Sunday, December 29, 2019

Climate Games

"We should feel fortunate to have arrived at such a moment and to have witnessed the peak, all to a rock soundtrack…"

In his 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility, George F. Will recalled Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1993 statement that “ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance.” This seems to be a condition we find ourselves in today, which I suppose was Will’s point.

This past week I was being interviewed for a popular podcast and newsletter and the conversation drifted into the nexus between ocean microplastic and climate change (the connection, which runs through whales, has to do with trophic cascades). Suddenly, the host broke in and cut me off mid-sentence. “I should have warned you before,” he said. “I may even agree with you, but we cannot talk about climate change.”

It took me a minute to recompose myself before continuing with the taping. I was thinking, “Do I confront this head-on and stick up for the science, or do I just shut up and move on?” I decided to zip my lip and try to find a way through the interview without picking a fight right then. After all, I could sympathize with the guy. He knew that any time climate change came up in his mass media outlet, howls of protest from his audience drowned out anything that was substantive or worth learning about. 

Two days before, I had been having a talk with the publisher of one of my books, also about climate change. She was trying to find some way to improve our marketing because sales were slack. I suggested focusing on foreign markets, and leaving US readers to just wallow in their ignorance. She was not willing to do that, but I suspect that her reluctance was more likely because she didn’t travel as much as I do and so didn’t grok the attitude shift once you get some distance outside US borders.

I was only just home from the recent UN conference in Madrid, where climate in all its nuances, policy and implications was the subject of broad discussions that bridged all manner of national, ethnic and political differences. Nobody there was asking if climate change was real. Nobody was challenging the stark power of the crisis. The discussion there was how we muster the financial and social tools to actually change trajectory before it is too late for puny humans to even matter any more.

But then I seemed to have entered a purple haze fog bank just as the Atlantic coastline of North America came into view. The fog carried a spell of obfuscation, bewitching and bewildering all public discourse. Seemingly sane people had turned into blithering idiots who accorded more credibility to fiction than to science. Fairy tales were being given equal time with near term human extinction. 

We know within a reasonable boundary for error that at 1.5 degrees of warming (I am using Celsius, by the way, so anyone still desperately clinging to the English Imperial measurement system after even England switched to metric in 1965… get used to it) will expose 132.5 million people to such extreme drought and 340 million to such high coastal inundation they will likely have to migrate. At two degrees those numbers are 194.5 million and 630 million, respectively. 

Do we imagine that we can simply wall all those people in place? Or maybe frighten them into staying to starve or drown by caging their children? This is the kind of degeneracy that politics has adopted in order to insist upon climate denialism.

I grow weary of having the same conversation over and over. No, the warming is not caused by the sunspot cycle. No, that chart of yours showing the current temperature anomaly is normal for interglacials has been doctored. Why do people insist on believing such garbage? I feel like John Wood’s character, Doctor Falken, in WarGames (1983) who, realizing that artificial intelligence would eventually take control of our weapons of mass destruction and kill us all, just packed up and went off to an island to become a hermit. Except this is too important, and I feel some sense of duty to continue voicing truth, whether it is heard or not.

Next week I turn 73. Back in 1947, the world was a very different place. In a sense, humans were at the top of their game. Fascism seemed to have been conquered, at least in Western Europe and Japan, the US had emerged as a global military empire, as had the Soviet Union. The light sweet crude treasures of the Middle East had been uncorked like champagne to supply an exponential spurt of industrial growth and a consumer culture, into which the Baby Boom was born. I suppose I should feel fortunate to have arrived at such a moment and to have witnessed the peak of human extent and prowess, all to a soundtrack of doo-op, Motown, rockabilly, folksong, psychedelic and disco — Elvis, Jimi and Janis.

If I gaze in the other direction, ahead, I see a very different horizon. And in fairness, maybe that is why we avert our gaze. And maybe that’s all right.

Well, that’s all right now mama
That’s all right with you
That’s all right now mama, just anyway you do
That’s all right, that’s all right
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do
— Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (1946)

Thanks to everyone who helped me on my research gathering wanderings and writing time in 2019. 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, December 22, 2019

Our Genetic Timebomb

"The yaksha asked: “What is the greatest surprise?” Yudhisthira replied: “People die every day, making us aware that men are mortal. Yet we live, work, play, plan, etc., as if assuming we are immortal. What is more surprising than that?
— The Mahabharata"

Every few days or weeks, Rob Mielcarski posts to his Un-Denial blog some or another nuance to the Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory of Varki and Brower (2013). If you are not aware of MORT, the idea in a nutshell is that somewhere in the evolution of human neurobiology there came a moment when we were so freaked out by recognition of our own mortality (after ritualistically consuming a paranoia-inducing mushroom like Amanita muscaria perhaps), that we hard-wired a capacity to deny our own mortality and take on blind faith that every-day-reality is too unreliable to put complete trust in.

