Monday, July 9, 2007

The Global Warming Blame Game

Published in Eat the State (July 12, 2007)

Many conservatives (and a few leftists) continue to languish in Denial over man-made global warming. Denial is of course the first step of the "Five Stages of Receiving Catastrophic News", a psychological model developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, often applied to death and dying.

I wonder now if as a society we aren't moving into the second phase, Anger. As evidence, I look at the global warming finger-pointing that seems to have begun.

The Bush Administration blames China, now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China blames the U.S. which uses emits over four times per capita. Greenpeace blames Exxon, who in turn blames Kyoto. Al Gore is fingering the world's scientists for failure to speak out decisively during the nineties. (Meanwhile Gore himself presided over the largest growth ever in U.S. emissions.) The scientists, of course, blame the politicians for failing to take action. Right wingers blame environmentalists for opposing nuclear power in the seventies. Socialists blame capitalism. Libertarians blame government regulations and the Bush Administration. The Bush Administration ... calls for more study. You get the point.

Now imagine the blame game (and the law suits) that will begin when the economic and human costs really start to escalate. Imagine the blame game if we pass the threshold of runaway climate change beyond which nothing we can do will save the habitability of the planet

The blame game is not a worthless endeavor. (I blame first the Bush-Cheney-Rove triumvirate.) And the blame is not equally shared. The rich nations have produced most by far the most carbon dioxide cumulatively. Further, those decision-makers with their hands on the levers of power are surely more culpable than the children of the poor. We can't blame a faceless "humanity" (when many poor people produce well within the planet's carbon budget).

As individuals, we have a small share in the blame. We all have to reduce our carbon tire-and-footprints. But I think it is more important to analyze our socio-economic system to understand our role in the process and decide how we can best make a difference politically. In the end, all that matters is our own conscience. But did we do all that we could during what Gore calls our "planetary emergency" to get governments to act? We only have a short window of opportunity, roughly ten years, between societal awareness and effective government action, to set in motion a process that will reduce carbon emissions something like 90% by mid-century.

As we all sit around and point fingers and get angry at each other, new evidence has emerged that the effects of global warming may be much worse than the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports suggested. In a new study of the geological record, James Hansen asserts that the polar ice caps do not melt at a continuous rate, but flip suddenly to a new state. Rather than a sea level rise measured in centimeters by century's end, it will more likely be somewhere on the order of 25 meters, as the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets flow into the oceans and melt.

No wonder that Al Gore says we need a new global treaty by the end of 2009. With each passing year with no action the probability of passing the tipping point (estimated at 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide) of unstoppable warming increases. (One hopes Gore may be setting himself up as the Global Warming Czar to negotiate such a treaty.)

Nationally, all eyes are on the Democrats to see what sort of climate change legislation they will pass. If they fail us like they have failed us so far on an Iraq pull-out, then we are in deep trouble. Now is the time to contact Congress to pressure them to act.

If they don't, new strategies will be called for. These could range from reform efforts, such as calling for public financing of elections through direct action. Activist Ted Glick and others are calling for a fast on September 4th if the Democrats do no pull through. Another group is calling for nonviolent civil disobedience in DC on October 21st.

The situation we are in unprecedented in human history. (The closest comparison may be the nuclear build up of the 1980's.) Our brains evolved to tackle short-term threats. Now it's not just out little band of hunter-gatherers or our nation that is in danger, but the whole species. (Indeed, half of all species on the planet may be gone by the end of the century).

Yet fully seven in ten Americans want Federal action on global warming. But people are reluctant to open their pocketbooks (and understandably, since wages have stagnated for three decades). The corporations that favor Cap-and-Trade regulations are likely to pass on the increased costs to the consumer. This will make these policies unpopular with the public, and a right-wing populist backlash could easily derail these sorts of regulations. Writing in the American Prospect, Peter Teague and Jeff Navin argue that, instead, we need to shift the debate from regulation to investment.

For the price of the Iraq War, a couple of trillion dollars, we could build a nationwide renewable energy grid based on wind, solar, geothermal and water power. For more, we could convert our city and town infrastructures to be people- rather than auto-oriented. We could link our cities with high-speed rail. We could largely rid ourselves of fossil fuels in a few decades -- if we could only develop the political will. What will we tell our children we did during these years, if we don't?

