Friday, February 23, 2024

Climate Misery and Hope

 Despair limits future actions, but knowledge is power. We must know and act in order to stave off despair.

A depressing thread followed by an uplifting video today:

Writer Matthew Todd wrote, 

"Sooner or later we're going to have to face the reality that conservatism and capitalism are killing us. It's not a debate. It's a fact. It's literally happening right now in front of our eyes. If you can't see it, you either don't understand it, or you are intentionally lying to yourself. It seems that we would rather all die than face this terrible inconvenient truth." 

That provoked environmentalist Stephen Barlow to respond at length:

"We're in a dire climate and ecological emergency, which is going to lead to the collapse of our civilization unless we urgently change direction, and hardly anyone realizes the seriousness. It is now being framed by those committed to business as usual (BaU), as if climate activists are overreacting, catastrophizing. No, the situation is far worse and far more dire than most could imagine, as Peter Kalmus has been trying to point out. We find ourselves in a dire situation. Yet only a small proportion of people really understand how dire the situation really is, and most are in some level of denial. How, do you discuss this situation, when most people, to some degree, are in some form of active denial?

As I tried to explain in this thread, absolutely no one knows how resilient our civilization is to the massive climate and ecological impacts, our current economic model is driving, because absolutely no one is studying it. If anyone tries to say, how bad the current situation is, and what the dangers are, they will be attacked for being unscientific, saying there is no science to support these concerns. Whereas I explain in the above thread, there is absolutely no science at all on this. Rather than attacking people like Roger Hallam for making warnings about how serious the threat is, we should be demanding that those trying to maintain BaU, or claiming it can be fixed with technology such as Hannah Ritchie, support their claims with evidence. This is the shocking thing, all those people, posing as the voices of reason - attacking doomerism, amongst climate activists - have a faith based position, not supported by the scientific evidence, and which ignores a lot of the scientific evidence. 

One of the current limitations of science, is that it is not very good at the big picture overview. The scientific method is brilliant, and the best means we have for knowing how things are within a limited framework. But when it comes to the overview, it is just opinion. Let me give an example: Climate science is excellent at telling us what the current state of the climate is, and modelling the future climate. What climate science can't tell us is what it is going to do to our civilization, or even how ecosystems will respond. There are a number of well known climate scientists assuring us that it's not actually too dire, that climate activists are too doomerist, and we will get through it. But they are expressing faith based personal opinions, and what they say isn't based on science. It's important to understand the difference between a scientist having a personal opinion about something and a scientist having a view that they can support with scientific evidence. The two are not the same.

Our civilization is a system, a process. It has not always been there, and there is no reason why it will persist, aside from faith. The predominant global economy, is relatively new, 25-70 years old, even if it has roots further back in time. See how it has changed since WW2. The only reason we can feed 8 billion people is because of an organized economy, long supply lines, and some degree of global cooperation. This cannot be taken as a given. The election of Trump and his current front-runner status illustrate how politically weird it's become. Quite wrongly, the emphasis on climate impacts on our societies has been seen in terms of big physical extremes, melting ice caps, big sea level rise, 3C or more of warming, extreme future weather. Yet our civilization is vulnerable to lesser degrees of impact/disruption. As I say, there is absolutely no one studying the resilience of our civilization, our whole system, to lower level impacts than those further in the future. Our civilization is a system, which will be profoundly impacted/changed, and it already is. 

There is no need to take my word for any of this; look at this paper. If you disagree with this paper, then kindly point me in the direction of other evidence and science which has studied our civilization's resilience to climate shocks. We're totally flying blind, and anyone telling you that it's fine and there's nothing to worry about are making a faith based statements, based on a type of religious idea that technology can save us from everything. Whatever it is, it's not science or supported by it. If you go back to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, there was a consensus that we faced a severe future crisis if we didn't change direction. But we didn't change direction. Politicians just said they were, and then carried on with BaU. Yet we act as if they addressed the crisis. The total biomass, weight of all wild mammals, is a fraction of the total mass of humanity, which is itself a fraction of the biomass of our livestock. We've turned our once abundant biomass, into mainly humans and livestock - AND THERE'S NO PROBLEM?

