One of the most important studies I've seen, coming out of a major climate change lab whose work has been used in the IPCC and other models was released yesterday. Here's the good news - the Riot for Austerity with its 90% reductions is broadly on track. Here's the bad news - it's goals are 10% too low. The only way of avoiding the critical 2 degree temperature rise is to reduce all industrial emissions worldwide by 100%. Let's repeat that sentence. We're going to see massive warming, flooding, the loss of the polar bears, etc... unless we reduce emissions by 100%.
Here's the study: http://environment.newscientist.com/article/dn12775-zero-emissions-needed-to-avert-dangerous-warming.html
Another analysis, Tim Flannery's, confirms this here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21204196/
The important points:
"Andrew Weaver and colleagues at the University of Victoria in Canada say this means going well beyond the reduction of industrial emissions discussed in international negotiations.
Weaver's team used a computer model to determine how much emissions must be limited in order to avoid exceeding a 2°C increase. The model is an established tool for analysing future climate change and was used in studies cited in the IPCC's reports on climate change.
They modelled the reduction of industrial emissions below 2006 levels by between 20% and 100% by 2050. Only when emissions were entirely eliminated did the temperature increase remain below 2°C.
A 100% reduction of emissions saw temperature change stabilise at 1.5°C above the pre-industrial figure. With a 90% reduction by 2050, Weaver's model predicted that temperature change will eventually exceed 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures but then plateau."
"Tim Lenton, a climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the UK, agrees that even the most ambitious climate change policies so far proposed by governments may not go far enough. "It is overly simplistic assume we can take emissions down to 50% at 2050 and just hold them there. We already know that that's not going to work," he says.
Even with emissions halved, Lenton says carbon dioxide will continue building up in the atmosphere and temperatures will continue to rise. For temperature change to stabilise, he says industrial carbon emissions must not exceed what can be absorbed by Earth's vegetation, soil and oceans.
At the moment, about half of industrial emissions are absorbed by ocean and land carbon "sinks". But simply cutting emissions by half will not solve the problem, Lenton says, because these sinks also grow and shrink as CO2 emissions change.
"People are easily misled into thinking that 50% by 2050 is all we have to do when in fact have to continue reducing emissions afterwards, all the way down to zero," Lenton says."
Ok, everyone who thinks we can reduce emissions by 100% raise your hand. And remember no burping or farting - ever again.
Now periodically I get yelled at for daring to criticize people who don't want to make "extreme changes" for pressuring them to go further than the IPCC and national governments want to. This is considered mean. It turns out, though, that I've actually been way too warm and fuzzy, because 90% is by no means enough. This post: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/09/reallocating-wealth-from-have-nots-to.html, which I mostly mention because I think everyone who hasn't should read Auden's amazing poem was a good example of my meanness, but I've seen nothing to indicate it isn't the truth.
Is this shocking news? Not to me it isn't. This information merely confirms the aggregate data that I've been looking at. The IPCC report was wildly outdated by the time it was published, in part simply because the new science is coming in so fast, and in part because it is a political body, affected by governments. The IPCC report, for example based its assessments on linear arctic ice melt, which we now know to be wrong. It based its assessments on political expedience, which we know has nothing to do with science. It based its assessments on outer numbers, unsupported by science. And it based its assessments on the notion that our emissions would rise at a rate only 1/3 rate between 2000 and 2004. The IPCC was wrong, vastly, horribly, grievously wrong.
I don't particularly begrudge the IPCC or Al Gore their Nobel Prizes - I honestly give them credit for what they did. But the truth is that their work (and perhaps anyone's work on this matter - certainly my own) was too little, too late. We are committed. The report offers fairly faint hope - they call for all industrialized nations to rapidly reduce their emissions by 90%, while finding some realistic measure for carbon capture. The likelihood of this happening is about the same as the likelihood that we'll all be reducing our emissions to 0 - very, very tiny. That's not to say that some parts of this should not be attempted - as Mark Lynas describes in his forthcoming book _Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet_, there's a big difference between saying "we can't stop catastrophic warming" and "we can't stop it, but we can limit it." The ecological changes we make now may be the difference between a mere disaster and something out the Christian Bible, apocalypse section.