In the original, unfinished paper, the late Danny Brower explained MORT this way:
“We are polluting the earth and changing the climate in ways that we can’t predict, and likely at some point, can’t easily reverse. If we’re so smart, why do we continue to sow the seeds for our eventual destruction? Because we are saddled with a brain that is designed by selection to cope with the ultimate disaster (death) by denying that it will occur, and so we treat other impending disasters by denying that they will ever happen ……Indeed, it is arguable that we are destined ultimately to destroy ourselves as a species.”
In a recent chapter for Shackelford and Zeigler-Hill (eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Death, Evolutionary Psychology (Springer 2019), Ajit Varki riffs on Brower’s idea:

Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species — including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants, and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One collection of such related features is our remarkable ability for ignoring or denying reality in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias, and irrational risk-taking behavior (herein collectively called “reality denial”). Such traits should be maladaptive for reproductive success when they first appear as consistent features in individuals of any species. Meanwhile, available data suggest that self-awareness (knowledge of one’s own personhood) and basic theory of mind (ToM, also termed mind-reading, intentionality, etc.) have evolved independently several times, particularly in the same kinds of species mentioned above. Despite a long-standing opportunity spanning tens of millions of years, only humans appear to have gone on to evolve an extended ToM (multilevel intentionality), a trait required for optimal expression of many other unusual cognitive attributes of our species, such as advanced linguistic communication and cumulative cooperative culture.


Most human behaviors exist in other species on a continuum of development, as one would expect from evolution. But religion appears to be a well-established near universal only in human cultures and there are many obvious fitness advantages that have been discussed by others. But most of these advantages should not require a belief in life after death. Nevertheless, almost all religions have at their core some form of such afterlife beliefs, which would serve as another mechanism to blunt the impact of mortality salience. Of course, atheists do not live in constant fear of their mortality, so the underlying reality denial appears to be the primary mechanism.


Could the well-known human craving for mind-altering substances also be partly due to the need to escape reality? Could the same be true of the positive value of meditation methods that focus on mindfulness of the present, or the shutting out of irksome reality? Conversely, could episodic panic attacks represent a sudden failure of the neural mechanisms of reality denial? 

Mielcarski, following in the footsteps of Brower and Varki, says that it is impossible for high intelligence to exist without reality denial. At the same time, reality denial is a ticking time bomb embedded into the entire human experiment. Reality denial is what stands between our existential climate emergency and the simple, relatively cost-free, natural climate solutions I have been describing here for the past 532 posts or in the prior two decades of publishing the quarterly Natural Rights in hard copy. Reality denial is what crashed the recent COP25 climate conference in Madrid, pushing off a hard deadline imposed by physical reality. Reality denial is what allowed the UK to re-empower Boris Johnson, US to elect Trump, Brazil to elect Bolsonaro, India to elevate Modi, and so forth. All of those nasty tendencies to act counter to our own best interest are programmed into the central processing unit in our genetic mainframe. It is not like we can go in and do a bug-patch. This is not software. The MORT trait passes whole and entire in our mitochondria every time one of our cells divides.

If that is not depressing enough, Homo sapiens have a second evolutionary trait that could guarantee our extinction should MORT prove inadequate to the task.

That trait is tribalism.

