Tags: collapse* + climate change*

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  1. There’s an understandable impulse in the face of growing national divisions and what for many was the shocking and unpleasant outcome of the 2016 national elections to retreat to a comforting cocoon of the like-minded. Blue cities will do all the things that a solidly Republican national government won’t do: respect LGBTQ rights, provide sanctuary for immigrants, denounce climate change, and tax themselves to pay for needed investments and public services. But withdrawing to the safety of agreeable blue localities cedes the important national battle at just the time when it needs to be contested.

    It is well and good to celebrate the successes that mayors and local leaders are having. But transforming these heartening but small successes into a sweeping call for a new localism is misplaced when the fundamental functions of the national government are being steadily undermined. None of this works in a world in which the federal government is not simply rending holes in the safety net but knocking down its foundations.

    While the rest of the world’s nation-states adopted the trappings of modern social democracies, the U.S. was late to implement things like unemployment insurance, social security and universal health care. The New Deal, the Great Society, and Obamacare were only enacted after various local and state programs to address these problems were simply overwhelmed.

    Cities are not merely ill-equipped to tackle our major challenges on their own. Localism has an undeniable history of making many problems worse. Take two big issues of our time: climate change and surging inequality. Mayors and cities can strike a pose and demonstrate effective tactics, but they lack the policy throw-weight to solve these problems.

    It’s also worth noting that a key aspect of localism that has been effectively exempt from federal control—local control of zoning and land use—has worsened the economic segregation of our nation’s metropolitan areas
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  2. The largest uncertainties and limitations of our analysis stem from the assumed values for impacts per unit electric energy produced. However, we emphasize that our results for both prevented mortality and prevented GHG emissions could be substantial underestimates. This is because (among other reasons) our mortality and emission factors are based on analysis of Europe and the US (respectively), and thus neglect the fact that fatal air pollution and GHG emissions from power plants in developing countries are on average substantially higher per unit energy produced than in developed countries.

    Our findings also have important implications for large-scale "fuel switching" to natural gas from coal or from nuclear. Although natural gas burning emits less fatal pollutants and GHGs than coal burning, it is far deadlier than nuclear power, causing about 40 times more deaths per unit electric energy produced (ref. 2).

    Also, such fuel switching is practically guaranteed to worsen the climate problem for several reasons. First, carbon capture and storage is an immature technology and is therefore unlikely to constrain the resulting GHG emissions in the necessary time frame. Second, electricity infrastructure generally has a long lifetime (e.g., fossil fuel power plants typically operate for up to ~50 years). Third, potentially usable natural gas resources (especially unconventional ones like shale gas) are enormous, containing many hundreds to thousands of gigatonnes of carbon (based on ref. 6). For perspective, the atmosphere currently contains ~830 GtC, of which ~200 GtC are from industrial-era fossil fuel burning.

    We conclude that nuclear energy — despite posing several challenges, as do all energy sources (ref. 7) — needs to be retained and significantly expanded in order to avoid or minimize the devastating impacts of unabated climate change and air pollution caused by fossil fuel burning.
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  3. determining when radical physical changes in the Earth system happened provides a basis for determining which human activities were responsible, and thus what measures humans might take to prevent the change from reaching catastrophic proportions. In this article I offer an overview of the issues and stakes in the “when it happened” debate.

    in fact, a dozen or more proposals for dating the Anthropocene have been made to the AWG. While they differ substantially from each other, the starting dates under serious consideration fall into two broad groups that can be labelled Early and Recent, depending on whether the proposed starting date is in the distant past, or relatively close to the present.
    An Early Anthropocene?

    The first Early Anthropocene proposal was advanced by U.S. geologist William Ruddiman, who argues that the Anthropocene started when humans began large-scale agriculture in various parts of the world between eight and five thousand years ago. Those activities, he believes, produced carbon dioxide and methane emissions that raised global temperatures just enough to prevent a return to an Ice Age.9

    Other Early Anthropocene arguments suggest dating the Anthropocene from the first large-scale landscape modifications by humans, from the extinction of many large mammals in the late Pleistocene, from the formation of anthropogenic soils in Europe, or from the European invasions of the Americas in the 1500s. Some archeologists propose to extend the beginning of the Anthropocene back to the earliest surviving traces of human activity, which would take in much of the Pleistocene, and others have suggested that the entire Holocene should simply be renamed Anthropocene, since it is the period when settled human civilizations first developed.

