, the robbery is still going down. And both thieves are wrong if they think they will get away with it.

Most Mexicans, like most USAnians, are unconcerned about climate change, and assume it affects someone else. Mexican mass media is as silent on the subject as CNN, Fox or MSNBC. That is because Mexican mass media is CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

Rather than do what must be done, close the wells and pipelines altogether and take advantage of its extraordinary solar resource, México has chosen to buck international scorn, keep pumping like there is no tomorrow and wait out the apocalypse. It won’t be pretty.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Big Bird takes the Prize

 In the fall of 2016 the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation made a bold move that had more than a few jaws hitting the floor.

“Some problems cannot be solved by grants of the size that foundations typically provide,” they said as they announced their 100&Change competition. They proposed to fund a single project with a one-time $100 million grant. The project, which would be chosen by a panel of judges after careful vetting, had to make real and measurable progress in solving some critical problem of our time.

On December 20, 2017, 16 months after its ground-shaking announcement, the competition was concluded. The winner was Elmo, Big Bird and the whole crew at Sesame Street. Their proposal was to massively scale up early childhood development programs for Syrian refugees.

When we learned of the competition we considered whether it would really be worth our time to compete. After mulling the idea for a few days, we decided it was. We did not seriously imagine we could win because we knew that the high stakes would draw in a lot of heavy hitters and the odds were with them. Indeed, the winner was someone whom MacArthur had already been contributing to regularly for decades. One of the requirements was to have some sort of track record showing you could count that many zeros and not lose any. This was not Afghanistan. They wanted a known quantity.

The team we assembled for our proposal were only small potatoes by comparison — a handful of educational non-profits with combined budgets of less than $3 million per year.

Our rationale for joining the race was because we knew it would force us to improve our thinking and fine-tune our approach. The critical problem of our time was for us, of course, climate change. We believed we could transform $100 million into not just “real and measurable progress” but potentially the whole enchilada — a complete and comprehensive solution.

The late Stephen Gaskin, borrowing from R. Buckminster Fuller, James Grier Miller and others, taught us early in the 70s that running energy through any system works to organize the system. “Attention equals energy,” he would say. This principle applies equally to pecking orders in birds or political parties, bureaucracies, commercial air travel, skill at poker, and disputes at the UN Security Council.

From this principle, we knew that the mere act of preparing a MacArthur submission would help tease out the strengths and weaknesses of our solution to climate change and if, in that process, we could fix any weaknesses or flaws, we would increase the odds of survival for all of us.

So it was that in early September 2016, we opened a Slack discussion and recruited our team. Brazilian May East (Gaia Education, Scotland) was the first on board. Architect Greg Ramsey (Village Habitat Design, USA), whose father coined the word “ecovillage” in 1975 followed, then forester Gloria Flora (US Biochar Initiative), developer Santiago Obarrio and “Biochar Bob” Cirino (CO2OL Design, Dominican Republic) and Emiliano Maletta (Bioenergy Crops, Spain). As Malcolm Gladwell says, it takes mavens, connectors, and marketers working together to make a project successful, and so we combined our own experience with the expertise, vision and dedication of this core group and with an added circle of advisors, including Frank Michael (Global Village), Liora Adler (Gaia University), Joe Brewer (Evolution Institute,, and Smart Ecologies ), Thomas Christoffersen (BIG Design Group), Tim Clarke and Robert Hall (ECOLISE), Kathleen Draper (International Biochar Initiative), Jan Lundberg (Culture Change), Bernd Neugebauer (Chak Ka Vergel), Virginia Thomson (independent financial advisor), Bryan Welsh (B the Change), and Rob Wheeler and Marian Zeitlin (Global Ecovillage Network).

Hyperwicked problems, which are inherently cross-cutting, cannot be solved by traditional Cartesian methods of breaking them into small bits. They have be to be tackled as wholes. A key decision we made from the start was to not “silo” our approach but to come at climate change holistically.

Solving for climate change involves addressing human population, food, water, the built environment, energy and economics — and the inertia of human behavior. We needed to work at planetary scale and see multidisciplinary, interconnected wholes within larger wholes. We need to “walk through walls” with a new genre of quantum solutioneering.

As Joe Brewer advises:
Few change practitioners treat social change with methodological rigor. They don’t study past behaviors to develop theoretical models about future change.
This means we need to transition every social institution on Earth from deterioration to regeneration — taking guidance and inspiration from nature by using the principles of biomimicry. Simply stated, it will take at least three to four decades to fully transition the infrastructure for transportation, urban buildings, supply chains, and business models for revenue that provide the financial life blood of transformation.
We could rely neither on strictly top-down government approaches nor on bottom-up grassroots approaches, but rather — and this was a conceptual breakthrough that came from engaging in this exercise — must come to rely upon microenterprise hubs as our primary delivery vehicle. We needed Capitalism 2.0, or more specifically, networked B-corporations whose first allegiance is to ecological benefits, then participant and shareholder profit.

