Casaubon's Book

A couple of years ago, George Monbiot wrote a column in the Guardian arguing with me. He was responding to an essay that I’d written arguing that there was no good evaluation of the potential climate impacts of a rapid build-out of renewable energies, and that it was possible that given the short time frame, that even if we were to actually get the political and social will to do so, we might cross critical tipping points in our attempt to save ourselves. Monbiot argued that this was indeed a real possibility, but that we had to try it anyway, since the stakes were so high. I responded arguing that radical conservation and a much slower build-out, again, assuming a political will that does not exist, would be a better choice, and the discussion ended there. Both of us, of course, realized that debate in the absence of political will to do, well, anything, was sort of pointless.

With both peak oil and climate change, one of the most essential things you can know may simply be that both of them are things that we only fully understood in hindsight. Consider the history of climate change – in February 2007, when the latest IPCC report was released, the assessment was the grimmest ever provided. By the end of 2007, the IPCC report looked like a children’s book compared to the reality. The IPCC report proposed that summer sea ice might disappear from the arctic by the end of this century – by the summer of 2007 reasonable reports suggested they were off by more than 75 years – that we might see ice-free summers by the middle of the next decade. By fall the Climate Code Red report argued that climate sensitivity was double that which had been used to assess likelihoods in the IPCC report – and that has become an emerging consensus. And there are plenty of other examples – as the Copenhagen Update reported this past year, all the voices on the right screaming that the IPCC is wrong may have been correct – but they missed the fact that the IPCC report was too conservative, that climate change is occurring more rapidly and severely than even the world’s expert consensus could fully articulate.

Despite all of this, political responses to climate change have gotten steadily softer and wussier, not stronger and more effective, and Copenhagen was pretty much the death hope for any real political consensus. Consider Monbiot’s biting and entirely accurate assessment:

But nobody cares enough to make a fight of it. The disagreements are simultaneously entrenched and muted. The doctor’s certificate has not been issued; perhaps, to save face, it never will be. But the harsh reality we have to grasp is that the process is dead.

In 2012 the only global deal for limiting greenhouse gas emissions – the Kyoto protocol – expires. There is no realistic prospect that it will be replaced before it elapses: the existing treaty took five years to negotiate and a further eight years to come into force. In terms of real hopes for global action on climate change, we are now far behind where we were in 1997, or even 1992. It’s not just that we have lost 18 precious years. Throughout the age of good intentions and grand announcements we spiralled backwards.

Nor do regional and national commitments offer more hope. An analysis published a few days ago by the campaigning group Sandbag estimates the amount of carbon that will have been saved by the end of the second phase of the EU’s emissions trading system, in 2012; after the hopeless failure of the scheme’s first phase we were promised that the real carbon cuts would start to bite between 2008 and 2012. So how much carbon will it save by then? Less than one third of 1%.

Worse still, the reduction in industrial output caused by the recession has allowed big polluters to build up a bank of carbon permits which they can carry into the next phase of the trading scheme. If nothing is done to annul them or to crank down the proposed carbon cap (which, given the strength of industrial lobbies and the weakness of government resolve, is unlikely) these spare permits will vitiate phase three as well. Unlike the Kyoto protocol, the EU’s emissions trading system will remain alive. It will also remain completely useless.

Plenty of nations – like Britain – have produced what appear to be robust national plans for cutting greenhouse gases. With one exception (the Maldives), their targets fall far short of the reductions needed to prevent more than two degrees of global warming.
Even so, none of them are real.

Missing from the proposed cuts are the net greenhouse gas emissions we have outsourced to other countries and now import in the form of manufactured goods. Were these included in the UK’s accounts, alongside the aviation, shipping and tourism gases excluded from official figures, Britain’s emissions would rise by 48%. Rather than cutting our contribution to global warming by 19% since 1990, as the government boasts, we have increased it by about 29%. It’s the same story in most developed nations. Our apparent success results entirely from failures elsewhere.

