More gnashing of teeth

7 02 2017

The Über-Lie

By Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute

heinbergNevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration…It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

This is an excellent article from Richard Heinberg, the writer who sent me on my current life voyage all those years ago. Hot on the heels of my attempt yesterday of explaining where global politics are heading, Richard (whom I met years ago and even had a meal with…) does a better job than I could ever possibly muster.  Enjoy……


Our new American president is famous for spinning whoppers. Falsehoods, fabrications, distortions, deceptions—they’re all in a day’s work. The result is an increasingly adversarial relationship between the administration and the press, which may in fact be the point of the exercise: as conservative commentators Scott McKay suggests in The American Spectator, “The hacks covering Trump are as lazy as they are partisan, so feeding them . . . manufactured controversies over [the size of] inaugural crowds is a guaranteed way of keeping them occupied while things of real substance are done.”

But are some matters of real substance (such as last week’s ban on entry by residents of seven Muslim-dominated nations) themselves being used to hide even deeper and more significant shifts in power and governance? Steve “I want to bring everything crashing down” Bannon, who has proclaimed himself an enemy of Washington’s political class, is a member of a small cabal (also including Trump, Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner) that appears to be consolidating nearly complete federal governmental power, drafting executive orders, and formulating political strategy—all without paper trail or oversight of any kind. The more outrage and confusion they create, the more effective is their smokescreen for the dismantling of governmental norms and institutions.

There’s no point downplaying the seriousness of what is up. Some commentators are describing it as a coup d’etat in progress; there is definitely the potential for blood in the streets at some point.

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

Consider population. There were one billion of us on Planet Earth in 1800. Now there are 7.5 billion, all needing jobs, housing, food, and clothing. From time immemorial there were natural population checks—disease and famine. Bad things. But during the last century or so we defeated those population checks. Famines became rare and lots of diseases can now be cured. Modern agriculture grows food in astounding quantities. That’s all good (for people anyway—for ecosystems, not so much). But the result is that human population has grown with unprecedented speed.

Some say this is not a problem, because the rate of population growth is slowing: that rate was two percent per year in the 1960s; now it’s one percent. Yet because one percent of 7.5 billion is more than two percent of 3 billion (which was the world population in 1960), the actual number of people we’re now adding annually is the highest ever: over eighty million—the equivalent of Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, and London added together. Much of that population growth is occurring in countries that are already having a hard time taking care of their people. The result? Failed states, political unrest, and rivers of refugees.

Per capita consumption of just about everything also grew during past decades, and political and economic systems came to depend upon economic growth to provide returns on investments, expanding tax revenues, and positive poll numbers for politicians. Nearly all of that consumption growth depended on fossil fuels to provide energy for raw materials extraction, manufacturing, and transport. But fossil fuels are finite and by now we’ve used the best of them. We are not making the transition to alternative energy sources fast enough to avert crisis (if it is even possible for alternative energy sources to maintain current levels of production and transport). At the same time, we have depleted other essential resources, including topsoil, forests, minerals, and fish. As we extract and use resources, we create pollution—including greenhouse gasses, which cause climate change.

Depletion and pollution eventually act as a brake on further economic growth even in the wealthiest nations. Then, as the engine of the economy slows, workers find their incomes leveling off and declining—a phenomenon also related to the globalization of production, which elites have pursued in order to maximize profits.

Declining wages have resulted in the upwelling of anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiments among a large swath of the American populace, and those sentiments have in turn served up Donald Trump. Here we are. It’s perfectly understandable that people are angry and want change. Why not vote for a vain huckster who promises to “Make America Great Again”? However, unless we deal with deeper biophysical problems (population, consumption, depletion, and pollution), as well as the policies that elites have used to forestall the effects of economic contraction for themselves (globalization, financialization, automation, a massive increase in debt, and a resulting spike in economic inequality), America certainly won’t be “great again”; instead, we’ll just proceed through the five stages of collapse helpfully identified by Dmitry Orlov.

Rather than coming to grips with our society’s fundamental biophysical contradictions, we have clung to the convenient lies that markets will always provide, and that there are plenty of resources for as many humans as we can ever possibly want to crowd onto this little planet. And if people are struggling, that must be the fault of [insert preferred boogeyman or group here]. No doubt many people will continue adhering to these lies even as the evidence around us increasingly shows that modern industrial society has already entered a trajectory of decline.

While Trump is a symptom of both the end of economic growth and of the denial of that new reality, events didn’t have to flow in his direction. Liberals could have taken up the issues of declining wages and globalization (as Bernie Sanders did) and even immigration reform. For example, Colin Hines, former head of Greenpeace’s International Economics Unit and author of Localization: A Global Manifesto, has just released a new book, Progressive Protectionism, in which he argues that “We must make the progressive case for controlling our borders, and restricting not just migration but the free movement of goods, services and capital where it threatens environment, wellbeing and social cohesion.”

But instead of well-thought out policies tackling the extremely complex issues of global trade, immigration, and living wages, we have hastily written executive orders that upend the lives of innocents. Two teams (liberal and conservative) are lined up on the national playing field, with positions on all significant issues divvied up between them. As the heat of tempers rises, our options are narrowed to choosing which team to cheer for; there is no time to question our own team’s issues. That’s just one of the downsides of increasing political polarization—which Trump is exacerbating dramatically.

Just as Team Trump covers its actions with a smokescreen of controversial falsehoods, our society hides its biggest lie of all—the lie of guaranteed, unending economic growth—behind a camouflage of political controversies. Even in relatively calm times, the über-lie was watertight: almost no one questioned it. Like all lies, it served to divert attention from an unwanted truth—the truth of our collective vulnerability to depletion, pollution, and the law of diminishing returns. Now that truth is more hidden than ever.

Our new government shows nothing but contempt for environmentalists and it plans to exit Paris climate agreement. Denial reigns! Chaos threatens! So why bother bringing up the obscured reality of limits to growth now, when immediate crises demand instant action? It’s objectively too late to restrain population and consumption growth so as to avert what ecologists of the 1970s called a “hard landing.” Now we’ve fully embarked on the age of consequences, and there are fires to put out. Yes, the times have moved on, but the truth is still the truth, and I would argue that it’s only by understanding the biophysical wellsprings of change that can we successfully adapt, and recognize whatever opportunities come our way as the pace of contraction accelerates to the point that decline can no longer successfully be hidden by the elite’s strategies.

