Climate change do the math

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Portrait of Bill McKibben, author and activist. photo ©Nancie Battaglia

Portrait of Bill McKibben, author and activist. photo ©Nancie Battaglia

No species survives unless it is good at adapting to its environment. And environments can change very fast.

Climate change has been humanity’s wake up call. Energy is at the heart of everything we do. For centuries we have used the energy of the sun in one form or another. It was only when oil was discovered, a form of stored sunlight energy compacted for millions of years, economic growth really took off.

How dense is oil? Richard Heinberg explains that to push your car for 30 miles would take 6-8 weeks of hard labour, but you can put a gallon of petrol in your car and get there quickly for a few dollars .

We use fossil fuel energy not just to power our cars and tractors, but power our assembly lines, make our cement, plastic, pharmaceuticals and paints. As the low hanging fruit becomes exhausted, the cost of digging out fossil fuels rises and the unconventional oil, gas and coal is of not such high quality. Despite massive financial challenges, oil companies continue to forecast increases in extraction.

When climate scientist Bill McKibben first wrote in 1989 on the coming climate challenge, he didn’t foresee the pace of change. He continues to be astonished at the rapidity of loss of Arctic ice, increasingly devastation cyclones and other extreme weather events. In a talk to the Oberlin College and Conservatory conference in Ohio, After Fossil Fuels: the Next Economy, he said we now have a very limited timeframe.

Founder of the Carbon Tracker, Mark Campanale, reminded listeners that economist Nicholas Stern had estimated that to get to two degrees of warming the world needed to spend $90 trillion in infrastructure for a low carbon economy. Campanale had calculated that there is only a 50% chance of getting there in the time estimated by major governments signing the Paris Agreement using their scenarios. There is so much unburnable carbon in the reserves of oil, gas and coal companies, that even if there was no further digging or mining activity than there is now, we would still overshoot the 2 degrees.

To put this $90 trillion in investment needed in perspective, the world GDP is $70 trillion and the total value of the stock of all the companies in the world is only $60 trillion. Campanale, a sustainable investment analyst, noted that some investors are saying it will all blow over and it is cyclical. So they keep their shares in fossil fuel companies until this happens. All the oil companies and OPEC forecast continual growth of fossil fuel extraction.

Two weeks before this particular conference Bill McKibben had posted an article Recalculating the Climate Math, in which he wrote that scientists now think that 2 degrees is too much warming. Moreover burning the fossil fuels in the currently operating plants worldwide would actually bring us above 2 degrees. So the amount we can burn has to be reduced from 943 to 800 gigatons of CO2. And if we are going to get to 1.5 degrees, a goal set in Paris, we will need to close all the coal mines and some of the gas fields we're currency operating long before they are exhausted. He finishes by saying ‘And if we don’t get it right, then all of us—along with our 10,000-year-old experiment in human civilization—will fail.’

The conference also had wonderful contributions from those involved with the divestment movement.

I have watched a considerable amount of this conference on youtube. While it is great as far as it goes, it would be even greater if this movement was linked to the very exciting currency design movement and the movement to reform the tax system so that taxes come from largely from ground rents. Imagine if they knew that dual currencies can lead to innovation and prosperity if the domestic currency  is designed to decay naturally. Yes imagine them knowing that the design of the currency actually affects whether you think long term or short term. Imagine them realising that it is critical to neutralise those who oppose carbon taxes because they fear job losses and there is finally a way of getting a basic income through rent sharing and this gives them safety from redundancy. Imagine if they asked and really understood what caused the economic growth imperative and how to fix this. Imagine if they realised the political impossibility of centralised solutions to  many issues. But insofar as it goes, it has contributed heaps. And it is very exciting that the critical topic is being discussed – how to design the next economy. This is what the New Economics Movement has been doing now for a considerable time.

Deirdre Kent
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Review of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs Climate

Book Review by Peter Healy, Marist Priest of Otaki

This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein, 2014, $37

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This is a comprehensive and timely book. Klein says in part one, “If there has ever been a moment to advance a plan to heal the planet that also heals our broken economies and our shattered communities, this is it.” In the introduction she says “this is the hardest book I have ever written because climate change puts us on such a tight and unforgiving deadline.”