Hanging over everything is the growing recognition that the United States isn’t going to play. Not this year, perhaps not in any year. If Congress couldn’t pass a climate bill so feeble that it consisted of little but loopholes while Barack Obama was president and the Democrats had a majority in both houses, where does hope lie for action in other circumstances? Last Tuesday the Guardian reported that of 48 Republican contenders for the Senate elections in November only one accepted that man-made climate change is taking place. Who was he? Mike Castle of Delaware. The following day he was defeated by the Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell, producing a full house of science deniers. The enlightenment? Fun while it lasted.

I’ve noticed I haven’t written much about climate change in the last couple of months, because everything I write sounds like a dirge. The reality is that even the most optimistic folk didn’t think we had forever. If the pattern of scientific revelation continues, realistically we’re going to see critical tipping points in the rear-view mirror – and we can intuit that many of them are probably there already.

The debate I had with Monbiot was stimulating – intellectually speaking. But both of us could not but know that it was an intellectual debate only. Because in order to do what needs to be done at the national and world scale, we’d have to be different people, who choose different leaders and have their eyes on the future. So now we’re back to the big question – how do we live in this world we’ve chosen? What will it look like? And what do we get to choose now?

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 dewey
    September 23, 2010

    The current “Research Blogs” link, in the right-hand column, to the Geospace article on virtual water seems very relevant. Alas, it looks like we are just enough smarter than yeast to observe a disaster in the offing, but not enough to do anything about it. Millions of people in poor countries may face starvation before the end of this process; but in the short term, I think many of us will be at more risk from our fellow Americans, who have made it clear that they are not capable of a graceful decline. Those of us who want to live to be green wizards may need to start thinking about how we will make ourselves look innocuous to a full-scale fascist regime. (Sorry to be an extra downer today. News is grim all around.)

  2. #2 annette
    September 23, 2010

    It does look very grim indeed. Even if we suddenly, miraculously found the political will to make drastic changes (I think the possibility of this is zero), we’re almost certainly too late to avoid many of the dreaded tipping points. So how DO we live in this world – this whole new anthropocene era? What is the ethical and practical response now? And will our great-grandchildren have any choices at all? Will they even be able to survive? What a horror show we clever-but-stupid human monkeys have made of our beautiful planet.

  3. #3 Andy Brown
    September 23, 2010

    I’ve been thinking a lot about our ongoing descent into denial, and I haven’t come up with anything better than this haiku, written by an eleven year old girl at my sons’ school.

    If you could hold Earth,
    Like a bird’s delicate egg,
    You would not drop it

    – Bella Griscom

  4. #4 Greenpa
    September 25, 2010

    Sharon, on my recent trip east, after my seminar I was asked for video interview, from a Permaculture group. They were quite enthusiastic about all I was saying; eager to start planting. And agreeing that the environmental impacts could be very large.

    Then he asked, “Will it be enough?”

    And my answer: “No.” Of course not, implied. “But; it may give those who manage to come through to the other side a better chance of building a workable world.”

    Even ten years ago, I might have answered “maybe”. Given that non-existent political will, etc.

    The trends though I feel are painfully clear at this point.

  5. #5 dewey
    September 26, 2010

    Maybe some of you have seen amongst the coverage of the U.S. raids on antiwar activists that, at at least one raided home, the fedgoons bagged up much of the victims’ clothing to seize as “evidence,” though eventually leaving it, because “it had propaganda written on it.” If we are beginning our descent into an era when just wearing a T-shirt reading “No Blood for Oil” can constitute evidence of treason to the regime (and where is President Constitutional Law Professor while this is happening?), we may need to think in advance about the likelihood that beliefs and activities that minimize dependency upon the corporate state will be treated as subversive or seditious. “Wizards” in medieval times, whether defined as those who dabbled in magic or just those who were wiser and more knowledgeable than others, often had to keep a low profile or risk being killed, and they had to keep that up for generations, each one struggling to find enough talented and trustworthy “apprentices” to educate privately that their knowledge was not lost.