The first step of effective problem solving is acknowledging there's a problem. 32 years ago, at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the problem was acknowledged. The problem is no longer acknowledged, and there is mass denial of the reality of it. I think the big problem is this: Politicians, the media, got so used to talking about the climate and ecological crisis as a future problem, in the far off future, that they're now in denial that we've arrived in that future, where we need to act urgently and with haste." 

A commenter questioned the idea that there's a structure to our world: "Everything in nature includes chaotic elements." And Barlow responded,

"I am talking about a potential collapse if we don't change direction - it is not inevitable. Our present human system is a system, a process. Currently, economic growth is the only glue holding it all together. Yet this growth is unsustainable, i.e. it can't last.You can't have infinite growth in a finite system, so it is a self-destructive loop. That is why we must break out of this loop, and change the system, so what holds it together, is what is best for humanity, and cooperation, not competition. PS. Yes, there is no structure, only process. Any system can stop working and collapse or cease to exist if these processes are disrupted. As I say, this is not inevitable. For most of human existence, societies were held together by everyone working for the common good."

But Simon Clark, who's doing a PhD in atmospheric physics, made this video (transcript below) to explain that climate change is still solvable:

"It's already affecting people and the price of not solving this problem is vast almost too large to imagine but amidst all of the terrible headlines there is good news out there, and I don't think people talk about it often enough. . . . The future is looking brighter than it did a decade ago prior to the Paris agreement in 2016. This is how much warming scientists expected the Earth to experience by 2100: 4°C and to be clear that would have been a total disaster - like almost certain collapse of global civilization disaster. Now however current government policy that's actually in effect is expected to limit that warming to 2.7°C by 2100. . . . Now you've probably heard that we wants to limit global warming this century to less than 2°C ideally less than 1.5, so this 2.1 degree number, well it's not good enough. But two things.

Firstly consider just how much we've already brought that number down. Remember this is action that has happened since the Paris agreement, so in less than 10 years. While that number isn't low enough yet, we shouldn't lose sight of just how much we've accomplished so far. Secondly this number is only based on submitted long-term targets. In other words, this isn't as good as it gets. There's still plenty of scope this century to bring the number down further to less than 2° though achieving any target is another matter. If we're optimistic and assume that all long-term Net Zero targets are met, then that number goes down to 1.8°C. I say that is optimistic, but it is far too soon to say for sure whether we will hit those long-term targets or not stay on target. The early signs indicate maybe we will, and I say that because the world has demonstrated we can decouple economic growth from emissions. 

The average person today is wealthier than the average person 10 years ago, and yet does not emit more carbon dioxide. In Europe specifically the emissions per per person have fallen dramatically as they have in the United States, and yet both of those economies have continued to grow. That's not because they outsource their emissions and their manufacturing to somewhere else like China. You can account for that. This is genuine decoupling, and it's a huge deal because, for the time being at least, we live in a world governed by capitalism, and so the most important thing to governments is increasing individual economic prosperity. What's been demonstrated recently is that they can do this without wrecking the planet, and in fact in many cases doing so. The low carbon way is now the cheaper way of doing it.  

You might say that's all fine for Europe what about China the world's largest emitter? . . . Analysis indicates that China's emissions probably peaked last year and will systematically fall going forwards. That's in part because China has rolled out a truly breathtaking amount of renewables. Did you know that last year China added more solar capacity than the United States has in its entire history. Solar and wind capacity in China will overtake coal capacity this year. Globally solar will have the largest install capacity of any way we generate electricity sometime next year and in less than five years renewables will account for 42% of global electricity generation. The installation of renewables worldwide is happening so much faster than most people realize. The International Energy agency reckons we may very well hit the ambitious goal of tripling renewables capacity by 2030. I see this is an absolute win. 

