The IPCC Report Is an Understatement

There are two things to keep in mind if you would know the climate future. The first is that, as scientific statesman John Holdren likes to say, it will come to us as a mixture of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. The second is that the suffering will be disproportionately visited upon the poor and the innocent.

Where once there was constant recourse to “this storm/drought/surge is consistent with global warming,” we’re now increasingly likely to hear “this storm/ drought/surge would not have happened without global warming.”

Hold these thoughts when considering the massive tome just issued by the IPCC’s Working Group II. (The much briefer Summary for Policymakers, or SPM, is here). Working Group II (or “WG2” for short) is the part of the International Panel on Climate Change – the largest, most sustained, and arguably most important peer-reviewed scientific enterprise in history – which is focused on understanding climate-change related “impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.” Its report, released on Monday, comes halfway though the year-long roll-out of the three volume set that together make up the IPCC’s “Firth Assessment Report.”

Volume I is focused on climate science in itself – the “physical science basis” of the crisis. It was released in September and can be found here. Volume III, due out later this month, is focused on mitigation – that is, on what the nations of the world can do to slow and then, hopefully, stop greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the release of WG1’s report in late 2013 has perhaps faded from memory, it’s useful to recall it and to pause to appreciate that WG1 did its job well. In fact, it’s not too much to say that the first volume, coming at a time when climate denialism was already sagging, gave us a fine marker of its now accelerating decline. It did so by stepping past the contrived denialist shitstorm that was “Climategate” with a decisive summary and restatement of our increasingly firm – and increasingly grim – understandings.

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Worse than I thought

The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report is a useful item.  In a world where income statistics are generally the best we can do, it leverages its customized Swiss-banker research machine to estimate the real stats, the ones about wealth itself.  Wealth as in ownership.  I say “estimate” because, well, the really rich don’t particularly like being studied.  Anyway, Global Wealth Report 2013 contains some stats I’ve been looking for.  Here’s they are, from page 10:

“Our estimates for mid-2013 indicate that once debts have been subtracted, an adult requires just USD 4,000 in assets to be in the wealthiest half of world citizens. However, a person needs at least USD 75,000 to be a member of the top 10% of global wealth holders, and USD 753,000 to belong to the top 1%. Taken together, the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest 10% hold 86% of the world’s wealth, and the top 1% alone account for 46% of global assets.”

Here’s a picture that, among other things, shows you where there rich actually live:

OECD Secretary General calls for rapid transition to global zero carbon economy

The OECD is of course a keystone institution of the wealthy world.  And yet its new report, Climate and carbon: Aligning prices and policies, and in particular this speech by Angel Gurria, its Secretary General, is excellent, concise, and surprisingly frank.

For example:

I’ve come here today to argue that whatever policy mix we cook up, it has to be one that leads to the complete elimination of emissions to the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels in the second half of the century . . . We don’t need to get to zero tomorrow. Not even in 2050, although we should be a long way down the track by then. But sometime in the second half of the century we will need to arrive there.

How are we going to do so?  With a policy mix designed to price carbon, phase out coal, increase the ambition of the current pledges, get beyond policy wobbles on renewables, and phase-out fossil-fuel subsides.

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"Dangerous Climate Change" is already here, and the scientists know it.

The IPCC’s new assessment report hasn’t even been released, but the denialist fog machine is already running hard.  If you’re tired of it — and, frankly, if you’re tired of the smoothly-leveled understatement that we usually get from the IPCC — take a look at Is Climate Change Already Dangerous?, a new report by David Spratt of Australia’s Climate Code Red.

I’ll not summarize this report; there’s no point because it’s already a summary, one which sticks extremely close to the original scientific literature.  But I will say that its focus is the Arctic, which as you may have noticed is getting a lot of nervous attention these days.  And this for the very good reason that it’s melting before our eyes!  Spratt’s paper is excellent on this subject – it lays out the basics of the situation and gives you the citations you need to drill deeper.  Assuming you’re up to it.  The message, after all, is that we’ve already crossed the thin red line into the days of “dangerous climate change.”

What’s happening here?  Here’s a nice overview from Professor Peter Wadhams, of Cambridge University and the Catlin Arctic Survey.  The author of a recent paper called Arctic ice cover, ice thickness and tipping points and a leading authority on the polar regions, Wadhams says:

“I have been predicting [the collapse of sea ice in summer months] for many years. The main cause is simply global warming: as the climate has warmed there has been less ice growth during the winter and more ice melt during the summer… in the end the summer melt overtook the winter growth such that the entire ice sheet melts or breaks up during the summer months. This collapse, I predicted would occur in 2015–16 at which time the summer Arctic (August to September) would become ice-free. The final collapse towards that state is now happening and will probably be completed by those dates. As the sea ice retreats in summer the ocean warms up (to +7ºC in 2011) and this warms the seabed too. The continental shelves of the Arctic are composed of offshore permafrost, frozen sediment left over from the last ice age. As the water warms, the permafrost melts and releases huge quantities of trapped methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas so this will give a big boost to global warming.” (Vidal, 2012)

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Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis, with a foreword by Doug Henwood. PM Press 2012   
(Click here for a shorter version of this review on Earth Island Journal)

There are four essays in this slim volume, one on left catastrophism, one on green catastrophism, one on right catastrophism, and one on zombies. I’m most interested in the left and the greens, though we do need to keep an eye on the right. As for the zombie craze, doesn’t it just come down to the fact that modern life feels like people keep trying to eat your face off?

Doug Henwood’s preface sets the stage nicely. He immediately makes a point that all green pessimists should keep always in mind: “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.” In fact, it usually is. The challenge is to remember this even as you face the real and present catastrophe that’s now visible on the horizon.[1] It’s a dilemma, no doubt about it, but the way forward, whatever it is, is going to have to take both its horns into proper account. The question is how.

Catastrophism comes at a good time for the green movement, which is in a period of rapid change. The key point here is that, even as we struggle to come to terms with the latest climate science, we need to remember (see particularly James Davis’ essay) that catastrophism is the “native terrain” of the right. The baseline point here is that right-wing politics is all about natural limits (scarcity, austerity, etc) rather than social ones (even in a world of limits, we’d be fine if we shared the commonwealth).  This is not to say that environmentalism itself is biased toward the right – just the contrary – but it has flirted with catastrophism for a long, long time, and along the way it has had a number of unfortunate dalliances, particularly with right-wing populationism and xenophobia.

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