In most of its manifestations it seems harmless enough. The family gathered around the dinner table. Football rivalries. A neighborhood barbecue. A celebration of ethnic heritage. Kneeling in prayer under stained-glass windows.
ut tribalism is also the street protests over Modi’s Muslim quotas. Babies crying and children dying in cages in Texas. Blue Collar against White Collar. Communist and Capitalist. Catholic against Protestant. Right and Left. Red or Blue. Harvard vs. Yale. Tutsi against Hutu. Crips and Bloods. Crise anglophone in Cameroon. Small differences in skin pigmentation. Different dialects of the same language. Differences in social theory. Us. Them.
In evolutionary biology it is a common strategy: safety in numbers; pack hunting; clustered quarters for protection from night predators. Two-leggeds are no different in this respect from zebras crossing a river of crocodiles, a troop of monkeys filling a tree, a herd of buffalo enclosing their young, or a lion pride circling a lone gazelle.
We tribe.
When we sacrifice for our tribe we are rewarded. When we offend our tribe we are punished. The tribe is order. The tribe is security. The tribe is identity.
The tribe is also an extinction time-bomb. Its benefits are overshadowed by its destructive potential. “USA first” is President Cobblepot’s justification for pulling out of the Paris Agreement. When he appeared at the United Nations and told every nation they should be seeking only their own interests there, he rowed against the current of 70 years of a fragile but expanding multilateralism. Now there are many who feel empowered to pick up oars and row with him. Witness the coming Scottish vote to withdraw from the UK.
In his Christmas blog, Mielcarski draws upon a year-end essay in the Megacancer blog that propounds a notion that humans are just one of many living organisms driven by the need to gather energy, expand population, and gather more energy,
Humans should never think of themselves as smart or intelligent, they’re simply a thermodynamic event maintaining homeostasis through gradient reduction. Their entire mentality serves energy/wealth acquisition, consumption and reproduction. Being a social mammal (obtaining energy as a group) they are hierarchically organized and are constantly striving to improve their social standing by whatever means possible (if they haven’t yet seen the futility in such efforts). Those able to control the most money/energy are admired and envied by their sycophants while those with less success are regularly scorned and often deemed unworthy of reproduction or even living. Just as the human civilization will enslave, consume and/or deprive other species of their ability to live and reproduce, so too wealthy humans will enslave less avaricious humans and use them for self-enrichment.
I confess a jaundiced view towards this analysis because it seems boxed into a particular worldview derived from ancient desert religions engaged in ritual conquest and despoliation. We don’t need to adopt that model any more than we need to keep ready-standby militaries in times of peace. That is just inertia, Mr. Obama.
You can point to acquisitive, expansionist, competitive, wasteful patterns of the white Euroamerican tribe, or you can point to sharing, self-limiting, self-effacing patterns of some indigenous societies that enjoyed thousands of years without hunger or war. The distinction lies between a juvenile r-sere ecosystem and a mature k-sere ecosystem. By fixing on the juvenile stage, you assume there is no later stage of cultural evolution awaiting greater maturity.
If we have any hope to survive, or to save the myriad other species we are now in the process of destroying, we need to somehow overcome these two traits — reality-denial and tribal loyalty — with a stronger counter-program of k-sere culture, elegantly interconnected, complex, and diverse. Before we pack our sons off to Afghanistan or Syria we might first ask whom they are being sent to kill, and why? When we kneel in prayer, we should appeal to the Almighty for guidance in better loving our fellow creatures, of all colors, beliefs, and languages, as well as those with fins, and wings, and roots in the ground.
For our guiding credo, we could do worse than to adopt something approaching the eloquence of Sibelius’ national anthem of Finland:
This is my song, O God of all the nations
A song of peace, for lands afar and mine
This is my home, the country where my heart is
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine
Oh hear my song, thou God of all the nations
A song of peace for their land and for mine
— Jean Sibelius, 1899

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. In this season of giving and receiving gratitude, please help if you can.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Our Final Exam in Madrid

"Why are we hauling giant container shiploads of Christmas decorations from Vietnam to England? Don’t the English know how to make decorations?"

Greta Thunberg, after image by Adam Ferris
At this writing, negotiators struggle to get the most out of a relatively ambition-free meeting of the parties to the UN’s Paris Agreement. They’ll burn the candles late into the night as they attempt to craft something more press-release-worthy than what they have at the moment.

Draft Agreement 1/CP.25, for instance, calls for all Parties to revise and enhance their Nationally Determined Commitments — their mitigation and adaptation intentions — by October 2020. Regrettably, the draft is not framed as a mandate, merely as advice. It is possible to hope it will be revised to include at least a mandate for the Secretariat to calculate the size of the gap between all nations’ pledges in aggregate and the threshold for human survival, in time for pledge revision at the Paris-mandated 5-year “stocktake” at COP26 next year in Glasgow. In any event, public interest groups like Carbon Tracker and Climate Action Network will dependably be totaling the deficit.

Al Gore describes atmospheric rivers and how they fuel California wildfires.
It is good to see ocean ecosystems finally mentioned in some draft provisions. In his public slide show, Al Gore mentioned carbon farming and regenerative agriculture for possibly the first time. The scientific wing of the the UN, the IPCC, produced a trio of reports in the past 18 months to underscore why all of these areas require attention. 