We knew that while a $100 million grant might provide design, engineering, education, demonstrations, and viral marketing, to reach our goal would mean a program much bigger than $100 million. We would have to design something to be self-sustaining as it scaled. And because the times we live in are inherently fragile, coming at the end of the fossil fuel era to a world swamped with Ponzi’ed debt and in the early throes of climate Armageddon, whatever we did had to be designed to be inherently anti-fragile — it must thrive as systems all around it collapse.

We had one month in which to pull all that together and submit it, along with a short video, financial statements, IRS letters, authorizations by partners, memoranda of understanding, and much more.
What we proposed for our solution was both technical — biorefineries, climate ecoforestry, educational products and business structures — and ephemeral — a high degree of community cohesion, conscientiously constructed. That second piece was the glue that would hold everything together and make it grow, long after the seed was planted, in good times and bad.

Our proposal was perhaps too ambitious or outré for MacArthur’s judges. The finalists were all projects with simpler, less politically controversial subjects. To MacArthur’s lasting credit, all the proposals have now been gathered together and published to the web as an open library. We confess that although we have not yet read them all, many of the other proposals were just as good as ours, and a few were even better. We hope this library is closely perused by those searching for real solutions to many of the world’s seemingly most intractable problems.

We salute the Sesame Street Muppets and their partners, the International Rescue Committee’s Syrian Refugee program, and wish them success in fulfilling their appointed mission. Y’all are doing Jim Henson proud. The plan is to launch a new, regional version of Sesame Street that will be available to Syrian refugees and local kids across Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. It will be distributed over traditional television channels, the internet and mobile phones. It will also serve as an educational curriculum for childcare centers, health clinics and outreach workers visiting the shelters where refugees live. The workers will deliver books to kids and caregivers.

Our proposal for a Cool Lab is still floating in the contemplation-sphere. If you know someone with $100 million, we can still do this.


Note to our regular readers: we have been receiving many requests for recommendations of worthy projects, particularly involving biochar and climate change, that would be good to support this holiday giving season. We recommend three: Global Village Institute, International Biochar Initiative, and the #LetsRestore Campaign.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Matter of Degree

"Did we really imagine people would feel threatened by the number 2?"

USAnians are a very strange lot, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed on his road trip with Gustave de Baumont in 1831. The Bible-thumping, coon-skinned, populist utopians fascinated him. Tocqueville blithely compared the young country’s despotic democratic government, then hip-deep in the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, to a parent protective of “perpetual children.”

Anticipating Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent by 157 years, Tocqueville observed that the US brand of fervent fascism doesn’t try to break wills but rather bends them, allowing government to preside over people like “a flock of timid animals.” 

These timid animals nonetheless hunted the remnant bands of the First Nations like a wolf pack. Adult male scalps fetched about $100 in silver during Tocqueville’s visit, and about half that for women and children. Such hefty sums attracted those given to that particular skill-set and temperament.

Tocqueville said that USAnians with the most education and intelligence were left with two choices. They could join limited intellectual circles to explore the weighty and complex problems facing society, or they could use their superior talents to amass vast fortunes in the private sector (such as becoming scalpers). Tocqueville said that he did not know of any country where there was “less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America.” [Joshua Kaplan “Political Theory: The Classic Texts and their Continuing Relevance,” The Modern Scholar. 14 lectures (2005).]

When will these perpetual children come to grips with climate change? Perhaps it will come sifting through the ashes of their million-dollar mortgaged houses and lifetimes of keepsakes, or mucking through what is left of those after a biblical flood goes where none has gone before — perhaps then? Or perhaps, as good children, they will just go back to the Matrix and await the next FEMA check.
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.
— Morphius, The Matrix (1999)

It occurs to us that one of the flaws in climate messaging has to do with numbers. As Bill McKibben famously told Rolling Stone, “And as far as I know, there’s never been a big political campaign built around a scientific data point.” News flash: there still hasn’t. McKibben tried to make that number be 350, as in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, “above which we can’t have a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed or to which life on earth is adapted."

Unfortunately, by the time he said that, consumer culture had already blown through 350. Oops. That barrier fell in 1990, about the same time he wrote The End of History and we wrote Climate In Crisis. Today we are passing through 410, and moving up that sooty scale nearly twice as fast as we were in 1990.

It is hard to kick for a goal when the goal is behind you.

