There are two things to keep in mind if you would know the climate future. The first is that, as scientific statesman John Holdren likes to say, it will come to us as a mixture of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. The second is that the suffering will be disproportionately visited upon the poor and the innocent.
Where once there was constant recourse to “this storm/drought/surge is consistent with global warming,” we’re now increasingly likely to hear “this storm/ drought/surge would not have happened without global warming.”
Hold these thoughts when considering the massive tome just issued by the IPCC’s Working Group II. (The much briefer Summary for Policymakers, or SPM, is here). Working Group II (or “WG2” for short) is the part of the International Panel on Climate Change – the largest, most sustained, and arguably most important peer-reviewed scientific enterprise in history – which is focused on understanding climate-change related “impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.” Its report, released on Monday, comes halfway though the year-long roll-out of the three volume set that together make up the IPCC’s “Firth Assessment Report.”
Volume I is focused on climate science in itself – the “physical science basis” of the crisis. It was released in September and can be found here. Volume III, due out later this month, is focused on mitigation – that is, on what the nations of the world can do to slow and then, hopefully, stop greenhouse gas emissions.
Since the release of WG1’s report in late 2013 has perhaps faded from memory, it’s useful to recall it and to pause to appreciate that WG1 did its job well. In fact, it’s not too much to say that the first volume, coming at a time when climate denialism was already sagging, gave us a fine marker of its now accelerating decline. It did so by stepping past the contrived denialist shitstorm that was “Climategate” with a decisive summary and restatement of our increasingly firm – and increasingly grim – understandings.
Jason Marks, the editor of the increasingly interesting Earth Island Journal, asked me to be the “minus” in Peak Oil – Are we there yet? — a debate on Peak Oil and Climate Change. The “plus” side is argued by Aaron G. Lehmer-Chang of Bay Localize. He definitely has a point, though, personally, I think I make the stronger argument, in a brief piece called Peak Oil as Wishful thinking. Alas, my son doesn’t like it. He particularly doesn’t like the phrase “shock troops of idiot neoliberalism.”
Sigh . . .
The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report is a useful item. In a world where income statistics are generally the best we can do, it leverages its customized Swiss-banker research machine to estimate the real stats, the ones about wealth itself. Wealth as in ownership. I say “estimate” because, well, the really rich don’t particularly like being studied. Anyway, Global Wealth Report 2013 contains some stats I’ve been looking for. Here’s they are, from page 10:
“Our estimates for mid-2013 indicate that once debts have been subtracted, an adult requires just USD 4,000 in assets to be in the wealthiest half of world citizens. However, a person needs at least USD 75,000 to be a member of the top 10% of global wealth holders, and USD 753,000 to belong to the top 1%. Taken together, the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest 10% hold 86% of the world’s wealth, and the top 1% alone account for 46% of global assets.”
Here’s a picture that, among other things, shows you where there rich actually live:
Another great piece from Naomi Klein, one she called “How Science Is Telling Us All To Revolt.” Seems like the theme of her forthcoming book is becoming pretty clear. . .
Klein opens with Brad Werner’s legendary presentation at the last AGU meeting in San Francisco, and goes on from there.
There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.
Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.
The OECD is of course a keystone institution of the wealthy world. And yet its new report, Climate and carbon: Aligning prices and policies, and in particular this speech by Angel Gurria, its Secretary General, is excellent, concise, and surprisingly frank.
I’ve come here today to argue that whatever policy mix we cook up, it has to be one that leads to the complete elimination of emissions to the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels in the second half of the century . . . We don’t need to get to zero tomorrow. Not even in 2050, although we should be a long way down the track by then. But sometime in the second half of the century we will need to arrive there.
How are we going to do so? With a policy mix designed to price carbon, phase out coal, increase the ambition of the current pledges, get beyond policy wobbles on renewables, and phase-out fossil-fuel subsides.
Back on April 1st, I published a long piece called Everybody Knows: Climate Denialism has peaked. Now what are we going to do?, which argued, among much else else, that denialism had peaked. This is, to me, a more or less self-evident truth, but some of my friends seem to think it’s just wishful thinking. Which is too bad, because the “Now what are we going to do?” question really ought to be all we’re talking about.
In this line, Dave Roberts, over at Grist, just published Conservatives seek alternatives to climate denialism, come up short, and it’s a must read. As Leonard Cohen put it, “There’s a mighty judgement coming, but I might be wrong.”
Well here I am again at the climate talks, this time in Bonn: the latest stop on the long slog in the latest attempt to break the stalemate. It’s not looking too good right now, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that the wealthy countries are still not doing, or proposing to do, anything like their fair shares of the global effort that would be needed to stabilize the global climate system.
More on this later. For now here’s a primer that I wrote for this morning’s issue of ECO, the daily NGO newsletter.
Everybody always talks about equity, but no-one ever does anything about it. In hopes that someday the Parties might, ECO would like to offer this quick cheat-sheet.
