(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.
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.”
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.
Among my many hats, I help to coordinate the Climate Action Network’s Equity Working Group. Two things to know here. One is that CAN is a network of over 850 Non-governmental Organization in more than 90 countries. The other is that it’s been toiling in the dry fields of climate diplomacy for a long, long time.
The Equity Working Group is also known as the Effort Sharing Working Group, a complication of language that’s perhaps a bit confusing to people unfamiliar with the dialect spoken inside the conference halls. Or maybe not. This is, after all, 2013, and the rules of the great inside / outside game that is international climate politics are pretty well known. In any case, there’s no background in this brief post (though if you want some, see The Climate Talks: Could an equity tipping point be on the horizon?). What you have here is just a few quick pointers, before the 19th Conference of Parties opens in Warsaw.
At this point, there’s quite a bit of cynicism about the international climate talks. But note two subtleties. First, nothing else has worked either. Second, these are not the negotiations as we knew them before Copenhagen. In the conference halls as on the rest of the climate battlefield, the stakes are clearer, and the tensions higher. Moreover, some key pieces have been moved. Not that there’s been a breakthrough, not yet, but there are real forward-looking elements in the mix. The equity debate, in particular, has come a long way.
The IPCC’s new assessment report hasn’t even been released, but the denialist fog machine is already running hard. If you’re tired of it — and, frankly, if you’re tired of the smoothly-leveled understatement that we usually get from the IPCC — take a look at Is Climate Change Already Dangerous?, a new report by David Spratt of Australia’s Climate Code Red.
I’ll not summarize this report; there’s no point because it’s already a summary, one which sticks extremely close to the original scientific literature. But I will say that its focus is the Arctic, which as you may have noticed is getting a lot of nervous attention these days. And this for the very good reason that it’s melting before our eyes! Spratt’s paper is excellent on this subject – it lays out the basics of the situation and gives you the citations you need to drill deeper. Assuming you’re up to it. The message, after all, is that we’ve already crossed the thin red line into the days of “dangerous climate change.”
What’s happening here? Here’s a nice overview from Professor Peter Wadhams, of Cambridge University and the Catlin Arctic Survey. The author of a recent paper called Arctic ice cover, ice thickness and tipping points and a leading authority on the polar regions, Wadhams says:
“I have been predicting [the collapse of sea ice in summer months] for many years. The main cause is simply global warming: as the climate has warmed there has been less ice growth during the winter and more ice melt during the summer… in the end the summer melt overtook the winter growth such that the entire ice sheet melts or breaks up during the summer months. This collapse, I predicted would occur in 2015–16 at which time the summer Arctic (August to September) would become ice-free. The final collapse towards that state is now happening and will probably be completed by those dates. As the sea ice retreats in summer the ocean warms up (to +7ºC in 2011) and this warms the seabed too. The continental shelves of the Arctic are composed of offshore permafrost, frozen sediment left over from the last ice age. As the water warms, the permafrost melts and releases huge quantities of trapped methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas so this will give a big boost to global warming.” (Vidal, 2012)