    This outpouring of proposals reflects humanity’s long and complex relationships with the earth’s ecosystems—many of the proposed beginnings are significant turning points in those relationships, and deserve careful study. But the current discussion is not just about human impact: “the Anthropocene is not defined by the broadening impact of humans on the environment, but by active human interference in the processes that govern the geological evolution of the planet.”10 None of the Early Anthropocene options meet that standard, and none of them led to a qualitative break with Holocene conditions.

    Even if Ruddiman’s controversial claim that the agriculture revolution caused some global warming is correct, that would only mean that human activity had extended Holocene conditions. The recent shift out of Holocene conditions, to a no-analogue state, would still need to be evaluated and understood. Noted climatologist James Hansen and his colleagues make this argument clearly in a recent paper:

    Even if the Anthropocene began millennia ago, a fundamentally different phase, a Hyper-Anthropocene, was initiated by explosive 20th century growth of fossil fuel use. Human-made climate forcings now overwhelm natural forcings. CO2, at 400 ppm in 2015, is off the scale … Most of the forcing growth occurred in the past several decades, and two-thirds of the 0.9 C global warming (since 1850) has occurred since 1975.”11

    The Early Anthropocene has been promoted by anti-environmental lobbyists associated with the Breakthrough Institute, because it supports their claim that there has been no recent qualitative change and thus there is no need for a radical response. In their view, today’s environmental crises “represent an acceleration of trends going back hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, not the starting point of a new epoch.

    Moving in exactly the opposite direction, the IGBP’s 2004 book Global Change and the Earth System included several pages of graphs showing historical trends in human activity (GDP growth, population, energy consumption, water use, etc.) and physical changes in the Earth system (atmospheric carbon dioxide, ozone depletion, species extinctions, loss of forests, etc.) from 1750 to 2000. Every trend line showed gradual growth from 1750 and a sharp upturn in about 1950. The authors said that “the last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of the species,” but did not explicitly connect that to dating the Anthropocene.14

    In 2005, Will Steffen, principal author of that book, together with Crutzen and environmental historian John McNeill and others, coined the term Great Acceleration for the dramatic social-environmental changes after 1950. The name was a deliberate homage to The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi’s influential book on the social, economic, and political upheavals that accompanied the rise of market society in England.15

    In 2007, in a journal article provocatively titled “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?,” Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill republished the Great Acceleration graphs, and suggested that the second half of the twentieth century should be viewed as Stage 2 of the Anthropocene. Updated versions of the 2004 Great Acceleration graphs were prepared this year by the IGBP. As in the original graphs all the trend lines show hockey stick-shaped trajectories.
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  4. Lord’s thesis is that the kind of art a society makes and values is joined at the hip with the kind of energy that society depends on to keep itself going. He traces the various forms of energy we have known as a species throughout our pre-history — our millennia spent in the Pleistocene — and in our recorded history — sexual energy, without which societies can’t continue; the energy of the body while hunting and foraging; wood for fire; slaves; wind and water; coal; oil; and “renewables” — and makes some cogent observations about their relationship to art and culture. In his Prologue, he says:

    Everyone knows that all life requires energy. But we rarely consider how dependent art and culture are on the energy that is needed to produce, practice and sustain them. What we fail to see are the usually invisible sources of energy that make our art and culture(s) possible and bring with them fundamental values that we are all constrained to live with (whether we approve of them or not). Coal brought one set of values to all industrialized countries; oil brought a very different set… I may not approve of the culture of consumption that comes with oil… but I must use it » if I want to do anything at all.

    (Photo via gettystation.com)

    Those living within an energy system, says Lord, may disapprove of certain features, but they can’t question the system itself. Within the culture of slavery, which lasted at least 5,000 years, nobody wanted to be a slave, but nobody said slavery should be abolished, because what else could keep things going?
    (Sébastien Bonaimé/Getty Images; Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

    Coal, says Lord, produced a culture of production: think about those giant steel mills. Oil and gas, once they were up and running, fostered a culture of consumption. Lord cites “the widespread belief of the 1950s and early ’60s in the possibility of continuing indefinitely with unlimited abundance and economic growth, contrasted with the widespread agreement today that both that assumption and the world it predicts are unsustainable.” We’re in a transition phase, he says: the next culture will be a culture of “stewardship,” the energy driving it will be renewables, and the art it produces will be quite different from the art favored by production and consumption cultures.

