Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’ — and a few responses

“Telling the Truth,” as per Extinction Rebellion’s first rule, turns out to be a bit complicated.  It’s easy to tell the “We’re probably fucked” part of the story. The hard part is imagining a way forward.

Back in January, a group of 17 ecologists and environmental scientists — prominently including Paul Ehrlich — published Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

It’s a must read, and a grim one. And can’t hope to improve on the summary ecologist Carl Safina gave in Yale Environment 360 when he said that it reads “reads less as an argument than as a rain of asteroids encountered in the course of flying blind on a lethal trajectory,” or his summary of its findings, which only begin with biodiversity loss. Here (minus the links) is a sample:

“Major changes in the biosphere are directly linked to the growth of human systems. While the rapid loss of species and populations differs regionally in intensity, and most species have not been adequately assessed for extinction risk, certain global trends are obvious. Since the start of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has been halved , with a corresponding loss of >20% of its original biodiversity, together denoting that >70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by Homo sapiens . There have been >700 documented vertebrate and ~600 plant species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more species clearly having gone extinct unrecorded . Population sizes of vertebrate species that have been monitored across years have declined by an average of 68% over the last five decades, with certain population clusters in extreme decline , thus presaging the imminent extinction of their species . Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future out of an estimated 7–10 million eukaryotic species on the planet, with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered . Today, the global biomass of wild mammals is <25% of that estimated for the Late Pleistocene , while insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions.”

But I’m not writing to ask you to read the “ghastly” paper. I’m writing to ask you to read it, and then to read Safina’s review of it, and then to read Notes from a 1.2C world, a response the emerging critic Laurie Laybourn-Langton wrote of it, and my own response, below, though with the stipulation that is an it’s an “insider” document I wrote to the folks at The Omega Network after attending the webinar they organized to discuss it. And I’m asking you, after doing all this reading, to up your game.

What’s the problem? That this paper, brilliant though it is in describing the deterioration of our planetary home, it is not equally brilliant when it comes to helping us work out how to respond. Which was to be expected back in the old days, but this is 2021 — the eye of the storm — and the second wind is approaching, and what matters now is what we’re going to do.

Not that Ghastly’s description of the problem is bad . . .

Continue reading “Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’ — and a few responses”

The US Climate Fair Share

The U.S. Climate Action Network has taken a position on the U.S. fair share, which is to say–the US Fair Share in a global emergency effort to stabilize the climate system at 1.5C.  This is a long story, but the position itself is short and sweet. To wit:

“USCAN believes that the US fair share of the global mitigation effort in 2030 is equivalent to a reduction of 195% below its 2005 emissions levels, reflecting a fair share range of 173-229%.”

This position was actually adopted some time ago, on July 17th 2020, when a long “alignment process” led by ActionAid USA, North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light, the Center for Biological Diversity and EcoEquity culminated in the adoption of this position during USCAN’s annual national meeting in 2020.

We’re now going public. The US Fair shares website is at https://usfairshare.org/, and it contains, among other things, a political and technical briefing, which is what you should read if you want the details of this position and its meaning. One point I want to stress is that we’re not saying we have the keys to the kingdom of global climate stabilization. Far from it. We’re just saying we have a critical missing piece, one that spotlights the logic of global climate justice, one that could help make the global climate mobilization fair enough to actually succeed.

There’s some nice early press. Notably, Bill McKibben featured the USCAN fair shares position in his New Yorker Climate Newsletter — in a piece he called The Climate Debt the U.S. Owes the World. I myself placed a longer and more detailed piece in Sierra Magazine called It’s Time for the US to Carry Its Fair Share on Climate Change. Bill’s piece is of course well written, but mine lays out more of the gory details.

And there’s more!  Hunter Cutting has an excellent tweet thread here.  There’s a very informative press release here.  A YouTube of the press briefing is available here.  And, finally, there’s a cool Video


It’s Time for the US to Carry Its Fair Share on Climate Change

This essay was first published in Sierra Magazine

The term “climate injustice” is easy to understand. When the poor and vulnerable people of New Orleans or Nicaragua are abandoned to the ravages of a climate-fueled hurricane, we know something hideous has occurred. But climate justice is not just the absence of climate injustice. It also demands the presence of real and meaningful fairness, and an extremely ambitious climate mobilization that takes this fairness just as seriously as decarbonization itself. No mobilization that tries to skip this step can possibly succeed.