To be clear, while we are really successfully decarbonizing, how we generate electricity, electricity is only part of how society uses energy. It's actually about 20%. So progress here [in electricity use] is going really well, progress here [the other 80%], not so much. Heating, transport, various other smaller sectors: these are all still vastly dependent on fossil fuels, and in fact the overall share of energy that comes from fossil fuels hasn't changed all of that much over the past couple of decades. Decarbonizing this bit [the 80%], that is the mountain we still have to climb. But here's the thing: with cheaper renewable electricity it's now becoming increasingly viable to electrify some of those sectors: see heat pumps or electric cars for example. . . . But there are still several sectors that have been historically labeled hard to decarbonize such as cement and steel. You can't really electrify those and their current manufacturing techniques inherently produce CO2. But solutions have now been found to those hard to decarbonized sectors. I previously made a whole video that was an in-depth look at one possible solution to decarbonizing cement production, and we think that we can decarbonize steel production through the use of green hydrogen amongst other techniques. What we previously thought were impossible challenges to overcome now have practical solutions, and that's kind of true across the board. Those solutions now just need effective support from government policy to be rolled out at scale.

On that note, more voters than ever care about the climate crisis, and in fact most people in the 20 most polluting nations on earth support policy on climate change. Generally speaking the younger you are, the more likely you are to support such action, such policy. So as more members of Gen Z become eligible to vote, we're going to see a continuation of the current trend for more and more ambitious policy to limit climate change because political parties now know that not taking action on climate is only going to cost them votes. Your local mileage may vary, which raises the hope that our current government here in the UK of cartoonishly incompetent ghouls willing to sell future generations down the polluted river for short-term profit may not be in power that much longer. I think that was impartial enough.

Now I'm sure that there are several people out there who have watched the video to this point and have laughed at what I have called good news saying that it's just not good enough, and yeah the action that we have taken today on climate is not enough, but there is no contradiction between acknowledging the severity of the situation we are in and the insufficiency of action to date and acknowledging the progress made to date towards sufficient action. I don't want to leave this video thinking that we have solved the climate crisis because we haven't. We are nowhere near minimizing the threat we face in 2100, but to say that there is no good news about the climate crisis is simply not true. The recent past has shown us that activism, political pressure, and lifestyle changes have worked. To ignore that fact only invites despair, and despair is not a useful emotion. Despair only limits future action which we know will make a difference. We need to keep going until our response is sufficient, so no giving up! We cannot solve a crisis that we do not understand but fortunately there are some excellent climate journalists and authors and indeed video creators covering this crisis." 

He's banking on Gen Z to oust the current band of politicians, but I'm not as confident in that. Voting rates for people in their 20s is notoriously low. I think we'll be stuck with this growing group of neoliberal cons for a while. And he doesn't take into account how far right these parties have become even just in the last decade. He also ignores how many, for one reason or other, have no intention of changing their lifestyle -  not even a little bit - much less actively fighting for change. But it all sounds really nice.  


lungta said...

And the solutions are very simple
1) Have humanity become enlightened to the point of developing empathy and compassion or escape the trance of self or
2) have rich people unanimously take vows of poverty to save people they have held in disdain since birth.
You can't prove it won't happen , tho with people involved I predict 0 chance of success x infinity. If you factor in the actual size of the universe and the time scale the chance that it matters one way or another is the same to several exponents.

Marie Snyder said...

Or maybe both could happen!!! I also predict zero chance of success, but I'll keep on doing my best to avoid adding to the mess. It's really the most and the least I can do.

Taylor said...

"Sooner or later we're going to have to face the reality that conservatism and capitalism are killing us. It's not a debate. It's a fact…”

It’s unfortunate to hear this kind of rhetoric. People across all stripes care about the environment, more than many think. Unlinking the progressive politics and left-leaning economics is key to getting more traction here. The hyperbole and spurious causal arguments must stop. If the world temperature wasn’t rising would we then be free to pollute as we want? No! Technological changes and incentives will move the needle slowly in the direction we need. Why did we transition from coal to oil? Make an option that is better and also clean. Make it cool. Make it appealing.