It’s not true that “equity is in the eye of the beholder.” Sure, there’s a lot to disagree about, but the UNFCCC really does give us someplace to stand. Three places, actually, for when all is said and done, the Convention affirms three high-level precepts: 1) Avoid dangerous climate change, 2) Divide the effort of doing so on the basis of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” and 3) Protect “the right to sustainable development.” If it’s consistent with these three principles, it’s probably fair, or at least a fair enough start.
It’s CBDR+RC, not CBDR. Those last words in the second principle – “respective capabilities” – may be challenging, but they’re not any more challenging than “historical responsibility,” and in any case they’re not going away anytime soon. And just because some Parties wish that the responsibility issue would just fade away, that doesn’t mean that other Parties are being helpful by trying to push capabilities off the boat. Two wrongs, as they say, don’t make a right. Not even a development right.
The climate crisis is a global commons problem – emphasis on the word “global.” However you understand your climate obligations, they’re global obligations nonetheless. The responsibility that each nation has to do its fair share is a responsibility to all other nations, or rather, to all the people (and creatures) of the world. If you have a lot of responsibility and capability, and if you thus have more tons to mitigate than it is possible to mitigate within your own borders, then doing your fair share means going beyond your domestic mitigation, and also providing the finance and technology needed to mitigate elsewhere. Which is to say that finance is part and parcel of your mitigation obligation.
Finally, we don’t have to absolutely agree about what’s fair and what’s not. Approximate agreement is a whole lot better than stalemate and standoff. Think of the problem politically. We need to be able to identify climate leaders (who are actually doing their fair share) and climate laggards (who are doing, or proposing to do, much less). In this regard, a rough common understanding is quite enough. ECO believes that if we can win such an understanding, all else will follow.
Well, maybe not “all else.” Because no common understanding will substitute for ambitious finance. We know Paris isn’t just about finance, but if we don’t get some, COP21 is going to be a grim affair indeed.
- Tom Athanasiou
(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)
COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?
Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages
During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.
First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.
Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.
In the course of preparing the new Greenhouse Development Rights web applications, we had to come up with a set of reference mitigation pathways which represented the choices before humanity, albeit in a simplified and schematic fashion. In this paper — for this post is actually a paper — we present these three pathways — a Strong 2ºC pathway, a Weak 2°C pathway, and a G8 pathway — and their levels of risk, in a fairly precise and technical manner.
This paper examines the levels of risk associated with three widely discussed global mitigation pathways: a Strong 2ºC pathway, a Weak 2°C pathway, and a G8 pathway. A very large number of analyses and debates refer to these or quite similar pathways. This paper assesses the three pathways in the light of Working Group I’s recently released contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC 2013), which provided three specific global carbon dioxide (CO2) budgets, and associated them with specific risks of a global surface temperature increase of more than 2°C by the end of this century, relative to the 1850–1900 average.
Figure 1 presents the three pathways.
Figure 1. Three politically salient mitigation pathways: G8 (red), Weak 2°C (blue), and Strong 2°C (green). Also shown (dotted lines) are three pathways consistent with the carbon budgets given by the IPCC, consistent with limiting warming to 2°C with 66%, 50%, and 33% probability, given non-CO2 emissions as per RCP2.6.
The key features of these pathways and the findings of our analysis can be summarized as follows:
The Strong 2°C pathway is defined to be an extremely ambitious mitigation pathway that can still be defended as being techno-economically achievable (Höhne et. al. 2013). Emissions peak in 2014 and reach an annual peak reduction rate of about 6.1% per year (6.0% for fossil CO2 only). Cumulative carbon dioxide emissions after 2012 are 780 gigatonnes CO2 (Gt CO2), which is well within the IPCC’s budget of 1,010 GtCO2 for maintaining a 66% likelihood of keeping warming below 2°C.
The Weak 2°C pathway is fashioned after well-known and often-cited emissions pathways that are typically presented as having a “likely” (greater than 66%, in the IPCC’s terminology) chance of keeping warming below 2°C. Emissions peak in 2014 and reach a maximum annual reduction rate of 3.3% per year (4.4% for fossil CO2 only). Cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from 2012 onward are 1,270 Gt CO2. This exceeds the IPCC’s budget of 1,120 GtCO2 for maintaining a 50% chance of keeping warming below 2°C, suggesting that this pathway carries substantially higher risks than previously believed.
The G8 pathway, a marker of the high-level political consensus in developed countries, is based on emissions targets given in an official declaration of the Group of Eight industrialized countries at its 2009 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy (G8 2009). This pathway is not precisely specified in this declaration, but is sufficiently well-defined that we can compare it with the IPCC budgets. Emissions peak in 2020, decline by a maximum of 4.9% per year (6.0% for fossil CO2 only). Its cumulative carbon dioxide budget of 1,610Gt CO2 considerably exceeds the IPCC’s budget of 1,410 GtCO2 for maintaining a 33% chance of keeping warming below 2°C. We thus find that its chance of keeping warming below 2°C is far less than 33%.
Table 1. Key data for the three pathways, and the IPCC carbon dioxide budgets against which to compare them.