Will it be enough….??

19 04 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post from resident climate scientist Mark Cochrane who asks “will it be enough?”

We are now in the build up period to the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21/CMP11) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), otherwise known as “Paris 2015” from November 30th to December 11th. This conference will be critical, as it needs to achieve a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C. It follows on the debacle that was the Copenhagen Summit (COP 15) in 2009 where the whole thing dissolved in disarray when a weak statement, the “Copenhagen Accord” was rammed through by the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa” to no effect. As weak as it was the US did not adopt it, choosing instead to officially “take note of” it, whatever that means. Courtesy of Edward Snowden, the world now knows that the US was spying on all of the other countries delegations and effectively scuttling any chance for meaningful accords arising from the Copenhagen Summit (link). To keep the public out of the debate we were treated to the fabricated spectacle of “Climategate” where hackers grabbed thousands of emails from climate researchers and selectively used bits and pieces out of context to spin the idea of a great conspiracy to mislead the public.

There have now been eight major investigations of the various allegations and published reports, finding no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct (link) including:

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (UK); Independent Climate Change Review (UK); International Science Assessment Panel (UK); Pennsylvania State University first panel and second panel (US); United States Environmental Protection Agency (US); Department of Commerce (US); National Science Foundation (US).

Despite this you will find the same false allegations spun by the same sources.

However, this time around there appears to be some movement toward actually attempting to reach a global accord. The world has been without such an accord since the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, though a shadow of it has limped on until now. Started in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol languished without effect until 2002 due to the intransigence of the United States. However, in 2004, Russia ratified the agreement and the world officially overrode the United States to bring the agreement into effect. At this point, of the 196 countries/parties within the UNFCCC, 192 have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The United States never has, Canada did, but then dropped out in 2012.

At present, the world’s countries are putting forth their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), with developed countries expected to lead and developing countries to follow. You can monitor the growing list of submitted INDCs here. So far they include, in order of submission, Switzerland, The European Union, Norway, Mexico, the US, Gabon, and Russia. There are a hodgepodge of commitments including:

Switzerland commits to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2025, 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and 70-85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. (link)

The EU’s INDC puts forward a legally binding commitment to reduce its overall emissions at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. (link)

The submission, referred to as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), is a formal statement of the U.S. target, announced in China last year, to reduce our emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, and to make best efforts to reduce by 28%. (link)

The intent is for all of these commitments to come in to effect by 2020 as the world’s governments ratify the hoped for agreement. Assuming that all of this goes according to plan, is there any hope that these actions will limit warming of the planet to 2C or less? In a word No. No one has any illusions that they will. From the UNFCCC website:

“In October we will produce a synthesis report aggregating the effect of all the INDCs submitted. The initial INDCs will clearly not add up to the emissions reductions needed to keep the global temperature rise under 2 degrees C, which is one reason why the Paris agreement must factor in a long term emission trajectory based on science”. (link)

However, although the total commitments may be disappointing, I am encouraged that there is momentum to get something done. It is a lot easier to adjust targets over time than to create a global agreement from scratch. Regardless, any effort to actually start reducing emissions levels would buy more time to adapt to and mitigate climate change effects. Is it enough, no, but it could be a step in the right direction. Even if the agreement is made and ratified, each country would then face the challenge of determining how to implement or incentivate the results they they hope to achieve.

My personal hope is that a sea change in global commitments to actually do something with regards to climate change will provide outlets for human creativity to look for better ways of diminishing the problem rather than new ways to accelerate it.

As such, I am keeping my fingers crossed for the Paris 2015 conference producing some sort of global accord. It will undoubtedly come out weaker than hoped, take longer than expected to ratify, and disappoint on all fronts, but it would at least be something other than the vacuum that we have been inhabiting. Maybe the NSA won’t be in everybody’s conference rooms this time around, maybe another false flag disinformation campaign won’t derail the public perception of the messages coming out of the meeting, maybe, just maybe, humanity will fleetingly try to live up to our self-proclaimed name of Homo sapiens sapiens (translation being – wise wise man).



Limits to growth on ‘Mainstream Media’

14 02 2015

KerrynBeach photo ed

Dr Kerryn Higgs

I know not everyone would consider the ABC ‘Mainstream Media’, but all the same, the subject of Limits to growth and that evil Club of Rome crowd appearing there feels like some sort of breakthrough…..  you can listen to the podcast at the above link, or read the transcript below if you prefer……

Australian writer Dr Kerryn Higgs (a Tasmanian no less…) has written a book called Collision Course – Endless Growth On A Finite Planet, in which she examines how society’s commitment to growth has marginalized scientific findings on the limit of growth, calling them bogus predictions of imminent doom.


