Citizen Action Monitor

“Human nature and our methods of governance are proving incapable of saving the world.”

William Rees says we need to ‘get real’ about climate science, and delivers 11 key steps leading to an effective “Green New Deal”

No 2546 Posted by fw, November 13, 2019

William Rees

“Remember the self-congratulatory hubbub following “successful” negotiation of the Paris climate accord in 2015? Was all that ebullient optimism justified? Consider that in the past 50 years, there have been 33 climate conferences and a half dozen such major international agreements — Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris the most recent — but none has produced even a dimple in the curve of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations. And things are not about to change dramatically. The 2019 Energy Information Administration International Energy Outlook reference case projects global energy consumption to increase 45 per cent by 2050. On the plus side, renewables are projected to grow by more than 150 per cent, but, consistent with the trend I rudely pointed out yesterday, the overall increase in demand for energy is expected to be greater than the total contribution from all renewable sources combined. Fact: Without a massive rapid course correction, CO2 emissions will continue to climb. This threatens humanity with ecological and social catastrophe as much of Earth becomes uninhabitable. Question 2: Human nature and our methods of governance are proving incapable of saving the world. We need to ‘get real’ about climate science. Am I wrong?” William Rees, The Tyee

William E. Rees is professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia.

In yesterday’s repost, Rees presented the first of twoAm I wrong?” questions regarding the climate crisis. If you accepted his facts, he said, you will see the massive challenge we face in transforming human assumptions and ways of living on Earth.

In today’s repost, Rees asks Question 2: “Human nature and our methods of governance are proving incapable of saving the world. We need to ‘get real’ about climate science. Am I wrong?

Below is my repost of Rees’ Question 2 article. In the first two-thirds of his piece, Rees explains why the international community seems determined to stay on its growth-driven, fossil-fuelled course. Given this perverse path we are on, the world can expect fifteen dire consequences, including — more and longer heat waves/droughts; failing agriculture; rising sea levels; abandonment of over-heated cities; mass migrations; collapsed economies; and possible geopolitical chaos.

At this point, Rees changes course, asking: “Where does Canada fit into all this?” In response, he immediately dismisses Canada’s delusional plan to meet its Paris emission reduction commitments: “No such plan is likely ever to be implemented. Instead, Ottawa has bought a pipeline.”

Changing direction again, Rees turns his attention to a “needed global emergency plan.” Were this a rational world, with a firm grasp of reality, a long-term wind-down strategy would have begun 20 or 30 years ago, he declares. And it would have included most of the 11 realistic responses to the climate crisis, which he then lists. Even if implemented this late in the game, we might at least slow the coming unravelling. “And no,” he adds, “the currently proposed Green New Deal won’t do it.”

And with that, Rees rolls out his 11-step plan, one of “deliberate contraction.” Anticipating shouts of “That’s not going to happen!” Rees concedes, quipping: “It should by now be clear that H. sapiens is not primarily a rational species.” He adds: “Disastrous climate change and energy shortages are near certainties in this century and global societal collapse a growing possibility that puts billions at risk.”

Below is my repost with my added subheadings, text highlight, some bulleted formatting, and minor editing. Alternatively, read his article on The Tyee’s website by clicking on the following linked title.

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Memo from a Climate Crisis Realist: The Choice before Us by William Rees, The Tyee, November 12, 2019

If we don’t take these 11 key steps, we’re kidding ourselves. Second of two.

A rational world with a good grasp of reality would have begun articulating a long-term energy and consumption wind-down strategy 20 or 30 years ago.

Yesterday I presented the first of two “Am I wrong?” queries regarding the climate crisis. If you accept my facts, I said, you will see the massive challenge we face in transforming human assumptions and ways of living on Earth.

That first query was this: The modern world is deeply addicted to fossil fuels and green energy is no substitute. Am I wrong? Read my fact-based argument here.

Today I ask: Question 2: Human nature and our methods of governance are proving incapable of saving the world. We need to ‘get real’ about climate science. Am I wrong?

In hindsight, the self-congratulatory display following the 2015 Paris climate accord was unwarranted

Remember the self-congratulatory hubbub following “successful” negotiation of the Paris climate accord in 2015? Was all that ebullient optimism justified?

Not one of 33 climate conferences in 50 years has disrupted the rise of CO2 levels in the atmosphere

Consider that in the past 50 years, there have been 33 climate conferences and a half dozen such major international agreements — Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris the most recent — but none has produced even a dimple in the curve of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Moreover, 2019 study projects world total energy consumption to increase by 45% by 2050

And things are not about to change dramatically. The 2019 Energy Information Administration International Energy Outlook reference case projects global energy consumption to increase 45 per cent by 2050. On the plus side, renewables are projected to grow by more than 150 per cent, but, consistent with the trend I rudely pointed out yesterday, the overall increase in demand for energy is expected to be greater than the total contribution from all renewable sources combined.

