It is very late in the game…

Posted December 10th, 2015 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on It is very late in the game…

And, given that, what happens to the nature of our work, its focus, our approach?

Here’s what worries many of us today, even as COP21 is nearing its end:

The ultimate goal is to ensure that warming stays “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to one option in a recent draft agreement text — and many countries want to hold it even lower than that…

However, there’s a problem. In two separate new studies just out in the journals Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change, scientists challenge both the 2 degree Celsius target — which was originally proposed back in the 1990s, and has since become nearly omnipresent in the climate discussion — and also one of the key tools that may be needed to get us there: so-called “negative emissions” technologies, which would remove carbon dioxide directly from the air.

The first study, by Reto Knutti of ETH Zurich and several colleagues, argues that “no scientific assessment has clearly justified or defended the 2° C target as a safe level of warming, and indeed, this is not a problem that science alone can address.” The 2° C target is a value judgment, the authors say, but they also list many very severe impacts of climate change that could be expected at 2° C or even below it.

Source: Scientists just undermined a key idea behind the Paris climate talks, Washington Post, Chris Mooney, Dev. 7

What these studies are showing is that a ceiling of 2C, or even of 1.5C may not be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. And that, my friends, is sobering news. Some people still want so badly to believe there are technofixes out there that can save us, but these do not yet exist, and won’t exist to scale any time soon. And even if they did, they are so unproven that they could make things worse rather than better (like spewing particles into the atmosphere to dim the sun, or seeding the oceans with iron to absorb more CO2). Going this route would amount to human experimenting with the planet itself. We may not like the results.

We’ve been insisting on this point for a long, long time:

We cannot have industrial growth economies, we cannot insist on the cherished lifestyles of the middle to upper middle to wealthy consumers of the world, and keep the climate and the other living systems of the planet friendly for humans and other living creatures.

Most of the culture does not want to hear this, will not accept it, but, as one of our go-to guys on all things energy, Richard Heinberg writes: “the speed and scale of emissions reduction that is actually required probably cannot be achieved while preserving the economic status quo.” [Can We Have Our Climate and Eat It Too, Post Carbon Institute, Dec. 8]

Or, as climate researcher Ken Caldeira states in the WaPo article: “the world simply needs to ‘stop using the sky as a waste dump for our carbon pollution.’ That’s the best way to solve the global warming problem.”

But to have these cherished lifestyles, we have to continue loading up the sky with carbon pollution.

Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

Maybe if we had heeded the studies and warnings in the 60s and 70s we would have had a less jarring reality to deal with. But we didn’t, and that time is gone, and so we have to deal now with what is. This is the reality. This is the world now. So what are we going to do from here on out?

Especially when COP21 falls short, and when most environmental groups still don’t want to face this truth, and when it is still hard to tell people that this wondrous way of life brought to you by fossil fuels over the past couple of centuries must be, as Heinberg puts it, “powered down.”

I hope you read all of Heinberg’s piece. His work is very important. He reminds us that many economists have been working for decades on how to transition to a powered-down, ecological or steady-state economy (see, for example, the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy – CASSE). One of their slogans, enough is enough, ought to become a mantra of an authentic ecological movement.

Now, most of us have no problem severely critiquing the climate change “skeptics” or “deniers.” We excoriate those fossil fuel industry funded think tanks, like the Heartland Institute or Club for Growth, that continue to spew out their fake science and their psychology of doubt in an attempt to feign a debate on climate science that does not exist. Okay, but then we have to avoid a similar mistake on our end – the false reassurance that we can move quickly to a carbon-free economy without disrupting our lives – a lot. We have to avoid arguing that “we can have our carbon and eat it too.” We have to become critical not only of carbon emitters, but of our consumer way of life.

Video from COP 21: Ta’Kaiya Blaney, 14-Year-Old First Nations Activist, Sings Her Song “Turn the World Around”
Ta’Kaiya Blaney is a 14-year-old activist, singer and actress from the Tla’amin First Nation, north of Vancouver, Canada. On Saturday, she sang her song “Turn the World Around” at the International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature in Paris, France. “I was told by a Haida elder that to turn the world around, you have to turn it upside down,” Blaney told Democracy Now! after her performance.

And we have to start showing that another path is possible, that a livable planet is more important than whether or not I can purchase a lifestyle beyond what I need. I do not underestimate the grief involved here, as we surrender some of those highly pleasant expectations for world travel and granite countertops and vacation homes and high-end resort hotels and Disney World and lavish accessories and endless replacements of the latest technology (smart phones, screens, computers, etc) by the even-later technology.

We have to start creating economic models of scale (i.e., small, fiercely local, and resilient), economies in which paid labor that has depended upon these wasteful consumer industries is replaced with labor that begins to heal the damage, pull us back from the brink, and in which a social contract is rewritten to fund human needs to the point of human dignity for everyone as we go through the transition.

What kind of work would this be? A few examples: work to take down dams and restore rivers and streams to health, work to clean toxic land and water especially in our old industrial cities, work to retrofit every structure in this country for energy efficiency, work to build renewable and as much as possible locally sourced energy systems, manufacturing personal technology that lasts years instead of months (I still have a 12-year-old flip phone that works perfectly, great connections, even has a speaker phone), work to re-learn how to repair appliances rather than replace them, or work to create public schools close to nature where the curriculum is ecologically oriented with a teacher-to-student ratio of 15-1. Lots of jobs there. Lots of motivated kids being part of a great project in the human journey.

Marla retreat weekend me and the woods 2015 (sm)

Margaret taking a walk in the woods

I know, I know. Doesn’t look possible, does it, in a world in which our hopes and expectations rest on these comforts and desires. So many studies over decades have pointed to the addictive nature of a consumer society – how when I have the money and buy the thing it feels really, really good, and then I want to do it again – but do we really want this to become a fatal addiction, one that kills everything we love – including the possibility of a walk on a lovely, healthy ocean beach or on a trail through a magnificent forest?

So these are my reflections as COP21 is in its final days and we wait to see what emerges from it. But no matter what comes of it, we have to remember that those aren’t really the people that will change the world. We are. Those government leaders can go only so far as the politics of their nations allow. We have to open the spaces so that our political leaders can go as far as is necessary. And given the political culture in the U.S. right now, that is one mighty challenge.

I know many of us feel the darkness of the days ahead of us here in the U.S. This country is in no shape to lead the world on any of this. But even in that darkness, the new can begin to emerge, little lights here and there penetrating through the cultural fog, the violence in our streets, the racism and intolerance, the rage and fear.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad Advent/Hanukkah message. ‘Tis the season, after all, a reminder that hope is not “out there” somewhere. It resides in the spirit and vision and determination of all of us to create that other world that is possible.

Margaret Swedish
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