The Climate Catastrophe We’re All Ignoring

Originally published in Common Dreams, September 15, 2017

Imagine you’re driving your shiny new car too fast along a wet, curvy road. You turn a corner and realize you’re heading straight for a crowd of pedestrians. If you slam on your brakes, you’d probably skid and damage your car. So you keep your foot on the accelerator, heading straight for the crowd, knowing they’ll be killed and maimed, but if you keep driving fast enough no-one will be able to catch you and you might just get away scot-free.

Of course, that’s monstrous behavior and I expect you’d never make that decision. But it’s a decision the developed world is collectively taking in the face of the global catastrophe that will arise from climate change.

With daily headlines pivoting from the unparalleled flooding from Harvey in Houston to the devastation caused by Irma in Florida, it might seem like the United States has its hands full just dealing with our own climate emergencies. In the short term, that’s true. Harvey is estimated to have caused $180 billion of destruction, damaging some 200,000 homes, while Irma’s havoc is still being assessed.

But meanwhile, multiply the damage from Harvey and Irma a hundredfold and you’ll get a feeling for the climate-related suffering taking place right now in the rest of the world. In India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, an estimated 40 million people have been affected by massive flooding, with over 1,200 deaths. More than one third of Bangladesh’s land mass has been submerged. As if that’s not enough, Africa has been suffering its own under-reported climate disasters, with hundreds of thousands affected by flooding in Nigeria, Niger, Congo, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.

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Flooding in Bangladesh has submerged a third of the country | © British Red Cross

Although the regime in the White House is doing its best to ignore it, these global weather extremes are clearly exacerbated by climate change, and have been predicted by climate scientists for decades. What is so disturbing is that we’re experiencing this wave of disasters at a global temperature roughly 1°C above historic norms. It’s a virtual certainty that we’re going to hit 1.5° before long—perhaps in the next ten years—and unless we do something drastic to transform our fossil fuel-based society, we could be hitting 2°C as early as 2036. By the end of the century—when half the babies born this year should still be alive—conservative estimates have global temperatures hitting 3.3°C above baseline, based on the commitments that formed the 2015 Paris Agreement at COP21. And that’s not including potentially devastating feedback effects such as methane leaking from permafrost, which could lead to temperatures way higher, causing an earth that would literally be uninhabitable for humans in many regions.

The likely effects on our civilization are dreadful to contemplate. Because most cities have grown up around oceans, half the world’s population currently lives within fifteen miles of the coast. The devastation we’ve been seeing from flooding and storm surges offers only a hint of the impending catastrophe. In the Global South, beleaguered by massive poverty and inadequate infrastructure, cities will be overwhelmed. Reduction in river flows and falling groundwater tables will lead to widespread shortages of potable water. Flooding and landslides will disrupt electricity, sanitation, and transportation systems, all of which will lead to rampant infectious disease. Meanwhile, even as these cities strain beyond breaking point, devastating droughts will cause agricultural systems to collapse, forcing millions of starving refugees into the cities from rural areas.

Eventually, even the most strident climate denialists will have to adjust to the facts raining down from the sky. Even Rush Limbaugh was forced to evacuate his Palm Beach home after claiming Irma was a conspiracy. But when they do, you can guarantee their response will be parochial. Wealthier cities will begin massive investments in building barricades, improving infrastructure, even moving to higher land, to defend themselves against the climate cataclysm. That’s known in climate change circles as “adaptation.” In more rational parts of the rich world, cities such as London and Rotterdam are already doing it.

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Climate adaptation: London’s flood barrier across the River Thames | © Evening Standard

However, effective adaptation isn’t an option for the megacities of the Global South, which are already floundering from inadequate resources, and where hundreds of millions are forced to subsist, undernourished and vulnerable, in shanty towns. A central part of the Paris Agreement, which Trump recently rejected, was a Green Climate Fund that is supposed to receive $100 billion annually by 2020 from developed countries to aid the rest of the world in mitigating and adapting to climate change. So far, only $10 billion has been pledged, $3 billion of which is the US portion that Trump has vowed not to increase. It’s hard to see even a small fraction of that $100 billion annual payment actually coming through.

Yet it’s the developed world that created this climate mess in the first place. With just 15% of the world’s population, developed countries have been responsible for 58% of human-caused greenhouse gases. All that fossil fuel energy is what permitted them to industrialize and thus become “developed,” to the point that they’re now consuming 80% of the world’s resources, leaving the poorest three billion in the Global South to survive on less than $2 per day. That doesn’t leave much change for climate adaptation.

That’s why the inadequate response of the rich world to climate disruption is like that driver choosing to plunge straight into the crowd rather than swerving and risk damaging their shiny new car. What would it take to put the brakes on in time to avoid climate catastrophe?