Fact: Without a massive rapid course correction, CO2 emissions will continue to climb. This threatens humanity with ecological and social catastrophe as much of Earth becomes uninhabitable.

World is on track for a “disastrous” 3°C to “catastrophic” 5°C of warming

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas increases have already boosted global temperature by approximately 1 Celsius degree, mostly since 1980. Climate scientists tell us that the world is currently on track to experience 3 to 5 Celsius degrees warming. Five-degree warming would be catastrophic, likely fatal to civilized existence. Even a “modest” 3 degrees implies disaster — enough to inundate coastlines, empty megacities, destroy economies and destabilize geopolitics.

Even if fully met, the Paris commitments put us on track to exceed a catastrophic 3°C global warming

Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change therefore committed in 2015 to hold the rise in global average temperatures to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.” But don’t relax just yet. Those commitments made in Paris — the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs — comprise only a third of the reductions needed to limit warming to 2 degrees. Even if fully met, they put us on track for a potentially catastrophic 3+ Celsius degrees mean global warming.

And the greenhouse gas levels already baked into the climate system are enough to overshoot the 1.5°C Paris target

Systems dynamics confounds the issue. There is a decades-long lag between GHG cause and warming effect because of ocean thermal inertia — the seas absorb 90 per cent of accumulating heat but warm slowly, keeping atmospheric temperatures down. Even if held constant, present GHG concentrations commit the world to an additional 0.3 to 0.8 degrees Celsius warming this century, enough to overshoot the 1.5 degree limit.

The rise of C02 in the atmosphere has continued unabated for 60 years, regardless of policies by countries and the UN said to address climate change.

In addition, feedback processes risk pushing Earth onto a “hothouse” pathway

There are more reasons to be concerned. Recent analyses suggest that “biogeophysical feedback processes” tied to such processes as permafrost melting, methane hydrate releases and the destruction of tropical and boreal forests may accelerate a cascade of feedbacks pushing the planet irreversibly onto a “Hothouse Earth” pathway.

To keep global temperature increases below 2°C , CO2 emissions would have to be halved below 2010 levels by 2030

To meet the Paris challenge of keeping the mean global temperature increase to less than 2 Celsius degrees means cutting CO2 emissions to almost half of 2010 levels and doing so by 2030. It also means completely decarbonizing the economy by 2050.

This, in turn, implies whole-sale transformations of social and physical communities and dramatic changes in material life-styles.

But our global energy use and carbon emissions are rising exponentially at the same rate they were four decades ago.

However, as laid out in part one, the current pace of shift away from fossil fuels and lower energy consumption is not remotely adequate. In fact, global energy use and carbon emissions are rising exponentially at the same rate they were four decades ago.

The fast-track path to reduced fossil fuel use is not palatable to politicians or the public

Which presents a conundrum: Reducing fossil fuel use on a vastly sped-up schedule, in the absence of adequate substitutes and a comprehensive wind-down plan, would soon produce some combination of inadequate energy supplies, broken supply lines, reduced production, declining incomes, rising inequality, widespread unemployment, food and other resource shortages, at least local famines, civil unrest, abandoned cities, mass migrations, collapsed economies and geopolitical chaos.

What politician is likely to let this scenario unfold? Would the public tolerate it?

As economists have long recognized, humans are spatial, temporal and social discounters — we naturally favour the here and now, and close relatives and friends, over distant places, merely possible futures and total strangers. Under what circumstances would hundreds of millions of people in scores of countries with disparate political philosophies and political ideologies — people who currently enjoy the “good life” — be induced simultaneously to risk wrecking their comfortable lives to stave off a climate or eco-crisis that many are not convinced is happening and, even if it is, it is perceived likely mainly to affect other people somewhere else?

And what of the billions who will join our” energy-addicted consumer party” in the coming decades?

And keep in mind, the world is committed to accommodating several additional billions who have yet to join the energy-addicted consumer party but are pounding on the door to be let in.

It gets worse – neoliberal decision makers have bound us to economic growth and “technological” climate fixes

It gets worse. Neoliberal economics is ecologically blind. Even Nobel laureate economists argue that we must maintain allegiance to growth and the illusion of “rescue-by-technology” so the next generation has the wealth and techno-mechanics to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Consistent with this illusory reasoning, many national and corporate leaders interpret the threat of climate chaos as an investment opportunity.

The hyped promises of Green Job solutions are no solutions at all

Politically acceptable approaches to reducing carbon emissions discussed at climate talks include technical and organizational capacity-building, wind turbines, various solar technologies, “smart city” infrastructure, electric vehicles, urban rapid transit, yet-to-be-developed carbon capture and storage and other “climate-safe technologies” — i.e., anything that would require major investment and create so-called green jobs (read “further economic growth and profit-making potential”).