1975: The year the hockey stick met the blade.
In the UN climate conferences a new number is used — the number 2. That is a nice round number. At first it seems very non-threatening. It refers to an IPCC report’s consensus conclusion that exceeding a 2-degree Celsius increase in average global temperature starting from the 1940 baseline would be “dangerous” and should be avoided. Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the focus has shifted briefly to the more ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, if possible.

Regrettably that will not be possible. We are already a full degree above baseline and given the lag time between emissions and warming effect, 1.5 degrees is already in the rear-view and we are now passing 2.

Think of it like you are approaching an intersection in your car and the traffic light turns from green to yellow. You could brake or accelerate to make it through. You decide to step on the gas. Now you are committed. Even if you change your mind and suddenly hit the brakes you won’t stop the car before it is into the crossing, so the only way now is to keep going. We are in that pattern with 2 degrees. We hit the gas a few years ago and there is no stopping now. We will get to 2 degrees, even if nuclear war ended civilization tomorrow.

The authors of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, “Well below 2 °C: 
Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes,” Yangyang Xu of Texas A&M and Veerabhadran Ramanathan of Scripps, propose we classify any warming beyond 3 degrees as “catastrophic,” and beyond 5 degrees as “unknown.”

Xu and Ramanathan calculate a 50 percent probability that surface warming will catch up with legacy emissions enough to cross the dangerous threshold by mid-century, and a 5 percent probability of hitting 3 degrees by then. Would you get on an airplane if you thought there was a 5 percent chance that it was going to crash?

On present trajectory, the PNAS paper gives 50–50 odds we will be in catastrophic territory by the end of the century, and a 5 percent probability of being fully in the unknown. Recall for a moment we are not even to the “dangerous” level yet. If you live in Houston, San Juan, Santa Rosa, or Santa Claus’s North Pole workshop, baby you ain’t seen nothing yet.

A majority of USAnians, according a recent Yale survey, don’t see the climate issue as all that important. They are evenly divided on whether it will harm some places within the United States, but only 40% think they personally will be impacted.

Climate scientist Michael Mann, author of the famous “hockey stick” image some 30 years ago, complains that science literacy is too low in the US for most citizens to even gauge the danger. Long true of politicians and reporters, today even those who should know better — like weathermen and school teachers — are criminally ignorant. Mann says:
People will often ask, ‘What’s the tipping point?’ or ‘How much warming before we hit the tipping point?’ The answer is there is no one tipping point. That’s not how it works. Its not binary. We don’t go off a cliff. A much better analogy is we’re walking out onto a minefield. The farther we walk out into that minefield the greater likelihood we set off the explosives.


We are inclined now to conclude the problem really is with the numbers. Did we really imagine people would feel threatened by the number 2? Especially the generations raised on Sesame Street?

As we wrote 28 years ago in Climate in Crisis, in an average day most people on the planet experience more than a 2 degree change in temperature in the first few hours after the sun rises or sets — it is not scary to us. We often experience a change in temperature of more than 2 degrees as we enter or leave a modern office building or bank. How then can most people relate to 2 degrees, or 6 degrees, as an existential threat? The difference is between the global average and your personal skin, but we can relate to our skin, not to global averages.

To get a one degree increase, you have to heat a lot of ocean water and a lot of atmosphere. It took 18,000 years for the Earth to warm 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) from the last Ice Age to the present, about one half degree every thousand years. One degree in a single century is a substantially faster rate of warming, 20 times faster than the average.
At the end of the 21st century the Earth may be warmer than it is now by as much as another 9 degrees (5°C). That would be warmer than it has been in 1,000,000 years.
— Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do

 Fires, floods, hurricanes and submerged cities are more likely to activate dormant flight or fight responses deep in our reptilian brains. There must, at some point, come recognition of the soup we are slowly marinating in. 

Xu and Ramanathan recommend a “three-lever strategy” to limit warming: reducing carbon dioxide emissions to a net of zero; reducing emissions of short-lived but potent “super pollutants” such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons; and extracting and sequestering greenhouse gases from the air. 
Ultimately, we must thin the CO2 greenhouse blanket by removing the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere. Given the near-term risk of exceeding the dangerous to catastrophic thresholds, the timing for pulling these levers is a crucial issue. Ideally, these levers should be pulled immediately by 2020.
To limit warming to 2 degrees, we will need drawdown by some 1 trillion tons of CO2 equivalents before 2100 and bend the warming curve to a cooling trend. As we have written here, geoengineering can’t do that, but Natural Climate Solutions can.

If that doesn’t happen soon, it may be too late to avoid catastrophe. Or whatever comes after that.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Climate Bums

"The US is only pledging about 20% of its fair share. The EU is pledging about 50% of its fair share. China and India are both at more than 100%."