There is hopeful news about the spectacular rise of renewables, surprising experts with the speed with which they are replacing fossil fuels around the world. But while that’s an essential part of a solution, modern renewables still account for just 10% of global energy production, which in turn contributes no more than 25% of total greenhouse emissions. Halting the slide to disaster requires something far more extensive: a complete transformation of our current economic system.

After Pearl Harbor, when the United States faced an existential threat, President Roosevelt announced a military production plan to Congress and the American people that seemed unachievable. Yet, not only did the country meet those plans, it overshot them as a result of the wholesale transformation of society towards a single goal. This kind of mobilization is what would be required today to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change: a Climate Mobilization.

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US mobilization after Pearl Harbor: Douglas Aircraft’s Long Beach factory | © FDR Presidential Library

In this case, though, it’s a different kind of mobilization that’s required. The threat we’re facing comes, not from enemies at war with us, but from the results of an economic system designed to exploit the earth and the most vulnerable humans living on it at an ever-increasing pace. As long as we measure ourselves and others by how much we consume, we’re complicit in fueling the global system that’s rapaciously devouring the earth.

The good news is that there’s a short window of time when a fundamental shift in our economic, social, and political priorities could still prevent global catastrophe. Alternative economic models exist that offer ways to conduct commerce sustainably. Ultimately, a flourishing future requires moving away from the growth-based, consumption-obsessed values of global capitalism, and toward a quality-oriented approach that could allow all of us to live on the earth in dignity. It’s even possible to draw down much of the carbon that’s already been emitted—the potential is there but it requires a choice to be made: a shift in our society’s values toward caring for others alive right now, and for future generations.

Will there be enough collective willpower to act and transform our society before it’s too late? That depends on the lessons learned from Harvey, Irma, and the climate disasters still to come. Suppose, as you’re racing toward that crowd in the road, that you managed to brake in time, get out of the car and join them. And then imagine your surprise when you discover the road you were speeding on came to an abrupt end around the next curve and was leading you directly off the precipice. Ultimately, the climate catastrophe we’re ignoring will become all humanity’s catastrophe unless we start acting on it now.


Jeremy Lent’s book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history.

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Claim the Sky! A Way to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground and Save our Future

Along with thousands of others, I’m joining the global wave of citizen actions to Break Free from Fossil Fuels taking place the first two weeks of May. The goal: to raise public awareness that we’re in a climate emergency. Business as usual is not going to steer us away from the precipice. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

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Thousands are demonstrating across the world to keep fossil fuels in the ground © 350.org

At COP21, the world’s nations agreed to target a global temperature rise of 1.5º-2.0º this century. How much carbon can we still burn if we’re to have a decent chance of meeting that target? The answer is staggering. The world’s carbon budget is just 16% of the fossil fuel reserves already known to be in the ground, if we are to have just a one-third chance of staying below 1.5º.

At the current rate of emissions, we’ll burn through this carbon budget of 473 Gigatons within the next two decades. When you consider that previous energy transitions (such as the rise of coal or electricity) have taken 50-100 years to occur, the odds of staying within the COP21 targets seem almost insurmountable. But we still have a fighting chance to avert disaster. How?

Firstly, the benchmarks of history don’t have to determine our future. A new study has documented many recent energy transitions that have occurred far more quickly. It took just eleven years for France to transition to nuclear-powered electricity generation and for Ontario to get rid of coal as a major source of its electricity.

What’s more, the technology is already here. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has mapped out detailed plans showing how every state in the U.S., along with 139 countries worldwide, can shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050, while creating more jobs, improving health, and costing less.

And yet, in spite of it all, fossil fuel companies still spend millions of dollars a day exploring for ever more oil and gas reserves that can never be burned if we’re to maintain our civilization. That’s because their overriding concern is to keep their stock prices high, which are based on the valuation of their proven reserves. To please their shareholders, these companies are using our sky like a sewer – poisoning the commons that we’ve inherited and that we temporarily hold in trust for untold future generations. How can this be stopped?

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The sky belongs to all of us, but the fossil fuel companies want to continue using it as a public sewer

Putting a price on carbon is an important way to shift the momentum in the opposite direction. Citizens’ Climate Lobby  advocates a sensible plan to tax carbon as it’s collected at the earliest point of entry (oil well, mine or port) and rebate the revenues to households equally. They estimate that if the price is set correctly it would lead within 20 years to a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels.

The problem is, we’re past the point where this plan could save us. The oil companies (many of which already support carbon pricing) would lobby to keep the price low, and the world would still be emitting far too much carbon. It’s a great strategy for one of those historical decades-long transitions, but not enough when we’re facing a climate emergency, a dire threat to the very future of our civilization.

