Managed Decline: Why the new Oil Change report is even better than you thought

The new report from Oil Change International (Greg Muttitt was the principle author) is a major event. It’s called The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris climate goals require a managed decline of fossil fuel production and it has garnered quite a bit of praise from the greenie press. (See for example, hereherehere and here.) It deserves the praise, and it also deserves a closer reading.

There are two especially notable comments on the report, Bill McKibben’s Recalculating the Climate Math and George Monbiot’s What Lies Beneath. The first because it very clearly explains why we must immediately stop investing in fossil infrastructure (and it was McKibben who in 2012, with his blockbuster Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, first drew the political implications of “the carbon budget approach” out into the public discussion). The second because it displays all the virtues of Monbiot’s usual bitter realism, and because it’s marred by a small but instructive overstatement, one to which I will return.

The core argument

In the report’s core, OCI draws out a new and critical implication of the carbon budget approach. It does so by going beyond the now classic Carbon Tracker analysis (the foundation of McKibben’s 2012 article), updating it by focusing not on the entire body of fossil-fuel reserves, but on the smaller set (roughly 30% of the “proven” reserves) of reserves that have already been “developed” – the “oil fields, gas fields, and coal mines that are already in operation or under construction.” By so doing, OCI is able to harness the vast power of what some wag, somewhere, once called “the first law of holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.

Here are the report’s headline conclusions:

* The potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming.

* The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.

* With the necessary decline in production over the coming decades to meet climate goals, clean energy can be scaled up at a corresponding pace, expanding the total number of energy jobs.

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Laudato Si’

51. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable”.

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Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016

Wealth: Having it all and wanting more, a recent report from Oxfam International, is a milestone on the road to blunt realism.  To wit:

Global wealth is becoming increasing concentrated among a small wealthy elite. Data from Credit Suisse shows that since 2010, the richest 1% of adults in the world have been increasing their share of total global wealth.

In 2014, the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth, leaving just 52% to be shared between the other 99% of adults on the planet. Almost all of that 52% is owned by those included in the richest 20%, leaving just 5.5% for the remaining 80% of people in the world. If this trend continues of an increasing wealth share to the richest, the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people in just two years, as shown in the figure below, with the wealth share of the top 1% exceeding 50% by 2016.

Share of global wealth of the top 1% and bottom 99% respectively; the dashed lines project the 2010–2014 trend. By 2016, the top 1% will have more than 50% of total global wealth.

What to do? Oxfam makes the following suggestions:

Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals

Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education

Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards    capital and wealth

Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers

Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal

Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee

Agree a global goal to tackle inequality

Would it be enough?  Nope.  Would it be a start?  Yep.  Have we got a chance of stabilizing the climate system (let alone the ecosystem) if we don’t think at least this big?   Nope.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

This review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was first published in the Earth Island Journal, here.  See this notice on Klein’s own site. 

The first thing to say about Naomi’s Klein’s latest book is that its title makes a grand promise — This Changes Everything – and that’s before you even get to the subtitle, which sets up a face-off between capitalism on one side and the climate on the other. The second thing to say is that no single book could ever meet such a promise. Klein, with careful aplomb, does not attempt to do so. Rather, she offers a tour of the horizon upon which we will meet our fates. Or, rather, the horizon upon which we will attempt to change them.

book cover thumbnail

In the face of such huge topics, Klein’s strategy is a practical one. She defers the problem of capitalism-in-itself (as German philosophers used to call it) and focuses instead on our era’s particular type of capitalism – the neoliberal capitalism of boundless privatization and deregulation, of markets-über-alles ideology and oligarchic billionaires. Her central argument is not (as some have insisted) that capitalism has to go before we can begin to save ourselves, but rather that we’re going to have to get past neoliberalism if we want to face the greater challenges. Klein writes:

Some say there is no time for this transformation; the crisis is too pressing and the clock is ticking. I agree that it would be reckless to claim that the only solution to this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the bottom up – and anything short of that is not worth doing. There are all kinds of measures that would lower emissions substantively that could and should be done right now. But we aren’t taking those measures, are we?

At the outset Klein asks the obvious question: Why haven’t we, in the face of existential danger, mobilized to lower emissions? There are lots of reasons, but one stands above all others. We have not mobilized because “market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.” In other words the climate crisis came with spectacularly “bad timing.” The severity of the danger became clear at the very time when “there-is-no-alternative” capitalism was rising to ideological triumph, foreclosing the exact remedies (long-term planning, stricter government regulation, collective action) that could address the crisis. It’s a crucial insight, and it alone justifies the price of admission.

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Carbon Majors Funding Loss and Damage

Ready for a stimulating new cut across some old territory?  Think about “responsibility,” and take a look at Carbon Majors Funding Loss and Damage, a discussion paper by Julie-Anne Richards and Keely Boom of the Climate Justice Project — “an independent not for profit, non-government organisation that uses the law to expose environmental and human rights issues relating to climate change.”

