Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future”

I have, as per my demographic and political / cultural leanings, been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate novels since he started writing them. But I’ve never been moved to review one before The Ministry For the Future.

Read this book, and not just because it imagines a successful path forward. Read it because it does so without down-playing the climate danger, and because it holds the vision of a “post capitalist” world in proper equipoise with the defining necessities of crash decarbonization. Robinson may be just a wee bit optimistic about the manageability of the climate system tipping cascades that now seem to be on the horizon, but in the context of this book, I think this is OK. When you’re done with the opening scene, you will not feel moved to claim that the arc of The Ministry is in any way based on soft-pedaling.

This is not a proper review. Just three points.

1) Read this book, particularly if you’ve been underwhelmed by “Climate Fiction”. In this regard, note this recent opinion piece on Cli Fi. I cite it because it’s erudite in a useful sort of way, and because it gives me a chance to suggest you might be better off reading The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh’s non-fiction book on the challenge the climate crisis poses to literature, than Gun Island, the Ghosh novel it cites and discusses.  And because, when it comes to Robinson’s work, it references only New York 2140, which allows me to quickly opine that The Ministry is a more important book.

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The Pandemic Pivot

Earlier this year, the prolific and admirably lucid John Feffer, currently based at the Institute for Policy Studies, invited me to participate in an international conversation that he called The Pandemic Pivot.

I’m sorry to say that the project’s framing text is already dated, for it talked about the coming second wave. I’m writing this in late October of 2020, and any anyone reading it will know, we’re not embroiled in the third wave. That said, the overarching less is the same, “If the current pandemic is a test of the global emergency response system, the international community is flunking big time.”

Here’s some introductory text, which clearly explains the link between the Covid crisis, and my own work, which is focused on climate and inequality:

“But perhaps the most important takeaway from the COVID-19 experience so far has little to do with the virus per se.

The pandemic has already killed more than a million people, but it is not about to doom humanity to extinction. COVID-19’s mortality rate, at under 3 percent, is relatively low compared to previous pandemics (around 10 percent for SARS and nearly 35 percent for MERS). Like its deadlier cousins, this pandemic will eventually recede, sooner or later depending on government response.

Other threats to the planet, meanwhile, pose greater existential dangers.

At a mere 100 seconds to midnight, the Doomsday Clock of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now stands closer to the dreaded hour than at any point since its launch in 1947. As the quickening pace of this countdown suggests, the risk of nuclear war has not gone away while the threat of climate change has become ever more acute. If fire and water don’t get us, there’s always the possibility of another, more deadly pandemic incubating in a bat or a pangolin somewhere in the vanishing wild.

Despite these threats, the world has gone about its business as if a sword were not dangling perilously overhead. Then COVID-19 hit, and business ground to a halt.

The environmental economist Herman Daly once said that the world needed an optimal crisis “that’s big enough to get our attention but not big enough to disable our ability to respond,” notes climate activist Tom Athanasiou. That’s what COVID-19 has been: a wake-up call on a global scale, a reminder that humanity has to change its ways or go the way of the dinosaur.

Athanasiou is one of the 68 leading thinkers and activists featured in a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the Transnational Institute, and Focus on the Global South. Now available in electronic form from Seven Stories Press, The Pandemic Pivot lays out a bold program for how the international community can learn from the experience of the current pandemic to avoid the even more destructive cataclysms that loom on the horizon.”

The Pandemic Pivot is actually an engrossing read. Seriously. Check it out.

Great overview of “tipping points” science

Of all the fraught issues raised by the climate crisis, tipping points–or, more recently, “tipping cascades”–are the most fraught. Pessimism can be self-fulfilling–it comes to that.

And yet there is the truth, which isn’t looking particularly good. Which is why I recommend The Tipping Points at the Heart of the Climate Crisis, which was published a while ago in The Guardian. It’s the best simple overview to the state of tipping point science I’ve seen, and its both up to date and judicious. No “doomsterism” here, but not false comfort either. Rather, simple quotes, as for example when Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research tells us:

‘The 2016 agreement committed most countries to limit warming to 1.5 to 2C . . . Winkelmann argues that 1.5C is the right target, because it takes into account the existence of the tipping points and gives the best chance of avoiding them. “For some of these tipping elements,” she says, “we’re already in that danger zone.”’

I particularly appreciated the straightforward manner in which Michael Marshall, the author of this piece, dealt with the debate about 2018’s “Hothouse Earth” paper, which was itself a tipping point. After its publication, the extent of our danger was palpably clearer. Straightforward like so:

“In 2018, researchers including [Tim] Lenton and Winkelmann explored the question in a much-discussed study. “The Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions – Hothouse Earth,” they wrote. The danger threshold might be only decades away at current rates of warming.

Lenton says the jury is still out on whether this global threshold exists, let alone how close it is, but that it is not something that should be dismissed out of hand.

“For me, the strongest evidence base at the moment is for the idea that we could be committing to a ‘wethouse’, rather than a hothouse,” says Lenton. “We could see a cascade of ice sheet collapses.” This would lead to “a world that has no substantive ice in the northern hemisphere and a lot less over Antarctica, and the sea level is 10 to 20 metres higher”. Such a rise would be enough to swamp many coastal megacities, unless they were protected.”

Much recommended.

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.

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.”

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”.

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.