    What are the implications for the way we view both ourselves and the way we live? In brief: in the coal energy culture — a culture of workers and production — you are your job. “I am what I make.” In an oil and gas energy culture — a culture of consumption — you are your possessions. “I am what I buy.” But in a renewable energy culture, you are what you conserve. “I am what I save and protect.” We aren’t used to thinking like this, because we can’t see where the money will come from. But in a culture of renewables, money will not be the only measure of wealth. Well-being will factor as an economic positive, too.

    Like Barry Lord, Morris is interested in the link between energy-capture systems and the cultural values associated with them, though in his case it’s the moral values, not only the aesthetic ones — supposing these can be separated — that concern him. Roughly, his argument runs that each form of energy capture favors values that maximize the chance of survival for those using both that energy system and that package of moral values. Hunter-gatherers show more social egalitarianism, wealth-sharing, and more gender equality than do farmer societies, which subordinate women — men are favored, as they must do the upper-body-strength heavy lifting — tend to practice some form of slavery, and support social hierarchies, with peasants at the low end and kings, religious leaders, and army commanders at the high end. Fossil fuel societies start leveling out gender inequalities — you don’t need upper body strength to operate keyboards or push machine buttons — and also social distinctions, though they retain differences in wealth.

    The second part of his argument is more pertinent to our subject, for he postulates that each form of energy capture must hit a “hard ceiling,” past which expansion is impossible; people must either die out or convert to a new system and a new set of values, often after a “great collapse” that has involved the same five factors: uncontrolled migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease, and “always in the mix, though contributing in unpredictable ways–- climate change.” Thus, for hunting societies, their way of life is over once there are no longer enough large animals to sustain their numbers. For farmers, arable land is a limiting factor. The five factors of doom combine and augment one another, and people in those periods have a thoroughly miserable time of it, until new societies arise that utilize some not yet exhausted form of energy capture.
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  5. Less Meat, Fewer Emissions

    Of the solutions modeled in the book, the food sector has more impact than energy. Reducing food waste ranks third or fourth on the list of solutions, depending on the scenario. Globally, around a third of food is thrown out before it’s eaten (in developing countries, this often happens because food can’t be refrigerated before it gets to consumers; in the U.S., much of the waste happens after it gets to consumers). In the most conservative scenario modeled in the book, reducing food waste could avoid 70 gigatons of emissions.

    If half of the world’s population can eat less meat–a challenge as the global population grows, and more people in lower-income countries can afford to buy it–that would also have a significant impact; the book ranks a plant-based diet fourth in one scenario and fifth in another. (In the unlikely event that everyone becomes vegan, the world could reduce food-related climate emissions by 70%, according to a 2016 Oxford University study.)

    A variety of different farming practices make the list, and one makes the top ten: silvopasture, or deliberately growing trees on pasture where cows graze. The trees, and the soil beneath them, can sequester five to ten times as much carbon as a treeless pasture. Growth of the practice has been limited so far because the up-front costs are higher, and many farmers still believe that treeless pastures will grow more fodder for their cattle. But silvopasture actually helps support more livestock, partly because the trees give cattle shade and protection from wind. If farmers adopt it, they may also be able to avoid deforestation.

    That’s particularly important in places like the Amazon, where beef production is a major driver of deforestation. The book ranks the protection and restoration of tropical forests as another of the most impactful solutions. On its own, tropical forest loss is responsible for as much as 19% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
    It’s Time To Talk About Refrigerant Management

    Wind power ranks first or second as a solution, depending on the scenario. (In the “plausible” scenario, which is optimistic but conservative about the adoption of each solution, wind power reaches 16.7% of global electricity use by 2050; the Global Wind Energy Council predicts that number could be as high as 41%).