Perhaps Donald Trump succeeded because his promises spoke to what civilizations in decline tend to want to hear. It could be argued that the pluralistic, secular, cosmopolitan, tolerant, constitutional democratic nation state is a political arrangement appropriate for a growing economy buoyed by pervasive optimism. (On a scale much smaller than contemporary America, ancient Greece and Rome during their early expansionary periods provided examples of this kind of political-social arrangement). As societies contract, people turn fearful, angry, and pessimistic—and fear, anger, and pessimism fairly dripped from Trump’s inaugural address. In periods of decline, strongmen tend to arise promising to restore past glories and to defeat domestic and foreign enemies. Repressive kleptocracies are the rule rather than the exception.

If that’s what we see developing around us and we want something different, we will have to propose economic, political, and social forms that are appropriate to the biophysical realities increasingly confronting us—and that embody or promote cultural values that we wish to promote or preserve. Look for good historic examples. Imagine new strategies. What program will speak to people’s actual needs and concerns at this moment in history? Promising a return to an economy and way of life that characterized a past moment is pointless, and it may propel demagogues to power. But there is always a range of possible responses to the reality of the present. What’s needed is a new hard-nosed sort of optimism (based on an honest acknowledgment of previously denied truths) as an alternative to the lies of divisive bullies who take advantage of the elites’ failures in order to promote their own patently greedy interests. What that actually means in concrete terms I hope to propose in more detail in future essays.

Revolution, Part 1: The End of Growth?

2 01 2015

By Nafeez Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

New research suggests that the ongoing global economic crisis is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of industrial civilization’s relationship with nature. The continuation of the crisis, though, does not imply the end of the world – but rather is part of major phase shift to a new form of civilization that could either adapt to post-carbon reality and prosper, or crumble in denial.

We are on the verge of a major tipping point in the way civilization works. Even as so many global crises are accelerating, a range of interconnected systemic revolutions are converging in a way that could facilitate a transformation of the global economy from one that maximizes material accumulation for the few, to one that caters for the needs and well being of all.

That’s the conclusion of a major new book published as part of the ‘Routledge Studies in Ecological Economics’ series, The Great Transition, by Prof Mauro Bonaiuti, an economist at the University of Turin in Italy. Bonaiuti’s book applies the tools of complexity science to diagnose the real dynamic and implications of the global economic crisis that most visibly erupted in 2008.

That crisis, Bonaiuti argues, is not simply a part of the cyclical boom and bust process, but is a symptom of a longer “passage of civilization.” Advanced capitalist societies are in a “phase of declining returns” measured across the period after the Second World War, including GDP growth, energy return on investment (how much energy is put in compared to what we get out), manufacturing productivity, among others.


Fig1 – Bonaiuti’s graph of GDP growth rate in Europe from 1961 to 2011, illustrating a fluctuating but consistent long decline


Fig 2. Bounaiuti points out that Energy Return On Energy Investment(EROIE) is also declining for major fossil fuels
But compared to these declines, in the same period and on a global scale we have faced near exponential increases in energy consumption, public debt, population growth, greenhouse gas emissions, and species extinctions. For Bonaiuti, the declines we are seeing are a consequence of the “the interaction between limitations of a biophysical nature (the exhaustion of resources, global warming, etc.) and the increasing complexity of social structures (bureaucratisation, the reduction in the productivity of innovation and in the educational, health and productive systems, etc.).”


Fig 3. Global population growth and energy consumption plotted in one graph (Source: The Oil Drum)


Fig 4. Global rise in debt to GDP ratio from 2000 to 2013(Source: The Telegraph)

Fig. 5 Correlation between exponential increase in consumption, C02 emissions, species extinctions, and environmental degradation (Source: Skeptical Science)

The economic crisis is therefore not just about debt, or deregulation, or market volatility or whatever. Fundamentally, the crisis is due to the global economy’s ongoing breaching of the limits of the biosphere. Ironically, as Bonauiti points out, after a certain point as material accumulation measured by GDP continues, well-being and happiness have not only stopped growing, they are now also in decline as depression and other psychological ailments are proliferating – a phenomenon that mainstream economists are at a loss to explain.

But it begins to make sense when we re-frame the crisis as not simply an economic one, but as a “bio-economic” one, in which exponential material consumption is increasingly destabilizing the biosphere. This environmental ‘overshoot’ explains “the inability on the part of the capitalist system to continue to produce social well-being and to face the ecological question with any efficaciousness.”

Collapse? Or renewal! (or both…?)

Civilization is thus undergoing a huge, momentous ‘phase shift’ to a new era as the current form of global predatory capitalism crumbles beneath the weight of its own mounting unsustainability. As this process unfolds, it simultaneously opens up a range of scenarios for new forms of society, within which there is an opportunity for “a great transition towards new institutional forms” that could include greater “democratic self-government of communities and their territories.”

Despite the very real disruptions this phase shift entails, many of which have been explored in-depth at Motherboard (the unprecedented spate of global unrest being a major example),the Italian economist is cautiously optimistic about the potential long-term outcomes.

“When the framework changes, as the sciences of complexity teach us, there will be other forms of economic and social organisation more suited to the new situation,” said Bonaiuti. “In particular, in a context of global crisis, or even stagnant growth, cooperation among decentralized, smaller scale economic organisations, will offer greater chances of success. These organizations can lead the system towards conditions of ecological sustainability, more social equity and, by involving citizens and territories, even increase the level of democracy.”

Bonauiti uses the term ‘degrowth’ to describe this new framework – but degrowth does not simply mean no growth, or even negative growth. It actually entails a new science of ‘post-growth economics’ in which the obsession with measuring material accumulation as the prime signifier of economic health is jettisoned, in which it is recognized that endless growth on a finite planet is simply biophysically impossible, literally a violation of one of the most elementary laws of physics: conservation of energy, and relatedly entropy.

If Bonauiti is right, then we should expect to be seeing more and more signs of this changing framework, and with it, the emergence of potential new forms of economic and social organization that work far better than the old industrial paradigm we take for granted. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

In part 2, I will round up five major ‘revolutions’ that are developing now, which are already undermining the old paradigm, and paving the way for viable alternative approaches: the information revolution, the energy revolution, the food revolution, the finance revolution, and the ethical revolution. The big shifts constituted by these revolutions are developing disparately, tentatively, and often incoherently – but despite that, they are evolving inexorably, and in coming years will be increasingly difficult to contain and co-opt.