Missing from the discussions are any revisions to exemption for aviation and maritime emissions that represent the largest loophole in the Paris treaty. At a side event on shipping hosted at the airport Marriott, I learned that fuel efficiency for cargo ships had seen a 29% improvement between 2008 and 2015. Of course, one needs to keep in mind Jevons Paradox. Reduced costs bring greater use, and long-haul ocean shipping is expected to continue its exponential growth well into this century. It is unlikely it will be supplanted to any noticeable degree by sail cargo or by offshore hydrogen refueling stations. Asked about whether he thought e-ships would take over seaways the way e-vehicles are taking over highways, the spokesman for shipping giant BIMCO said that hauling Christmas decorations from Vietnam to England has different energy requirements than hauling marble from Brazil to France. Perhaps he is just not familiar with Archimedes’ Principle. The better question might be why are we hauling giant container shiploads of Christmas decorations from Vietnam to England. Don’t the English know how to make decorations?

Loss and Damage

Indemnity for humanitarian loss and damage to property continues to founder on the shoals of deeply divided views about historic responsibilities and a fair deal towards the victims. Personally I see the issue as the rage stage of grieving — blame the bastards who caused it, like the “wealthy,” “developed” countries who through slave trade, sea power, colonialism, and outright theft managed to become “wealthy” (read morally impoverished) and overdeveloped (with abysmal happiness quotients). The Two-Thirds world still seems to envy the One-Third’s addiction to consumerism, jingoism, and racist exceptionalism and want to make up for lost time if they can just get a few more loans or javelin missiles.

The First World players in this blame game have not done themselves any favors by stonewalling, claiming there is no such thing as historic guilt — it is all contextual to the period. I seem to recall Bill Cosby adopted a similar philosophy about sexual mores in the Sixties. How did that go?

Al Gore told a packed auditorium that only since the 1970s have fossil emissions tipped the scales into climate weirding. Before that, the main culprit auguring climate change was land use change. Recall Sumaria, Egypt, China, and other great powers laid low by bad stewardship such as cutting down their forests or salting their soils. We all bear historical, genetic responsibility for what has happened. 

Instead of denying culpability, heel draggers like the US, Canada, and Australia might have put the better question: which nations are recklessly causing the climate emergency now? Which have uncontrolled population growth (Africa)? Which insist on more coal-burning power stations (India)? Which are opening trillion-cubic meter pipelines to ship oil and gas for the next 30 years (Russia and China)? Which nations are fishing the oceans to extinction? Cutting down rainforests? Over-farming fragile landscapes?

But honestly, this blame game is just a huge waste of time and effort. 

Sure we all want to lend a hand to those in dire need, but having pulled a friend from the ledge what can we do if they keep running to jump off it again? 

Can we resettle flood victims in flood plains or drought victims in soon-to-be deserts? Why do we keep spending aid money to dispense cheap plastic stuff like water bottles and tarp shelters that will eventually kill marine mammals? 

Greenland and Antarctica right now have added the equivalent of 1 meter of water over the Iberian peninsula — the land area of Spain and Portugal combined. That will eventually erase low lying nations like Kiribati, the Marshalls, and Bangladesh. To ship aid like dike-building equipment to such disaster zones is a fool’s errand. Those folks need to move to higher ground. 

This is an emergency and everyone has to get on the same page. We have to consider some rational limit to humanitarian aid; some element of triage. We cannot insure the unsustainable from unsustainability. Loss and Damage provisions need tough love.

Which brings me back to the little saint.

Captains Courageous

At a finance side event I listened to Rob Topol, the 5G project manager at INTEL quote Confucius: If you want to prosper in one year, plant rice. If you want to prosper for ten years, plant trees. If you want to do well over 100 years, teach a child. Maybe, like Sweden, you should teach them all fluency in a second language by the time they are 15 and educate them on climate science.

As I walked into the Blue Zone one day, I saw a huge convergence of journalists and delegates jogging towards a single location just past the place they give you free apples and chocolate bars and across from the Coffee Bike. There was a large crowd all reaching their cellphones up over the circle to try to get a picture of something at the center of the scrum. A little girl there, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment she must be St. Greta.