The curve we’ve been forced onto bends so steeply, that the pace of victory is part of victory itself. Winning slowly is basically the same thing as losing outright. We cannot afford to pursue past strategies, aimed at limited gains towards distant goals. In the face of both triumphant denialism and predatory delay, trying to achieve climate action by doing the same things, the same old ways, means defeat. It guarantees defeat.

Some of the better sessions of the Bonn climate talks brought out panels of scientists to debate some really tough problems. These are not the kinds of easy debates favored by clickbait media, such as the latest tasty placebo from Elon Musk or Bill Gates. These tackle the more difficult and nuanced issues like how to forge consensus among 7 billion people and to move rapidly to change the way we inhabit a real world — a world going up in smoke.

In these high altitude venues climate scientists must step out of their specialty and offer policymakers strategies we really can do right now given existing political frictions and lubricants. And then they have to contrast that with what will be required if we are going to survive as a species.

On the 6th day of the conference we went to a press conference by Climate Equity Reference Project (CERP) about a synthesis approach to equity benchmarking — a fancy way of saying we have to decide how best to ration the burden of rapid economic restructuring.

The press conference was to announce a report, Equity and the Ambition Ratchet — Towards A Meaningful 2018 Facilitative Dialogue prepared by the Equity/Effort-sharing Working Group of Climate Action Network International (CAN) with contributions from the scores of non-governmental organizations who attend UN climate conferences.
Fortunately, the Paris Agreement offers ways of securing increased ambition, while taking due account of ”means of implementation and support” and being conducted ”in the light of equity”
Ultimately, the challenges here will crystalize around the 2023 Global Stocktake, but the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue will set important precedents. Thus, it must pioneer a process for assessing the adequacy and fairness not only of collective ambition, but of individual country contributions as well.
To that end, Parties should prepare to justify their efforts as fair contributions to a shared 1.5°C global effort. They should do so in transparent ways, measuring their contributions against fundamental equity principles. If their contributions fall short, they must be prepared to quickly strengthen them.
This justice and equity collective voice is there to insist on the Rio Convention’s core social principles, and to then offer indicators most appropriate to measure success on those terms. 

The commitments captured in the first round of NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions — the Obama/Clinton voluntary pledge system — ed.] do not come close to keeping temperatures ”well below 2°C,” much less to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Even if all countries were to meet their commitments, the world would still be on track to a devastating 3°C temperature rise or more, with a real chance of tipping the global climate system into catastrophic runaway warming.

Imagine Earth having an atmosphere something like Venus.
Despite today’s unhappy political circumstances, this reality must be universally recognized and turned to action. We must cease to pretend that we are on track. The Parties must very soon increase ambition far beyond the Paris pledges. This increase must begin before 2020, and at the same time FD2018 must focus on ratcheting up the first round of NDCs.
But here is where the talks in Bonn really hit a wall. It is an all-too-familiar wall — one we also hit in Copenhagen, Paris and all the other COPs. Most governments (there are a few exceptions) are unwilling to shoulder more of the burden than they have to. Without any sanctions for low ambition or failing to meet targets, the inertia we’ve witnessed augurs a tragedy of the commons. CAN took a hard look at this and the various ways to bind countries to their fair share.

For now, the sanctions regime relies entirely on shaming.

If we must bring emissions down by 30–50 gigatons, what is the best apportionment? There are two ways to divide that: responsibility and capability.


The industrial world, one must acknowledge, got to where it is on the sweat of energy slaves. It got there on the other kind too, but those reparations belong in a separate discussion.
“We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power). Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels.”
— Tom Murphy, Do the Math 

“Every American thus has a veritable army of invisible servants, which is why even those below the official poverty line live, for the most part, lives far more comfortable and lavish with respect to energy and stuff than kings and queens of old (but obviously not as high in social status). Being long dead and pulled from the ground — and thus a bit zombie-esque — these energy slaves don’t complain, don’t sleep, and don’t need to be fed. However, as we are increasingly learning, they do inhale, exhale, and leave behind waste.
“This all raises the question — or at least should — of whether it might not be a good idea to set the fossil slaves free and let them rest, since they’re going away soon anyhow and when they do we will really need a livable planet. They don’t need jobs, and we don’t need dollars for happiness.”
— Nate Hagens, Bottleneck Foundation

How far back should we go to assign responsibility? To Javad Melikov’s 1863 Baku kerosene factory that caught the eye of the Nobel brothers? To 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled for “coal oil” under Seneca Reservation land in Pennsylvania? To James Watt’s 1776 coal-powered steam engine that more quickly and efficiently pumped water out of coal mines to sustain its fuel source?
Britain tried to keep secret how its machines were made, but people went there to learn about them and took the techniques back home. Sometimes they smuggled the machines out in rowboats to neighboring countries. The first countries after Britain to develop factories and railroads were Belgium, Switzerland, France, and the states that became Germany. Building a national railroad system proved an essential part of industrialization. Belgium began its railroads in 1834, France in 1842, Switzerland in 1847, and Germany in the 1850s.

