After the Catastrophe

Climate justice as the post-Trump slingshot

Tom Athanasiou (toma@ecoequity.org) Jan 18, 2017

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Trump’s election was a catastrophe. Coming on top of everything else, it more than justifies pessimism. But at the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me add that our new position is not without its possibilities.

We would not have chosen this path. But if we’re both smart and lucky we may be able to slingshot out of it, and into a mobilization that would not otherwise have been possible.

But we’re going to have to be brave enough to take justice seriously. Among much else, we’re going to have to work out what the pretty phrase “climate justice” actually means.

Among much else.

Before Trump there was Paris, and its celebrated goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C,” while pursuing efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” So here’s a question: When Dave Roberts, one of America’s premier climate bloggers, published a post-election reaction piece called “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees,” was he right?

I don’t think so. But I’ll grant that, if he’s wrong, he’s wrong in a complicated way. For one thing, the hope we had before Trump’s election was not itself entirely serious.

Here’s how Roberts described it:

“The truth is, hitting the 2-degree target (much less 1.5 degrees) was always a long shot. It would require all the world’s countries to effectively turn on a dime and send their emissions plunging at never-before-seen rates.

It was implausible, but at least there was a story to tell. That story began with strong U.S. leadership, which brought China to the table, which in turn cleared the way for Paris. The election of Hillary Clinton would have signaled to the world a determination to meet or exceed the targets the U.S. promised in Paris, along with four years of efforts to create bilateral or multilateral partnerships that pushed progress faster.

With steady leadership, the U.S. and China would exceed their short-term goals. Other countries would have their willpower fortified and steadily ratchet up their commitments. All this coordinated action would result in a wave of clean energy innovation, which would push prices down lower, which would accelerate the transition.”

Is this an accurate telling? I think it is, more or less, but it’s also radically incomplete. For one thing, “U.S. leadership” has not been an unambiguous force, and there are many people around the world who would object even to the phrase. More pressing, the “wave of clean energy innovation” that this story depends on was never going to be enough. On this front, see the bit where countries “steadily ratchet up their commitments.” This is a reference to the push for (jargon alert) an “ambition ratchet” or “ambition mechanism.” The two terms are almost interchangeable but the idea is critical, because both the Paris pledges of national action and the post-Paris pledges of international transition support are far too weak to actually achieve Paris’ “well below 2°C” temperature target.

This view – that the Paris pledges are too weak to achieve the Paris targets – is entirely mainstream. All the key studies agree. However, when you push a little farther and ask which countries are most at blame – which countries are doing their “fair share” and which are not – you find that only the reports of the Civil Society Equity Review coalition (full disclosure: I’m one of its authors) even attempts to broach the question.[1] The coalition’s most recent report, Setting the Path towards 1.5°C, offers this simple summary statement:

“even if all the commitments in the current NDCs [national pledges of action] are met — an uncertain prospect, given the lack of financial and technological resources from wealthier countries — they would lead to a warming of about 3°C.”

The baseline truth here is that ambition is a function of equity. Unless we establish cooperative international systems by which the wealthy support the poor with the finance and technology they need to act well and decisively, ambition will remain in short supply. Which is why we’re talking about a possible warming of 3°C, though in truth 3.5°C – an extremely dangerous level of warming – might wind up being closer to the mark.[2]

Still, the Paris pledges were widely accepted as a first installment. Their weakness, as the story went, was OK, because we’d be able to strengthen them – and properly support “stretch” pledges by countries that can’t deliver on them without help – in time to meet the Paris targets. If, after Trump’s election, this doesn’t happen, or, more precisely, if this was going to happen but now doesn’t, then Roberts has called this all correctly; we won’t make 1.5°C, or even 2°C, and we’ll have this election, and all it’s infamies, to blame.

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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.