Incidentally, the final stages in the Kubler-Ross model of grieving over catastrophic loss are Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Let's hope we reach the Bargaining Stage soon. And finally, let's work together to ensure that we end up grieving only over the loss of our fossil fuel lifestyles and not over the death of our civilization.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

That "sinking" feeling

The Independent UK (5/18/07) reports the first observations of positive feedback in the earth's ability to soak up carbon (carbon "sinks"). Stormier oceans due to global climate change in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica are bringing ocean carbon closer to the surface, hindering the oceans ability to absorb atmospheric carbon. In fact, the absorption potential have been flat since 1981 even as carbon emissions have increased by 40%.

The oceans are now likely effectively carbon saturated and we may be within striking distance of the 450 ppm threshold for runaway climate change, when biogeochemical processes will take over by themselves irrespective of what we do. If we are already commited to 30 years (because of the time lag) of 2 ppm carbon, that would put us up to 440 ppm:

In recent years it has become clear that the rate at which CO2 was
accumulating is itself increasing. The level currently stands at about 382 parts per million by volume (ppm), up from 315 ppm in 1958. In the past decade the rate has jumped from about 1.6ppm annually to well above 2ppm - a fact which, as The Independent reported in October 2004, may well signal that the earth's absorption ability is shrinking.

This is why James Hansen says we have less than a 10 year window to act. Hansen acknowledges that the positive feedbacks are the wild cards in the climate models. If we leave the linear regime between forcing and temperature rise, we will be entering the territory explored by James Lovelock of 10 meter sea level rises and mass die-offs.

At the same time, we are learning that current emmisions are wildly accelerating:

But from 2000 to 2004, CO2 emissions rates almost tripled to 3 per cent a year, higher than any rate used in emissions scenarios for the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC).

Perhaps there is a sliver of hope in peaking levels of oil, natural gas and coal. If they all peak by 2020 as Richard Heinberg suggests (search and we aggressively cut back in fossil fuel consumption, perhaps we can squeeze through and preserve the planet for future generations. More study would be needed to examine this possibility.

That James Hansen has included peak oil in his latest climate predictions is a good sign, even if his numbers don't quite agree with those of Kjell Aleklett (who includes peak coal). We can only hope that the peaking of global energy can compensate for the positive feedbacks we are starting to observe.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Peak Energy Liberation?

As if oil depletion was not scary enough comes news of Peak Coal. According to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, a peaking of all oil and natural gas will come as soon as 2010. Now we have a detailed report that U.S., Chinese and global coal production could all maximize by 2020. Since these three fossil fuels represent over 87% of total world energy, Peak Energy is really just a few short years ahead, probably between 2010 and 2020.

Could alternatives fill the gap? Unfortunately not. According to Richard Heinberg, "a realistically possible 2.5 percent annual decline in all fossil fuels averaged over the next 20 years would require developing almost 10 quads of energy production from new sources each year." Then consider that the current world amount of installed wind and solar capacity, the result of many years of effort and investment, stands at less than one quad. Neither could nuclear be expanded quickly enough.
Future prospects for an expanding industrial society look grim. In fact, "collapse" is a common word in the Peak Oil literature. The pithy title of Richard Heinberg's 2003 book The Party's Over sets the tone.

Yet, is doom-and-gloom just over the hill?What if the Party was just beginning? What if energy depletion was really liberation from oil and coal (and global warming angst) and it led to liberation from oppressive workplaces and alienating governments?And why not? We have all we need for satisfying lives: plenty of company, art, food, technology, money, even energy, at this point. All we have to do is to demonstrate to people how to channel their creativity into building sustainable, walkable communities with non-polluting renewable energies and low-input manufacturing and agriculture!