Check the science and you’ll see how very late it is. Stabilizing the climate would be extraordinarily difficult under the best of circumstances, which these are decidedly not. Add the imperative of mobilizing in a fair way and the challenge can seem overwhelming. Why is fairness so decisive? The simple answer is cooperation. Absent an overall sense of fairness, justice, and equity—and the cooperation required to achieve those ideals—we haven’t got a chance of avoiding climate chaos. Bringing down greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep global temperatures (more or less) in check is going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. We can only do it together.

But how to achieve a sense of fairness in a world where many people are appallingly poor and some are astonishingly rich? Where all nations are divided? Where some have vastly overdrawn their proper share of the planetary carbon budget, while others have done almost nothing to cause the climate crisis? This, in a nutshell, is the fair shares problem, as we find it on the climate front. Even if the United States honestly reduces its emissions to net zero in 2050, it will not have done its fair share of the planetary effort.

Continue reading “It’s Time for the US to Carry Its Fair Share on Climate Change”

Climate Emergency Summit – David Spratt’s Science Update

David Spratt has been on the case for some time now, and he knows the science cold. So it’s well worth your time to read this brief “state of the science” summary he wrote for the amazing Australian Climate Emergency Summit that just took placein Melbourne. Do note one of the key takeaways, emphasized in the graphic here — we will hit 1.5C around 2030.

While we’re on the subject, here’s the conference declaration. It’s very much in the “emergency mobilization demands bipartisan action” camp, which doesn’t strike me as particularly realistic these days, but what do I know? I haven’t been to Australia since the fires. No way I can make meaningful short-term political judgements.

So I’m definitely not going to argue with comms expert Peter Lewis, who recently offered this in the Guardian:

“The idea of pushing for centrist, reasonable and sensible policies may chafe when the world is on the brink. It does not dispel the need to campaign hard at the margins – climate rebellions and school strikes are essential to shifting the window to make other policy change possible. But the risk is to confuse the movement with the moment. If political change is the answer and Australia can’t wait until 2022, then locating the Overton window and finding a way through it now seems the only viable way forward.”

The Overton climate window sure is open now! New polling indicates that 64% of Australians support “Setting a zero-carbon pollution target for 2030”.

Equity in the Global Stocktake

Actually, the title of this report is Equity in the Global Stocktake and Independent Global Stocktake, the iGST being a loose but interesting collaborative of climate research institutes. We at the Climate Equity Reference Project are active in iGST equity debates, and wrote its initial scoping paper on the equity challenge.

Here’s the “blurb,” such as it is:

“In this paper, we’re looking at the scope of assessments in stocktaking as an issue of equity; some “quality” criteria for equity benchmarks and equity information in stocktaking; how the whole issue of climate finance and support could be dealt with from an equity point of view, what could be said about intranational equity; and what minimal (and other) standards of procedural equity should be guaranteed. “

This paper is fairly technical, but very much of interest, for the simple reason that equity is essential to any future climate regime in which anything like an “Ambition Mechanism” is actually functioning. Which is to say that the Paris Agreement’s much discussed ambition mechanism is still a dream.

The Global Right vs. the Global Green New Deal

The indefatigable John Feffer has just authored an extremely useful report on the global new right, which he has entitled The Battle for Another World.

The report is based on over 80 interviews, including one with yours truly, and it very importantly concludes that a Global Green New Deal is our best chance, this in its promise of a shared international vision and transition strategy that offers a real alternative to both neoliberal globalization and the new right’s pseudo-nationalism. Like so:

“A Global Green New Deal wouldn’t just address the environmental crisis. By creating enormous numbers of well-paying jobs, it would also speak to those left behind by economic globalization. Such a narrative would undermine the new right’s anti-globalist appeals while offering up a positive vision to rally around within and across borders.”