All of them involve an increasing dispersion of power to people and communities, away from traditional centralized hierarchies of control. As they accelerate and begin to interact, the opportunities for transition will also open up. That’s not to say any of this will happen in a simplistic, easy-peasy manner. Prof Bonauiti identifies four potential scenarios for the future, and one of them involves ‘collapse’, while another leads to ‘resilience’.

The old paradigm, and those who benefit from it the most, will also resist the most, and their resistance and disbelief in the reality of change – and the people’s response to it – will quite literally define the future of our species, and of the planet, in ways that will remain entirely unpredictable.


Nafeez Ahmed is currently setting up the people-powered independent media platform “Insurge Intelligence: Watchdog Journalism for the Global Commons

Prove This Wrong

27 11 2014

My Photo

John Weber

Another guest post by John Weber..  I have already pronounced more than once that building ‘renewables’ involves intensive use of fossil fuels, the emissions from which the machines made to generate this renewable energy can never be removed by the machines.  So while they may reduce the emissions that might have been caused by using fossil energy to generate this electricity, the machines do not remove them.  In fact, it doesn’t matter how many wind turbines are erected, the fossil energy use just keeps growing…..  and if we decided tomorrow to shut down all fossil fuel use (a darn good idea…), then not one more wind turbine would be erected, and not one more solar panel would be built.  It’s really that simple……..


It would be elegant if wind and solar energy capturing devices could actually maintain a modicum of the wonderfully rich lifestyles many of us live.  I believe this is a false dream and that BAU (business as usual) is not sustainable or “green” nor really desirable for the future of the earth or even our species.

Prove This Wrong

Many people believe wind and solar energy capturing devices can replace a substantial percentage if not all of our fossil fuel usage. Below you will find pictures and charts detailing the necessity of the fossil fuel supply system and the massive industrial infrastructure in this “renewable” dream.

Wind, Water, and Solar Power for the World

Nix nuclear. Chuck coal. Rebuff biofuel. All we need is the wind, the water, and the sun

By Mark Delucchi/ SEPTEMBER 2011

“We don’t need nuclear power, coal, or biofuels. We can get 100 percent of our energy from wind, water, and solar (WWS) power. And we can do it today— efficiently, reliably, safely, sustainably, and economically.  We can get to this WWS world by simply building a lot of new systems for the production, transmission, and use of energy. One scenario that Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and I developed, projecting to 2030, includes: 3.8 million wind turbines, 5 megawatts each, supplying 50 percent of the projected total global power demand.”

Mark Z. Jacobson Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University was coauthor of another article. It can be found in Scientific America – “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030”.

They proposed that starting in 2012, 50% of the worlds needs could be supplied by 3,800,000 five megawatt wind capturing devices to be installed by 2030. Here are the numbers:

3,800,000 5 megawatts each supply 50% of the world’s energy needs in 18 years


211,111.11 Machines a year

578.39 Machines a day for 18 years

24.10 Machines each hour each day for 18 years EACH ONE INSTALLED EACH DAY

I am choosing wind energy capturing devices because they have a higher Energy Return on Energy Invested than solar energy capturing devices. I continually use the phrase “capturing devices” for what are usually called solar panels and wind machines because these are devices that capture the sun or wind energy. It is misleading to not realize they require energy and natural resources.

Let me cut right to the results of this study. The base of this 2.5 megawatt turbine in the pictures that follow (half the megawatts in the Jacobson/Delucchi study) used 45 tons of rebar and 630 cubic yards of cement. This computes in barrels of oil and in tons of CO2 for each base:

For the Concrete

478.8 Barrels of oil in 630 yards of concrete.

409.5 Tons of CO2 released for 630 yards of concrete.

For the Rebar

Taking a conservative 3 barrels of oil per ton the rebar would require 135 barrels of oil for the base of the 2.5 MW Turbine.

89 tons of C02 released for 45 tons of steel for the base.

All Together

The concrete and steel together for one base use

613 barrels of oil for each base alone.

Each base release 498 tons of CO2

(A barrel of oil is 42 gallons – or 160L)

Before looking at two of the energy requirements to install these 3,800,000 machines here are some interesting pictures of installing a wind energy capturing device from .

The machine we are looking at is only 2.5 MW turbine not the larger 5 MW proposed by Jacobson and Delucchi.

The turbines, each standing 485 feet tall and weighing 2,000 tons

The project utilizes 2.5 MW turbines on 100 metre towers.


The pictures clearly illustrate that the fossil fuel supply system and a vast industrial infrastructure support the manufacture and installation of these wind energy capturing devices. The tons of rebar and the yards of concrete offer a chance to look at the energy requirements for both. It is also important to point out that all the equipment used to install the turbines also have the fossil fuel supply system and the massive industrial infrastructure supporting them.

In researching this, the information for concrete was more definite than the range of energy required to make rebar.



“Common rebar is made of unfinished tempered steel, making it susceptible to rusting. Normally the concrete cover is able to provide a pH value higher than 12 avoiding the corrosion reaction. Too little concrete cover can compromise this guard through carbonation from the surface, and salt penetration. Too much concrete cover can cause bigger crack widths which also compromises the local guard. As rust takes up greater volume than the steel from which it was formed, it causes severe internal pressure on the surrounding concrete, leading to cracking, spalling, and ultimately, structural failure. This phenomenon is known as oxide jacking. This is a particular problem where the concrete is exposed to salt water, as in bridges where salt is applied to roadways in winter, or in marine applications. Uncoated, corrosion-resistant low carbon/chromium (microcomposite), epoxy-coated, galvanized or stainless steel rebars may be employed in these situations at greater initial expense, but significantly lower expense over the service life of the project. Extra care is taken during the transport, fabrication, handling, installation, and concrete placement process when working with epoxy-coated rebar, because damage will reduce the long-term corrosion resistance of these bars.”

“Under the most ideal circumstances, the energy required to produce solid iron from iron oxide can never be less than 7 million Btu per ton (MMBtu/ton). Since the energy required to melt iron under the most ideal circumstances is about 1 MMBtu/ton, the inherent thermodynamic advantage of making liquid steel from scrap rather than from iron ore is about 6 MMBtu/ton. When process heat losses are included, the advantage falls in the range of 9 to 14 MMBtu/ton. . . . current total energy requirements for the pro- Petroleum provides only a small amount of enduction of finished steel products in different pIants and countries from iron ore range from 25 to 35 MMBtu/net ton.”