More rapid than eagles her coursers they came. Surrounded by her teenage cadre of School Strikers, and around them her UNFCCC escorts and a burly security detail, the human wedge tried to worm its way to an exit. And still the crowd pushed in, reaching for relics — a hair from her head, a thread from her hem, a look from her eyes into their iPhone. Eyes downward, head lowered, hood drawn over her brow, she was borne forward like the Beatles in A Hard Days Night. This is now her world — Gretamania.

Drawing on the interviews David Wallace Wells did for New York Magazine when Ms. Thunberg was in New York for the Climate Action Summit last August, David Roberts at Vox wrote a piece called, “Why the right’s usual smears don’t work on Greta Thunberg — she keeps the focus on science, and they hate it.”

Roberts says of Wallace-Wells, “He taps into the heady sense of a movement exploding but also offers a clear glimpse of the intently focused, achingly vulnerable teenager who finds herself at its white-hot center.” Roberts goes on:
Right-wing media’s first instinct is to smear the messenger, to find some behavior on which to hang a charge of hypocrisy or some venal motive that allegedly undercuts moral authority. They have done it to everyone who has stuck their head up on climate change (beginning, famously, with Al Gore) for many decades now, snooping through stolen emails, filing lawsuits, and ruining careers. 
They have also been doing it to David Wallace-Wells.
But this is where Thunberg’s autism has proven, as she has put it, a kind of superpower. She has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that makes her indifferent, often blind, to social cues and incentives as well as inclined to focus intently on a single subject, a tendency Thunberg says is exacerbated by obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Joan of Arc heard voices, had supernatural premonitions, and, given command of the French armies at age 16, inspired the citizens of Orléans to raise urban militias and rally behind the troops, breaking a 2-year seige in 9 days, expelling the English, and crowning King Charles VII. Joan’s story does not end happily, however. She was captured and burned at the stake by the English at age 19. If we love our superhuman heroines, we also like to slay them.
As Wallace-Wells notes, Thunberg fell into a depression when she was younger, after she learned about climate change, and spent a few friendless years eating and speaking little, barely motivated to leave the house. In her own words, her climate activism gave her a sense of focus and meaning that helped lift her out of depression. 
Witness Thunberg’s utterly indifferent reaction to the plaudits lavished on her by congressional Democrats. “Please save your praise,” she said. “We don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it. It doesn’t lead to anything.” 
She’s not intimidated or dazzled by social hierarchy. She just drags the focus, again and again, back to her fixation, what the grown-ups don’t want to talk about: the need for immediate action and their long-standing failure to take any.
C. Söderberg teaching biochar basics in the Green Zone
When Time picked her for its annual cover, President Cobblepot tweeted. “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!”

“A teenager working on her anger management problem,” read a new version of her Twitter biography. “Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

“Trump hasn’t been roasted that thoroughly since the last time he locked himself in his tanning bed.” — JIMMY KIMMEL

After she delivered her “house on fire” speech at the United Nations in September, President Cobblepot tweeted a clip of her speech with the seemingly sarcastic message: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

Thunberg changed her Twitter biography to, “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”
“That’s how you know that these are strange times. In one room, Trump is going after a 16-year-old on Twitter; in the other room, Melania is talking about the perils of cyberbullying.” — JIMMY FALLON
The author giving TV interviews in Madrid
When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called her a “pirallha,” (“brat”), Thunberg changed her Twitter description to Pirallha.
“She’s 16, so she’s used to handling temper tantrums from immature boys.” — TREVOR NOAH
Roberts continues:
But, in part through their indifference to social cues, people with autism have a unique capacity to face the facts clearly. And the facts about climate change are fucking terrifying.
This, I think, helps explain why Thunberg has inspired so many people, especially so many young people: There’s a kind of courage in ignoring the pervasive social pressure to calm down about climate change. She takes the facts seriously, even when very few adults are modeling how to do so, even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient for those around her. She’s vegan, she won’t fly, and she’s devoting her young life to prodding adults into action; the default right-wing accusations of hypocrisy and duplicity simply don’t stick.
The right has established a social environment in which speaking up on climate change leads to bullying and shaming, but those tactics just don’t seem to work on Thunberg. And without them, the right has nothing to fall back on (not one of the hundreds of attacks launched at her has the courage to directly dispute the IPCC report she submitted). 
In ignoring social cues, Thunberg has become one: A signal to other young people around the world that, yes, this really is an emergency, and yes, they really can and should speak up.

