A conversation cum debate between Rupert Read and Tom Athanasiou

Back in March, I debated Rupert Reed at the Center for European Studies at Berkeley. Rupert is a British Green politician and philosopher (a Wittgenstein expert, actually) who has recently emerged as a spokesman for the Extinction Rebellion. The debate is not uninteresting. In fact, it got quite rather testy at several points, as for example when I felt compelled to defend the IPCC against Rupert’s rather apocalyptic take on radicalism. Here’s the video. . .

Building Just Climate Futures Together – an online conference

If you’re in the mood for a half hour of of me, along in my room talking into a microphone, and you’d like to see a sketch of the book I have under development (it’s called Fair Enough?), you might want to take a look at this video, which was (is?) my contribution to an online climate conference organized by John Foran at UC Santa Barbara’s Environmental Humanities Initiative.

The conference is called  ACTIVISTS, ARTISTS, AND ACADEMICS: BUILDING JUST CLIMATE FUTURES TOGETHER and my contribution, which I called “Climate Justice as Climate Realism,” is part of a panel called “The Global Climate Justice Movement in the Age of Crisis.

This “nearly carbon-neutral” conference is entirely online.  It’s a format that has its charms, not the least of which is that it could be international without involving air-travel.  But I must confess that I missed the usual drinks party.  You know, actually meeting people and talking.  In the flesh.

Great Transitions roundtable on Global Capitalism

The Great Transition Initiative, of which I am a member, just held a roundtable debate of an interesting new paper by William I. Robinson called Global Capitalism: Reflections on a Brave New World.

It’s an interesting paper, by a smart guy, about the current state of the capitalist world system. The roundtable is here, and at it you will find my comments, the whole of which are here.  The key general interest bit, which is to say my view on the Big Question of climate and capitalism, is as follows:

“The real question is if a properly constituted transformational movement, working within the rolling crisis that is now our certain future, can help to shape a new form of capitalism that is capable, minimally, of making an extremely rapid transition to an essentially zero-carbon economy. Does this require “ecosocialism”? Yes, I think so. But at the same time, I fear that many people will read the word to denote something that is already beyond capitalism. The problem is that, once you have reached such a conclusion, you really are done. Your only paths forward from there are optimism (which is increasingly a form of denial) and despair. If, on the other hand, you want honest hope and strategic thinking, you have to start by asking what, exactly, we are going to do to leverage the immense disruption that is now on the horizon, and drive towards a crash program of global decarbonization that is fair enough to actually succeed.

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Equity is the Missing Key for Climate Roadmaps

In March of 2017, Johan Rockström, the author of Big World, Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries, along with a extremely high-tone list of co-authors, published A roadmap for rapid decarbonization in Science.  In it they propose a “roadmap” of escalating actions from now until 2050, designed to keep the average global temperature change under 2° Celsius, with some chance of limiting it to 1.5°C.

It’s an important piece, and its bottom line, as scientist and critic Kevin Anderson put it, is that the Rockström et. al. have “upped the ante.” In particular, they have translated carbon-budget science into a specific, decade-by-decade plan for a greatly accelerated global technological transition, driving net global CO2 emissions down to a near-zero level in 2050 – a mere 33 years. This type of planning is crucial as policy makers everywhere wrestle with the immense challenges of meeting the collective goals they agreed to in the Paris Agreement. However, a key element is missing from Rockström’s roadmap: equity.  More specifically, they have nothing to say about the fair sharing of climate action among countries. The bottom line here is that we can’t hope to succeed unless this challenge, too, is taken up, so its omission from Rockström’s paper is unfortunate.

Kelly Stone, a senior policy analyst at Action Aid USA, and I replied in the Huffington Post, in a piece called Equity is the Missing Key for Climate Roadmaps.  Among other things, we said that:

“Morally, there’s no question that developed countries must take the lead, and also assist the poor in the extremely challenging decades that lie ahead. Developed countries including the United States have been emitting far more carbon for far longer than developing countries, and they are, moreover, the homes of most of the world’s wealthy. The top-line message here could not be more clear, for the richest 10% of the world’s people produce half of Earth’s fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute a mere 10%. This is the essential background without which it’s impossible to understand the position today, in which we’ve used up essentially the entire global carbon budget, and, to note the sharpest part of the challenge, developing countries face an urgent need to leapfrog to renewable energy even as many of their citizens still lack basic energy access, let alone proper health and education systems. Even worse, people in the global south – especially the poorest – are already feeling the impacts of climate crises they did nothing to create. Asking them to take to a roadmap that makes no provision for such facts is simply wrong.

Nor is climate equity just a moral challenge. There are strong instrumental reasons to believe that, unless we put the equity challenge front and center, there’s little hope of following any road as difficult as the one that Rockstrom and his co-authors have laid out. The bottom line here is that, given the emergency situation we’re now facing, developing countries must mobilize on a scale that far overwhelms their capacity to act alone, and they must do so even as rising climate impacts force them to prioritize adaptation. They cannot possibly meet these challenges without support from developed countries, and even in the short term it’s difficult for them to lay the necessary plans without some modicum of confidence that such support will be forthcoming.”

Drawdown is a real step forward, though another is needed

My review  of Drawdown was published in The Nation on May 28, 2017, under the title A New Book on the Climate Crisis Makes the Persuasive Case That We’re Not Doomed,  Not for technological reasons, anyway.”   It richly praises the book, and the effort behind it, then it adds this:

“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.”

Read the whole review here.

After the Catastrophe

Climate justice as the post-Trump slingshot

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

Download as PDF here.

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.

Continue reading “After the Catastrophe”