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 . . .

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Tom speaks, this time to Doug Henwood

Following the publication of The US Returns to the Paris Agreement Today—With Lots of Work Ahead for the World in The Nation, I spent some time expounding my very conditional optimism on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News podcast. The interview, which was performed on March 4, is here (27:50) and I actually think it was pretty coherent.

Listen if you’re on the left, worried about climate catastrophe, sick of blithe criticisms of the Paris Agreement.

Over 50,000 people & 195 global groups demand Biden commit the U.S. to do its “fair share” on climate

February 17, 2021

The petition is the latest call for Biden administration to walk the walk on climate by taking responsibility for historical emissions

Washington — Just days before the reentry of the United States into the Paris Agreement becomes official, environmental groups delivered the signatures of more than 50,000 people in the U.S. The signatures are the latest escalation in a growing call demanding that the Biden Administration commit to doing its fair share of emissions cuts and honor owed support for Global South countries, including climate finance. The petition reflects analysis released in December from the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) that provides a path for the U.S. to take action that is in line with its responsibility for the climate crisis. 

The delivery follows a sign-on letter from over 100 U.S. climate groups including USCAN  which represents more than 175 US climate organizations, released for the 5-year anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement. The call has now been endorsed by a total of 195 organizations including the international Climate Action Network, which represents more than 1,500 organizations from over 130 countries. 

Earlier this month a similar coalition also demanded that the Biden administration commit $8 billion to the Green Climate Fund as well as further contributions to the Adaptation Fund. While the Biden transition team has yet to acknowledge the demand from this national coalition of people and organizations, incoming Climate Envoy John Kerry has spoken about the need for the US to do its fair share.

According to the analysis released by USCAN, for the U.S. to begin to do its fair share of the global action needed to help limit global warming to 1.5°C, it must reduce U.S. emissions 195% by 2030 (down from 2005 levels). To assemble this contribution, the analysis calls for U.S. domestic emissions reductions of 70% by 2030 combined with a further 125% reduction achieved by providing financial and technological support for emission reductions in Global South countries.

The Biden administration has enacted a flurry of climate executive orders and previously committed to a plan of net-zero by 2050. But announcements to achieve net zero have been met with criticism from climate groups and scientists for not being ambitious enough and relying on technologies and approaches that are unproven, dangerous, or not achievable at scale.  

The extremely large U.S. fair share contribution partly reflects U.S. emissions to date. Today’s global warming is driven by cumulative emissions (not annual emissions), and the U.S. has already historically emitted more than any other country. In fact, many analyses deem that the U.S. has far surpassed its fair share of the cumulative global carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5°C. The domestic reduction of 70% by 2030 recommended by USCAN roughly aligns with an extremely ambitious decarbonization via a prosperous economy-wide mobilization.

The fair share demand is one part of a larger framework prescribed by environmental groups called the Climate President Action Plan. The plan includes ten steps the administration can take to fulfill its promise to take bold steps on climate and rebuild trust abroad.  

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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.

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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.

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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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

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.

Despair Watch: Jonathan Franzen Edition

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, recently published a piece in the New Yorker that caused a bit of stir. The piece is called What If We Stopped Pretending?, and let’s just say it’s not particularly optimistic. In fact, its subtitle is “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

You should read Franzen’s piece, not just for itself but because there’s more of this kind of high-tone despair coming down the pike, lots more.  Given this, it would be good if we could all get our thoughts in order. I’ve already done so, because I’m writing a piece on the culture of climate despair. I fired off a letter to the editor, and they actually published it.

Here’s what I said:

“The most exemplary of the new books on climate change—David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Bill McKibben’s “Falter”—struggle for an honesty that does not counsel despair. Franzen’s argument, which suggests that attempts to mobilize are at odds with conservation and even with moral clarity, is an unhelpful distortion of the truth. We have the money and the technology to save ourselves. The tragedy, if it comes to that, will be that we don’t do so, even though we can. “