Wed Dec 5th, 2007 at 03:21:16 PM EST
When you warn people about the dangers of climate change, they call you a saint. When you explain what needs to be done to stop it, they call you a communist. Let me show you why.
Thus, Monbiot in a recent article
There is now a broad scientific consensus that we need to prevent temperatures from rising by more than 2C above their pre-industrial level. Beyond that point, the Greenland ice sheet could go into irreversible meltdown, some ecosystems collapse, billions suffer from water stress, and droughts start to threaten global food supplies.
In the new summary published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you will find a table that links different cuts to likely temperatures. It suggests that to prevent global warming from eventually exceeding 2C, by 2050 the world will need to cut its emissions to roughly 15% of the volume in 2000.
I looked up the global figures for carbon dioxide production in 2000 and divided it by the current population. This gives a baseline figure of 3.58 tonnes of CO2 per person. An 85% cut means that (if the population remains constant) the global output per head should be reduced to 0.537 tonnes by 2050. The UK currently produces 9.6 tonnes per head and the US 23.6 tonnes. Reducing these figures to 0.537 means a 94.4% cut in the UK and a 97.7% cut in the US. But the world population will rise in the same period. If we assume a population of 9 billion, the cuts rise to 95.9% in the UK and 98.3% in the US.
The IPCC figures might also be out of date. In a footnote beneath the table, the panel admits that "emission reductions...might be underestimated due to missing carbon cycle feedbacks". What this means is that the impact of the biosphere's response to global warming has not been fully considered. As seawater warms, for example, it releases carbon dioxide. As soil bacteria heat up, they respire more, generating more CO2. As temperatures rise, tropical forests die back, releasing the carbon they contain. These are examples of positive feedbacks. A recent paper (all the references are on my website) estimates that feedbacks account for about 18% of global warming. They are likely to intensify.
A paper in Geophysical Research Letters finds that even with a 90% global cut by 2050, the 2C threshold "is eventually broken". To stabilise temperatures at 1.5C above the pre-industrial level requires a global cut of 100%. The diplomats who started talks in Bali yesterday should be discussing the complete decarbonisation of the global economy.
It is not impossible. In a previous article I showed how by switching the whole economy over to the use of electricity and by deploying the latest thinking on regional supergrids, grid balancing and energy storage, you could run almost the entire energy system on renewable power. The major exception is flying (don't expect to see battery-powered jetliners), which suggests that we should be closing rather than opening runways.
This could account for around 90% of the necessary cut. Total decarbonisation demands that we go further.
The nub of the issue is that the climate problem is a common or commensalist one: we all live here. Solutions to it must accordingly be global and commensalist and involve thinking beyond the "eternal yankee" model of "smart for one" which has, inevitably, turned out to be so insanely "dumb for all".
Thus, all workable solutions to the problem will be incompatible with the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism and hyperindividualism, and will be branded as "communist" ... or a variety of other defensive meme-grenades such as "impractical," "hippie," "Luddite," "romantic," "sissy," etc -- all of them suggesting that it's the height of sturdy common sense to destroy our own food and water supply for the sake of a shiny new iPod -- surely no more precious birthright was ever traded away for a more pathetically trivial mess of pottage.
Al Gore gets to be a saint because he tells people about the danger. But anyone who tells them the magnitude of the actions required to avert it will be tarred and feathered (figuratively at least) and run out of town by the EstablishedMen.
What is to be done?
Monbiot makes specific proposals and insists that it is not yet time to despair.
The Kyoto protocol, whose replacement the Bali meeting will discuss, has failed. Since it was signed, there has been an acceleration in global emissions: the rate of CO2 production exceeds the IPCC's worst case and is now growing faster than at any time since the beginning of the industrial revolution. It's not just the Chinese. A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (the US institute's journal), finds that "no region is decarbonising its energy supply". Even the age-old trend of declining energy intensity as economies mature has gone into reverse. In the UK there is a stupefying gulf between the government's climate policy and the facts it is creating on the ground. How will we achieve even a 60% cut if we build new coal plants, new roads and a third runway at Heathrow?
Underlying the immediate problem is a much greater one. In a lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering in May, Professor Rod Smith of Imperial College explained that a growth rate of 3% means economic activity doubles in 23 years. At 10% it takes just seven years. This we knew. But Smith takes it further. With a series of equations he shows that "each successive doubling period consumes as much resource as all the previous doubling periods combined". In other words, if our economy grows at 3% between now and 2040, we will consume in that period economic resources equivalent to all those we have consumed since humans first stood on two legs. Then, between 2040 and 2063, we must double our total consumption again. Reading that paper I realised for the first time what we are up against.
But I am not advocating despair. We must confront a challenge that is as great and as pressing as the rise of the Axis powers. Had we thrown up our hands then, as many people are tempted to do today, you would be reading this paper in German. Though the war often seemed impossible to win, when the political will was mobilised strange and implausible things began to happen. The US economy was spun round on a dime in 1942 as civilian manufacturing was switched to military production. The state took on greater powers than it had exercised before. Impossible policies suddenly became achievable.
The real issues in Bali are not technical or economic. The crisis we face demands a profound philosophical discussion, a reappraisal of who we are and what progress means. Debating these matters makes us neither saints nor communists; it shows only that we have understood the science.
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell -- Edward Abbey.
Cancer cells are cells which insist on their riotous individualism and resource accumulation at the expense of the cooperative community of cells around them. The end result of their open-ended growth binge and defiance of resource limits is the death of the organism. How much more plainly do we have to be told that the cult of infinite growth and limitless individual selfishness is a suicide cult?
Monbiot aside, it is hard to resist despair.
BTW, Helder Camara, who coined the resonant phrase to which Monbiot alludes in graf 1, was a leading light of liberation theology in S America and a close friend of Illich.