Robyn Williams: Growth or no growth? You may have heard Dick Smith on Breakfast a couple of weeks ago saying that unlimited growth is impossible and we must do something else. But what? There is, of course, a way of improving what we do more efficiently and stopping waste. Peter Newman from Perth gave an example on Late Night Live late last year: If we used trains instead of trucks for freight, it would halve the costs and save many, many lives. We don’t do it because we always do what we’ve always done. Kerryn Higgs, who’s with the University of Tasmania, has just brought out a book called Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, published by MIT Press and she has recently been appointed a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome.

Kerryn Higgs: I came across The Limits to Growth quite by accident in 1972, just when it was published. It was commissioned by the Club of Rome and written by a team of researchers at MIT, led by Donella and Dennis Meadows. The book changed the way I thought about Nature, people, history, everything. It persuaded me that physics matters, and that the idea of ever-expanding economic growth is a delusion. Up to then, I was a mainstream humanities person, history being my main discipline, and writing my passion. I did grow up in the countryside and loved the natural world, but I had no real intuition of an impending environmental crisis. And here was this little book suggesting that if we carried on with our exponential expansion, our system would collapse at some point in the middle of the 21st century.

Although galloping economic growth already seemed normal to most younger people living in the developed world in 1972, the growth that took off after WW2 was not normal. It is absolutely unprecedented in all of history. Nothing like it has ever occurred before: large and rapidly growing populations, accelerating industrialisation, expanding production of every kind. All new. The Meadows team found that we could avoid collapse if we slowed down the physical expansion of the economy. But this would mean two very difficult changes— slowing human population growth and slowing the entire cycle of physical production from material extraction through to the disposal of waste. The book was persuasive to me and I expected its message to have an impact on human affairs. But as the years rolled by, it seemed there was very little—and then, even less. In fact, I gradually became aware that most people thought “the Club of Rome got it wrong” and scorned the book as an ignorant tract from “doomsters”, an especially common view among economists. I want to point out, though, that recent research from Melbourne University’s Graham Turner, shows that the Meadows team did not get it wrong. Their projections for what would happen if we carried on business as usual tally almost exactly with what has actually occurred in the 40 years since 1972.

But while scientists from Rachel Carson onwards sounded alarm about numerous problems associated with growth, this was not the case in our govern­ments, bureaucracies, and in public debate, where economic growth was gradually being entrenched as the central objective of collective human effort. This really puzzled me.

How come the Club of Rome got such a terrible press?

How did scientists lose credibility? When I was young, science was almost a god. A few decades later, scientists were being flippantly brushed aside.

How did economists displace scientists as the crucial policy advisers and the architects of public debate, setting the criteria for policy decisions?

How did economic growth become accepted as the only solution to virtually all social problems—unemployment, debt and even the environmental damage growth was causing?

And how did ever-increasing income and consumption become the meaning of life, at least for us in the rich world? It was not the meaning of life when I was young.

Answering these questions took me back through human history. A few developments were especially decisive.

Around 1900, the modern corporation emerged. Over just a decade or two, many of the current transnationals came into being in the US (with names like Coca Cola, Alcoa and DuPont). International Harvester amalgamated 85% of US farm machinery into one corporation in just a few years. Adam Smith’s free enterprise economy was being transformed into something very different. A process of perpetual consolidation followed and by now, frighteningly few corporations control the majority of world trade and revenue, giving them colossal power. The new corporations of the early 20th century banded together into industry associations and business councils like the immensely influential US Chamber of Commerce, which was formed out of local chambers from across the country in 1912. These organisations exploited the newly emerging Public Relations industry, launching a barrage of private enterprise propaganda, uninterrupted for more than a century, and still very healthy today. Peabody coal, for example, recently signed up one of the world’s PR giants, Burson-Marsteller, for a PR campaign to convince leaders that coal is the solution to poverty.

Back in 1910 universal suffrage threatened the customary dominance of the business classes, and PR was an excellent solution. If workers were going to vote, they’d need the right advice. No-one expressed it better than Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, who is credited with founding the PR industry. Bernays was candid:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the… masses is an important element in democratic society (he wrote). Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism … constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

PR became an essential tool for business to consolidate its power right through the century, culminating in the 1970s project to “litter the world with free market think tanks”. By 2013, there were nearly 7,000 of these, all over the world; the vast majority were conservative, free market advocates, many on the libertarian fringe, and financed by big business. They cultivate a studied appearance of independence, though one think tank vice-president came clean. “There is no such thing as a disinterested think tanker,” he said. “Somebody always builds the tank, and it’s usually not Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.” Funding think tanks is always about “shaping and reshaping the climate of public opinion”.

Nonetheless, the claim to independence has been so successful that most think tanks have tax-free charity status and their staff constantly feature in the media as if they were independent and peer-reviewed experts.

