Just how hard is adaptation going to be?

Once up a time, people feared that “adaptation” would become a convenient excuse for avoiding mitigation. More recently, it’s become harder to believe that adaptation, taken seriously, would be anything but challenging.

Two recent reports by the New York Times have made this crystal clear:

The first, The Great Climate Migration, is nothing less than astonishing. I will not even attempt to summarize it, though I will note its comment that “In the most extreme climate scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the course of the next 30 years.” And I will add the observation that this will be a challenge to both our national soul and our democracy. It’s an obvious truth, of course, but it bears repeating.

The second, How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering, turns away from the suffering abroad, and spotlights the suffering right here at home. Again, there is no surprise, though I myself have never seen the legacy of redlining expressed as carefully mapped urban heat islands. Nor did I know just how hot those islands were.

“Across more than 100 cities, a recent study found, formerly redlined neighborhoods “are today 5 degrees hotter in summer, on average, than areas once favored for housing loans, with some cities seeing differences as large as 12 degrees. Redlined neighborhoods, which remain lower-income and more likely to have Black or Hispanic residents, consistently have far fewer trees and parks that help cool the air. They also have more paved surfaces, such as asphalt lots or nearby highways, that absorb and radiate heat.”

Read this. Then go back and reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ classic The Case for Reparations. The implications are as painful as they are obvious.

Adaptation is not going to be cheap or easy. Nor is it just a matter of sea walls and heat pumps. It’s about facing history.

“Fear” vs “Hope” in Climate Communications?

How about brutal honesty?

I live near The Breakthrough Institute (the execrable* one in Oakland), but I remain a definite fan of the The Breakthrough Institute (the admirable one in Melbourne). How could I not when David Spratt, its Research Coordinator, sends out missives like “Fear” versus “hope” in #climate communications. How about brutal honesty?

Read it. It’s basically a tweet stream and it won’t take you long, and it references an admirable chain of comments and papers, all of which any citizen of our frail civilization should be familiar with. The last is from the scientist Kate Marvel, who sums the position nicely in five words. “We need courage, not hope.”

* Is this too harsh? How about “unhelpful”? Is that nicer? In any case, an honest appraisal of the work of the BTI, over its organizational lifetime, would have to conclude that, on balance, it’s existence has been a net negative.

Kevin Anderson on telling the truth

Kevin Anderson, one of the most aggressively truthful of the world’s climate scientists, is well known for his refusal to mince words. More specifically, he’s well known for his willingness to call out his fellows for soft pedaling their real views when they’re speaking publicly. E.g., “On mitigation and particularly cutting emissions in line with Paris, we’re all players in a grand unifying delusion – we’ve become mitigation-deniers.”

Usually, though, these comments are on-the-side. Recently, Andrew Simms, also an unusually productive and creative UK climate activist, sat down with Kevin for a deep dive. The interview, under the title Turning delusion into climate action, was published by Scientists for Global Responsibility. Read it for sure if you’re A) a young scientist, B) wondering about the strategic wisdom of supporting the 1.5C target, which we cannot possibly achieve.

Here’s a sample:

“Not all, but many [climate scientists] had been telling me for years that there’s no hope of staying below 2 degrees centigrade, that we’re heading to three or four degrees. I should add that I disagreed with this view, arguing that if we’re lucky on climate sensitivity and are prepared to grasp the nettle and make very difficult but doable cuts in emissions, then a thin thread of hope remained for staying below two degrees. Today, the chances are much, much slimmer and with the cuts in emissions completely unprecedented and far beyond anything in the public and political debate. What I find most disturbing, is that many of those who previously had told me, away from any microphones, that 2°C was not viable, are now coming out in support of meeting 1.5°C. Worse still, they repeatedly point to idealised technical solutions, yet often with little understanding of either the technologies or their practical delivery, let alone the timelines for making wholesale shifts in technologies and associated infrastructures. “

