Sunday, September 13, 2015

Has the Green Revolution Actually Arrived?

There's an article floating around sub-titled "The Year Humans Got Serious about Saving Themselves from Themselves" by Jonathan Chait.  It starts with a litany of climate change-driven bad news with the conclusion that,
"The drama has taken on an air of inevitability, of a tragedy at the outset of its final scene — the tension so unbearable, and the weight of looming catastrophe so soul-crushing, that some people seek the release of final defeat rather than endless struggle in the face of hopeless odds. Working for change, or even hoping for it, has felt like a sucker’s game."
That "seek the release of final defeat" bit makes me think of Freud's theory of a death drive:
"Our recognition that the ruling tendency of psychic life… is the struggle for reduction, keeping at a constant level, or removal of the inner stimulus tension – a struggle which comes to expression in the pleasure-principle – is indeed one of our strongest motives for believing in the existence of death-instincts."
We long for finality, for completion, not just in our daily accomplishments, but in all things, in order to release ourselves of the tension of getting near the end.  This is clearest, I think, when we feel great making a questionable decision because having finally decided feels so good, so final, even if it's a bad choice.  This explains why so many stay on a wrong path and won't budge from it even when shown the error of their decision; it feels so good to have decided that we don't want to have to go back to that moment of choosing.

It's curious how much we say we want more freedom, hence more choices in life, and yet choices can be such a burden.

Anyway, we're clearly on the wrong path now.  Are we really going to just watch it play itself out to the final end of humanity?  Not according to this article,
"The technological and political underpinnings are at last in place to actually consummate the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with — by the standards of its previous behavior — astonishing speed. The game is not over. And the good guys are starting to win....The task before the world is best envisioned not as a singular event but as two distinct but interrelated revolutions, one in political willpower and the other in technological innovation."
Why will it all come together now, suddenly?  He points to signs like "the price of solar is fallen" - in some place it costs less to use solar or wind than coal or natural gas.

But I'm afraid that what Chait misses with this line of reasoning, is that it's not just the cost that drives the use, it's also the number of powerful people who stand to gain if we continue using fossil fuels. As Jeff Rubin points out in The End Of Growth, Canada's economy depends on money from gas-powered cars and from tar sands. Rubin thinks things will get better only when we can no longer afford to drive:
"...the simple unspoken truth is that a recession is the best possible way to tame runaway carbon emissions."
Chait then suggests we're already using less energy because we have better technology for better lightbulbs: "everything from buildings to refrigerators is being designed anew to account for scientific reality." And these innovations happened because,
"governments disrupted [the energy market]; progress came not in spite of our government but because of it. The private sector developed LED bulbs because Washington required higher-efficiency lighting....The overall direction of American carbon use is no longer in doubt. American carbon emissions peaked in 2007 and have fallen since, with the main question now being how far and fast they will plummet."
Good for Obama, but it's hard to be hopeful with Harper in power.  Chait points to countries getting on board, but my concern are the many countries still not interested in this discussion.  It's better than it was, but is this really the tipping point of a major transformation?  He thinks that American policy will affect the rest of the world, and I hope he's right.  He looks to China for proof of hope:
"It is hardly selfish for developing countries to refuse to force their impoverished people to shoulder the burden of averting climate change. (Even now, China burns less than half as much carbon per person than does the U.S.) The developing world has thus been presented with a brutal moral logic: The rich countries have burned through the world’s carbon budget, and there is almost nothing left. But in the past year, something amazing has taken place. In 2014, China’s coal production and its consumption both fell, and the drop appears to be continuing, or even accelerating, this year....The possibility has come into view that, just as the developing world is skipping landlines and moving straight into cellular communication, it will forgo the dirty-energy path and follow a clean one."
He thinks people are losing hope because they're American, and "the new global consensus on climate change is least evident" in the U.S and Saudi Arabia. "The U.S. is the only democracy in which such a consensus [on climate change denial] can be found."   Maybe he hasn't noticed us to the north as our government fights to run more pipelines, sell more oil, take away protection over waterways, remove scientific funding, etc. About a year and a half ago, Huffington Post reported,
Gerry Ritz, Canada's Minister for Agriculture, told the House of Commons last week that "this cold weather can't last forever. This global warming has to stop some time".....fellow Conservative Member of Parliament Gordon O'Connor spoke out..."I don't know what those words mean because they're a buzz phrase. Climate change. If we're talking about what is our preparedness for natural disasters, that's one thing, but climate change, if you want to talk about the climate, the climate always changes. It goes hot. It goes cold, etc....Last year, newly minted Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq stated that "there's always a debate around science and what's changing" and claimed that climate change was still "debatable.""
I don't think you have to be American to be losing hope over this.