Another decisive development was the “bigger pie” strategy. Straight after World War 2, governments took on a new role of fostering growth. The emphasis increasingly fell on baking a bigger pie, so the slices could get bigger but the pie would not have to be divided up any more equitably. Growth could function as an alternative to fairness. Thorny problems like world poverty were designated growth problems and leaders in the decolonising world often embraced a growth-oriented version of development, a version that rarely helped their poor majorities. Growth allowed the privileged to maintain and even extend their opulence, while professing to be saving the world from poverty. It’s frequently claimed that growth is lifting millions out of poverty. But, apart from China, this is not really the case. China has indeed decreased the numbers of its extreme poor, though this has been achieved with disastrous environmental decline and increasing inequality.

Meanwhile, progress is patchy elsewhere. After 70 years of economic growth, with the world economy now 8 to 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, there are still 2 and a half billion people living on less than $2 a day, more than a third of the people on earth, and about the same number as in 1981. Growth has not been shared. Underlying the popularity of growth, there’s a great clash of values between mainstream economics and the physical sciences.

Economists see the human economy as the primary system—odd when you consider that the planet’s been here for about 4.6 billion years, and life for something like 3.8 billion.  The human era is less than a whisker on this timescale, but for economists Nature is just the extractive sector of their primary system, the economy. For scientists and ecological economists, the primary system is the planet – and it’s self-evidently finite. The human economy with its immense material extraction and vast waste, exists entirely within the earth system. Self-evident as these boundaries might seem, they remain invisible or contested in mainstream economics and are of little concern to politicians or citizens in most countries. Hardly a news bulletin goes by without stories of growth expected, growth threatened, or growth achieved. Growth is the watchword of both major parties here and around the world and remains the accepted solution to poverty, pollution and debt.

And yet, however necessary growth is to our current economic arrangements, and however desirable from the point of view of our expectations of material well-being and comfort, it’s hardly a practical aim if it’s based on a misperception of reality.

While we assume that a high and increasing level of material consumption is normal and desirable, we ignore the peculiarity of our times and the encroaching threats to us and our planet.

We are well into dangerous territory in three areas:

Firstly, species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than the background rate.

Secondly, the nitrogen cycle is completely disrupted. In nature, nitrogen is largely inert in our atmosphere. Today, mainly through making fertiliser, nitrogen is flooding through our rivers, groundwater and continental shelves, fuelling algal blooms that lead to dead zones and fish kills.

And thirdly we are on the way to a very hot planet. Unless we change rapidly in the extremely near future, we risk an increase of 4 degrees Centigrade by 2100. So far, an increase of less than 1 degree is melting the West Antarctic icesheet, glaciers nearly everywhere and even the massive Greenland icecap.

Meanwhile, the rate of carbon dioxide and methane emissions continues to rise. In fact, right through the decade it took to write my book, I was staggered as these emissions defied all protocols and agreements, and rose faster and faster every year, setting a new record in 2013. Four degrees may be a bridge too far, and yet our culture is cheerfully crossing it.

I started out as a student of human history and ended up studying the intersection between human history and natural history. Humans have had local effects for thousands of years but on a global scale, the collision is new. Humans were a flea on the face of the earth for most of our history and it’s probably true to say this is the very first time one species—ours—has taken over the entire planetary system for its own sole use. In human-focused terms, this may seem perfectly reasonable. In planetary terms, it’s weird and completely impractical.

While our best agricultural land, last remnants of white box woodland and the Great Barrier Reef are put at risk for the extraction of gas and coal, which we should aim to stop burning anyway if we want a liveable world, it seems that only citizen revolt is left to counter it.

Let’s hope we succeed.

The ground of our being is at stake.

Robyn Williams: Kerryn Higgs. She’s with the University of Tasmania and her book, published by MIT Press, is called Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. Kerryn has recently been appointed a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome. Next week I shall introduce the proud Professor who’s just moved into that crumpled brown paper bag designed by Frank Gehry for the University of Technology, Sydney: Roy Green on innovation in Australia and what’s not right.  

Carbon bubble toil and trouble

27 03 2014

There has been of late quite a few articles on the blogosphere about the potential for a Carbon bubble.  A bubble about to burst.  That this will occur is utterly undeniable, but the outcomes featured by different writers are a bit off the mark in my opinion……

First, let me start with Paul Gilding.  I have a lot of time for Paul.  I’ve even published some of his writings here; but his optimism often leaves me flabbergasted…….

In Carbon Crash Solar Dawn, published in Cockatoo Chronicles 

I think it’s time to call it. Renewables and associated storage, transport and digital technologies are so rapidly disrupting whole industries’ business models they are pushing the fossil fuel industry towards inevitable collapse.