This book is about our “climate moment” with all its challenges and opportunities. First, Klein says we have to stop looking away. We deny because we fear letting in the full reality of a crisis that changes everything. The need to change everything is not something we readily accept. If we are to curb emissions in the next decade we need a massive mobilisation larger than any in history. She quotes the Bolivian Navarro Llamos who suggests it is time for a “Marshall Plan for Earth”.

The question is posed: What is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that’s threatening to burn down our collective house? The global economy always takes centre stage. Market fundamentalism has systematically sabotaged our collective responses. Our economic system and our planetary systems are at war. We are faced with a stark choice: “either we allow climate change to disrupt everything about our world or we change pretty much everything about our world to avoid that fate”. We need a radical rethink for these changes to be remotely possible.

Our “climate moment” is accompanied by what she calls a “fossil fuel frenzy”. A wild dig is going on in most nations on the planet. Aotearoa/NZ being no exception. With the “fossil fuel frenzy” Klein says, “We have become a society of grave robbers, we need to become a society of life amplifiers, deriving our energy directly from elements that sustain life. It’s time to let the dead rest.” Our most important task now is to keep carbon in the ground.

To do all this we need to be thinking differently. A new worldview is required, “a project of mutual reinvention” has to be entered into. The door to 2 degrees of warming will close in 2017. We are in the midst of a civilisational wake-up call. This call is coming to us in the language of fires, floods, droughts and extinctions. We are being called to evolve, and the thing about a crisis this big is that it changes everything.

Wealthy nations need to start cutting emissions by 8-10 percent per year. They have to begin this now. We need to consume less and get back to 1970’s levels. Low consumptions activities like gardening and home cooking are good. Changing everything means changing how we think about our economy. Large corporations dodge regulations, and they refuse to change behaviours. No company in the world wants to put itself out of business, their goal is to always expand their market share. Klein talks about addiction rather than innovation when it comes to new methods of extraction. We need to keep all the fossil fuel we can in the ground, at the same time more extreme and innovative methods are being invented to get at whats left. The madness of “extractivism” is a relationship of taking with little care being given to regeneration and the future of life. As Klein says the market economy and the fossil fuel economy emerged at about the same time. “Coal is the blank ink in which the story of modern capitalism is written.”

There are no messiahs. The green billionaires will not save us, we have to change our lifestyles. Our most intoxicating narrative is that technology will save us, and this is one of our forms of magical thinking. There are some fascinating passages about Klein going to a geo-engineering conference in the UK. She describes the attendees as, “a remarkably small and incestuous world of inventors and scientists and funders.” It is all very risky, untested and dangerous stuff that they are proposing. The solution to global warming is not to fix the world, rather we need to fix ourselves.

The book has inspiring things to say about “Blockadia”. This is a broadbased grassroots resistance movement intent on shaking the fossil fuel industry to the core. Indigenous peoples are key in the Blockadia movement, their rights can be a great gift for the revival and reinvention of the commons we all love. Bolivia and Ecuador have already put “the Rights of Mother Earth” into their national statutes. Blockadia asks the question, “How come that a big distant company can come to my land and put me and my kids at risk and never ask my permission?” The corporations come from far away and go everywhere because the fossil fuel industry is one of extreme rootlessness.

Followers of recent global climate talks are well aware of failure and deadlocks. A Greenhouse Development Framework from the Stockholm Environment Institute is an attempt to deal with disparities within and between countries claiming the rights to develop and pollute.

In chapter 13 of the book Klein talks about her attempts to have a child while researching this book. There are some lovely descriptions of Klein coming to realise that earth is facing fertility challenges of her own. Many species are now against “infertility walls” and finding it hard to reproduce. Fertility is one of the first functions to erode when animals are under stress.

The challenge for the climate movement hinges on pulling off a profound and radical economic transformation. In extraordinary historical moments “the usual category that divides “activists” and “regular people” become meaningless, the activists are quite simply everyone”.

So this book is for you and me and everyone. We are all implicated in everything this book is about, so get hold of it, read it and pass it around. As a slogan at the recent climate march in New York said, “To change everything we need everybody.”

I found myself saying to someone the other day, “If any book will push us through and beyond the Great Transition that we all have to make, then this is it!” Along with the film that Klein’s partner is making on the same subject, we can take some hope. We still have our brief window of time. We are inventive and creative. We can join with the tangata whenua as guardians of Mother Earth.