Thanks largely to the railroad boom, by 1900 the United States had overtaken Britain in manufacturing, producing 24 percent of the world’s output. The Russian federation was by then supplying half the world’s petroleum from its Baku fields in Azerbaijan, where Melikov had made kerosene.

The CAN group proposed the question of responsibility be taken up by the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue with the idea of choosing one of these starting points:

“Responsibility since 1990.” This corresponds roughly to the time when negotiations for an international legal agreement to limit GHGs began in earnest and the risks of rising GHGs were acknowledged by the IPCC. The 1990 date is difficult to defend, given that the UN Framework Convention was itself being negotiated at that time, and its authors cannot reasonably be said to have had 1990 in mind when they inscribed the term “historical” into the text. Still, the 1990 case is arguably fair, but only in cases where the benchmark includes capability weighting. This is because historical responsibility before 1990 is highly correlated with national capability.

“Responsibility since 1950.” This date marks a useful middle setting. It defines a period in which the climate threat was known, in which responsibility is comprehensible in terms of human lifetimes, reflects roughly the useful lifetimes of much infrastructure, and avoids some of the historical discontinuities that occur when, for example, wars remake national boundaries.

“Responsibility since 1850.” This date defines responsibility as cumulative emissions since a date that roughly corresponds to the time at which carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion reached significant levels. This is also the earliest date for which plausible emissions data exist.

Another important consideration is whether a country’s responsibility should be calculated on the basis of production-based or consumption-based accounting. CAN offered an online Climate Equity Reference Calculator that could be toggled either way.

More precisely, a Calculator user selects equity-related settings relating to responsibility and capability, and other key parameters. These settings, taken together, define an “equity benchmark”. This benchmark is then used to estimate national “fair shares” of the global climate-related effort. Again, this effort includes not only mitigation (though most all of our attention is focused on mitigation) but also adaptation and loss & damage.



A second way to assign fair share would be to assess the capability of a country to reach a reasonable degree of well-being for its population (somewhere south of Sweden and north of Yemen). But should you exclude emissions corresponding to consumption below a particular income threshold because they arise from the provision of basic needs? The CAN group defined capability in terms of national income. And, as in tax policy, the key question became how progressively to account for income. CAN suggested four indicative choices worthy of the Dialogue discussions in 2018:

— The “No Progressivity” setting in which there is no income threshold below which individual income is exempted from national capability, either on the basis of a poverty exclusion or a development exclusion. In such a case, when calculating capability, each dollar of income — even for the poorest of the world’s people — counts as much as each dollar of the world’s richest. This approach is inconsistent with the at least mildly progressive perspective that virtually all societies have adopted for the purpose of income taxation, and is impossible to justify in equity terms.

— The “Low Progressivity” setting in which an income threshold is set, one that, while not high enough to be judged progressive in any meaningful sense, is significantly higher than 0. For example, $2,500 has been used to define a useful indicative “Low Progressivity” case.

— The “Medium Progressivity” setting in which the income threshold is significantly higher than $2,500. Rather, in “Medium Progressivity” cases, the income threshold is set at $7,500 (approximately $20/day). This level is just a bit above a global poverty line that reflects empirical observations, so it should actually be taken as a low estimate of “medium” progressivity, and can reasonably be said to represent a “development threshold” below which income is legitimately prioritized for basic living requirements.

— The “High Progressivity” setting in which the income threshold is set at the same “development threshold” level of $7,500 as in the “Medium Progressivity” case, with income above this threshold counting toward national capability at a steadily rising rate, until it reaches an luxury threshold (set for this analysis at $50,000), above which all income is counted towards national capability. These settings increase the overall progressivity of the income calculation just as a graduated tax schedule raises the progressivity of an income tax. Note that this is not an extravagantly progressive setting; the $50,000 figure falls below the income of the highest earning “one percent” of the global population.

The result was sketched in CAN’s pre-Paris report, below, where the national fair shares range is represented by the two green bars (shown here in per-capita terms) selected by the above decisions. This figure includes the 1990 / Low Progressivity benchmark, which is shown (in gray) for purposes of comparison.