The range above supports the 25 to 35 MMBtu/net ton. With various iron making processes, iron has a range of Btus per ton.   Converted to barrels of oil the range is 2.17 to 4.83 barrels of oil per ton of rebar.

Taking a conservative 3 barrels of oil per ton the rebar would require 135 barrels of oil for the base of the 2.5 MW Turbine.

On average, 1.8 tonnes of CO2 are emitted for every tonne of steel produced.

This means 1.98 tons of C02 emitted for every ton of steel produced.



Multiply 1.10231 to convert tonnes to tons

One yard of concrete equals two tons

Two tons equals 1.81437 tonnes

4,426,832.62 Btus in a yard of concrete

5,800,000 Btus per barrel of oil

0.76 barrels of oil in a yard of concrete

32.06 gallons of oil in a yard of concrete

0.65 tons of CO2 per yard of concrete

478.8 Barrels of oil in 630 yards of concrete

20,195.52 Gallons of oil in 630 yards of concrete

409.5 Tons of CO2 per 630 yards of concrete


On-site energy values are based on actual process measurements taken within a facility. These measurements are valuable because the on-site values are the benchmarks that industry uses to compare performance between processes, facilities, and companies. On-site measurements, however, do not account for the complete energy and environmental impact of manufacturing a product. A full accounting of the impact of manufacturing must include the energy used to produce the electricity, the fuels, and the raw materials used on-site. These “secondary” or “tacit” additions are very important from a regional, national, and global energy and environment perspective.

Normal weight concrete weighs about 4000 lb. per cubic yard. Lightweight concrete weighs about 3000 lb. per cubic yard. If a truck is carrying 10 cubic yards, then the weight of the concrete is approximately 40,000 lb.

The tonne (British and SI; SI symbol: t) or metric ton (American) is a non-SI metric unit of mass equal to 1000 kilograms;[ it is thus equivalent to one megagram (Mg). 1000 kilograms is equivalent to approximately 2 204.6 pounds,

It is important to realize we have only looked at the energy for the concrete and rebar for the base of a 2.5 MMwatt turbine. Behind this device and most sun and wind capturing devices are a global system of providing energy and materials. And this support is further supported.   Here is one mining truck among a worldwide fleet of trucks that also must be manufactured. It is like a thread on a knitted sweater that when you pull it thinking you will get a small piece, you end up with a whole ball of yarn.


‘Sleepwalking to Extinction’: Capitalism and the Destruction of Life and Earth

23 11 2013

Reblogged from

“even if we immediately replaced every fossil-fuel-powered electric generating plant on the planet with 100% renewable solar, wind and water power, this would only reduce global GHG emissions by around 17%.”

When, on May 10th, scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory on the big island of Hawaii announced that global CO2 400ppm
emissions had crossed a threshold at 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in millions of years, a sense of dread spread around the world and not only among climate scientists. CO2 emissions have been relentlessly climbing since Charles David Keeling first set up his tracking station near the summit of Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958 to monitor average daily global CO2 levels. At that time, CO2 concentrations registered 315 ppm. CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have been rising ever since and have recently passed a dangerous tipping point: 440ppm.

For all the climate summits, promises of “voluntary restraint,” carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have not just been unceasing, they have been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.” In the early 1960s, CO2 ppm concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1 ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74 ppm compared to last year.

Carbon concentrations have not been this high since the Pliocene period, between 3m and 5m years ago, when global average temperatures were 3˚C or 4˚C hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40m higher and jungles covered northern Canada; Florida, meanwhile, was under water along with other coastal locations we now call New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many others. Crossing this threshold has fuelled fears that we are fast approaching converging “tipping points” — melting of the subarctic tundra or the thawing and releasing of the vast quantities of methane in the Arctic sea bottom — that will accelerate global warming beyond any human capacity to stop it.

“I wish it weren’t true, but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400 ppm level without losing a beat,” said Scripps Institute geochemist Ralph Keeling, son of Charles Keeling.

“At this pace, we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.”

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.

Why are we marching toward disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative — impossible as this may seem right now — is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an eco-socialist civilization.

Although we are fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world we are witnessing a near simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening” — as the Brazilians call it — from Tahir Square to Zucotti Park, from Athens to Istanbul to Beijing and beyond such as the world has never seen. To be sure, like Occupy Wall Street, these movements are still inchoate, are still mainly protesting what’s wrong rather than fighting for an alternative social order. Like Occupy, they have yet to clearly and robustly answer that crucial question: “Don’t like capitalism, what’s your alternative?” Yet they are working on it, and they are for the most part instinctively and radically democratic; in this lies our hope.

Capitalism is, overwhelmingly, the main driver of planetary ecological collapse

From climate change to natural resource overconsumption to pollution, the engine that has powered three centuries of accelerating economic development, revolutionizing technology, science, culture and human life itself is, today, a roaring out-of-control locomotive mowing down continents of forests, sweeping oceans of life, clawing out mountains of minerals, pumping out lakes of fuels, devouring the planet’s last accessible natural resources to turn them into “product,” while destroying fragile global ecologies built up over eons of time. Between 1950 and 2000 the global human population more than doubled from 2.5 to 6 billion. But in these same decades, consumption of major natural resources soared more than sixfold on average, some much more. Natural gas consumption grew nearly twelvefold, bauxite (aluminium ore) fifteenfold. And so on. At current rates, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says that “half the world’s great forests have already been levelled and half the world’s plant and animal species may be gone by the end of this century.”

Corporations aren’t necessarily evil, though plenty are diabolically evil, but they can’t help themselves. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their shareholders. Shell Oil can’t help but loot Nigeria and the Arctic and cook the climate. That’s what shareholders demand. BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and other mining giants can’t resist mining Australia’s abundant coal and exporting it to China and India. Mining accounts for 19% of Australia’s GDP and substantial employment even as coal combustion is the single worst driver of global warming. IKEA can’t help but level the forests of Siberia and Malaysia to feed the Chinese mills building their flimsy disposable furniture (IKEA is the third largest consumer of lumber in the world). Apple can’t help it if the cost of extracting the “rare earths” it needs to make millions of new iThings each year is the destruction of the eastern Congo — violence, rape, slavery, forced induction of child soldiers, along with poisoning local waterways. Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science have no choice but to wipe out bees, butterflies, birds, small farmers and extinguish crop diversity to secure their grip on the world’s food supply while drenching the planet in their Roundups and Atrazines and neonicotinoids.