Why “Planet of the Humans” is crap

Mostly, Planet of the Humans is just so fucking bad. So bad that its good points are useless. It does have some good points – there seem to be a lot of rock festivals in Vermont that claim, incorrectly, to be running on solar. They totally deserve ridicule. But you would never recommend this film to anyone. You’d be carrying water for the fossils if you did. So it’s a failure on its own terms, since it wants, or pretends to want, to bring the truth about renewables to the green movement.  And it may even, judging from the ending, where both Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club are said to clarify their positions, make us a bit more careful about our tactical alliances. But boy oh boy does this guy—Jeff Gibbs is his name—know less than he thinks.

It’s too bad, because his central complaint, that the environmental movement is looking to green tech to save us, and believing quite a bit of nonsense in the process, is pretty legit, though it’s less legit every year, and you wouldn’t know it from this film.  Anyway, this kind of techno-optimism is and has always been a huge mistake, and it throws us to the mercies of the snake-oil salesman and, in general, to the corruptions of capitalist realism.  This is an excellent point, and it could have been made well.  Gibbs could have built a good bit of teaching around it.  But instead he threw so many cheap shots and so much old news into the bucket that it ruined, and I mean *ruined*, the mix.  The truth is that he doesn’t have the slightest idea about how to make his critique in a helpful way. 

Once you get beyond the pro-solar rock-concert bullshit, Gibbs’ rap against renewables is embarrassingly wrong.  Not all of it, but most of it.  Moreover, it is fantastically dated.  He seems to not even know that the net-energy analysis of renewable energy systems is a thing.  Which is odd, because Richard Heinberg is an expert in this field, and Gibbs embeds him at the center of his narrative. Heinberg, alas, has long been pessimistic about the potential for renewables to produce net energy on the scale we’ll need, and here he says that “we’re getting, in some cases, no energy from these potential options,” which is just what Gibbs wanted. *

Then, unsurprisingly, talk turns to population.  Heinberg’s provides the framing — “There are too many human beings, using too much, too fast” — and then Gibbs takes us off to the Malthusian races, wherein we’re told, by Stephen Churchill (an anthropologist who’s called out as “a scientist”) that “I don’t think we’re going to find a way out of this one.”  The mix goes on, and in it we get exactly one sentence—“our consumption has also exploded, on average ten times per person, and many times more in the western world” — that might in any way be taken as a reference to class, or to class footprints.  As if you could just multiply the number of people by their average impact and, by so doing, get to the fundamental truth of our predicament. 

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We’re not going back to normal

There was a great article in MIT Technology Review a few days ago that everyone should read, on how social distancing will remain a big part of our lives until “until either enough people have had Covid-19 to leave most immune (assuming immunity lasts for years, which we don’t know) or there’s a vaccine.”

We will adapt, of course. But like everything else in this caste society of ours, this adaptation will, all else being equal, concentrate the pain on the poor and the vulnerable. Here’s how the author, one Gideon Lichfield, put it:

“As usual, however, the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.

Moreover, unless there are strict rules on how someone’s risk for disease is assessed, governments or companies could choose any criteria—you’re high-risk if you earn less than $50,000 a year, are in a family of more than six people, and live in certain parts of the country, for example. That creates scope for algorithmic bias and hidden discrimination, as happened last year with an algorithm used by US health insurers that turned out to inadvertently favor white people.

The world has changed many times, and it is changing again. All of us will have to adapt to a new way of living, working, and forging relationships. But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.”

The Coronavirus Economic Crash

I don’t often recommend articles from Jacobin, but this is spot on as far as I can tell. 

The ending . . .

“Governments are out of monetary fire power. If they respond at all, it must be with fiscal policy. Co-ordinated stimulus programs from the world’s major economies might be enough to prevent a significant downturn — and borrowing is now cheaper than ever. Given that the virus will have a greater impact on poorer countries and more vulnerable individuals, the response must be targeted at protecting the least well-off. And given that the climate crisis represents a far greater long-term threat to humanity than coronavirus, it should also promote decarbonization.