At COP25 she looked and sounded more grown than one year earlier. Besides picking up a couple inches in height, she had gained experience in that year, including two hair-raising high-speed catamaran crossings of the Atlantic and speeches to many national legislative bodies and multilateral conferences, and it showed. She started her talk saying what she thought she had done wrong with her earlier style, drawing upon emotional triggers like “Our house is on fire,” “I want you to panic,” or “How dare you!” that then became the only 5 second soundbites most people heard or saw rebroadcast, over and over. This time she put the science out front, in clear terms, and it was impeccable. 
Since the Paris Agreement, global banks have invested 1.9 trillion U.S. dollars in fossil fuels. One hundred companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. The G20 countries account for almost 80% of total emissions. The richest 10% of the world’s population produce half of our CO2 emissions, while the poorest 50% account for just one-tenth. We indeed have some work to do, but some more than others.
Still, she drew upon at least one emotional point towards the end of her remarks, when she compared inaction on climate change to watching a child wander into a street.
If there is a child standing in the middle of the road and cars are coming at full speed, you don’t look away because it’s too uncomfortable. You immediately run out and rescue that child. And without that sense of urgency, how can we, the people, understand that we are facing a real crisis?
She also had a new point to raise, which was to say it is not necessary to wait for governments to act. We, as individuals, all have it within our power to act, without waiting to be told we have to. In this respect, her personal lifestyle changes and willingness to sacrifice her education and any career orientation are exemplary. She is not manipulated. She defies her parents wishes. She writes her own speeches. She speaks truth to power.

Global Ecovillage Network offers workshops to Burkina Faso
She has also shamed the major players into taking the emergency seriously. She turned down a large cash award from from the Nordic Council because she said Nordic countries had a shameful record on divestment and continued to explore for oil. Other investment banks listened. I attended a keynote by Emma Navarro, Vice President of the European Investment Bank in which she ticked off some impressive new goals for her institution: 
  • One trillion in green investment over next 10 years
  • No fossil investment (including fracking) from 2021 onward
  • 50% of the investment portfolio will be climate directed by 2025
  • From this moment, no loans of any kind shall violate or impair the Paris Agreement.
Despite the hearty applause, all this new climate finance has yet to pull any parts per million of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is Greta Thunberg’s only test of your honesty and intention.

Until we actually do that, it is just more talk.

You did it! You got me there and back safely — the COP summit in Madrid. Every day 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, December 8, 2019

First cut of the Madrid climate summit

"“Buying an offset to fly here is absurd. It takes decades for a tree to grow enough to recoup that much carbon dioxide.”"

“Meat should not be served at COPs.” — Jo House, IPCC 

“We are now at double the emissions allowed by the Paris Agreement — on track for 3 degrees, not 1.5.” — Patricia Espinoza, UNFCCC

I am in the middle of things here at #COP25Madrid where delegates from nearly 200 countries are gathered to dicker and dither about whether they will save the world, or just let it get hotter.
Yesterday Greta Thunberg arrived and led a massive march through the center of the city and repeated her advice: unite behind the science.

Within the halls of the Blue Zone, I was doing exactly that, and my takeaways from those briefings by the Tyndall Centre, the Potsdam Institute, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the UK Met Office, and others, drawn mainly from a Future Earth presentation are these:

1. The world is not on track. 

  • Existing fossil-based infrastructure will, if operated during its full lifecycle, take the world above 1.5°C global warming.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and the gap between current trends and agreed climate targets has widened.
  • The use of coal has slowed down and is declining in many countries but oil and natural gas is still growing.
  • Carbon Dioxide Reduction in some form is likely needed but shouldn’t be viewed as a substitute for mitigation.
  • By IPCC’s reckoning 1.9 trillion dollars has been spent subsidizing fossil fuel growth since the Paris Agreement, but by my reckoning it is closer to $7 trillion per year. You can’t get out of a deep hole by digging deeper.

2. Climate change is faster and stronger than expected

  • Observations show signs of continuing warming, and sea level rise is accelerating.
  • Even so-called “stable systems” are unexpectedly destabilizing.
  • Greenland and parts of Antarctic ice sheets are showing signs of disintegrating much sooner than expected — decades not centuries.
  • Further impacts on ice sheets and sea level rise have probably been underestimated in the latest IPCC Assessment Report on Cryosphere.
  • High sea-level events that used to happen every 100 years could be experienced every year in megacities around the world by 2050. Mumbai is toast. Soggy toast. More than half the city will be flooded by daily tides.