Wedding other progressive issues to climate issues is a mistake, if it’s really the planet we care about. The catastrophism and alarmisms only alienate those wary of sophistry.
Patience, ingenuity, and empathy are required if you want purchase on environmental issues.

“And he doesn't take into account how far right these parties have become even just in the last decade.”

What does this even mean? As polarization along many issues grows, the act of seeing the ‘other’ as shifting further along the spectrum while ‘we’ remain steadfast is very narcissistic [narrow-minded - incapable of reasoning through the lens of the other]. You hear the same sentiment from some on the right—that everything is shifting left. It’s not helpful. People need to clarify their criteria in order to get some sense of an absolute by which to measure. Otherwise it’s just more preaching to the choir.

MoS said...

Would that the climate problem was all we had to resolve. It's not. There are a number of existential threats to our civilization, a bit like having three or four guns pointed at one's head. Get rid of one and, while that's a great step, it doesn't get rid of the other three.

We have to also solve other, man-made threats such as overpopulation and our rampant, unsustainable over-consumption.

These we must resolve only there is no "we" now or on the horizon. Every nation faces its own problems, often influenced by latitude. Some areas are whipsawed by persistent droughts and flooding. Some are being rendered seasonally uninhabitable by severe heating. Continent A needs this, Continent B needs a different agenda, Continent C faces other problems.

Because there is so little uniformity in how climate breakdown is being experienced we often resort to finger pointing. We in the developed world can blame the overpopulation of India, China, and Nigeria. They in turn can blame us for our excessive use of fossil fuels and our voracious appetite for scant resources.

This lack of uniformity means a failure of consensus on action. For the wealthy nations that's a great way to duck challenges on equality. We know what remains of the "carbon budget" and, as in past generations, we intend to consume the lion's share of it, the Third World be buggered.

Don't forget there are some $27 trillion in proven fossil reserves subscribed across the stock markets and bourses of the world. Much of those shares are held by governments, banks, institutional investors and - wait for it - pension funds. Burst that Carbon Bubble and the global economy nose-dives.

Yes, the wealthy nations have made progress in reducing GHG emissions. Canada is not on the Honours List. The developing nations and emerging economies want more cheap energy and that often translates into coal and dirty petroleum products such as bitumen.

There's a waterfront pub near me. I met a friend there for lunch a few days ago. We were entertained by a pod of humpbacks - three I think, perhaps more. Humpbacks where none were to be found even 10 years ago. A recent census of the Salish Sea found their numbers have swelled to 400 adults and 8 to 10 calves. It's a similar story for sea lions, seals, dolphins and orca. Once found in small numbers their populations in our local waters are burgeoning. On the Atlantic coast there has been an influx of swordfish into the Maritime waters. Meanwhile Maine lobsters are also heading north albeit slowly.

The solutions, Marie, are obvious. Fixing all of our potentially existential threats - climate change, overpopulation and massively excessive consumption - comes down to the same solution. Humans need to implement policies to bring us within the very finite limitations of this planet, our biosphere. James Lovelock referred to it as "sustainable retreat."

Among the more affluent nations that would mean rolling back standards of living even as we expect other nations to roll back their populations. Everybody has to give. What would be the chances of a political party that campaigned on achieving a 15 or 20% reduction in the local standard of living? We have an accurate idea of how much we need to cut, and how and by when. Knowledge isn't our problem. Our willingness to live that way is.

Time is a compounding factor, especially when it comes to tipping points. Look at what we have achieved in 3 decades of annual climate summits. We're still arguing over promises, commitments on a nation by nation basis that, based on what I've seen, ensures we'll keep falling short.

I will say that it's great fun to enjoy a grilled sandwich and a pint of ale while watching humpbacks frolic 100 yards from the beach.

Marie Snyder said...