Some of you will struggle with that statement. Most people accept the idea that fossil fuels are all powerful – that the industry controls governments and it will take many decades to force them out of our economy. Fortunately, the fossil fuel industry suffers the same delusion.


Paul Gilding

I don’t think the oil industry is under any such delusion.  Unable to make a profit with oil floundering around $100 a barrel, a price the market forces on them to accept, that industry is taking to selling its assets to prop up its bottom line, even borrowing money to pay shareholders’ dividends….

The only idea I struggle with Paul, is that “renewables, electric cars and associated technologies build the momentum needed to make their takeover unstoppable“.

Take here in Australia for instance; the coal fired power lobby has twisted the politicians’ arms (I don’t think much twisting was required either…) to thwart any further growth in the development of renewables.  In Queensland where I still live, the Newman government has indicated that the paltry 8c feed in tariff that the poor beggars who installed PVs on their roofs after the frankly overgenerous 44c feed in tariff was terminated, will become a zero FiT after July 1.  We who are on the overgenerous 44c FiT are ‘safe’ (until TSHTF that is – then all bets are off), because we are on a contract that lasts until 2028….. but everyone else misses out.  Why are they doing this?  It’s all explained very well here on The Conversation, but basically it’s to protect the dinosaur industries’ shareholders.  There’s no way they are borrowing to pay their shareholders like Shell had to do….  Money rules, and f*** you the consumer.

Paul also further writes:

I think it’s important to always start with a reminder of the underlying context. As I argued in my book The Great Disruption, dramatic economic change is not a choice we get to make it, but an inevitable result of physical science. This is because business as usual, with results like ever increasing resource constraint or a global temperature increase of 4 degrees or more, would trigger economic and social collapse. So the only realistic outcomes are such a collapse or an economic transformation that prevents it, with timing the only big unknown. I argued transformation was far more likely and, to my delight, that’s what we see emerging around us today – even faster than I expected.

In parallel, we are also seeing the physical impacts of climate change and resource constraint accelerating. This is triggering physical, economic and geopolitical responses – from melting arctic ice and spiking food prices to the Arab Spring and the war in Syria. (See here for further on that.) The goods news in this growing hard evidence is that the risk of collapse is being acknowledged by more mainstream analysts. Examples include this commentary by investment legend Jeremy Grantham and a recent NASA funded study explained here by Nafeez Ahmed. So the underlying driver – if we don’t change in a good way, we’ll change in a very bad way – is gathering acceptance.

Hang on……..  is he saying the Arab Spring is about people demanding “renewables, electric cars and associated technologies”?  Because collapse is exactly what is happening in Egypt and Syria.  Collapse does not begin in boardrooms, it begins in the streets when people run out of food, water, and petrol….

And where is the debt problem mentioned in this “dramatic economic change“?  How exactly will the “renewables, electric cars and associated technologies” be paid for?  More growth?  Has he never heard the saying “the best way to get out of a hole is by not digging any deeper”?

Over at Nature Climate Change, I found this too……

…major players in the financial markets are becoming increasingly uneasy about the extent of the impact of future climate policies on power companies. A supposition — fostered by the Carbon Tracker Initiative — is that fossil fuels may be nowhere near as profitable in the future as they have been so far. This is not simply because the costs of prospecting and drilling for oil, for example, are increasing, or that the fossil fuel resources that give the oil, coal and natural gas companies their value are about to run out — they are not. The problem is more that a large portion — perhaps as much as 80 per cent — of these reserves will have to be left untouched if society has any chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 °C this century.

So, pray tell, what will we build the new energy system with…?  Let me remind you of just how many resources it takes to build wind turbines… or a solar thermal power plant

Paul ends his article with:

So, as I see it, the game is up for fossil fuels. Their decline is well underway and it won’t be a gentle one. Of course they won’t just be gone in few years but once the market and policy makers understand what’s happening, it will become self-reinforcing and accelerate rapidly. Markets come into their own in situations like this. They rarely initiate change, but once they’re racing down the hill, it’s time to jump on board or get out of the way. It’s an ugly and brutal process for those involved, but it gets the job done quickly.

When that occurs, we may find that those forecasts by myself and others like Tony Seba from Stanford University, that the oil, coal and gas companies will be all but obsolete by 2030, might turn out to be conservative after all. Interesting times indeed.

Yes, it is game over.  But not for the fossil fuel industries alone.  When they go down, everyone goes down.  Even the central bankers, to whom the global debt which has soared more than 40 percent to $100 trillion since the first signs of the financial crisis, will go down….. why do so few people see the big picture…….?  For someone who claims to understand the “inevitable result of physical science” as the driver of economic change, Paul truly puzzles me.