Is $76 trillion a lot of money?

Compared to what?

As it become obvious that the climate crisis is real, and that it can’t really be separated from a political and economic crisis that’s every bit as sprawling and strange, this sort of question – Is $76 trillion a lot of money? — becomes increasingly hard to avoid.  The problem is that it’s also hard to handle, particularly in the context of the “We’re broke” panic that has so suddenly (and conveniently) come to dominate our political lives.  Still, the bottom line is that it’s not going to be cheap to save human civilization.  Even a figure like $79 billion would be cheap, compared to the alternative.

This particular figure is from the World Economic and Social Survey 2011, published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and it immediately tells us that DESA is not primarily concerned with the kind of realism that defines debates in the halls of northern power.  I can’t vouch for all the details (the 2011 Survey is hundreds of pages long) but the overall analysis seems sound.  And if this is, as it seems, the highest climate-transition cost-estimate yet published by an authoritative source, it’s also one that, frankly, is finally getting high enough to be believable.

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Book Review: Paul Gilding's "The Great Disruption"

Why the climate crisis will bring on the end of shopping and the birth of a new world

Paul Gilding, Bloomsbury Press, 2011

See the Earth Island Journal for another version of this review.


“The great disruption” is a bit of an odd notion.  It suggests that big trouble is on the horizon, but also that it’s not really going to be that bad.  A “great disruption” is not anything like, say, a “long emergency” (James Howard Kunstler), or a “collapse” (Jared Diamond), and it’s certainly nothing like “the revenge of Gaia” (James Lovelock).  All three are acknowledged here, and points duly granted, but Gilding’s opinion is that, after a rough transition, maybe a few tough decades, we’ll nevertheless come out right.

It’s a clever strategy, and it fits Gilding’s argument, and it certainly has its advantages.  For one thing, it moves the reviewers to immediately give you the adult nod.  This book, you see, is not just another apocalyptic screed, but rather (Kirkus) “a remarkably optimistic view of the brave new world in our future.”  Gilding even got a high-five from Tom “the world is flat” Friedman, right there in the august pages of the New York Times.  He has friends in high places.  Sales are brisk.

So it’s no surprise that activist types tend to grumble when Gilding’s name comes up.  Nor is the problem just his “optimistic view.”  It’s also that he’s long been trading off the years, back in the early 1990s, when he was head of Greenpeace International.  The affiliation didn’t stick, and Gilding then used it to launch himself as a high-level (big corporations) green-business consultant.  Not a good way to win love among the grassroots folks.  I’m willing to bet that few among them will ever read The Great Disruption.

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"Squawking indignant right-to-luxury dickwipes"

There’s not really much to say about You shut your goddamn carbon-taxin’ mouth, except that it’s brilliant, and that it doesn’t mince words, and that it’s Australian, and that you’ll never quite think about the denialists in the same way again.   Actually, there is something more to say — that the core of this piece is getting to something important.  Something really important.

You can see it shining through here:

“The dumbshititis was also evident in the audience of the Prime Ministerial Q and A on Monday, where the average question could be summarised as, “I’m a person, and I don’t like paying money. Can I not ever pay money for things?” My favourite line, from a surgical swab of a man towards the end of the show, was that because he earned too much to be eligible for low-income handouts, “I feel I’ll be taxed into poverty.”

This taps into a very prominent feature of our political landscape: the constant line from Tony Abbott that Australian families are hurting, that Aussies are doing it tough, that life is somehow getting harder, that the cost of living is on the rise.

Shenanigans, Tony. Let’s get one thing very clear. Australians, en masse, are enjoying a better standard of living than has ever been enjoyed in this country’s history.

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From "peak oil" to "unburnable carbon"

Peak oil is many things, but this isn’t about peak oil, so I don’t have to try to enumerate them.  But do recall just one version of the peaker story – peak oil as a repository of hope.  This is the take in which, despairing of other avenues to rapid, large-scale change, we look to peak oil to at least save us from the more extreme forms of climate disaster.

The idea here is that, as we burn our way through the peak, fossil fuels will get more expensive and this will tip the competitive balance to low-carbon energy sources.  So that despite the obvious reality of the day – let’s just say “governance failure” for the moment, and leave it at that – in which it’s all but impossible to price carbon at anything like its true social cost, its price will nevertheless rise, maybe even fast enough to save our bacon.

Does anyone still believe this?  They won’t after reading the Carbon Bubble report, which was just released by the impeccably capitalist Carbon Tracker Initiative, which describes itself as “the first project of Investor Watch, a non-profit company established by its directors to align the capital markets with efforts to tackle climate change.”  This report, which is unfortunately based on current science (unfortunately because current science is pretty terrifying) begins by noting that we have a mere 565 Gigatonnes of CO2 left in our shared planetary 2000 to 2050 carbon budget, if we intend to maintain a high probability (80%) of holding the warming below 2C.  Which we should absolutely do, for lots of reasons — think “managing the unavoidable, and avoiding the unmanageable.”  It then goes on to demonstrate, by simple arithmetic, that “only 20% of the total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable.”

Which is to say that peak oil can’t save us, because if we get anywhere near it we’re toast.  Instead, the only transition scenarios that might hold water are those in which we manage to leave fossil fuels behind while we still have plenty to spare.  A future not of peak oil but rather of unburnable carbon.

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Moving Planet demands

Just in case you thought that the climate movement was at a standstill, check out the demands behind the global Moving Planet day of action.  If you think you see a new focus, a new emphasis on the obligations of the rich in a time of global emergency, well you would be right.  Nor is this an accident.