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Two Must-Read Climate Change Posts

December 9, 2011

Maybe you don’t want to know how bad the outlook is, or how massive the scale of change required to change that outlook. But if you want to face up to the facts, you should read these two posts (one and two) by David Roberts over at Grist.

Post One analyzes a new peer-reviewed paper by climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows. According to Roberts, it paints a grim picture:

  • 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;
  • even 2 degrees C is drifting out of reach, absent efforts of a scale and speed beyond anything currently proposed;
  • our current trajectory is leading us toward 4 or 6 (or 8 or 10) degrees C, which we now know to be a potentially civilization-threatening disaster.

Post Two looks at the reality of the changes that would be required to our economies and energy use to avoid disaster, and makes clear that:

a) humanity is utterly failing to meet the challenge because no one is willing to trade economic growth to address climate change, and rich countries (known as “Annex 1” in climate-treaty speak) are not willing to take responsibility for the disproportionate contribution they have made to warming (which is what helped them get rich), and shoulder a disproportionate burden in reducing emissions to allow poorer countries (“Annex 2”) more leeway to burn carbon and raise people out of poverty;

and b) the consequences will be pretty horrific.

Roberts’ posts drive home the critical point: the way we analyze, debate and react to climate change right now is, like, a few orders of magnitude short of the urgency and scale required to keep it within even barely acceptable bounds. And the current trajectory we are on won’t allow for “adaptation.” Yet the steps required to actually address the problem are laughably improbable.

Here’s Roberts:

Soooo … where does that leave us? What would it mean for the U.S. and other developed countries to peak their emissions in 2015 and decline them by something on the order of 10 percent a year thereafter?

It’s safe to say that no carbon tax is going to do that. It’s tough to imagine any “market mechanism” that could ratchet things so quickly, at least on its own. We won’t get there through innovation or new technology, even if we spend a trillion a year for the next few years. We won’t get there by tweaking our current system. The only conceivable way to produce that level of reductions is a full-scale, all-hands-on-deck mobilization, what William James called “the moral equivalent of war.”

The vast bulk of the reductions available in the near-term are on the demand side. Of course this means driving efficiency as fast as possible while taking measures (like raising prices and setting standards) to avoid the rebound effect. But it also means (gasp!) conservation. Actually, “conservation” is too polite a word for it. It means shared sacrifice. Climate campaigners have sworn until they’re blue in the face that reducing emissions is compatible with robust economic growth. And it’s true! But reducing emissions enough? Maybe not, at least not for the next little while.

This is the stark conclusion drawn by Anderson and Bows: “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.”

I know what you’re thinking. It’ll never happen. It’s political suicide to bring it up. Conservatives will use it against us. Very Serious People will take to fainting couches across the land. I’ll address those questions in my next post.

But for now, it’s enough to say: It is what it is. As Anderson says, we’re currently mitigating for 4 degrees C and planning for 2 degrees C. That is ass backwards. It is, almost clinically, insane. We need to be doing the opposite — mitigating for 2, planning for 4 — as soon as possible.

I have zero hope that the human culture of consumption, and humanity’s relentless willingness to subordinate the natural world and its species to humanity’s desires, can change fast enough. But the ironic joke here is that human culture is in the process of subordinating humanity itself as well. Not sure what to do with that utterly depressing reality, but I’m trying to figure it out.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. hearmybrazil permalink
    December 9, 2011 10:56 am

    If we can send a man to a moon, we can overcome this challenge…though how much of our environment will be destroyed, and how long it will take is a valid question. But I like to focus on what I and others can do, rather than what everyone isn’t doing (though it’s still necessary information so we can see what to change!).

    • timzimmermann permalink*
      December 9, 2011 11:12 am

      Right now my approach is to try and change the way I (and my family; though even that isn’t easy!) live, while sharing the information that prompts me to act. But that’s not very satisfactory as a “solution.” Technology is a critical component of how this all turns out–both for conservation as well as adaptation–but the most important thing is a global and revolutionary shift in culture and economics. You can see a glimmer of hope in movements like Occupy Wall Street, which I hope is the beginning of the next generation calling for a revolution in the status quo. But it is only a glimmer (so far).

  2. December 9, 2011 4:08 pm

    Say goodnight Gracie, for those of us who can remember George Burns giving up trying to talk sense into his wife Gracie. Or, for those who can remember the sixties, we were living according to the cultural shifts that are needed now, and that needed to have been started then, even though very few of us had heard about global warming. We were anti-establishment, counter-cultural, beyond the money economy, living in the global village etc. But we were stigmatized, marginalized, and driven over by the silent majority, led, as always, by the banksters and their corporate owners, who are driving us all over a cliff.

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