    Maybe most surprising is what ranks first in the “plausible” scenario–refrigerant management. The chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners for cooling can have a global warming potential thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide. In a deal struck in 2016, the world agreed to phase those chemicals out; over the next 30 years, if the deal is enacted, that can avoid 89.74 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

    The list follows the 80/20 rule: the top 20 solutions are responsible for 80% of the impact. “The next 80 are 20%,” says Hawken. “But that 20% of the impact is what puts you from going over the top.” In other words, the full list of solutions is necessary; there are no silver bullets here.
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  6. In reality, the only way Trump can keep this promise is to zero out all clean energy research and development (along with all climate science and support for international efforts), which would shut the door on the below-2°C path just as the rest of the world was working together to pry that door open.

    You may consider it unlikely Trump would follow through, but I was at the U.S. Department of Energy working on clean energy when the GOP took back the House in 1995, led by Newt Gingrich. The House GOP had pledged to zero out all clean energy development and deployment programs — and they succeeded in slashing the budget for all the deployment programs.

    The only thing that stopped them from gutting clean energy research and development was a huge push-back by the administration of President Clinton. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
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  7. Everywhere the opposition is forced by statute to make its stand not on climate change arguments, but on old grounds. This pipeline will hurt water quality. That coal port will increase local pollution. The dust that flies off those coal trains will cause asthma. All the arguments are perfectly correct and accurate and by themselves enough to justify stopping many of these plans, but a far more important argument always lurks in the background: each of these new infrastructure projects is a way to extend the life of the fossil fuel era a few more disastrous decades.

    The money, however, is only part of it. There’s also a sense in which the whole process is simply on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that the laws, statutes, and regulations favor business-as-usual. The advent of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s introduced a few new rules, but they were only designed to keep that business-as-usual from going disastrously, visibly wrong. You could drill and mine and pump, but you were supposed to prevent the really obvious pollution. No Deepwater Horizons. And so fossil fuel projects still get approved almost automatically, because there’s no legal reason not to do so.

    in a few places you can see more than just the opposition; you can see the next steps unfolding. Last fall, for instance, Portland, Oregon -- the scene of a memorable “kayaktivist” blockade to keep Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs bottled up in port -- passed a remarkable resolution. No new fossil fuel infrastructure would be built in the city, its council and mayor declared. The law will almost certainly block a huge proposed propane export terminal, but far more important, it opens much wider the door to the future. If you can’t do fossil fuel, after all, you have to do something else -- sun, wind, conservation. This has to be our response to the living-dead future that the fossil fuel industry and its allied politicians imagine for our beleaguered world: no new fossil fuel infrastructure. None. The climate math is just too obvious.
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  8. In a long article, Charlie Stross breaks down the way that climate change, human reactions to climate change, and economics are turning the world into a place overrun by heavily armed racist kooks with the power and willingness to destroy everything in their race to get rich enough to buy a mountaintop retreat before the seas rise.

    A good parallel read is Bruce Sterling's "general health-check for our world's many regions and peoples," which includes such nuggets as "Iraq remains a catastrophic mess. Since they're so visibly keen on sectarian ethnic-cleansing, they ought to abandon the shell of the national order and form balkanized mini-states. It makes sense, but I don't think even that would help them."

    Oh, and "Russia is so lastingly humiliated by their failure to globalize that they've become a 'troll state... Americans used to have all kinds of practical "reform" advice for Russia, but that's worse than useless now. If you show up in Russia and tell 'em to follow the American Dream, it's like showing up with whooping cough at a house party for tuberculosis."

    Restricting transnational mobility for the proles/serfs/99.9% is part of the program and plays well to the nativist strand in climate change politics, which is why unless you've got a few million burning a hole in your back pocket you'll find it really difficult to legally immigrate into the UK or USA or other top-tier countries from outside the developed world. And why all our corporate-owned media (that is, 95% of them: Reddit is owned by Conde Nast, The Times and Fox News and 90% of the newspapers in Australia are owned by Rupert Murdoch, and so on) are banging the drum against immigration, at the behest of their (investor visa equipped) owners.