That chart was then refined for COP22 Marrakech and again for COP23 Bonn, with a new dotted line bar that represents full domestic decarbonization in 2030. CAN produced two equity benchmarks (green bars) that bound the “fair share range” and a third benchmark (outside the agreed fair shares range) in which historical responsibility is calculated from 1990 and capacity considered in a less progressive manner (with a $2,500 per person per year poverty exemption threshold). This figure further shows (the two blue bars) the results of considering only capacity (with strong progressivity; light blue) or only historical responsibility (from 1850; dark blue), respectively.

What’s the point? 

The power of this approach comes from how it allows us to escape the pseudo-debate between, on the one hand, the claim that equity is an entirely subjective matter, a mere battle of opinions, and, on the other hand, the claim that one or another equity approach is the precisely “right one.” It does this by providing a quantitative framework within which explicit choices between well-specified approaches — e.g. more or less progressive responsibility and capability indexes — can be assessed and compared without being over-specified and reified.

The exercise also shows that no matter how you slice it, most people in the world — as represented by India and China — are taking responsibility and reducing their fair share. The rogue nations are the United States and the 28 countries of the European Union, taken collectively.

Regardless of whether you base equity on historical responsibility — even as recently as 1990 — or capacity to become more efficient, the US is only pledging about 20% of its fair share. The EU is pledging about 50% of its fair share. China and India are both at more than 100%. Report cards for each country are available from the Equity Workgroup website

What if no one cares?


The following day a #2020Don’tBeLate seminar sponsored by Mission 2020 and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation gave a 90-minute picture of the present consensus view of climate science and what that really implies. Speaking were Christiana Figueres, former head of UNFCCC, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, and Kevin Anderson, Chair of Energy and Climate Change, Tyndall Centre.

Figueres opened with the good news: $130 billion in green bonds issued this year; a dramatic price drop in clean energy — its CAPEX is now below OPEX for even the newest fossil plants, so there is really no economic excuse for not halting pipelines and coal trains and no business case to be made for either new or existing nuclear, oil, coal or gas.

Schellnhuber quipped:
The world is awash with money. You park it in the paradise, or Panama, whatever, you know? People have so much money they do not even know what to do with it, except avoiding taxes of course. That’s a big sport, huh? But otherwise what to do with it? So private money is available if one were to set up a public/private transformation fund.
Figueres handed off to Kevin Anderson to deliver the bad news. He reminded the audience that emissions have been steadily rising since 1990–27 years of abject failure for multilateral UN negotiations. In 2017 they will rise by a breathtaking two percent. Anderson:
The Pope captures this really well in his encyclical where he says “the alliance of technology and economics ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests… whereas any genuine attempt to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions.” Where are those romantic illusions? What are the real romantic illusions? A belief in naive and ephemeral text-book economics; an unshakeable confidence in technical utopia — as an engineer I am quite prone to that one; the deliberate neglect of time; faith in Machiavellian mathematics; and an implicit assumption that nature follows our rules. You’d think that after 13 billion years we’d know that nature will always win out.
My somewhat questionable interpretation from inside the climate community is that in developing 2°C emissions scenarios, we’ve applied questionable assumptions and fine-tuned our analysis to fit with political and economic sensibilities. Universities and NGOs have been corrupted by near-term power — we want to be at meetings in Davos, we want to be with the great and the good in our society, we fear questioning the dominant social paradigm — that is much more important than physics apparently — and we have a naive focus on particular pet technologies whether it is nuclear, wind or solar — its always a supply technology.
Anderson underscored the main point: we are not on track to achieve the principal aim of the Paris climate agreement, keeping global temperature rise to well below 2°C while pursuing 1.5°C. Greater ambition is required. Every few years a consensus report of 2000 scientists (IPCC) pronounces what is technically required to stay within the safe operating boundaries of our climate system. Every time it concludes we are already in great danger and must act quickly.

We must bend the curve away from adding carbon to the atmosphere each year — currently a concave curve pointing up — to subtracting carbon — a convex curve peaking out and trending down. Anderson says to have a realistic chance of going on living, we need to reach a 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or, better, a 20 percent decline slope from 2037 (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).

This kind of curve will not be easily achieved. An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the number of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the number of gas-powered engines. Half the number of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture.

Anderson says the IPCC got weak knees just thinking about that so Working Group 3 bent the curve back up a bit. The red zone in its chart offers more attractive narratives to policymakers — really just modest tweaks to business as usual.

How can IPCC justify staying above the required curve so long? Anderson says it does that by conjuring up nonexistent “negative emissions technologies” that will be sprinkled around the planet like fairy dust (yellow zone) to reclaim over the long term the fossil emissions we are allowing ourselves in short term (and indeed subsidizing delivery of to the tune of 1 trillion dollars per year).

Anderson says the amount of drawdown required for the fairy dust technologies is roughly equal to the natural carbon absorption capacity of Earth’s biosphere. In other words, by 2040 or thereabouts we will need another Earth to absorb the extra pollution we’ll be adding during the next 22 years.

