Resource scarcity, fair shares and development

This excellent “discussion paper” was written by Alex Evans for the World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam, which deserve loads of kudos for supporting it.  And, more generally, for thinking big.  The tone of the post-Copenhagen debate, after all, is a rather defeated one, and most climate folks are searching around for one kind of climate pragmatism or another.  Grand thinking about equity, and about its role in rising to the coming crisis, is rare indeed.

Evans is a long time member of what, for lack of a better term, I will call the fair-shares party, and he knows his way around.  Accordingly, Resource scarcity, fair shares, and development covers a lot of ground.  And it does so in a brief and well-organized way.  Skip the graphics and it’s only 17 pages long.  You should absolutely read it, and while you’re trying to find the time, let me make only two comments:

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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.

Who's doing more to reduce emissions, the North or the South?

The “comparability of effort” debate is hotting up, and there’s no cooling on the horizon.

This debate is fundamental to the “blame game.”  Recall, for example, the cold shower that was Copenhagen, and the storms of China-bashing that followed.  The blame for the debacle, you see, belonged to the “emerging economies,” who refused to carry their shares of the global stabilization burden.  Or so it was said by legions of disappointed, overly-certain pundits across the political spectrum.

Someday, it will be easier to make solid judgments about who’s doing their share, and who’s free riding.  Before that fine day dawns, though, two things will have to happen.  First, the national pledges of action that countries – northern and southern, large and small – have committed to deliver to the UN Secretariat, the pledges in which they lay out their emission-reduction action plans, have to get a whole lot easier to read and compare and interpret.  Second, we have to reach at least a rough international consensus on what different countries, at different levels of development, should do, in the light of historically-informed and principle-based comparisons that take, say, wealth and responsibility into account.

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Cap & Dividend will be back

Cap & Dividend will return.  I can’t prove it of course, but I’m willing to predict it, and this despite (unattributable) rumors that top US environmental strategy makers are “doubling down” on their old political calculations.

Why do I think so?   Just a feeling, but an educated one.  For one thing, Maria Cantwell, one of the two authors of 2009’s CLEAR act (the last legislative vehicle for Cap and Dividend), recently gave this speech at the Brookings Institution, and according to Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, it was spun by one of her top aides as a “soft launch” for a re-introduction of CLEAR.   Nothing definite, but something.

The other reason is that Cap and Dividend makes ethical and political sense, and I’m betting that ethical and political sense comes back into fashion in the not too distant future.  Seriously.   On this front, see a sharp little piece called The Climate Justice Imperative.   It’s by good-guy economist Jim Boyce.