There is a way, though, that could help us avoid this calamity, as an important part of the global climate mobilization that needs to take place. It’s called the Atmospheric Trust. It’s an idea that’s been bounced around by leading thinkers in the environmental movement for over 15 years. It hasn’t gone anywhere yet. But I believe its time has come.

The Atmospheric Trust is based on the fundamental and irrefutable notion that the earth’s atmosphere is part of the commons. It belongs to all of us. There is a strong legal basis for this: a well-established public trust doctrine which holds that certain natural resources should be held in trust to serve the public good. This has been confirmed in recent court cases in both Europe and the United States.

Corporations have no right to impair our common property unless we, the people of the world and beneficiaries of the commons, choose to transfer that right to them. Given that 473 Gigatons of carbon is the maximum that can be added to the atmosphere before compromising our civilization’s future, that right must be capped at that level.

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Claim the Sky! © PhotoBucket/1Mudgirl (Stefanie Saar)

Once that cap is established, the right to mine the 473 Gigatons still available in the ground should gradually be auctioned off to the highest bidders. Those rights could be traded in an after-market. Given the dynamics of supply and demand, as the available rights shrink, their price would dramatically increase over time.

There is something profoundly distasteful about selling off rights to pollute nature to the highest bidder. The natural world is our sacred heritage, beyond price. Any attempt to put a price tag on nature risks subverting the sacred to the global monetary system. I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of this path.

In this case, however, the fossil fuel corporations are already using the natural commons as their dumping ground – for free. Not only that, governments are subsidizing them to do so to the tune of $450 billion a year. The creation of an Atmospheric Trust would put an end to that. It would fix a final cap on the amount of carbon pollution compatible with our continued civilization. And rather than allowing corporations to profit from freely polluting our air, it would charge them a hefty fee for the privilege.

Unlike the problems with current cap-and-trade systems, there would be no downside to trading these rights to pollute. With the amount to be mined already fixed, there would be no possibility to create false credits, as happens in current systems that merely cap emissions of a particular company or industry.

The Atmospheric Trust would be a gigantic step towards asserting global climate justice, if the several trillion dollars in revenues received annually were distributed fairly. One proposal suggests granting half the revenues equally to every global citizen (which would significantly impact the lives of those who need income the most). The other half could go directly to the communities already being battered by the devastating effects of climate chaos, as well as those living in the sacrifice zones that continue to suffer the devastation of the fossil fuel companies’ extractive rampage.

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Srinagar, India, 2014. Atmosphere Trust revenues could be distributed to help those already suffering from climate chaos. © 2014 AP Photo/Dar Yasin

At this point, perhaps you’re shrugging your shoulders and thinking: “Great idea, but simply not feasible in the real world.” There are certainly daunting obstacles. Much of the fossil fuel is below the ground of nations such as Saudi Arabia or Russia, which are not likely to cooperate with an Atmospheric Trust. And of course, the Western fossil fuel companies can be relied on to continue their decades-long campaign of dirty tricks to keep such an idea off the table.

But even these obstacles can be overcome. Prominent economist William Nordhaus has floated the idea of a “Climate Club” consisting of the world’s major economies. If the G7 countries along with China came up with a detailed, enforceable program, the rest of the world would have no choice but to go along with it. And concerted citizen actions, such as the fight to overturn the Keystone XL Pipeline, have shown that the fossil fuel companies’ stranglehold over the public interest is beginning to unravel.

Still sounds far-fetched? So did the idea of an African-American President being elected… until he was. And precious few people thought they would ever live to see the day when same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. – until it happened. In the words of the thought-leaders proposing the Atmospheric Trust in Science magazine in 2008, it “may seem visionary or idealistic today, but that could become realistic once we reach a tipping point that opens a window of opportunity for embracing major changes.”

We’re reaching that tipping point now. As our climate emergency produces an inexorable onslaught of cataclysmic floods, fires and droughts, as refugee crises from regions stricken by climate chaos threaten to overwhelm the current world order, the establishment of an Atmospheric Trust will begin to take its place in mainstream discourse, just as carbon pricing is already doing.

Imagine the transformed world that would arise from an Atmospheric Trust. No more extreme extraction such as fracking, tar sands, and offshore drilling (no longer economically feasible.) The power of the fossil fuel companies permanently extinguished as their stocks (currently based on unburnable reserves) crashed. Climate justice finally served as trillions of dollars are transferred from the extractive industries’ profits to the communities that have suffered (and continue to suffer) the most. Massive investment in renewable energy. And with a fixed cap on the amount of carbon to be burned, humanity could breathe a collective sigh of relief for the future of our civilization.

Each one of us could have a part to play in creating that future of hope. If you like the idea of an Atmospheric Trust, you can sign an open letter to the 20 countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, asking them to get the ball rolling.