In other words, now is the perfect time for the Green New Deal. It remains to be seen whether governments led by Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel will seize the opportunity.”

Fair Shares in the Climate President Action Plan

Over 500 US groups have signed onto a comprehensive common ask: The #CLIMATEPRESIDENT Action Plan: Ten actions that the new administration (assuming of course that there is one) should take in its first ten days.

It’s a great list, and of particular interest to us because fair shares has finally made the cut. It’s last, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with being the bottom line. The short version is: “Rejoin the Paris Agreement and lead with science-based commitments that ensure that the United States, as the world’s largest cumulative historical emitter, contributes its fair share and advances climate justice.”

The text of all ten demands is worth reading in full. Here’s the text for number ten:

“Vastly increase the United States’ emissions reduction commitment (Nationally Determined Contribution) to slash U.S. greenhouse emissions below 2005 levels by at least 70% by 2030 and reduce them to near zero by 2040 — in line with what science, equity, and climate justice demand. Include deadlines to halt all oil, gas, and coal production in the U.S. commitment and ensure that future agreements set limits on fossil fuel production consistent with meeting the 1.5°C target.

The actions in this report will form the backbone of the plan to achieve this commitment. However, because these domestic reductions alone are insufficient to fulfill the U.S. fair share of global climate action, the President must leverage their full executive authority and work with Congress to appropriate funds for large-scale financial and technological support to enable poorer countries to reduce their own emissions, as well as to support crucial adaptation measures so that vulnerable communities can survive the climate disruption already underway.”

A Key British Report: “Our Responsibility”

I met Laurie Laybourn-Langton late last year, and was immediately struck by his honesty. He had just released an earlier report, This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown, and while its conclusions were grim, he was perfectly up front about the fact that he and his co-authors had soft-pedaled them, if only just a bit.

Soft-pedaling is an understandable sin these days, and this despite the fact that the Extinction Rebellion folks have popularized signs that say “Tell the Truth.”  It’s a great slogan, one for the ages, but do note that the real prime directive, stated precisely, would be something like “tell the whole truth, and do so in a helpful manner.”  The problem is that, given the unforgiving nature of our predicament, the “whole truth” can only be helpful if it comes together with believable strategies and transition stories, and that’s quite a hurdle. We’re not there yet.

LLL’s new report, Our responsibility: A new model of international cooperation for the era of environmental breakdown, moves us a bit closer, and it’s required reading if you believe, as I do, that the fair shares approach to global climate mobilization is essential to any plausible international transition story. Moreover, Our responsibility is notable for more than just the good sense it shows in leveraging the Climate Equity Reference Project approach to fair shares. Its real virtue is the clarity of its larger context. Its real topic is the real challenge — international cooperation itself, in the context on the now threatening “environmental breakdown.”

Here’s the report’s summary para:

“Environmental breakdown is accelerating and poses an unprecedented threat to international cooperation. This challenge comes at a time when the multilateral order is fracturing. A new positive-sum model of international cooperation is needed, which should seek to realise a more sustainable, just and prepared world. This necessarily requires communities and countries to better recognise their cumulative contribution to environmental breakdown, and their current capability to act. Wealthy nations and communities not only contribute most to the stock of environmental breakdown, they preside over and benefit from an economic development model founded on unsustainable environmental impacts and global power imbalance.”

Like I said, required reading.

Good Ideas Department: Let’s implement a luxury carbon tax, because not all carbon is created equally

Philippe Benoit, a research scholar at Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia, has a good idea, a luxury tax on carbon. As he explained it in an op-ed in The Hill:

You’ll get no argument from me!

For $250,000, the super-rich will soon be able to visit sub-space. Meanwhile, back on earth, American workers will drive pickup trucks to their jobs and families will keep their thermostats low to save on heating costs.