The discussion here is worth reading in full, though I will say that I’m one of the more optimistic voices quoted in it. In particular, I took this occasion to make my pitch for a vision in which a fair shares global climate regime ties together a world of national green deals. Like so:

The Global Green New Deal cannot be solely an initiative of the rich. “If the wealthy countries were to come to a vision of the global GND that involved real public finance for the international burden-sharing mechanisms devised under the umbrella of the Paris agreement—and which have to be animated if we’re to have any hope of holding to the two-degree line, let alone 1.5C—that would certainly get the attention of people in the developing world,” argues Tom Athanasiou.

Obviously, this isn’t what’s happening at the moment. Nothing like progressive internationalism was on offer in Madrid. But this too could change. In fact it has to, as Feffer’s crisply argues in Newsweek, of all places, in a fine short piece called A Global Green New Deal Could Defeat the Far Right—And Save the Planet

Can Climate Change Fueled Loss & Damage Ever be Fair?

This, the new report from the Civil Society Equity Review coalition, is the first since the coalition began in 2015 to focus on Loss and Damage. It argues that the wealthy countries must take a great bulk of the responsibility for the impacts that climate change is already having in developing nations.

More specifically, this report, which has so far been endorsed by over 150 civil society organisations and social movements, finds that the US and EU are jointly responsible for more than half (54%) the cost of repairing the damage caused by climate disasters in the Global South.

It highlights how the world needs to establish effective responses to climate disasters, remake global food systems to be resilient in the face of destabilized ecosystems, and respond to increasingly frequent migrant crises in ways that protect the rights of those forced to leave their homes.

The report shows that the first step is for wealthy countries to immediately begin providing public climate finance, based on their responsibility and capacity to act, to support not only adaptation, but also just responses to the loss and damage already being caused by the climate crisis.

The report calculates countries’ “fair share” of responsibility using an equity analysis, based on historic contributions to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, and their capacity to take climate action, based on national income while taking into account what is needed to provide basic living standards.

Interview with Doug Henwood

On Sunday September 29th, I was interviewed by the excellent Doug Henwood for his Behind the News program. The link is here. Go to 25:04 to miss the first interview but pick up some of the modernist atmospherics of the show’s distinctive soundtrack, which fades into yours truly.

The interview is not bad. I normally hate listening to myself, but this is a half hour of crisp talk that actually explains, in a reasonably coherent way, the theory and politics behind the Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet piece I had in the September 30, 2019 issue of The Nation.

The Green New Deal as a step towards Emergency Internationalism

It’s likely, given the ongoing political insanity, that you’ve missed a key internationalist turn in the US Green New Deal debate.  It was Bernie Sanders’ team that made that turn, though we’re hoping that others (activists as well as politicians) will soon follow along.

The details are below, but here are the two key takeaways:

  • The national emissions reductions targets that most climate emergency groups have been advocating (e.g. 100% net zero by 2030, or even 2025 in the case of the British Extinction Rebellion folks) are effectively impossible if they are conceived in purely domestic terms.  They are also insufficient.  But Sanders has embraced a justice-based global framework that allows him to advocate for a properly scaled US reduction target, in this case 161% by 2030, and to do so coherently. 
  • Sanders’ internationalism is important because it extends the (usually all-domestic) Green New Deal vision to include the US fair share of an international emergency climate mobilization. In so doing, it points a path forward that animates the Paris Agreement (and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanism) and holds out hope for an effective planetary mobilization. This is a critical move, because only a global Green New Deal can succeed.

For a bit more detail, see below.


Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal plan leverages a key idea—that a true emergency climate mobilization requires nations to do their fair share in the global effort, rather than just acting within their own borders.  And it makes a very concrete proposal for how to put this idea into play.

Sanders based his proposal, and his specific estimate of the US’s fair share, directly on ideas that EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute have developed in their joint Climate Equity Reference Project, and that the Civil Society Equity Review coalition has been promoting for years.  

I recently had a prominent piece in The Nation which tells this story.  It’s called Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet, and it argues that a fair shares approach to international cooperation is essential to any even plausibly successful global climate transition.  Specifically, it proposes that a global Green New Deal can best be kickstarted through a proliferation of national green new deals that are structured to support international cooperation as well as domestic transformation.  The side effect, a very welcome one, would be the animation of the Paris Agreement and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanisms. 