Which brings us back to the actions taking placing right now across the world to Break Free from Fossil Fuels. There’s a direct link between mass citizen actions and the shaping of global policies that could save our civilization from the pillaging of the fossil fuel industry. When Christiana Figueres, head of the COP21 climate talks, gave her closing speech to the summit, she told how citizen power forced politicians to accept a new reality. “When in 2014,” she said, “hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, it was then that we knew that we had the power of the people on our side.”

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The People’s Climate March in New York in 2014 pushed politicians towards reaching an accord at COP21 the following year © TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s going to take a massive, worldwide wave of citizen action, such as the world has never seen before, to stay ahead of the climate catastrophe beckoning. Creating a worldwide Atmospheric Trust is a project of a different magnitude than the unenforceable agreements of COP21. None of us can predict whether the changes we need will come in time. But every one of us has the option to choose to be part of the movement trying to protect humanity from the global suicide pact to which our governments are currently committed.

Surreal Spring: The Cognitive Dissonance of Our Climate Emergency

It’s a glorious spring day showing off Northern California at its finest: daffodils unfurl, while fragrant pink and white blossoms adorn the trees announcing that summer is on its way. Only one problem: it’s actually mid-February. We’re supposed to be in the depths of winter. We’re supposed to be getting regular storms and fighting the occasional frost. It’s a surreal spring.

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Gorgeous blossoms emerge in Berkeley, California – in mid-February

Yesterday, the mercury hit 84° F in Berkeley, California. The previous record, set nearly forty years ago, was 73° F. Could be just a chance event, of course. But we know it’s not. It’s the new reality of a climate out of control. We got news the same day that the month of January 2016 was the planet’s hottest month in recorded history.

In the new language of the Anthropocene, this is known as blissonance: the cognitive dissonance of a terrifying world where the bliss of the daffodils is an omen of impending doom. Surreal as it is, this passing moment of beauty tinged with dread is small fry compared with the cognitive dissonance facing our global civilization.

It was just two months ago that world leaders triumphantly announced an agreement that would mark a turning point in humanity’s response to global warming. We need to keep the temperature rise below 2° C, they declared, and target as close to 1.5° C as possible. Meanwhile, the countries of the world submitted plans that put us on track for a temperature rise of 3.5° C by the end of the century. To keep the rise to 1.5° C, which is already 50% higher than what we’re experiencing now, the world’s carbon emissions need to peak by 2020 and reach net zero by mid-century.

Since then, President Obama’s administration put a halt on all new leases to mine coal from public lands. But bad news for the climate has piled on a lot faster. With the collapsing oil price, more consumers are buying SUVs. Utilities are blocking households moving to solar energy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was signed, giving corporations extra powers to sue countries if they don’t like their policies. And last week, the Supreme Court blocked the EPA’s crucial regulations of emissions from coal-fired power plants.

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Citizens in Auckland protest the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The climate emergency hit the headlines for a few days, and then it was back to the usual: violence in the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the back-and-forths of the US Presidential primaries. Climate change? At best, another topic for the Democratic debates.

But we can’t afford business as usual. Even incremental improvement is no longer enough. Human civilization is facing a dire emergency, and we keep careening in the wrong direction towards a precipice. Something has to change. It has be profound. And it has to be fast.

There was another time when the civilized world faced a crisis of existential proportions. In the winter of 1941, the Nazis occupied most of Europe, but the United States was staying out of the war. Then, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and everything changed in a moment. President Roosevelt launched a mass mobilization like nothing ever before in history. In 1942, he declared,  the U.S. would produce, from a virtual standstill, 60,000 planes and 45,000 tanks. Facing disbelief, he proclaimed: “Let no man say it cannot be done.” And by the end of 1942, American factories had overshot FDR’s ambitious targets.

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Overcoming skeptics, FDR launched a mass mobilization after Pearl Harbor

What we need now, if our civilization is going to survive into the next century, is a similar type of mobilization on a global scale. To that end, the Climate Mobilization movement has put out a call for citizens to “Take the Pledge” and support their demand for a full-scale mobilization that drives the U.S. economy to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and the global economy to net zero emissions by 2030.

We need to up the ante before the global climate hits the tipping points that will take us over a precipice from where there is no going back. Leading activist organizations, such as 350.org, Avaaz and Greenpeace, know that time is running out, and that’s why they’re joining forces to plan massive civil disobedience in May with the goal of shutting down some of the most dangerous fossil fuel projects around the world. Since our national leaders aren’t taking action to save our civilization, that leadership now has to come from us.

Does the climate emergency strike dread in your heart? Join the movement to Break Free From Fossil Fuels. Take the Pledge to Mobilize. Talk to your friends about it. Get involved in whatever way makes sense to you. Over 50 years ago, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, launched the modern environmental movement. Perhaps this year’s Surreal Spring will help kickstart the people’s movement that is self-organizing to save humanity’s future.