The technology — we do not know if it will work, we are not really sure what it will look like, but we are relying on it already, in our own governments’ position in this policy debate.… If these things don’t work we are locking ourselves into a 3 to 5 degree future.

Instead of that, Anderson proposes industrial countries reduce emissions at 10% or more, per year, starting now, with the aim of a greater than 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025 (7 years from now) and to be fully decarbonized in the energy sector by around 2035–40. For the non-OECD countries he extends the timeline for an extra decade but fully decarbonized by 2050.

John Schellnhuber agreed we have a have a very short time to respond. If we waste time we have to bend the curve much more dramatically. We need to peak GHG emissions by 2020 and halve emissions every decade thereafter.

But nothing works in isolation. Johan Rockstrom reminded the audience:
There is no such thing as delivering on Paris without the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and there is no such thing as achieving the SDGs without succeeding on Paris, and there is very strong scientific support for this.

Rockstrom observed that we have entered a curve in the solar energy build-out where capacity doubles every 5.4 years. When you have only small numbers — all renewables are 2 percent or less of world energy capacity — that doubling doesn’t seem like much, but follow that curve out a few more doublings. On the present trajectory the energy sector will achieve 100% renewables by 2045. We need the same kind of revolution in food production and buildings, but that will be coming.

And if we do all of this — an energy revolution, an agricultural revolution a technology revolution and a sustainability revolution — we have a 66% chance of staying under 2 degrees.

Prodded by Christiana Fiqueres saying she did not agree with his critique of IPCC, Kevin Anderson challenged Rockstrom’s rosy picture of a renewables revolution.
We are really talking about shifting the productive capacity of society from what it does today and for at least the next 50 years to responding to the climate challenge. Renewables are really important but renewables have really only been in addition to other fuels so far, they have not been substituting, and the climate does not care about renewables — of course I am very much in favor of them. It does not care about energy efficiency. All it cares about is how much carbon you are putting into it. And therefore we have to close down the incumbents. At the moment, every single year we burn more peat, more oil, more gas, more coal. We have never in human history, post-industrial revolution, seen a substitution in energy types at the global level.
Both Rockstrom and Figueres challenged this, and it took John Schellnhuber to give the final word:
We all adopted after the Second World War a culture of convenience and consumption. This is simply the wrong pattern. Along that pattern there is no solution to the climate crisis and to the SDGs.
In principle there is a simple narrative for modernizing our society. It would be renewables, plus distributed storage, plus electro-mobility, plus a cap on air travelling — we have to reduce the flights simply, there is no other way — plus dietary change, and of course, we have to change the construction sector completely. We have to get rid of cement and we have to return to wooden buildings once again.
Under the Paris Agreement the first quarter of 2020 will be the appointed time nations come together to increase ambition. That year (as is each year) is the last time we have to change course before we lock in greater catastrophe. In the run-up to that meeting, next year’s UN agenda will feature the Facilitative Dialogue (#FD2018) to navigate the political minefield our guilty knowledge has strewn.

Albert Bates is an Emergency Planetary Technician, founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (, and Chief Permaculture Officer for eCO2, a COOL DESIGN services company focusing on climate recovery strategies. Please consider supporting this work by becoming a patron at

Sunday, December 3, 2017


"Physical realities are very slow to change. Minds can change instantly."

Bapu's Charkha by Margaret Bourke-White

But without him how could Hitler have condemned them at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone.
He’s the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war
And without him all this killing can’t go on.

He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away, no more.
They come from him, and you, and me
And brothers can’t you see?
This is not the way we put an end to war.

— Buffy St. Marie, Universal Soldier, 1964

We are sitting out a four hour plane transfer in Abu Dhabi, moving between the UN climate conference in Bonn and the international permaculture conference in Hyderabad, and having time, we’ve listened to the exchange between Guy McPherson and Paul Beckwith via the Nature Bats Last site.

While we may have cause to disagree with both speakers, that does not mean we would follow the fashionable hysteria now making the rounds, of stopping our ears to anything we might disagree with, especially on the basis of its attribution. Rather, we’d prefer to open up to foreign ideas on the assumption that not everything we think we know is right, and more probably there are gaps or errors in our thinking that stand in need of correction.

We disagree with Beckwith, for instance, on the issue of geoengineering. We disagree with McPherson on the shape of the climate change curve and consequently the timing of certain benchmarks. Either could be more right than we are, but we don’t think so.

We have previously posted here that geoengineering is not required to re-stabilize Earth’s climate to the conditions in which mammals such as ourselves evolved. That should really not be an issue at this point.