This is how giant corporations are wiping out life on earth in the course of a routine business day. And the bigger the corporations grow, the worse the problems become.

In Adam Smith’s day, when the first factories and mills produced hat pins and iron tools and rolls of cloth by the thousands, capitalist freedom to make whatever they wanted didn’t much matter because they didn’t have much impact on the global environment. But today, when everything is produced in the millions and billions, then trashed today and reproduced all over again tomorrow, when the planet is looted and polluted to support all this frantic and senseless growth, it matters — a lot.

The world’s climate scientists tell us we’re facing a planetary emergency. They’ve been telling us since the 1990s that if we don’t cut global fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions by 80-90% below 1990 levels by 2050 we will cross critical tipping points and global warming will accelerate beyond any human power to contain it. Yet despite all the ringing alarm bells, no corporation and no government can oppose growth and, instead, every capitalist government in the world is putting pedal to the metal to accelerate growth, to drive us full throttle off the cliff to collapse.

Marxists have never had a better argument against capitalism than this inescapable and apocalyptic “contradiction.” Solutions to the ecological crisis are blindingly obvious but we can’t take the necessary steps to prevent ecological collapse because, so long as we live under capitalism, economic growth has to take priority over ecological concerns.

We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop over-consuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the earth, waters, and atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs.

James Hansen, the world’s preeminent climate scientist, has argued that to save the humans:

“Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty … Yes, [coal, oil, gas] most of the fossil fuels must be left in the ground. That is the explicit message that the science provides. […] Humanity treads today on a slippery slope. As we continue to pump greenhouse gases in the air, we move onto a steeper, even more slippery incline. We seem oblivious to the danger — unaware of how close we may be to a situation in which a catastrophic slip becomes practically unavoidable, a slip where we suddenly lose all control and are pulled into a torrential stream that hurls us over a precipice to our demise.”

But how can we do this under capitalism? After his climate negotiators stonewalled calls for binding limits on CO2 emissions at Copenhagen, Cancun, Cape Town and Doha, President Obama is now trying to salvage his environmental “legacy” by ordering his EPA to impose “tough” new emissions limits on existing power plants, especially coal-fired plants. But this won’t salvage his legacy or, more importantly, his daughters’ futures because how much difference would it make, really, if every coal-fired power plant in the U.S. shut down tomorrow when U.S. coal producers are free to export their coal to China, which they are doing, and when China is building another coal-fired power plan every week? The atmosphere doesn’t care where the coal is burned. It only cares how much is burned.

Yet how could Obama tell American mining companies to stop mining coal? This would be tantamount to socialism. But if we do not stop mining and burning coal, capitalist freedom and private property is the least we’ll have to worry about. Same with Obama’s “tough” new fuel economy standards. In August 2012 Obama boasted that his new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards would “double fuel efficiency” over the next 13 years to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, up from 28.6 mpg at present — cutting vehicle CO2 emissions in half, so helping enormously to “save the planet.” But as the Center for Biological Diversity and other critics have noted, Obama was lying, as usual.

Four tonne Ford Excursion

First, his so-called “tough” new CAFE standards were so full of loopholes, negotiated with Detroit, that they actually encourage more gas-guzzling, not less. That’s because the standards are based on a sliding scale according to “vehicle footprints” — the bigger the car, the less mileage it has to get to meet its “standard.” So in fact Obama’s “tough” standards are (surprise) custom designed to promote what Detroit does best — produce giant Sequoias, mountainous Denalis, Sierras, Yukons, Tundras and Ticonderogas, Ram Chargers and Ford F series luxury trucks, grossly obese Cadillac Escalades, soccer-kid Suburbans, even 8,000 (!) pound Ford Excursions — and let these gross gas hogs meet the “fleet standard.” These cars and “light” trucks are among the biggest selling vehicles in America today (GM’s Sierra is #1) and they get worse gas mileage than American cars and trucks half a century ago. Cadillac’s current Escalade gets worse mileage than its chrome bedecked tail fin-festooned land yachts of the mid-1950s! Little wonder Detroit applauded Obama’s new CAFE standards instead of damning them as usual. Secondly, what would it matter even if Obama’s new CAFE standards actually did double fleet mileage — when American and global vehicle fleets are growing exponentially?

populationCO2In 1950 Americans had one car for every three people. Today we have 1.2 cars for every American. In 1950 when there were about 2.6 billion humans on the planet, there were 53 million cars on the world’s roads — about one for every 50 persons. Today, there are 7 billion people but more than 1 billion cars and industry forecasters expect there will be 2 to 2.5 billion cars on the world’s roads by mid-century. China alone is expected to have a billion. So, at the end of the day, incremental half measures like CAFE standards can’t stop rising GHG missions. Barring some technical miracle, the only way to cut vehicle emissions is to just stop making them — drastically suppress vehicle production, especially of the worst gas hogs.

In theory, Obama could simply order GM to stop building its humongous gas guzzlers and switch to producing small economy cars. After all, the federal government owns the company! But of course, how could he do any such thing? Detroit lives by the mantra “big car big profit, small car small profit.” Since Detroit has never been able to compete against the Japanese and Germans in the small car market, which is already glutted and nearly profitless everywhere, such an order would only doom GM to failure, if not bankruptcy (again) and throw masses of workers onto the unemployment lines. So given capitalism, Obama is, in fact, powerless. He’s locked in to promoting the endless growth of vehicle production, even of the worst polluters — and lying about it all to the public to try to patch up his pathetic “legacy.” And yet, if we don’t suppress vehicle production, how can we stop rising CO2 emissions?

In the wake of the failure of climate negotiators from Kyoto to Doha to agree on binding limits on GHG emissions, exasperated British climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre, Britain’s leading climate change research center, wrote in September 2012 that we need an entirely new paradigm:

Government policies must “radically change” if “dangerous” climate change is to be avoided “We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions… [The] misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2˚C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives. A carbon tax here, a little emissions trading there and the odd voluntary agreement thrown in for good measure will not be sufficient … long-term end-point targets (for example, 80% by 2050) have no scientific basis. What governs future global temperatures and other adverse climate impacts are the emissions from yesterday, today and those released in the next few years.”