Continue reading “Managed Decline: Why the new Oil Change report is even better than you thought”

Implications for Australia of a 1.5°C future

Slowly but surely, the “fair shares” issue is taking the stage. It has to if we’re going to get anywhere near the Paris temperature targets, which I will conservatively characterize as “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” Which brings me to Implications for Australia of a 1.5°C future, which my colleague Sivan Kartha just wrote for a few brave Australian climate groups.

bridgeIt’s an interesting report, for two related reasons. First, it is brief, and it sticks very closely to the mainline implications of the carbon budget approach, laying out the logic of the high-ambition Paris targets in a clear, step by step, fashion. Second, it is conservative. Not only does it reference the Australian fair share, as calculated by the Climate Equity Reference Project for the Civil Society Equity Review of the INDCs, but it also references a far more forgiving estimate of Australia’s fair share, one calculated by the Australian Climate Change Authority in 2014.

The report’s headline result, which the Sydney Morning Herald gave as Australia’s carbon budget to be exhausted in six years, is an understated one. If, that is, you actually want to meet the Paris targets, which is to say, if you actually want to reduce the risk of an utter catastrophe in which, to quote a recent paper by Jim Hansen and colleagues, the “Social disruption and economic consequences” arising from “large sea level rise, and the attendant increases in storms and climate extremes,” that trigger “conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse” that are so severe that they could even “make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

Not that Australia is going to drop its emissions to zero in six years. This isn’t in the cards and we all know it. But it should do its level best, and support a great deal of offshore mitigation as well. This, in any case, is what it would mean for it to do its fair share.

In Memoriam: Paul Baer (1962 – 2016)

pbaer-smThis morning, while preparing for a meeting, I learned that Paul Baer, my friend and EcoEquity’s co-founder, had just committed suicide.  If you’re also a friend of his, you may know part of the story, which was long and often agonizing.

Paul and I met in late 2000, just before the dramatic 6th Conference of Parties in The Hague.  I was giving a brown bag talk up at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, one called “After the Kyoto Protocol.”  Afterwards, we talked and talked, and it turned out that we agreed on a very great deal indeed. What better way to celebrate such accord than to found an organization?  Thus, EcoEquity was born.

The tragedy of Paul’s death is underscored by the fact that it occurred just before the Paris Agreement enters into force.  When it does, it’s going to thrust us into a world of new complexities, and new possibilities.  And, no doubt, new infamies.  It’s a world he should have lived to see, and to work within.

Back in 2002, Paul and I wrote a book together, one called Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming.  (We were trying for a broad audience, so we used the J word).  It’s still a nice piece of work, though we were at the time too heavily influenced by per-capita approaches to global climate equity. I know Paul would agree with this judgement, because he was a co-developer, along with myself and Sivan Kartha of the Stockholm Environment Institute, of the Greenhouse Development Rights framework (archived here), which went on to have a considerable influence on the global fair-shares debate.  GDRs, in case you don’t know, evolved into the Climate Equity Reference Project, and Paul’s fingerprints are all over it.

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Unfinished Business: Adaptation Finance

Paris was a breakthrough, no question. At the same time, it left us with a whole hell of a lot to do. The problem is that much of it has to do with offshore suffering.  And, well, this doesn’t exactly seem to be a moment of high internationalism.

Still, it’s worth reminding ourselves that global solidarity is going to be an absolute necessity if we want to to avoid global catastrophe. And that, despite this moment of strange, strained, nationalism, there are people that are desperately in need of a helping hand. You don’t need to forget the poor and the vulnerable in the US to remember the 3.5 billion poorest people around the world who face increased risk of floods, droughts, hunger and disease.

So let’s spare a moment to note, in particular, just how pathetically little adaptation funding there is on the table.  Here’s a graph:

Capture

And here’s a link to Unfinished Business, a new report from Oxfam International that will give you a rundown on exactly how to read the graph.  (Hint: The big numbers in the blue bar are official lies; the real amount is much smaller.)