Sanders’ plan calls for:

“Meeting and exceeding our fair share of global emissions reductions. The United States has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world. Therefore, we have an outsized obligation to help less industrialized nations meet their targets while improving quality of life.  We will reduce domestic emissions by at least 71 percent by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by 2030 — the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161 percent.”

These are big numbers, and they underlie another big number in Sanders’ proposal: the offer of $200 billion in support to help developing countries reduce emissions.  The Sanders team derived this figure by looking at the projects in the Green Climate Fund portfolio to estimate what it would cost to achieve that 36% reduction in developing countries.

This is a big ask, particularly given today’s political situation, but it would be more likely to help trigger global cooperation than the almost-purely-domestic “net zero 2030” target that is so prominent within the climate emergency movement, a target that suggests that wealthy countries need only reduce their emissions within their own borders.  As if by de-carbonizing their domestic economies they would have done their fair part in the planetary mobilization.

The Climate Equity Reference Project has long argued that such a view is both ethically and politically nonviable.  But Sanders’ proposal marks the first time a major American political figure has taken anything like a coherent global fair shares position, and it is particularly notable for being embedding within a visionary domestic Green New Deal, in which the effort of financing a viable global climate transition would absolutely not be freighted upon the poor people of the wealthy world.  His fair shares vision is intimately linked to other agendas for progressive taxation, reduced military spending, taxes on fossil energy, and so forth.   

It’s important that climate activists—street activists and policy activists both—engage with the core ideas here.  We need a real debate about global climate justice, and that debate has to happen no matter who becomes the next US President.  For, just as radical decarbonization won’t happen in the US without a Just Transition, it won’t happen in poorer countries without a globally fair system of both mitigation and adaptation support.

Take a look at Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet.  It’s not long, and its written to help start a conversation about the emergency internationalism that we’ll need if we’re to stabilize the climate system in time. 

Stefan Ramsdorf has a point

Stefan Rahmstorf is a top-tier climatologist and a great explainer, so I found it notable when, in a recent post in RealClimate (How much CO2 your country can still emit, in three simple steps), he took a few baby steps into the fraught territory of global effort sharing.

His three simple steps are:

  • Pick a global temperature goal (like, say, 1.5°C)
  • Pick a global CO2 budget (which involves some thinking about uncertainty)
  • Pick a method for divided up the (very small) remaining budget between nations

I’m not writing to make a comment on Ramsdorf’s first two steps, which are explained clearly and astutely. Though I do commend his discussion of uncertainties, and I worry that he may be a bit too diligently optimistic when it cones to Earth system feedbacks .

And I do like his caution to think in terms of budgets rather than end dates, as per:

“This is why one should not attach much value to politicians setting targets like “zero emissions in 2050”. It is immediate actions for fast reductions which count, such as actually halving emissions by 2030. Many politicians either do not understand this – or they do not want to understand this, because it is so much simpler to promise things for the distant future rather than to act now. “

I’m writing rather to note Ramsdorf’s comment on effort sharing, which manages to be both naive and helpful at the same time. Naive because, once he has made the key point, that “dividing up the remaining budget” is a matter of climate justice, not one of climate science, he chooses to do this division in terms of equal rights to emit C02, which isn’t actually, in this highly stratified world of ours, very just at all.

Why this move? Because he wants to argue that “a principle of fair distribution needs to be universal and simple.” Which per-capita emissions rights certainly are, in contrast to actual justice, which would have to consider not just equality, but also capability (which means wealth) and responsibility (which means facing history).

Why then judge this oversimple analysis helpful? Because Ramsdorf’s bottom line is that “we have to reduce emissions very very fast in the developed world, no matter how you twist and turn it.” (See the comments). And because he adds that there will have to be “a longer tail of emissions from developing nations reaching zero later.”

Both of these conditions, at this late date, are going to be almost incomprehensibly difficult to satisfy. Still, there they are. And if we have to speak very very simply in order to make them understandable, there’s an argument to be made for doing so, even if it violates the prime directive: “as simple as possible, but no simpler.”