And not just scientists. In its latest world energy forecast released on November 12, 2012, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that despite the bonanza of fossil fuels now made possible by fracking, horizontal and deepwater drilling, we can’t consume them if we want to save the humans: “The climate goal of limiting global warming to 2˚C is becoming more difficult and costly with each year that passes… no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2˚C goal…” Of course the science could be wrong about this. But so far climate scientists have consistently underestimated the speed and ferocity of global warming, and even prominent climate change deniers have folded their cards.

Still, it’s one thing for James Hansen or Bill McKibben to say we need to “leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, the gas under the grass,” to call for “severe curbs” in GHG emissions — in the abstract. But think about what this means in our capitalist economy. Most of us, even passionate environmental activists, don’t really want to face up to the economic implications of the science we defend.

That’s why, if you listen to environmentalists like Bill McKibben for example, you will get the impression that global warming is mainly driven by fossil fuel powered electric power plants, so if we just “switch to renewables” this will solve the main problem and we can carry on with life more or less as we do now. Indeed, “green capitalism” enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman and the union-backed “green jobs” lobby look to renewable energy, electric cars and such as “the next great engine of industrial growth” — the perfect win-win solution. This is a not a solution. This is a delusion: greenhouse gasses are produced across the economy not just by power plants. Globally, fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation accounts for 17% of GHG emissions, heating accounts for 5%, miscellaneous “other” fuel combustion 8.6%, industry 14.7%, industrial processes another 4.3%, transportation 14.3%, agriculture 13.6%, land use changes (mainly deforestation) 12.2%. This means, for a start, that even if we immediately replaced every fossil-fuel-powered electric generating plant on the planet with 100% renewable solar, wind and water power, this would only reduce global GHG emissions by around 17%.

What this means is that, far from launching a new green-energy-powered “industrial growth” boom, barring some tech-fix miracle, the only way to impose “immediate and severe curbs” on fossil fuel production/consumption would be to impose an EMERGENCY CONTRACTION in the industrialized countries: drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet — not just fossil fuel producers but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions — autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations.

Of course, no one wants to hear this because, given capitalism, this would unavoidably mean mass bankruptcies, global economic collapse, depression and mass unemployment around the world. That’s why in April 2013, in laying the political groundwork for his approval of the XL pipeline in some form, President Obama said “the politics of this are tough.” The earth’s temperature probably isn’t the “number one concern” for workers who haven’t seen a raise in a decade; have an underwater mortgage; are spending $40 to fill their gas tank, can’t afford a hybrid car; and face other challenges.” Obama wants to save the planet but given capitalism his “number one concern” has to be growing the economy, growing jobs. Given capitalism — today, tomorrow, next year and every year — economic growth will always be the overriding priority … till we barrel right off the cliff to collapse.

The necessity of denial and delusion

There’s no technical solution to this problem and no market solution either. In a very few cases — electricity generation is the main one — a broad shift to renewables could indeed sharply reduce fossil fuel emissions in that sector. But if we just use “clean” “green” energy to power more growth, consume ever more natural resources, then we solve nothing and would still be headed to collapse. Producing millions of electric cars instead of millions of gasoline-powered cars, as I explained elsewhere, would be just as ecologically destructive and polluting, if in somewhat different ways, even if they were all run on solar power.

Substituting biofuels for fossil fuels in transportation just creates different but no less environmentally-destructive problems: converting farm land to raise biofuel feedstock pits food production against fuels. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas or grasslands to produce biofuels releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than the fossil fuels they replace and accelerates species extinction. More industrial farming means more demand for water, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And so on. Cap and trade schemes can’t cut fossil fuel emissions because business understands, even if some environmentalists do not, that “dematerialization” is a fantasy, that there’s no win-win tech solution, that capping emissions means cutting growth. Since cutting growth is unacceptable to business, labor and governments, cap and trade has been abandoned everywhere.

Carbon taxes can’t stop global warming either because they do not cap emissions. That’s why fossil fuel execs like Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (the largest private oil company in the world) and Paul Anderson, CEO of Duke Energy (the largest electric utility in the U.S.) support carbon taxes. They understand that carbon taxes would add something to the cost of doing business, like other taxes, but they pose no limit, no “cap” on growth. ExxonMobil predicts that, carbon tax or no carbon tax, by 2040 global demand for energy is going to grow by 35%, 65% in the developing world and nearly all of this is going to be supplied by fossil fuels. ExxonMobil is not looking to “leave the oil in the soil” as a favor to Bill McKibben and the humans. ExxonMobil is looking to pump it and burn it all as fast as possible to enrich its shareholders.

Hansen, McKibben, Obama — and most of us really — don’t want to face up to the economic implications of the need to put the brakes on growth and fossil fuel-based overconsumption. We all “need” to live in denial, and believe in delusions that carbon taxes or some tech fix will save us because we all know that capitalism has to grow or we’ll all be out of work. And the thought of replacing capitalism seems so impossible, especially given the powers arrayed against change. But what’s the alternative? In the not-so-distant future, this is all going to come to a screeching halt one way or another — either we seize hold of this out-of-control locomotive, or we ride this train right off the cliff to collapse.

Emergency Contraction or Global Ecological Collapse?

If there’s no market mechanism to stop plundering the planet then, again, what alternative is there but to impose an emergency contraction on resource consumption?

This doesn’t mean we would have to de-industrialize and go back to riding horses and living in log cabins. But it does mean that we would have to abandon the “consumer economy” — shut down all kinds of unnecessary, wasteful and polluting industries from junkfood to cruise ships, disposable Pampers to disposable H&M clothes, disposable IKEA furniture, endless new model cars, phones, electronic games, the lot. Plus all the banking, advertising, junk mail, most retail, etc. We would have completely redesign production to replace “fast junk food” with healthy, nutritious, fresh “slow food,” replace “fast fashion” with “slow fashion,” bring back mending, alterations and local tailors and shoe repairmen. We would have to completely redesign production of appliances, electronics, housewares, furniture and so on to be as durable and long-lived as possible. Bring back appliance repairmen and such. We would have to abolish the throwaway disposables industries, the packaging and plastic bag industrial complex, bring back refillable bottles and the like. We would have to design and build housing to last for centuries, to be as energy efficient as possible, to be reconfigurable, and shareable. We would have to vastly expand public transportation to curb vehicle use but also build those we do need to last and be shareable like Zipcar or Paris’ municipally-owned “Autolib” shared electric cars.