And here are a few words from the report itself: “In particular, the [Paris} agreement left many questions on climate finance unanswered. It extended the Copenhagen commitment from developed countries to jointly mobilize $100bn per year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries by another five years through to 2025. And it strongly calls for those countries to increase their funds for adaptation beyond current levels. But it failed to include meaningful mechanisms to ensure that adaptation finance will increase sufficiently, or to address the massive neglect of adaptation compared to mitigation in international climate finance flows to date.”

Keep the phrase “Unfinished Business” in mind.  It will come in handy as we make our way though the post-Paris years.

Lost in translation in a bottom-up world?

I’ve just read an interesting paper by one Jonathan Pickering (University of Canberra). It’s called Top-down proposals for sharing the global climate policy effort fairly: lost in translation in a bottom-up world? and is well worth reading, not least because it is a corrective to the view, unfortunately popular on the “climate street,” that Paris is a fraud because, well, only a top-down principle-based regime could possibly be real.

Pickering, for his part, offers a nice capsule analysis of why a top-down regime was never in the cards, and not just because the wealthy countries of the North refused its disciplines. Also, and importantly. there’s the unfortunate fact that:

“While developing countries have supported the idea that developed countries should share their efforts according to a common formula, they have resisted the idea that developing countries themselves should be subject to the same formula.”

This position was justified, and probably still is, by the Convention’s statement that developed countries should “take the lead” in protecting the climate system, but it had consequences in any case, and we’re facing them today.

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Making (Equity) Reviews (of the national pledges) Relevant

As the lay of the post-Paris land starts to become clear, it’s also becoming clear that few people outside the climate negotiations really understand the details of the equity debate, as it is unfolding on the inside.

Thus it may be interesting to read this somewhat technical piece.  Think of it as a Climate Equity Reference Project discussion paper, designed to inform the debate on equity review that is now, partly because of our work, a clear aspect of the What’s Next? debate.  Here’s the opening abstract:

“Paris was a breakthrough, but is not yet a success. It could yield success though, and (together with the climate movement, and the solar revolution) help to catalyze a true climate mobilization. But only if the still unfinished negotiations yield a solid global ambition ratcheting mechanism.

Some people believe that we’ve already won such a mechanism.This paper argues that we’re still missing at least two fundamental building blocks of a robust ambition ratchet: a public-finance breakthrough and a “real review” mechanism.

The second of these is the topic of this paper. It argues that 1) real review by definition includes the science-based, ex-ante equity assessment of individual pledges, 2) such assessments were in Paris beyond the will of the Parties, 3) they can nevertheless be done well, and can positively influence the formal negotiations, and 4) civil society should (on top of everything else it has to do) take the lead in demonstrating that this is so.

This paper is a call to civil society – and to the Parties – to support such an effort, and to do so quickly. The effort should culminate in or before the 2018 political moment, which must be a big one.”

Stories of the Future

Here’s the TEDx San Francisco talk I gave on October 29th 2015. I call it “Stories of the Future,” though the TEDx site shows it as “Make it Bigger,” by which I meant our conception of the problem.

I’m afraid it wasn’t one of my best performances.  Still, it’s not bad; in fact, it might be the best talk I know on climate crisis and the “second machine age.” 

And if you prefer old media — like reading a website — the script is below.

 

 

It’s often said that the 20th Century began, not in 1900, but in 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the subsequent outbreak of World War I.

This raises a question about the 21st Century — has it begun yet? I think it has, though it’s hard to mark its exact beginning. To do so, you need a storyline. A story of the future.

If you want a dystopian story, it’s easy to date its beginning. Just use September 11, 2001.

But what if you want to tell a helpful story? One in which we actually deal with our greatest problems. A believable story in which the historians of the future look back to our time, today, as a time of new beginnings. What date, exactly, would mark these beginnings?

Let me suggest two possible dates, marking two very different storylines, which are fated to play out together.

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