“I must add that Drawdown is not yet a tonic strong enough to cure the dystopian plague that has come to penetrate most all our visions of the future. It illuminates the techno-economic path forward, and it insists that social justice is also a prime concern, but on this second front it offers almost nothing that is concrete, specific and believable. To be truly “comprehensive,” a deep-decarbonization plan must recognize the dire threat which economic stratification poses to our ability to mobilize, and reveal the mechanisms by which we will learn, again, to cooperate. Which is to say that, when it comes to both domestic and global environmental justice, an ethos is not enough. The deeply political, justice-based side of the climate-transition equation needs a lot more attention than it gets here, and it needs it now.
But Drawdown’s catalog of solutions omits long-term democratic planning, which is essential to any true deep-decarbonization roadmap. It makes no mention of the overarching challenge of ensuring a just transition, one in which all those whose lives will be disrupted by the climate transition are, somehow, made whole, or at least whole enough. (Think coal miners, but think too of all the communities and even countries that are dependent on the fossil-fuel economy.) It talks of “net costs,” but it does not talk about winners and losers, as if any acceptable pricing system could gloss over the challenge of today’s obscene level of inequality. There’s no discussion of progressive approaches to climate taxation, without which we haven’t got a snowball’s chance. There’s no mention of cap-and-dividend systems, or energy-subsidy reform, or the international finance and technology support systems that will be necessary if the Paris Agreement is to deliver. Or of fair trade. Or of class.”
If you liked After the Catastrophe, or even if you didn’t, you might want to check out my (long) interview with Sasha Lilly on Against the Grain on KPFA-FM. It’s called Trumping Global Warming, it was recorded on January 30th, and it’s not too bad.
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. 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.
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.
Just dying to know my views on global climate justice and the Paris Agreements. Here’s an interview I recently did with Bing Gong (Jun 13, 2016) on KWMR Post Carbon Radio in Point Reyes Station. I hate listening to myself in any recorded form, but this is really not too bad.
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.
Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions is a call for a global progressive carbon consumption tax (with a 0% marginal rate for those below a key threshold) that is designed to provide $150 billion a year for the global adaptation fund (a key climate fund that, while formally established, is woefully underfunded).
The crucial thing here is that Chancel / Piketty explicitly seek a globally progressive tax on individuals rather than countries. They do this for a number of reasons, but first among them is the judgement that inequality between people has (since 2013) become a greater source of emissions inequity than inequality between countries:
“Our estimates also show that within-country inequality in CO2e emissions matters more and more to explain the global dispersion of CO2e emissions. In 1998, one third of global CO2e emissions inequality was accounted for by inequality within countries. Today, within-country inequality makes up 50% of the global dispersion of CO2e emissions. It is then crucial to focus on high individual emitters rather than high emitting countries.”
This is dogs years ago — pre-Paris, actually — but it’s interesting, at least to me, as a period piece. How to make a bottom-up global climate regime both fair and strong, in a world that does not enjoy a legitimate and democratic global governance regime? Not a trivial question
(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)
COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth? Alan Weisman Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages
During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.
First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.
Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.
Climate Denialism has peaked. Now what are we going to do?
It was never going to be easy to face the ecological crisis. Even back in the 1970s, before climate took center stage, it was clear that we the prosperous were walking far too heavily. And that “environmentalism,” as it was called, was only going to be a small beginning. But it was only when the climate crisis pushed fossil energy into the spotlight that the real stakes were widely recognized. Fossil fuels are the meat and potatoes of industrial civilization, and the need to rapidly and radically reduce their emissions cut right through to the heart of the great American dream. And the European dream. And, inevitably, the Chinese dream as well.
Decades later, 81% of global energy is still supplied by the fossil fuels: coal, gas, and oil. And though the solar revolution is finally beginning, the day is late. The Arctic is melting, and, soon, as each year the northern ocean lies bare beneath the summer sun, the warming will accelerate. Moreover, our plight is becoming visible. We have discovered, to our considerable astonishment, that most of the fossil fuel on the books of our largest corporations is “unburnable” – in the precise sense that, if we burn it, we are doomed. Not that we know what to do with this rather strange knowledge. Also, even as China rises, it’s obvious that it’s not the last in line for the promised land. Billions of people, all around the world, watch the wealthy on TV, and most all of them want a drink from the well of modern prosperity. Why wouldn’t they? Life belongs to us all, as does the Earth.
The challenge, in short, is rather daunting.
The denial of the challenge, on the other hand, always came ready-made. As Francis Bacon said so long ago, “what a man would rather were true, he more readily believes.” And we really did want to believe that ours was still a boundless world. The alternative – an honest reckoning – was just too challenging. For one thing, there was no obvious way to reconcile the Earth’s finitude with the relentless expansion of the capitalist market. And as long as we believed in a world without limits, there was no need to see that economic stratification would again become a fatal issue. Sure, our world was bitterly riven between haves and have-nots, but this problem, too, would fade in time. With enough growth – the universal balm – redistribution would never be necessary. In time, every man would be a king.
The denial had many cheerleaders. The chemical-company flacks who derided Rachel Carson as a “hysterical woman” couldn’t have known that they were pioneering a massive trend. Also, and of course, big money always has plenty of mouthpieces. But it’s no secret that, during the 20th Century, the “engineering of consent” reached new levels of sophistication. The composed image of benign scientific competence became one of its favorite tools, and somewhere along the way tobacco-industry science became a founding prototype of anti-environmental denialism. On this front, I’m happy to say that the long and instructive history of today’s denialist pseudo-science has already been expertly deconstructed. Given this, I can safely focus on the new world, the post-Sandy world of manifest climatic disruption in which the denialists have lost any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, and have ceased to be a decisive political force. A world in which climate denialism is increasingly seen, and increasingly ridiculed, as the jibbering of trolls.