These are the sorts of things we would have to do if we really want to stop overconsumption and save the world. All these changes are simple, self-evident, no great technical challenge. They just require a completely different kind of economy, an economy geared to producing what we need while conserving resources for future generations of humans and for other species with which we share this planet.

The spectre of eco-democratic revolution

Economic systems come and go. Capitalism has had a 300 year run. The question is: will humanity stand by and let the world be destroyed to save the profit system?

That outcome depends to a great extent on whether we on the left can answer that question “what’s your alternative?” with a compelling and plausible vision of an eco-socialist civilization. We have our work cut out for us. But what gives the growing global eco-socialist movement an edge in this ideological struggle is that capitalism has no solution to the ecological crisis, no way to put the brakes on collapse, because its only answer to every problem is more of the same growth that’s killing us.

“History” was supposed to have “ended” with the fall of communism and the triumph of capitalism two decades ago. Yet today, history is very much alive and it is, ironically, capitalism itself which is being challenged more broadly than ever and found wanting for solutions.

Today, we are very much living in one of those pivotal world-changing moments in history. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that this is the most critical moment in human history.

We may be fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, but the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world, struggles against the destruction of nature, against dams, against pollution, against overdevelopment, against the siting of chemical plants and power plants, against predatory resource extraction, against the imposition of GMOs, against privatization of remaining common lands, water and public services, against capitalist unemployment and precarité are growing and building momentum.

Today we are riding a swelling wave of near simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening,” an almost global mass uprising. This global insurrection is still in its infancy, still unsure of its future, but its radical democratic instincts are, I believe, humanity’s last best hope.

Let’s make history!

This article is an excerpt from Smith’s essay, “Capitalism and the destruction of life on Earth,” published in the Real-World Economics Review.

How anti-coal campaigners are protecting Australia’s economy

10 05 2013

This is a guest post from Paul Gilding who kindly gave me permission to republish his excellent article……

Paul Gilding

Paul Gilding

Irony doesn’t get any better than this. Environmentalists and farmers fighting the expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas across Australia are protecting the economy. If they are successful in slowing down or reversing these sectors in Australia, future governments will be spared an economic mess, Australian workers will have much improved employment prospects and our big banks will be spared major losses.

That’s because, while not their intention, such campaigns are the only thing likely to moderate the rude economic awakening we face when the global carbon bubble bursts and the fossil fuel industries start their inevitable and terminal decline.  While the world economy will be impacted Australia is particularly exposed and with the active support of our governments and financial institutions, coal and gas companies are doing their best to increase this exposure.

Fortunately for Australia’s economics prospects, these campaigns are amongst the most strategic and effective ones we’ve seen from the NGO community for many years.  Unlike traditional environmental campaigns that tend to raise an issue and demand government intervene, these campaigns are displaying a more sophisticated approach, taking on the industry with a clear view of how markets work. They recognise that government will not be an ally in this case, with both major parties showing overwhelming support for the expansion of Australia’s fossil fuel dependency.  So they are instead going direct to the market, targeting each development with legal and other delay tactics, attacking the reputation of lenders and suggesting investors think again about financial risk.

The campaign in Australia will be given a major boost in coming months when one of the United States most effective climate campaigners, Bill McKibben visit’s Australia. McKibben’s has been credited with revitalising the grass roots climate efforts in the US with his divestment campaign arguing that fossil fuel investments are immoral as well a poor investment choice.

Pensions funds in Australia, the major owners of fossil fuel assets, are not likely to respond to the moral argument but they will take notice of delays and risks to new projects. And they’re not likely to miss the growing mainstream market interest in the carbon bubble, with the argument starting to land as a material risk.  Investors don’t pay much attention to anti-coal campaigners in developing their investment strategy, but they start to listen when analysts like Citi Group and HSBC raise concerns. HSBC argued recently that some of the world’s oil and as majors could lose 40 – 60% of their market cap if the carbon bubble scenario plays out.

I have been arguing that there’s a global financial risk in the carbon bubble for many years, as have many others such as the folks at Carbon Tracker in the UK. A few years ago, these concerns were dismissed as very long term in impact. But with economists like Sir Nicholas Stern and investors like Jeremy Grantham at GMO now coming on board, seeing this as a systemic financial risk, the game is changing.

Why the shift?

Previously these concerns were analysed with the assumption that a global agreement on climate change would be the key driver of market shift on climate. The conclusion was therefore that no government action = no carbon investment risk. But in the last few years the dramatic price drops in solar and the severe disruption to the coal fired utility business model created by the boom in rooftop solar, have put carbon risk into a very different context.  The markets now have a very real and live example of how shifts can occur unexpectedly in carbon exposed sectors, with great destruction of value for companies that aren’t prepared. They are also seeing the opportunities in the upside, with companies in the rooftop solar installation space going to very successful IPOs. Investment shifting from coal to solar is no longer a theory but a live trend that will accelerate.

So if this is all so clear, why are Australia’s governments and major banks acting with such disregard for the economic risks involved in increasing Australia’s exposure to the carbon bubble? It’s the same reason bubble’s tend to burst rather than deflate, and is well argued by the legendary investor Jeremy Grantham, whose status comes from not just having $100 billion under management, but also his success in forecasting so many of the major investment bubbles of the past four decades. He says it simply “aversion to bad news”. He continues: “The investment business has taught me – increasingly as the years have passed – that people, especially investors, prefer good news and wishful thinking to bad news; and that there are always vested interests to offer facile, optimistic alternatives to the bad news.”

Politicians and investors who are benefiting from the carbon bubble are not going to be the ones who help it come to calm end.  They simply don’t want to see it, for the reasons Grantham explains. This will not change and so we shouldn’t expect it to. That’s why bubbles burst and it’s why this one will.

This brings me back to the importance of the environmental campaigners protecting Australia’s economy. While I believe it is inevitable the bubble will burst, the smaller it is when it does so, the better off the economy will be. The less stranded infrastructure we have built, the fewer mines that have to close and the less miners lose their jobs, the less risky the broader economic impact.

So while I wouldn’t normally recommend taking financial recommendations from an environmental NGO, I think the CEO of The Climate Institute John Connor provides some pretty sound advice to investors: “Investments in Australian coal rest on a speculative bubble of climate denial, indifference or dreaming.”It’s time for investors, particularly our pension funds, to wake up. Maybe the best way they can secure our retirement savings is take some money out of coal investments and send it to climate campaigners!