    But anyway, here's my summary of the next decade:

    1. The weather's going to get worse.

    2. We're going to see more and more unscrupulous huckster types leading revanchist, nativist right wing political movements and banging the anti-immigrant drum, world-wide. Civil rights include the right to free movement; this makes civil rights an easy scapegoat and target for the angry populist nativists. Sensible media capitalists (those with a sense of self-preservation) will pander to these assclowns. Courageous media capitalists (those with the odd ethical bone in their body) will stand up to them and get themselves assassinated or imprisoned. Luckily we have the internet except, oops, Facebook owns it and FB will do whatever they're told. (And if not Facebook, Google. The internet is infrastructure, and if annoying dissidents are drinking from the pure tapwater of honest news and you own the pumping station ...)

    3. This is going to happen both in nominally/formerly Christian countries and in the Muslim world. Both sides will see each other in a mirror and hiss like cats, but it doesn't really signify anything. Fear of terrorism is a rallying point, so expect unscrupulous politicians to use crack-downs on their local minorities to bolster their popularity. This will of course include crack-downs on civil rights because nothing annoys a political entrepreneur trying to posture as a strong leader like a civil rights lawyer with a good case.

    4. The ongoing 1300-year Sunni/Shi'ite cold war will continue, sometimes hotter, thanks to climate-induced disruption in the Middle East and the eventual collapse of the Saudi petrochemical economy. The ongoing Saudi succession crisis isn't going to help (as we just saw).

    6 None of this political posturing is going to do jack shit to roll back the already-in-train effects of climate change so the immigration pressure will continue, driving trends (2) and (3).

    7. Don't buy long term coal or oil futures.
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  9. Myth 4: The world can decouple economic growth from the use of fossil fuels.

    As ideal as decoupling would be, this is unattainable without radical new technology or nuclear energy (which is usually off the table). How are we supposed to provide electricity for the billions of people who still lack access to reliable energy -- a basic right -- without using carbon? The International Energy Agency predicts that over 75 percent of the world's energy in 2040 will still be provided by fossil fuels. A radical shift to renewables is not feasible in the short-term, given that the rate of renewable energy production per unit of area is significantly smaller than with fossil fuels.

    The one sure way to realistically "decarbonize" the economy is to set policies that directly reduce emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere. These will impinge on the types of economic growth we take for granted, and also lead to hard policy questions: What should governments support in spite of their use of carbon, and what consumption must be restricted to help "pay" for that? Is it more important to produce electricity for millions of poor, or to allow private car ownership with cheap gasoline?

    So long as we understand economic growth as our only indicator of prosperity, the world will never have a specific plan to reduce emissions. Creating a different indicator -- one that is not reliant on a free ride on carbon -- is the challenge that the developing world must meet. The answer is not in promised but often under-delivered handouts from richer countries.
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  10. After a long negotiation process, the 193 member states of the United Nations have agreed to 17 goals and 169 targets that seek to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, promote economic growth and prosperity, improve health and education and protect the planet.

    If that sounds like a lot of targets, it is, because the goals represent a very big agenda and the culmination of extensive input from countries, non-government organisations, business and millions of ordinary citizens around the world. All countries including Australia are expected to use the goals in framing their agendas and policies.
    What are they?

    The Sustainable Development Goals aim to encourage countries and the private sector to focus simultaneously on the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. Several countries, including Australia, argued during the negotiating process that peace and good governance are pre-conditions for sustainable development.

    So there is also a goal (number 16) to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies”, and “build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions”.

    Within each of the goals there are targets such as reducing by at least half the number of people living in poverty according to national definitions (goal 1.2) and reducing premature mortality from non-communicable diseases like diabetes by one-third by 2030 (goal 3.4).

    Under the clean energy goal there is a target to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030, and a specific goal to make cities more sustainable with targets to increase affordable housing and access to sustainable transport (goal 11)

    Despite the great advances in poverty alleviation and development, there are still around 800 million people living in extreme poverty or suffering from hunger. In some areas the world has gone backwards. In most countries relative inequality has increased.

    Climate change, deforestation and environmental degradation now threaten to undermine future well-being and the development gains that have been achieved. Global greenhouse gases are now more than 50% higher than in 1990 and deforestation, desertification and collapsing fisheries threaten the livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

    The fact that all the world’s countries have been able to agree on a set of goals and targets for sustainable development – a sort of “to do list” for a better world is important in itself. As the Declaration accompanying the goals states: “Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda”.
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