Chait recognizes the immensity of the problem we face, but thinks we are at least starting down a better path:
"Even if the world could eliminate all fossil-fuel use tomorrow, the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere will create, and is already creating, disruption, havoc, and death. Even if the world halted all greenhouse-gas emissions today, it would be, by the standard of perfection, too late. Besides, the target the world has set for measuring success — holding increased global temperature to no more than two degrees Celsius — is merely a guess at salvation.....Even if all the Paris talks do is simply eliminate the risk of the all-too-thinkable worst-case scenario, it would constitute a monumental achievement in the history of human civilization, like the development of modern medicine."
But he ends equating denial of climate change with despair over the condition of the world as if they both blind us from this revolution taking place. I think we can see how bad things are and likely will be, as he does, yet also recognize there are some small gains happening here and there. It's not the same as railing against these gains because climate change doesn't exist.  Not by a long shot.  But it's still despair-worthy to consider how little the gains can be at this stage - as he points out:
"The limits agreed to at Paris will not be enough to spare the world mass devastation. But they are the beginning of a framework upon which progressively stronger requirements can be built over time. The willpower and innovation that have begun to work in tandem can continue to churn. Eventually the world will wean itself almost completely off carbon-based energy. There is, suddenly, hope."
So, I'm also not entirely convinced that "the long-awaited green revolution has finally arrived." Some politicians are on board, but not nearly enough. And nothing is happening fast enough. The word "eventually" above doesn't help me believe it's getting so much better.

But most problematic, Chait misses an entire piece of the puzzle: the necessary involvement of big business (or significantly increased regulations).  Until corporations stop draining aquifers, stop outsourcing to countries with lax pollution restrictions (exacerbated by trade deals supported by Obama), stop running business on a policy of planned obsolescence (so products have to be re-bought over and over), stop flying products around for pieces to be built and assembled in a selection of countries, and do more than superficial greenwashing, we're not going to be truly off this path of destruction. And it'll be quite the effort to convince people to stop practices that increase profits.

And yet, there is always hope.


The Mound of Sound said...

It was an interesting article, Marie. Thanks for the link. Drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now viable - and essential - but I'll believe the will to implement such measures when high-carbon fuels, such as bitumen, are shunned if not banned outright.

As the current and previous governors of the Bank of England have told anyone willing to listen the Western economies are living in a huge carbon bubble in which the Big Fossil is sitting on trillions of dollars of proven oil and gas reserves that cannot be burned if we're to have any chance of avoiding the 2C target. Survival depends on those being treated as 'stranded assets' which would wipe most of the wealth off the books of Big Fossil. They'll fight that outcome tooth and nail.

I've begun researching a looming environmental catastrophe that no one is mentioning, the breakdown of our surface carbon cycle. The transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene is devastating biomass around the world.

Here in BC we've lost many thousands of square miles of forests to pine beetle infestations. Those beetles used to be held in check by winter cold snaps that no longer occur. Without that natural regulation their numbers have exploded and their range has expanded. They're across the Rockies now into Alberta and they're expected to sweep through the Boreal forests en route to Labrador.

Our former carbon sinks are now becoming carbon bombs. This deadwood is perfect tinder for forest fires that release massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. There is a way to process that deadwood into mineralized carbon that can be safely and permanently sequestered but that would take a massive public/private initiative on a war time scale to achieve and that's not on the horizon.

As these forests continue to die off those trees no longer suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and their presence prevents new growth from taking hold. That fractures the surface carbon cycle. We need to get those dead forests down and processed and those lands replanted with new varieties of trees that can thrive in this new environment and we need to do that quickly. Only in this way can we kickstart the carbon cycle so that our forests become powerful carbon sinks again.

What's going on with our forests is one example of the natural feedback loops scientists have warned may be triggered by failing to meet the 2C target limit. Obviously those predictions were wildly optimistic. These feedback loops are already happening. Dr. Guy McPherson of "nature bats last" calculates we've already triggered more than 50 of these feedback loops, the harbinger of runaway global warming. If he's right we're already past the point of "too little, too late." (continued)

The Mound of Sound said...

We've triggered all these feedback loops and yet we're still under 0.9 C of warming. We know from the persistence of these greenhouse gases that we have already 'locked in' at least 1.5C of warming even should mankind cease all GHG emissions today.

Across the north the tundra, basically frozen peat, is drying and we have no means of preventing wild fires as it thaws. It burns, emitting tonnes of black soot that now blanket the Greenland ice sheet, accelerating its melt. As the tundra thaws, dries and burns it exposes the permafrost beneath which, as it thaws, releases masses of methane into the atmosphere.

These things are many more are already happening and we can't stop them. It's too late.

Lord "Paddy" Ashdowne, former Liberal Democratic leader, this past week said the Syrian exodus is just the first climate migration Europe has had to deal with and the future will be a non-stop series of ever greater our of central and northern Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

What strikes me about Chait's article is that he fails to see how our prospects of dealing with climate change will be thwarted by our failure to simultaneously address the two interwoven and equally existential challenges of overpopulation and over-consumption. It's only by recognizing the common threads that run through global warming, overpopulation and over-consumption that we can even begin to respond effectively and that entails abandoning 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geopolitics. It feels like we're in the back seat of that Thunderbird in the closing scene of "Thelma and Louse."

Marie Snyder said...

Yup. It's bad out there. I saw the Ashdowne article. We have to make sure people are aware of these connections, and maybe more will begin to care enough to change how they live, shop, donate, and vote.