    This may seem paranoid now, but totalitarian regimes are called that precisely because they do wish to control every single aspect of life. In occupied Gaza before the first intifada, residents were forbidden to plant the tiniest kitchen garden without a permit – which they weren’t likely to get. I could envision an America in which it is illegal – on “food safety” grounds, of course – to give your neighbor produce from your garden, or to make jam at home for your own family. There’s no obvious excuse to criminalize possession of a solar oven, say, but if being seen using one gets you put on a “terrorist watch list,” that will serve the same purpose.

    So I think we all might want to ponder (privately!) what we’ll do if we find ourselves becoming accidental “enemies of the state”: how can we conceal or minimize our deviance, while continuing to develop our skills and knowledge and share them with those who need it or are ready for it?

  6. #6 Don
    September 26, 2010

    Dewey wrote:
    “I think many of us will be at more risk from our fellow Americans, who have made it clear that they are not capable of a graceful decline.”

    I’m curious as to what actions and/or attitudes of Americans, specifically, make you think that we’ll be incapable of a relatively graceful transition to a low-energy future. I think I know what you have in mind, but I wanted to hear from you. My take is that our politicians, being officially in denial of peak oil and its implications (though we know that they must know) are not giving Americans the chance to demonstrate whether we’re capable of “declining gracefully” or not. Of course, we’re starting about thirty years too late as well.

    I certainly hope we’re not headed for a jackboot future, though I hold no illusions that it’s certainly a possibility.

  7. #7 dewey
    September 27, 2010

    Don – There is a rising wave of bigotry; many people now feel free to express levels of hatred for other groups that “decent” people ten or twenty years ago would never have expressed (at least in public), and many opinion leaders, including elected officials, are more or less subtly egging it on. It’s worth remembering that just twenty years before the Holocaust, Germany and Austria were considered sophisticated and cosmopolitan places. Vienna was a *good* place to be gay, Jewish, or intellectual; it had an active counterculture.

    When things get dramatically worse in a culture, people can attribute it to inherent flaws in their cherished way of life, to stupid or selfish decisions by the ruling class, or to malicious action by some bunch of Them. Joe Sixpack never likes to hear the first, and the ruling class does its best to make sure he doesn’t start believing the second. That leaves #3. Rulers have a great incentive to divert the public’s attention with pogroms because, having a relatively short time horizon, they don’t much care if things continue to fall apart after they have died or retired without ending up against a brick wall.

    You would like to think that a modern, enlightened legal system would limit how far these things can go, but we now have a so-called liberal president claiming the administration has a right to torture foreigners to death and summarily execute American citizens, and doing nothing while the FBI smashes down the doors of anti-war and Arab-American activists. The next step is for American dissidents to be hauled away from those raids with black bags over their heads, and I will not be surprised if that starts during the next administration. I used to spend time on minor-party politics, letter-writing, etc.; I gave it up because “my phone was not tapped” (or so I believed), meaning that I realized all my efforts were not so much as a mosquito bite to the government. Nowadays, I would be afraid to do so much, because there’s a good chance that my phone WOULD be tapped, and I have more to lose.

  8. #8 Don
    September 27, 2010

    Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that the administration did “nothing while the FBI smashes down the doors of anti-war … activists.” The Justice Department did investigate the FBI’s actions in at least one case:

    http://www.uscatholic.org/news/2010/09/catholic-worker-groups-part-faulty-fbi-probe-says-new-report

  9. #9 darwinsdog
    September 27, 2010

    - this whole new anthropocene era?

    Stephen Jay Gould argued that we did not need to erect a new epoch – the Holocene – for the past 12 – 10K yrs or so, since the current interstadial is just the latest interlude of Pleistocene glaciation. I tended to agree with him until I considered anthropogenic impacts during this time period. This is the time of anthropogenic mass extinction and geomorphological modification and as such, deserves a unique denomination to distinguish it from Pleistocene processes & dynamics. But we already have a perfectly good term: Holocene, for this time period and it gains nothing from being changed to “Anthropocene” besides stoking human arrogance & hubris.

    If you could hold Earth,

    Like a bird’s delicate egg,
    You would not drop it

    It would not be dropped, it would be eaten.

  10. #10 mpatter
    September 30, 2010

    Re: what to do. Have you tried putting your fingers in yur ears and hiding in the basement?
    :(