Consider the strategies that are NOT up for discussion on the decision-makers table —  

Not on the table are

  • ecological tax reform (beyond investment incentives and carbon taxes),
  • structural changes to the economy that would lower consumer demand and reduce energy and material throughput,
  • policies for income/wealth redistribution,
  • major lifestyle changes or
  • strategies to reduce human populations.

Lo and behold, ”policy for climate disaster-avoidance seems designed to serve the capitalist growth economy”

Perversely then, policy for climate disaster-avoidance seems designed to serve the capitalist growth economy and make the latter appear as the solution rather than cause of the problem. “Unfortunately,” as University of Vienna public policy professor Clive Spash points out, “many environmental non-governmental organisations have bought into this illogical reasoning.” (Note that many NGOs are dependent on the corporate sector for financial support.)

The international community seems determined to stay on its growth-driven fossil-fuelled course

And this is why the international community — despite the Paris accord, Greta Thunberg, climate strikes and mass public protests — seems determined to stay its growth-driven fossil-fuelled course.

Given this perverse path we are on, expect the following consequences

In these circumstances, the world can anticipate —

  1. more and longer heat waves/droughts,
  2. desertification,
  3. tropical deforestation,
  4. melting permafrost,
  5. methane releases,
  6. regional water shortages,
  7. failing agriculture,
  8. regional famines,
  9. rising sea levels,
  10. the flooding (and eventual loss) of many coastal communities,
  11. abandonment of over-heated cities,
  12. civil unrest,
  13. mass migrations,
  14. collapsed economies and
  15. possible geopolitical chaos.

Where does Canada fit into all this?

Canada’s delusional plan to meet its Paris emission reduction commitments

Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy [published in 2016] explores six model approaches supposedly being explored by the federal government to meet Canada’s Paris agreement emissions reductions commitments (net emissions falling 80 per cent from 2005 levels by 2050). Energy analyst Dave Hughes estimates that, on average, these schemes would require construction of 37,000 two-megawatt wind turbines, 100 Site-C-sized hydroelectric dams and 59 one-gigawatt nuclear reactors. Average cost all in? More than $1.5 trillion. No such plan is likely ever to be implemented. Instead, Ottawa has bought a pipeline. In fact, both the federal and B.C. governments are firmly on the go-with-carbon team.

[Eleven Steps Towards a Deliberate Contraction]

So, where might we go from here? A rational world with a good grasp of reality would have begun articulating a long-term wind-down strategy 20 or 30 years ago. The needed global emergency plan would certainly have included most of the 11 realistic responses to the climate crisis listed below — which, even if implemented today would at least slow the coming unravelling. And no, the currently proposed Green New Deal won’t do it.

Here, then, is what an effective “Green New Deal” might look like:

  1. Formal recognition of the end of material growth and the need to reduce the human ecological footprint;
  2. Acknowledgement that, as long as we remain in overshoot — exploiting essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate — sustainable production/consumption means less production/consumption;
  3. Recognition of the theoretical and practical difficulties/impossibility of an all-green quantitatively equivalent energy transition;
  4. Assistance to communities, families and individuals to facilitate the adoption of sustainable lifestyles (even North Americans lived happily on half the energy per capita in the 1960s that we use today);
  5. Identification and implementation of strategies (e.g., taxes, fines) to encourage/force individuals and corporations to eliminate unnecessary fossil fuel use and reduce energy waste (half or more of energy “consumed” is wasted through inefficiencies and carelessness);
  6. Programs to retrain the workforce for constructive employment in the new survival economy;
  7. Policies to restructure the global and national economies to remain within the remaining “allowable” carbon budget while developing/improving sustainable energy alternatives;
  8. Processes to allocate the remaining carbon budget (through rationing, quotas, etc.) fairly to essential uses only, such as food production, space/water heating, inter-urban transportation;
  9. Plans to reduce the need for inter-regional transportation and increase regional resilience by re-localizing essential economic activity (de-globalization);
  10. Recognition that equitable sustainability requires fiscal mechanisms for income/wealth redistribution;
  11. A global population strategy to enable a smooth descent to the two to three billion that could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.

A deliberate contraction? Impossible, given H. sapiens’ proven irrationality

“What? A deliberate contraction? That’s not going to happen!” I hear you say. And you are probably correct. It should by now be clear that H. sapiens is not primarily a rational species.

But in being correct you only prove me correct. Disastrous climate change and energy shortages are near certainties in this century and global societal collapse a growing possibility that puts billions at risk.

Now I may be wrong but, if so, please tell me why… Please.

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