Originally published here

Have we fired the Clathrate Gun?

29 12 2012

I haven’t finished it yet, but my daughter gave me a great book this Christmas, and I’m really enjoying it;  it’s called “Bullspotting”, by Loren Collins.  The internet can be a frustrating double edged sword.  Full of amazing information, and also full of utter bullshit……  telling them apart is sometimes easy, but also often a challenge.  The one issue that feeds such a dichotomy is Climate Change.  If Climate Change wasn’t so important, it wouldn’t matter, but forget the fiscal cliff and Peak Oil, they can be dealt with and they will be survived; whereas if the climate goes AWOL, you can kiss humanity goodbye.  One such dilemma I recently came across was when another blogger told me atmospheric methane concentration had stopped rising.  So I did my duty and investigated, and sure enough, Google turned up a whole heap of graphs that demonstrated this.  Trouble is, all those charts ended five years ago…… and five years can be a long time in Climate Science.

Yesterday, I posted an article here which I lifted from Xraymike’s blog, and have since “pulled” in the interest of fraternity in the blogosphere.  I know XRM from the good old days of the Chris Martenson website before it became Peak Prosperity, a place now full of people worrying about their gold and their guns.  I urge you all to read it if you missed it here.  Mike did a great job parsing through the information to turn it into a lucid argument.

I would prefer to not believe its contents mind you.  Raising the globe’s temperature by 6°C within fifty years is a truly gruesome thought, and the jury’s still out, because Mark Cochrane, a climate scientist who started the only thread worth reading on Peak Prosperity these days recently wrote this when asked about such a prospect:

“Getting 6 C by 2050 seems farfetched unless we intentionally trigger the so-called clathrate gun. Even then, I am not sure that it is likely to happen that quickly simply due to the thermal inertia of the oceans and glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Roughly 90-95% of the incipient energy imbalance goes into warming or melting water. We’ve warmed by around 0.7C in the last 30 years or so. Getting an extra >5C in the next 40 years would require truly massive changes in greenhouse gases and Earth’s albedo. This certainly wouldn’t mean that all is well if we don’t manage this incredible feat of climate suicide in 40 odd years. We may get there yet around 2100.

Such rapid warming would lead to greatly accelerated mass loss from the icesheets in Greenland, Western Antarctica and increases from East Antarctica. Melting those giant ice blocks would be a giant heat sink that would attenuate the rise in temperature but it would do so at the cost of flooding the worlds oceans very quickly. In other words, although we might not warm so fast the cost would be rapid sea level rise of several meters this century, flooding coastlines and yielding terrible storms. As things stand, most estimates are for 1-5 meters, which will make many, many cities untenable.

Some recent food for thought on that score came out in the last week in Nature Geoscience showing much of the western Antarctic icesheet is warming twice as fast as predicted (see BBC article here, and Bromwich et al 2012 abstract here))”

“The map is just correlation coefficients but the warming has been 2.4C between 1958 and 2010. While Greenland gets much of the press, the Western Antarctic ice sheet may be more unstable because most of it is currently grounded below the waterline. Basically the ice is frozen to the ground or still too heavy to lift but once the water level gets higher, then much of the sheet could rapidly float (just like an ice cube in your glass) and collapse with an ultimate 5 m sea level implication. The big brother in East Antarctica only has 30% below water line but that is another 20-25 m of sea level. Ultimately, if we somehow manage to stay on the ‘business as usual’ emissions path then over the next few centuries we will have changed coastlines world wide with 10s of meters of sea level rise (See Hansen new pdf).

Lest you think he is just a harbinger of doom touting positive feedbacks, Hansen and Sato (2012) see exponential increases in the rate of ice melting/sea level rise with a 5-10 year doubling time, they ultimately believe that once we reach about 1 m of sea level increase that strong negative feedbacks from all of the melting icebergs will dampen the temperature rise and hence slow the exponential rate of increased melting. I can’t grab the figure from the pdf, but if you go to the Hansen and Sato pdf linked above and scroll down to Figure 9 you will see the future simulations with (left) and without (right) ice melt. As you can see the melting would lead to a much cooler North Atlantic and a moderate cooler Southern Ocean with an overall global amelioration of land temperature increases. If you think the ice will somehow hold off from melting, plan for a heck of a lot warmer near future.

Overall, if we manage to keep finding more and more fossil fuels to burn or accidentally release (melting permafrost etc) then we will have an atmosphere akin to what existed 32 million years ago before Antarctica froze up. It would take a while, hundreds to thousands of years, but we’d be putting an end to ice ages for the foreseeable future.”

Much of what Mark talks about is covered in XRM’s blog entry, which is why I copied it here to begin with.

So the key question now is, “have we triggered the so-called clathrate gun” ?

Someone who definitely thinks we have is Guy McPherson.  He recently pointed me to those hemp wearing hippies in the IEA, the energy agency for developed countries who said earlier this year that “without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.”  So there you have it…. even the Devil says so….!

Our only saviour might well be a physical phenomenon called “phase change”.  Get a saucepan full of cold water, and put it your stove with a thermometer in the water.  The heat from the stove will raise the water temperature to 100°C, but will then stop rising even though the stove is still on.  So where is all the heat going?  it’s actually being “used up” turning water into steam.  Phase Change.  Exactly the same thing that happens when you melt ice, another phase change.

I’m told it takes some 80 times more energy to melt ice than it does to raise it the last degree just before it melts.  And that is where all the heat we have now trapped beneath our blanket of CO2 and now growing levels of CH4 has been going; instead of raising air temperatures, it’s melting ice.  And all the deniers on the net will tell you it hasn’t warmed in 16 years…..  so the ice melted by magic.

Obviously, Hansen and Sato quoted above know about phase change, it’s physics 101.  Therefore there can only be one reason for a fast tracked 6°C temperature rise: we are trapping way more energy than we used to, and the methane timebomb has started ticking.  We have reached a tipping point, simultaneously, the ice is melting and the temperature is going up too.  The deniers must be silenced.  They are one hell of a dangerous group of people who think gambling with our kids’ future is OK.

As an aside, while the post I pulled last night was still up, Don, a frequent visitor here left this comment:

Hi Mike,
I came across a good article today that among other things gave some very good hints for how to achieve using less. Its a long read but has lots of excellent info, particularly with regard to political collapse and disintegration. The location is: