Following Arthur Schopenhauer's wise prescription, I am keeping busy. Thus I give you this follow-up to my Twilight Zone essay — Dave
Discerning and thoughtful observers of current trends have either concluded or are becoming convinced that humans will do nothing significant to mitigate anthropogenic climate change in the next 10 to 15 years. Most climate scientists will tell you that those years are critical to maintaining the Earth's environmental health, for it seems clear that humanity will commit itself to (at least) 2 degrees centigrade (2° C) of surface warming in that time frame. Climate scientists generally believe that reaching or surpassing this threshold constitutes "dangerous interference" with the Earth's climate.
As I discussed in Your Next Stop, The Twilight Zone, and on a global scale, the issue which defines how things will go must be framed as The Economy Versus The Environment—everything follows from the balance struck between these two overarching concerns.
The question environmentalists need to ask themselves is why can't big environmental issues (like the climate or the oceans) get any traction? It is no small question, for humanity's fate very likely depends on the answer. The more thoughtful environmentalists do ask that question all the time, but continue to come up with misguided, unhelpful answers. I will explore that subject in this essay.
When I wrote the Twilight Zone essay, I was unaware that a few environmentalists have struck back against the economic hegemony in human affairs. It is illuminating to see what form their arguments take.
I became aware of the work of Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester (U.K.) while reading an interview with activist Naomi Klein. (I will discuss Klein's views in a later section.)
Well, I think there is a very deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups. And to be very honest with you, I think it’s been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost. Because it has steered us in directions that have yielded very poor results. I think if we look at the track record of Kyoto, of the UN Clean Development Mechanism, the European Union’s emissions trading scheme — we now have close to a decade that we can measure these schemes against, and it’s disastrous.
Not only are emissions up, but you have no end of scams to point to, which gives fodder to the right. The right took on cap-and-trade by saying it’s going to bankrupt us, it’s handouts to corporations, and, by the way, it’s not going to work. And they were right on all counts. Not in the bankrupting part, but they were right that this was a massive corporate giveaway, and they were right that it wasn’t going to bring us anywhere near what scientists were saying we needed to do lower emissions. So I think it’s a really important question why the green groups have been so unwilling to follow science to its logical conclusions.
I think the scientists Kevin Anderson and his colleague Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre have been the most courageous on this because they don’t just take on the green groups, they take on their fellow scientists for the way in which neoliberal economic orthodoxy has infiltrated the scientific establishment.
It’s really scary reading. Because they have been saying, for at least for a decade, that getting to the emissions reduction levels that we need to get to in the developed world is not compatible with economic growth.
Only in the developed world? I will get to that point later in this essay. Obviously it was time to look into the views of Anderson and Bows.
Confusion In the Twilight Zone (Impossible Things)
There are three relevant original sources for Anderson and Bows. The first is Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world, originally published in Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society in 2010 (pdf). The second is A new paradigm for climate change, a commentary published in Nature Climate Change in August, 2012. (Here is a pre-editing copy from Kevin Anderson's webpage.) The third is a transcript of a talk Anderson gave in Bristol (U.K.) on November 6, 2012 (with video).
An article called The brutal logic of climate change mitigation by Grist writer Dave Roberts serves as a good general introduction to the views of Anderson and Bows. Roberts quotes the first source listed above.
The commonly accepted threshold of climate “safety,” 2 degrees C [3.6 degrees F] temperature rise over pre-industrial levels, is now properly considered extremely dangerous...
Like I said, go ahead and pour yourself a stiff drink.
So, what does this grim situation say about our current climate policy efforts? The paper also contains some important insights on that front.
Here is how Anderson and Bows frame it:
Over the past five years a wealth of analyses have described very different responses to what, at first sight, appears to be the same question: What emission-reduction profiles are compatible with avoiding “dangerous” climate change? However, on closer investigation, the difference in responses is related less to different interpretations of the science underpinning climate change and much more to differing assumptions related to five fundamental and contextual issues.
(1) What delineates dangerous from acceptable climate change?
(2) What risk of entering dangerous climate change is acceptable?
(3) When is it reasonable to assume global emissions will peak?
(4) What reduction rates in post-peak emissions is it reasonable to consider?
(5) Can the primacy of economic growth be questioned in attempts to avoid dangerous climate change?
Keep question (5) in mind. It is almost never raised explicitly in these discussions, but it turns out to be central to how we answer the other questions.
Long story short, Anderson and Bows argue that we are systematically blowing smoke up our own asses. (Though, ahem, that’s probably not how they would put it.)
Blowing smoke up our own asses indeed!
Long-time readers of Decline Of The Empire will immediately see that I rarely (if ever) considered questions (1) through (4) outside the context of question (5). Yet, Roberts notes that question (5) is almost never raised explicitly in these discussions. Roberts continues—
Note, also, that most popular climate scenarios include an implausibly early peak in global emissions — 2010 in many cases, 2015-16 in the case of the Stern Report, the ADAM project, and the U.K.’s Committee on Climate Change.
Those who read my Twilight Zone essay will note that I ridiculed a new IPCC climate scenario RCP2.6 on just these grounds. Please review that essay if you have not already done so. Now we get to the heart of the matter—
Why do climate analysts do this? Why do they present plans that contain wildly optimistic assumptions about the peak in global emissions and yet a high probability of overshooting the 2 degrees C target?
The answer is fairly simple, and it has to do with the answer to question (4), regarding what level of emissions reductions is reasonable to expect. According to the Stern Review and others, emissions reductions of 3 to 4 percent a year are the maximum compatible with continued economic growth.
And so that’s the level they use in their scenarios. Yet reductions at that pace offer very little practical hope of hitting 2 degrees C.
In other words, climate analysts construct their scenarios not to avoid dangerous climate change but to avoid threatening economic growth.
Exactly! Although I expressed it in many different ways, Roberts makes a point which I asserted and documented literally hundreds of times in the 1500-plus posts I wrote over the last 4 years. It is an essential point which can't be raised often enough. But enough of me tooting my own horn; let's move on to Anderson and Bows.
To emphasize the essential points, I will selectively quote from the 2nd (Nature Climate Change) source for Anderson and Bows referenced above. They wrote this commentary in the aftermath of the failed Rio+20 conference.
... academics may again have contributed [at the conference] to a misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2°C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives. A carbon tax here, a little emissions trading there and the odd voluntary agreement thrown in for good measure will not be sufficient.
... Long-term and end-point targets (for example, 80% by 2050) have no scientific basis. What governs future global temperatures and other adverse climate impacts are the emissions from yesterday, today and those released in the next few years.
... On a personal level, scientists are human too. Many chose to research climate change because they judge there is value in applying scientific rigour to an important global issue. It is not surprising then that they also hope that it is still possible to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
However, as the remaining cumulative [carbon] budget is consumed, so any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2 °C is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints.
Against this backdrop, unsubstantiated hope leaves such constraints unquestioned, while at the same time legitimizing a focus on increasingly improbable low-carbon futures and underplaying high-emission scenarios.
And now Anderson and Bows make the crucial point.
Acknowledging the immediacy and rate of emission reductions necessary to meet international commitments on 2 °C illustrates the scale of the discontinuity between the science (physical and social) underpinning climate change and the economic hegemony. Put bluntly, climate change commitments are incompatible with short- to medium-term economic growth (in other words, for 10 to 20 years).
In short, rapid decarbonization of the economy so as to keep warming below the 2°C threshold is not compatible with economic growth. However, Anderson and Bows hedge their assertion. There is a strange caveat—the required decarbonization is not compatible with short- to medium-term economic growth (in other words, for 10 to 20 years). And what economies are we talking about?
We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions.
Thus the U.N. Annex 1 (OECD) nations—the rich Western nations, the developed world—must make radical emissions cuts which are incompatible with economic growth while making some concessions to the growth needs of "emerging" economies like China, India, Brazil and all the rest. For your information, China is now (by far) the largest emitter of CO2 on Earth.
Lest you think the statement above does not accurately characterize the views of Anderson and Bows, consider this from their Royal Society paper.
Only if Annex 1 [developed] nations reduce emissions immediately at rates far beyond those typically countenanced and only then if non-Annex 1 emissions peak between 2020 and 2025 before reducing at unprecedented rates, do global emissions peak by 2020.
Consequently, the 2010 global peak central to many integrated assessment model scenarios as well as the 2015–2016 date enshrined in the CCC, Stern and ADAM analyses, do not reflect any orthodox ‘feasibility’. By contrast, the logic of such studies suggests (extremely) dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within Annex 1 nations and a rapid transition away from fossil-fuelled development within non-Annex 1 nations.
And thus we have reached an impasse—a period of planned austerity within the Annex 1 nations. We have wandered into Disneyland. Will that scenario come to pass? Here's my take on that—
Either we live in the Real World or we do not. (Most humans apparently do not, preferring Disneyland). Every observation we make of that world strongly indicates that every developed or developing country seeks to foster economic growth during every waking hour of every day.
Therefore, based on observation and experience, there is no chance—I do not mean there is a small chance, I mean there is a zero probability—that the rich Western nations will sacrifice their economies to mitigate climate change regardless of what happens in the developing nations, but especially if the developing nations are allowed to emit carbon willy-nilly as the developed economies go down in flames.
But apparently Anderson and Bows do not think the OECD economies would go down in flames, or more likely, have not thought the problem through. But let us do some counterfactual thinking. Let's suppose this pie-in-the-sky scenario comes to pass. What then?
You will recall that according to the Stern Review and others cited by Anderson and Bows, emissions reductions of 3 to 4 percent a year are the maximum compatible with continued economic growth. (I doubt that's true, but let's assume it is.) Therefore, emissions reductions in this period of "planned austerity" must exceed that rate. Let's assume a doubling (reductions of 6-8%/year). How might things go?
Market (supply & demand) rules for fossil energy would have to be suspended. God only knows how that would work. With a contraction in the amount of energy available, OECD economies (measured by GDP) would shrink (planned austerity). Remember, there is a constant relationship between cumulative wealth over time and energy consumption. Remove the energy, and wealth shrinks, for from a thermodynamic perspective — the only perspective that truly matters in the endless struggle to stave off entropy — wealth = power (energy consumed).
On the other hand, to meet the goal of only 10-20 years of planned austerity, after which growth is assumed to resume, the amount of "clean" (non-carbon emitting) energy must be increasing by leap and bounds even as the economy is contracting because only a growing economy could support this already impossibly fast and technologically dicey (infeasible) energy shift. We have arrived at a contradiction. You will recall that the White Queen (of Alice In Wonderland) "sometimes believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
A standard assumption (made by Roberts and other environmentalists) is that energy efficiency would take up a lot of the slack created by the missing fossil energy. For example, imagine us weatherizing a hundred million buildings (homes, commercial, businesses) in the United States over a period of 10-20 years. Only a rapidly growing economy could support this impossibly optimistic goal, but the economy would also also contracting (?) as we reduce our fossil fuels consumption. On the other hand, central banks could simply print and hand out many trillions of dollars to pay for all the solar panels, weatherizing and other efficiency measures, which would undoubtedly lead to a collapse of various currencies (the euro, the dollar, the yen, etc.).
The market and social dislocations created by a shrinking (and growing?) economy would be severe. Actually, that is an understatement; the word "armageddon" comes to mind. Collapse seems far more likely than any planned, orderly decay. Undoubtedly, The People would revolt, and chaos would soon reign.
- The only way to avoid a popular revolt and the ensuing chaos would be to convince The People that we are facing William James' "moral equivalent of war," a phrase which Dave Roberts quotes. Plainly, an intangible threat like gradual warming of the Earth's surface does not present a clear and present danger like an actual war does—think World War II. There would be no evil Aryans or slanty-eyed yellow bastards for The People to rally against. To make matters worse, a large (but ever-shifting) proportion of Americans do not even believe that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is really happening!
That's more than enough—you get the idea. We can only conclude that the proposed plan of Anderson and Bows, which could never get off the ground in the first place, is impossible to carry out in any case. An impossibility heaped upon another impossibility—and all this before breakfast!
On the other hand, if the economies of the developed nations were to descend into utter chaos as outlined above, I believe it might indeed be possible to avoid 2° Centrigrade of surface warming in the 21st century. That, my friends, is the Good News. Perhaps that's the real plan
The Enemy Is Us
In the first section I quoted activist Naomi Klein, who commended the work of Anderson and Bows. It is illuminating to examine her views regarding why humans seem to be unwilling to do anything significant to mitigate global warming. This could also be a review of Bill McKibben's views, although Klein is generally more insightful than McKibben.
Climate activists like Klein believe that vested interests, especially the fossil fuel companies, are solely to blame for blocking efforts to mitigate global warming. Klein also believes the Big Green Groups (for example, The Nature Conservancy) have joined together with the Big Fossil Fuels interests, thus emasculating themselves. Big Green is fraternizing with the Enemy. This observation is, of course, true.
Let's continue in that vein. I will quote from Klein's Time for Big Green to Go Fossil Free, published in The Nation on May 20, 2013.
Some mainstream environmental organizations are trying to wean themselves from fossil fuel investments—but some aren’t.
... Green groups raise mountains of cash every year on the promise that the funds will be spent on work that is attempting to prevent catastrophic global warming. Fossil fuel companies, on the other hand, are doing everything in their power to make the catastrophic inevitable.
According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative in Britain (on whose impeccable research the divestment movement is based), the fossil fuel sector holds five times more carbon in its reserves than can be burned while still leaving us a good shot of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. One would assume that green groups would want to make absolutely sure that the money they have raised in the name of saving the planet is not being invested in the companies whose business model requires cooking said planet, and which have been sabotaging all attempts at serious climate action for more than two decades...
Now it turns out that some green groups are literally part owners of the industry causing the crisis they are purportedly trying to solve.
And the money the green groups have to play with is serious. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, has $1.4 billion in publicly traded securities, and boasts that its piggybank is “among the 100 largest endowments in the country.” The Wildlife Conservation Society has a $377 million endowment, while the endowment of the World Wildlife Fund-US (WWF-US) is worth $195 million.
Let me be absolutely clear: plenty of green groups have managed to avoid this mess. Greenpeace, 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, and a host of smaller organizations like Oil Change International and the Climate Reality Project don’t have endowments and don’t invest in the stock market. They also either don’t take corporate donations or place such onerous restrictions on them that extractive industries are easily ruled out. Some of these groups own a few fossil fuel stocks, but only so that they can make trouble at shareholder meetings.
The not-so-subtle message of this text, and indeed everything else Klein has written about the subject, is that there are two opposed camps in the world—those fighting global warming (for example, the Rainforest Action Network) and those profiting from making it worse (for example, ExxonMobil).
But as we concluded in the previous section, if we followed the austerity prescription of Anderson and Bows, which Naomi Klein recommends, it is extremely likely that the developed economies would unravel quickly, with devastating social consequences. Presumably, that prescription would include suspension of the energy markets and nationalization of the Big Oil Companies and the Big Coal Companies as Klein wants. (It's hard to see how the plan could work otherwise.) But forced austerity would almost certainly lead to a rebellion by The People.
And thus we arrive at the fundamental contradiction which pervades "serious" Green Thinking about mitigating anthropogenic climate change. Put simply, companies like ExxonMobil are simply giving The People what they want. As Walt Kelly put it, we have met the enemy and he is us. If someone (presumably governments) forcibly takes away the energy which makes civilization possible, The People will become very pissed off because most everybody wants the same things—a good home, a good job, a secure and prosperous family, a good education, opportunity for social and material advancement, and all the rest.
And what provides those things which everybody wants? Economic growth provides those things. When the economy is not growing, or not growing fast enough, and people are being left behind, as they have been (in America) since the early 1980s and especially since 2008, people will do whatever is required to get back to a situation where those good things are possible again. That desire is independent of whether they are likely to get those good things back, which almost certainly isn't going to happen for other reasons.
Thus we see that Klein is correct to see that the Big Green Groups have been co-opted, but is tragically mistaken as to the reasons why. There is no future in selling fossil energy austerity in the Annex 1 countries, and certainly there is no future in trying to sell it to the non-Annex 1 (developing) nations, which justifiably feel they have been historically shortchanged growth-wise.
Moreover, in "emerging" markets (like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia) the oil companies have already been nationalized for a long time now. Those companies do the state's bidding, not the other way around. The leaders of those countries would never permit something as important as crude oil production to be manipulated by somebody outside their control. So we see that Klein's views are rich-nation-centric (to coin a term).
To be sure, resistance to change by vested interests profiting from the status quo is a significant factor in humankind's near-absolute refusal to come to grips with global warming and other environmental problems. But special (elite) interests are not the only interests which are resistant to change. When push comes to shove, The People will overwhelmingly side with ExxonMobil, not Greenpeace.