I don't believe the current paradigm -- corporate-dominated governments, free markets, individual material accumulation -- can do this. In fact, because world economic growth is dependent on cheap energy, many Peak Oil'ers believe world GDP's will begin to shrink. As the capitalist economy contracts, we will have plenty of time to re-employ laid-off people in cooperative workplaces. (The Mondragon region of Spain provides an example.) That will require the expertise of local and state governments, non-profits and the cooperative sector to redesign workplaces to meet more and more of our needs regionally, if not locally. Above all, it will have to call on people's suppressed talents to work for the community in new democratic ways. All we have to fear is orthodoxy, cynicism and paralysis.How much of the human spirit is repressed dealing with the stultifying atmosphere of hierarchical workplaces and overbearing bosses? Much more than we think, I believe. People have a need to be part of active communities that accomplish tasks, without fear of being fired. It's in our DNA. It's how we thrive. Barn-raising, with a keg and a pizza.When people are forced to work for money and survival by selling their souls to the highest bidder, much of their life/psychic energy goes into maintaining their equilibrium. It's an emergency response that we inherited that was only supposed to be used for short periods of time. We cannot flourish in such an environment.But for over a million years, our bodies and minds have evolved to enhance group survival. Freedom and cooperation, perhaps even group competition, provided the species with the maximum flexibility and creativity to fill all existing land niches on the planet, from desert to tundra. That's why the most fulfilling feelings we are capable of (things like a sense of accomplishment, love, friendship, etc.) are all related to others and the group (or, in some cases, nature).My suspicion is that the coming decades could be among the best for many privileged communities. Those with social stability, responsive governments and local resources will be best-suited for the transition to low-carbon economies. (Others may fragment, if they can't keep the lights on and the water running.)

We can hope that energy depletion rates will be mild enough to allow most communities to adapt. Lessons learned can now be sent around the world in microseconds. And there is nothing like a crisis, even a drawn-out planetary crisis, to focus the mind. In the words of Studs Terkel, ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things.

We must continue to push at the national level for an end to war and militarism, and a redistribution of money to social and infrastructural needs, including mass transit and renewable energies, including wind, solar, geothermal, wave and tidal. We must work for global justice, and equitable, aggressive global warming agreements that will preserve the world's remaining forests and the biosphere. But it is at the local level where people can work together to make quick progress, which can feed into the social movements we so badly need.We are at a unique point in human history. Can it be a turning point? Can we put together all we have learned to provide meaningful and sustainable lives for all? Perhaps, but I think we must act as if we can. The secret may just be in unleashing the freedom of the individual to work for the good of the community (without coercion, needless to say). To turn from self to other. That released social energy could just more than compensate for the decline in fossil fuel energy. Together we thrive, or individually we will all sink.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Half Gone? And I'm Not Talking About Oil.

To understand the kinds of things we're up against, let's begin with a few facts (and sentences) lifted from the May-June Mother Jones article by Julia Whitty on the sixth mass extinction.

After a die-off -- the previous five in the past 400 million years or so each wiped out between 50 and 95 percent of all the life of the day -- it takes 10 million years before biological diversity even begins to approach the level that existed before the die-off. That's a long time!

The current causes of extinction -- "habitat degradation, overexploitation, agricultural monocultures, human-borne invasive species, human-induced climate change" -- in short, capitalism, are accelerating into the 21st century. (I use "capitalism" as shorthand for the system of production and investment based on private profits that has wildly increased world material consumption, and is often referred to euphemistically as "industrialism". Now that the Soviet Union is no longer in the picture, we need not be concerned with the ecological burden of the "state capitalist" system whereby "private profits" were in the hands of the state managers.)

Fully 40% of examined species are in danger, including 1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians, and 1 in 3 conifers and other gymnosperms. (And remember, certain "keystone species" influence and support a myriad of plants and animals. Army ants, for instance, are known to support 100 other species, from beetles to birds.)

According to E.O. Wison, (oddly enough, a great believer in the corporate enterprise) our current course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by the year 2100. Wilson also estimates the current rate of extinction at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. No wonder then that seven out of ten biologists believe mass extinction poses a more serious environmental problem than global warming!

Unlike other critics I cannot take solace in the fact that life will continue long after we're gone. You know, the type of "deep ecology thinker" who pines for a human-free planet or the Buddhist "sage" who revels in existential bliss. I want to do what I can to save the life we have right now.