All three will generate greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists explain that the climate impact of carbon emissions is the same irrespective of why and where they are created. That, in part, is why many economists want to tax all carbon the same. 

But does it make sense from a policy perspective to ignore why and how the carbon was created? Is it sensible to treat the emissions from highly discretionary and luxurious consumption by the rich the same as those generated to meet basic needs of middle-class and poorer households? There is an argument to say no.

Maybe not all carbon is created equal. Unsurprisingly, just as there is income inequality, there is inequality in carbon emissions. In the United States, the richest 10 percent emit four times more than the bottom 50 percent; the disparity is even greater at a global level and for the top 1 percent. Billionaires and millionaires enjoy a lavish carbon-heavy lifestyle that isn’t accessible to middle-class families. Flying transatlantic first class in the front of the plane generates four times more carbon than riding in the back in tightly-packed economy.

Or consider high-end sports cars or yachts or private jets (remember the criticism leveled against Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for taking private jets while advocating for action on climate).

The luxury emissions market is big and getting bigger. Americans purchase 2 million luxury vehicles a year, while luxury yacht sales total $5.7 billion globally and is expected to grow to $10.2 billion by 2025. 

Soon there will be space tourism, a novel but GHG-intensive activity restricted to the super-rich. And the potential for luxury emissions is growing as the number of millionaires worldwide increases from 42 million today to a projected 63 million in 2024. 

Yet, we all share one common carbon budget, estimated at below 1,100 GtCO2. In contrast to incomes where “more is better” and even extravagant spending by the rich can produce jobs for working-class families, carbon is a “zero-sum” game: the more the rich emit through their lavish lifestyles, the less there is for everyone else.

While wealth globally keeps increasing, the carbon budget keeps getting smaller, eaten up in part by the high-carbon extravagant activities of the rich. A luxury carbon tax could be used to charge the rich for this climate extravagance, one that wouldn’t apply to the emissions generated by working families in making ends meet.

And in deciding how much to charge, we don’t need to follow the traditional approaches of tying the tax to the “social cost of carbon” or using a uniform rate based on carbon content. Instead, we could apply a tax rate well above the carbon impact of these extravagant emissions precisely because they constitute a wasteful use of our common carbon budget. 

How much should we tax someone for spewing carbon on their $52 million visit to the International Space Station? A lot.”

Op-Ed: The realism of Bernie Sanders’ climate policy

It’s been a while now since the Sanders’ campaign released its Green New Deal plan, which included a significant step towards fair-share internationalism, of just the kind that this site stands for.

Now, Naomi Klein (who needs no introduction) and Sivan Kartha (who co-directs the Climate Equity Reference Project) have a follow-up op-ed in the Boston Globe, with the very precise title of The realism of Bernie Sanders’ climate policy. If you’re following the fair shares debate, you should take a look at it, for it’s admirably covers both the global and the domestic sides of the challenge in one tidy text.

On the domestic side:

“More than a decade of so-called market-based climate policies have expected workers and consumers to foot most of the bill for climate action. The result is often fierce backlash: In Chile, an increase in public transit fees sparked the recent uprising, and in France, an increase in fuel costs did the same. As in Iowa, it’s not that people are opposed to climate action. They are simply so overburdened by stagnant wages, job losses, and cutbacks to social services that they can’t accept getting stuck with the bill for the climate crisis. “

On the international:

“Accordingly, the plan puts a game-changing sum on the table: a $200 billion contribution to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, which supports projects across the global South to reduce emissions and cope with climate impacts. (The Obama administration pledged a mere $3 billion, delivering only one-third before payments were scrapped by Trump.)

The Sanders campaign also recognizes that, in some cases, no amount of money can keep people on parched or flooded land. And so, on the campaign trail, the senator’s newly released immigration platform includes, among other measures, a call to accept at least 50,000 global climate refugees during his first year as president.”