3. Climate change leaves no mountain summit behind

  • Glaciers are on average estimated to have lost about half a meter in thickness per year in 2006–2015.
  • Changes to glaciers, snow and ice in mountains will likely influence water availability for over a billion people downstream by mid-century.
  • Climate change irreversibly affects mountain ecosystems and their biodiversity, reducing the area of biodiversity hotspots and causing species to go extinct.
  • Adaptation to climate change is possible but its effectiveness is severely constrained if high emissions continue.

4. Forests are under threat, with global consequences

  • The World’s forests are a major CO2 sink, absorbing about 30% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions forest fires driven by human land-use alternation has been reducing major CO2 “sinks.”
  • Climate change globally amplifies wild forest fires. See, for instance the weather report today for New South Wales. Sydney is as threatened as Mumbai is, except from fire, not water.
  • “CO2 fertilization” increases forest photosynthesis capacity, but is increasingly offset by temperature increases that cause tree mortality. (No mention in these science briefings of biochar!)
  • Fighting deforestation and encouraging reforestation, along with sustainable forest management and other natural climate solutions are important and cost-effective options for reduced net emissions.

5. Weather Extremes — a “new normal” in 2019

  • Some extreme weather continues to become more likely and more severe.
  • Increasing number of extremes events but impacts are region-specific.
  • Europe has seen a particularly strong increase in heat extremes.
  • The duration of extreme weather events is anticipated to increase in a 2°C world.
  • Synchronous extremes are risky in a globally-connected world.
  • Societies often don’t have time to fully recover from extreme events before another one hits.
  • Ambitious mitigation can curb risks, but with 1.5°C warming regionally dangerous levels will be reached.

6. Biodiversity — threatened guardian of Earth’s resilience

  • 14% of local land species could be lost already at 1–2°C warming — more than one third in a business-as-usual scenario.
  • With 2 °C warming at least 99% of coral reefs will disappear due to ocean acidification, heatwaves and other pressures.
  • In freshwater, fish die-offs may double by 2050 due to extreme summer temperatures.
  • Natural Climate Solutions are an essential contribution to mitigation, but nowhere near enough to ensure climate stability. At least that is what IPCC is telling people. Clearly not enough scientists have yet to read BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth.

7. Climate change threatens food security and the health of hundreds of millions

  • Undernutrition will be the greatest health risk of climate change with declining agricultural productivity
  • Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide will reduce the nutritional quality of most cereal crops, affecting hundreds of millions of people.
  • Climate change and the rise in carbon dioxide concentrations are projected to result in a 20% reduction in the global availability of protein by 2050.
  • Global fish stocks are set to further decline with climate change, with an additional 10% of the global population facing micronutrient deficiencies as a result.
  • If the Bill Gates Foundation thinks they will technofix this with new generations of CRISPR’d Roundup-ready GMO grains, they have another think coming. This strategy only weakens the soil food web that underpins the photosynthetic cycle we need to heal the Earth. Note: the IPCC and others did not say this. I did. We instead need climate-resilient, indigenous-style, integrated agroforestry, aquacultures, and heirloom animal husbandry. Can I hear an “Amen?”

8. Most vulnerable and the poor are the hardest hit by climate change

  • Vulnerability to climate change impacts is high in countries and parts of the population with low incomes.
  • Failure to address and adapt to climate change will have disastrous consequences for hundreds of millions of people and will hinder development in developing countries.
  • Failure to mitigate and adapt could push 100 million people below the poverty line by 2030.
  • Climate change ‘hotspots’ will push tens to hundreds of millions to migrate, mainly within borders, by 2050.
Jennifer Trujillo Obando and the GEN Team at our Community Event

9. Equity and equality are pivotal to successful climate change mitigation and adaptation

  • Success and failure of climate policies highlight importance of addressing social issues.
  • Social justice is an important factor for societal resilience in the face of climate change, vital for both local and global cooperation to facilitate mitigation and adaptation.

10. Time may have come for social tipping points on climate action

“Time is running out.”
  • An increasing number of citizens in various countries are seriously concerned about climate change.
  • History shows that 21–25% of a population need to change their behavior to enact significant system-level changes.
  • Deep and long-term transformations driven by a great diversity of actors are needed to meet the Paris Agreement and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).
  • Recent massive civil protests are getting close to the thresholds where we could expect “tipping” of some socio-economic systems.
Author and P. Espinosa of UNFCCC


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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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