In short, we are once again in Disneyland, this time the left-wing/activist/save-the-Earth version. And before going on, I feel compelled to say that nothing I have written here is anything other than bare-bones commonsense. I am constantly astonished that there is a need to explain it to some people. How do humans like Naomo Klein get so confused? (Well, I have written about that... )
Speaking of confusion, we should not be surprised to learn that climate activist Joseph ("Joe") Romm of the left-leaning Washington think-tank Think Progress is outraged that Naomi Klein believes the Big Green Groups are operating within "orthodox political and economic constraints" (quoting Anderson and Bows). I will quote from Joe's No, Naomi Klein And Salon, ‘Denialism’ By Enviros Has Not Been ‘More Damaging Than The Right-Wing Denialism’ — yes, that's the title.
Naomi Klein has given an extended interview trashing the environmental movement, “Naomi Klein: Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers.” As I will show, she is not just wrong, she is profoundly wrong. Her revisionist history is wrong, too, and contradicted by her policy prescriptions...
Why does Joe think Naomi is wrong, particularly with respect to the views of Anderson and Bows?
... I don’t agree with Anderson that “getting to the emissions reduction levels that we need to get to in the developed world is not compatible with economic growth” — mainly because the literature, as well as my own experience helping companies reduce carbon pollution for two decades, doesn’t support that view (see “Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost”).
Indeed, the IPCC’s last review of the mainstream economic literature found that even for stabilization at CO2 levels as low as 350 ppm, “global average macro-economic costs” in 2050 correspond to “slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points.”
And remember, most of these models are from mainstream economists who generally do a poor job of modeling the full benefits of efficiency and innovation.
It should be obvious the net cost is low. Energy use is responsible for the overwhelming majority of emissions, and energy costs are typically about 10 percent of GDP. What we need to do is replace our dirty, inefficient energy system with a clean, efficient one over a period of a few decades. That involves investing a lot of money but not flushing it down the toilet. And the gains in efficiency help pay back much of the initial cost of the transition.
We can now clearly see that if Anderson and Bows live in Disneyland, Joe Romm is holed up within the Cinderella Castle deep inside Disneyland; he's making his last ditch stand from those blue-roofed towers pictured above.
If it were only Joe Romm (or Paul Krugman) standing his ground deep within the Magic Kingdom, this one isolated case would be no big deal. However, as I described in the first Twilight Zone essay, Romm is quoting the IPCC's last comprehensive economic literature review, which found that global average macro-economic costs in 2050 [to fix or mitigate global warming] correspond to slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points. In short, it costs us next to nothing to make the required energy transition in the next 10-20 years or in the far-flung future.
Joe has lots of company, and thus he feels like he is on very solid ground in putting forth this crazy view, whereas what is really happening is that Joe is living in an outsized lunatic asylum which houses a very large number of inmates, many of whom are "experts" on the future. For Joe and all the other inmates living in this Magic Kingdom where the global economy grows and grows without limit regardless of how Homo sapiens treats the biosphere, energy is just another commodity like oranges, coffee, copper or lobsters.
Unfortunately, that's not what physics tells us about how the world works.
The Facts Of Life
Naomi Klein tells us that "Green groups raise mountains of cash every year on the promise that the funds will be spent on work that is attempting to prevent catastrophic global warming." And as we have seen, that promise is false.
I wish a few people would give me "mountains of cash" to tell them about Reality, but that's not the way the world works, which is unfortunate for me personally and the human world generally. At one level of understanding, Reality is not popular because Reality is a bummer. There's no way to make a living writing The Truth, but some prosperity always comes to those who tell people what they want and are inclined to hear. The Twilight Zone is a place where hopeful, delusional fantasies dominate "serious" discussions of the Human Future in relation to our Earthly environment.
I've written that growth (in populations and/or consumption) is an irrepressible, instinctual human drive, which makes me a Determinist. That's how I account for the bat-shit craziness I've just described. You can believe that or not, as I said in the first essay. If you don't believe it, and if you are trying to explain human behavior and beliefs in the 21st century, you've got to explain the Facts of Life in some other way. Good luck with that.
And on that note, I bid you adieu.