@MoS - A sustainable retreat - absolutely! - and yup, not enough are willing to cut back even the tiniest luxuries in order to extend their own lives. Once something exists, an object or event, it's like it's suddenly impossible to live without it. We can't turn our back on all that bitumen in the ground, like it's crack. Or like Vonnegut's words in my sidebar: "Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum."

Enjoy the humpbacks!

Taylor said...

I’m incredulous reading these other comments. Can we really be this resentful of others and so overtly Malthusian? We want to cut back on luxuries, but it’s always someone else that should do it. We think the world is over populated, but we’re never among the too many.

It’s as if we don’t consider how interconnected we are. Turn off oil and the lights go out, our N95s disappear, our food supply dramatically drops, and the trucks to bring it to town stop in their tracks.

Do we really understand what we’re wishing for? Oh, I wish we could see into the future as if these ideas and sentiments were fully realized.

Marie Snyder said...

@Taylor - There are many ways we can dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels personally, like by giving up luxury travel and beef and intentionally limiting the size of our families. Basically, to live a life of thoughtful intention in which the larger world is a big part of our decisions. On a governmental scale, we need to increase use of renewable energy -- but that will never get us to a point in which we can continue to live lives of consumerism that has become the norm. No matter what, we have to change how we live. Either we do that now by choice or later by necessity. This post is about one facet of that, but look into the Green New Deal for specifics - or look to other countries that have been able to shift to renewable energy. Canada is one of the worst emitters.

Also - I'm a lefty environmentalist who advocates for masking and needs a place to vent liberally where I can sometimes connect with others. You're never going to convince me to support ExxonMobil or to just let covid do its thing naturally, letting it hibernate in the bodies and brains of children. I don't post anything here on social media, so it's very easy to avoid. If you're bothered by my posts or comments here, you're free to just stop reading it.

Taylor said...

Arguments on social media are awful because differences devolve into abuse and ad hominem almost immediately. It’s an important social function to be able to reason with people with whom you do not agree. The internet was better when it was mostly blogs like this.

I have never seen someone have their mind changed via debate. It never happens. I don’t expect it. Discourse, especially online, only hardens people’s resolve. The beliefs we hold are anchored somewhere untouched by direct discourse. It’s almost always through indirect means that people shift on a topic.

The process where people argue a point over and over as if to make it true I find intriguing. I’m drawn to the cognitive dissonance.

I’ll admit that it hurts: people don’t want to explore the validity or soundness of an argument. Appeals to authority, spurious causality, and false equivalences are but bricks in a wall to stave off ‘commonsense’. The desire to huddle with my own tribe, the yearning for a false ataraxia is a vice.

MoS said...

Taylor's arguments are unconvincing. He needs to explore mankind's rich history of civilizational/societal collapse. According to anthropologist Jared Diamond these events share two markers: collapse occurs while the subject civilization is at its zenith and collapse occurs abruptly - it's not some drawn out gradual process. It is collapse.

In some cases the cause of collapse is foreseen, sometimes for generations. There's a "not just yet" mentality that lasts until time and opportunity have run out.

The UN keeps a log of climate/resource wars. As Gwynne Dyer puts it, even the friendliest, most gentle nations will raid their neighbours before they'll see their children starve.

Water access is becoming increasingly problematic. Egypt has put its upstream neighbours on notice it will mean war if those countries dam or otherwise restrict the flow of the Nile, 'their' Nile. Meanwhile China, which wisely chose to invade and occupy Tibet, now controls much of the Himalayan headwaters upon which China, India and Pakistan are mortally dependent. Most of these rivers run through and can be diverted by China. Pakistan's rivers run through India and are doubly insecure. All three of them have nuclear arsenals.

Atmospheric Rivers are a symptom of global precipitation patterns in chaos. A hotter atmosphere carries far more water vapour. A warmer, wetter atmosphere in turn fuels severe storm events of increasing intensity, frequency and duration.

These realities, and so many more, Taylor finds incredulous. He has plenty of company. It manifests in denialism. That's the thing with tipping points. Like a canoe, once the water starts pouring in over the gunwale, it's too late.