Among other things, the analysis here includes the idea of corporate — rather than national — historical responsibility.  In fact, it shows “that a small number – fewer than 100 – entities have a significant responsibility for the climate change currently being experienced.”  More generally, it’s based on the idea that private entities that have profited from, and continue to profit from, the fossil-fuel economy should be responsible for a good fraction of the “loss and damage costs” associated with carbon pollution.

This is a ground breaking idea, and it deserves a lot more attention, in this our unfortunate age of corporate personhood.  “Persons,” after all, have responsibilities as well as rights.

News Flash: Money makes you selfish!

I know it’s hard to believe, but watch Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, ‘Pernicious’ Effects of Economic Inequality. It’s a brief report by the PBS Newshour’s Paul Solman, no raving leftie he, and it’s worth even waiting out the leading advert from . . . Goldman Sachs!

The research being reported here is by UC Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff, and it’ll seem more than a bit familiar to anyone who’s read The Spirit Level.  That said, this is a tidy, amusing, and convincing take on the corrosion that is economic stratification.

The report begins with the fact that the drivers of luxury cars are “anywhere from three or four times” more likely to cut off pedestrians that people driving less expensive cars, and goes on to observe that rich people steal more candy in fake psychological tests, and are more likely to cheat in a game of chance, lie during negotiations, endorse unethical behavior, or steal at work.

Watch this spot, if only for the story of the rigged Monopoly game.  The one in which the “person assigned the role of rich person” gets to roll an extra time. . .

“we found consistently with people who were the rich players that they actually started to become, in their behavior, as if they were like rich people in real life. They were more likely to eat from a bowl of pretzels that we positioned off to the side. They ate with their mouths full, so they were a little ruder in their behavior to the other person.”

And just the opposite too:

“If I take someone who is rich and make them feel psychologically a little less well-off, they become way more generous, way more charitable, way more likely to offer help to another person.”

Maybe that’s the bright side?

GDRs shows its head in Bloomberg piece from Bonn

A new piece by Alex Morales on bloomberg.com features the rather unambiguous title of Climate Fix That’s Fair Assigns U.S. Three Times Chinese Effort. It begins with these paras:

“A fair climate fix would assign the U.S. almost three times the effort of cutting carbon dioxide output as China, which in 2006 became the biggest emitter, research by the Stockholm Environment Institute suggests.

The U.S., the biggest historical emitter, would have responsibility for 29.1 percent of the greenhouse gas cuts needed in 2020 to keep the planet on a pathway that avoids the worst effects of global warming, according to the institute’s calculations. That compares with 10.4 percent for China, 22.9 percent for the European Union and 1.2 percent for India.

The research aims to quantify how the principle of equity can guide emissions targets being devised at United Nations climate talks among more than 190 nations that aim to write by 2015 a new treaty to take hold from 2020. Two weeks of discussions began today in Bonn, Germany. Debate about fairness has frequently stalled the discussions as nations wrangle over who bears the greatest responsibility for tackling climate change.”

The piece is worth reading, for it’s a glimpse into the next round of the climate talks, which seems like they may finally face reality. Ethical reality as well as scientific reality.

The piece extensively quotes the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Sivan Kartha, and features numbers from the Greenhouse Development Rights framework. The real news, though, is that the “fair shares” discussion is no longer confined to a few activist networks and research institutes. There are rumblings of a larger effort, perhaps even a semi-official one.

What’s not clear in this piece is that we can easily afford to save our civilization. This has always been the case, though the politics are rather challenging, and people have balked at drawing conclusions.

The difference now is that everyone can now see the elephant in the room.

Checking in with Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein, as it happens, is working on both a book and a movie on the climate crisis. Which is great, because she’s a talented spokeswoman, and a key strategist, and she’s working to put together a new framing, one that actually helps us get our arms around the crisis.

There’s a lot happening on the climate front, and most it is is integrated, one way or another, into this very nice half-hour interview with Bill Moyers.  The Moyers headline is “Capitalism and climate,” but the real thrust of Klein’s rap here is the climate crisis as an historic opportunity for progressives. The propaganda campaigns of the carbon cartel, 350’s Do the Math tour, the mainstreaming of the Carbon Tracker work, the great refocusing that has come in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s all grist here.

This interview is worth a close listen. As you do, study her framing. It’s damn good, though not perfect. Naomi, in particular, doesn’t have much to say on the international side, at least not here. Which is not at all a surprise, since the “US in the world” problem is a very, very difficult one.  The good news is that there’s really no fundamental disconnect between the domestic and the international sides of the climate justice agendas. It’s clear, at this point, that we’re all in this together. It’s just that some of us are riding first class, while others are trapped down in the holds.

And this is just as true within the US as it is globally.