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.