The point was recently made again by a team of 32 distinguished scientists from 6 countries looking at Natural Climate Solutions. While climate change is indeed an existential threat displaying a nasty exponent of acceleration, it is yet reversible if we humans will make a course correction at once. It is not a question of whether we can, but whether we will. The question turns not on changing physical realities but on changing minds. Physical realities are very slow to change. Minds can change instantly.

As Beckwith and McPherson laid out their battle lines, we found ourselves siding with McPherson in his choice of weapons. He could have challenged the technology Beckwith was favoring, but instead he challenged the philosophy.
Paul Beckwith: I think we need to apply solar radiation management techniques and carbon dioxide removal techniques in order to stabilize the climate system. That is not to say that we don’t need to slash fossil fuel emissions. And we will know that governments are serious about that when we see fossil fuels start to go away.
Martin Halwell: You are a believer in geoengineering?
Paul Beckwith: Well I think it is absolutely necessary. Whether it will work or not is a separate question but I think we have to try.
Guy McPherson: In some ways we’ve been geoengineering since we turned a shovel, since we turned the first blade of earth and released carbon dioxide to the air. And certainly we are geoengineering when we crank up our internal combustion engines and turn on the lights by firing up a coal fired-powered plant. But I think what we are talking about here is something new and different, geoengineering to do something to reverse what the past geoengineering has done, has brought us to. 
And I think the problem has always been doing. You know we keep doing and doing and doing. It is that doing that has us at the edge of the abyss here. And somehow continued doing at the large scale isn’t the answer that we are wishing for. I don’t think we can predict the results, reliably, of solar radiation management, for instance.
And I think this is just desperate times calling for desperate measures — continued doing so we can keep doing what we’ve been doing for some 267 years, since the beginning of the industrial revolution. I just don’t see things positive coming out of that.
The conversation reminded us of something Geshe Michael Roach said in The Diamond Cutter:
The flame of a butter lamp, supported by a thin plant wick, flares and then quickly dies out. Caused things, each supported by their various causes and conditions, also go through a continuous process of rising and quickly dying out. An illusion is something that looks different than something that is actually there. Things brought about by causes also appear to exist in and of themselves to a mistaken state of mind. Dew vanishes quickly. Things with causes are the same. They die away speedily without lasting even into the second instant of their existence. 
Lightning flashes and dies out quickly. Caused things too, rise and die out quickly, depending on the conditions that assembled to bring them about. Clouds are something that gather and fade in the sky depending on the wishes of the serpent beings and such. Things brought about by causes are the same. Depending on the influences of imprints which are either the same for the various members of a group or not, they rise and die out.
Your life will end because you were born and no further reason is needed.
We are passing through the Emirates on our way to India from the COP-23 Climate Conference in Bonn. As Christer Söderberg pointed out, the effort being made at these events is best summed up in three words:
“Bula”, “Vinaka”, and “Talanoa”, a heartfelt and warmly expressed gift of language from the Fiji Islands, hosts for this COP 23: “Bula”: Welcome (also the word for “Life”), “Vinaka”: Thank you, and “Talanoa”: Let’s talk, with deep listening and respect to arrive at a consensus. These three words might be making a bigger contribution to the process than we are ready to admit.
It was on Monday of the second week that a new report from Carbon Brief was announced saying that emissions during 2017 were set to rise two percent. Furthermore, the present “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC’s) towards emission reductions agreed during the COP 21 in Paris in 2015 were only enough to cover some 30% of what is necessary to keep the global mean temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius, now considerably farther from the ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees. Things were not good, and not getting better, the light at the end of the tunnel suddenly seemed very far away.
How do we combine continued economic growth in a fossil fuel driven economy while reducing the emissions caused by those same fossil fuels?
We don’t. That is the basic problem. These two goals cannot co-exist, and there is only one choice….
We began with a quote from Universal Soldier because in that Buffy St. Marie sang a very simple truth. For peace to prevail, no more is needed than the willingness of young men and women to turn their back on military conscription. 

Like thousands of other 17-year-olds, we listened to that call in 1964 and registered as a C.O. Thank you for your service conscientious objectors. You are welcome to board through the priority lane.

For the Anthropocene to be aborted and the Holocene to return no more is needed than to recover the ways of habitation that we, the two-legged ones, practiced in harmony with the natural world for 200,000 years. We can possibly even keep some of our favorite inventions, if we do so gracefully.

It is best to recall as we approach the major holiday season of the Judeo-Christian calendar that in those traditions consumerism was not intended to be venerated, much less worshiped.

This is at the core of permaculture. To achieve sustainability requires little more than to practice sustainability. Universally. Now. It is really very simple. It is not about what we do but how we be. We merely withdraw support for the death machine and stand back.




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