You know, here's the part where I get to validate my own readings of the data and my role as prophet. If I had something worth selling, here's where I'd say "I was absolutely right about this, and if you'd like to see more of my predictions, stock market advice and ideas, buy this booklet." The thing is, it isn't very much fun to be right on this one. Because the really bad news is this - if by some miracle we can get the political will to reduce our emissions enough to avoid turning into Venus, we're still going to spend the next decades cleaning up an increasing number of disasters. We're still going to visit the circles of Hell with no Virgil to guide us. I guess I should be excited I was right. Instead, all I can see is that I should have moved up the dates in my essay on what my children's future under climate change will look like:http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/02/my-childrens-century-part-i.html . Writing this piece made me cry, and my family felt it was overy negative - but all the data coming in suggests that in fact, I may have underestimated. Damn.
This should not be taken, however, to mean that there is no hope. The fact that we are in for a very, very rough ride does not mean that we also cannot make a large difference in just how rough and how awful things are for ourselves and our descendents. Getting carbon levels down fast is going to have to be a worldwide priority - and yesterday.
And here's the other thing I'm going to be proved right about. I am going to be proved right shortly in the fact that we don't have the time, money or resources to burn to do an enormous build out of renewables. Because such build-outs come with enormous energy costs - and they would be fueled by fossil emissions - by coal and artificial nitrogen fertilizers, by oil and natural gas. And we can't afford to do that. Today's Energy Bulletin has a post by Richard Heinberg offering up Eco-Keynsianism as a possible outcome for the post-peak, climate change future. Here's Heinberg's always-interesting commentary: http://www.energybulletin.net/35739.html, and Susan George's work on Eco-Keynsianism, which I think is very interesting, if not perhaps, right http://www.globalnetwork4justice.org/story.php?c_id=313. I would note, just as a sidebar that Bart over at EB includes Amartya Sen's claim that there has never been a famine in a democracy with a free press without noting that many people have disputed this claim, including Vandana Shiva, who notes that regions of India have undergone famine in a democracy with a free media. That's not to say that I don't agree with Bart's point about democracy - I absolutely do.
While I think some elements of EcoKeynsianism will be applied, I think there are powerful reasons why we should not be imagining a New Deal/WWII escape from this problem. I've articulated some of them here: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/04/world-war-ii-as-metaphor-part-i.html. We're running up against our own walls - the fact is that even if we could all agree to make a 90% emissions reduction, it wouldn't look like what we've been talking about - it wouldn't be so much a thing we do as things we stop doing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not imagining that the world suddenly switches, overnight, to an agrarian society, but I think the likelihood that we'll be following the ecojobs and doing the big build out is pretty small. We don't have the resources and we don't have the luxury of time or of burning coal and oil to help us manufacture enough rigid foam insulation and windmills to make the society as a whole look familiar to us.
Is that the end of the world then? No, I don't think so. Mixed in with the bad news is some good news - not enough, but some. And the good news is this - there is an alternative to the public economy and to borrowing money to put people to work on ecological projects. There is an alternative to present-day industrial society. And the answers are related - they involve a return to small scale "intermediate" technologies that are powered by human beings, animals, wood, manure, etc... They involve a world where many more people are engaged with the basics of food and shelter, caring for those who need care and tending land.
The good news is that the informal economy is significantly more robust in many ways than the formal economy, and doesn't require massive inputs of fossil fuels. It was the informal economy that kept people in the Soviet Union and Cuba alive during their social crisis - the gardens they grew, the things they bartered and sold, the local economies they produced. We have an informal economy too, but we don't rely on it very much - or at least, most middle class Americans don't. Many of my neighbors do - they cut a little firewood, sell some pumpkins around Halloween, barter some labor, do a little handyman work in the winter, babysit a neighbor's kids - all under the table. And they tend to make a passable living doing so, enough to pay the taxes, buy beer and supplement the deer and wild turkey they hunt with food.
Now there are problems in imagining 300 million Americans and 6.7 billion human beings all relying primarily on the informal economy and such informal methods of feeding their families - except that 3/4 of us actually *do* rely on that. That is, according to Teodor Shanin, the founder of Peasant Economics, only 1/4 of the world's total economy exists in the formal sector, with formally paid, documented work. The rest of us do other things. 2 billion people live by subsistence farming. Another billion survives entirely by selling off-book to their neighbors.
As Gene Logsdon puts when he writes in The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening, about "gardening to save us from the economy,"
"It seems to me that the part of 'the economy' that depends on biological processes, not industrial processes - especially food, but also renewable resources such as cotton and wool and other natural fiberts for clothing, and wood for construction, furniture and fuel - is particularly vulnerable to the volatile and chaotic conditions of the industrial manufacturing marketplace. An ear of corn grows at its own sweet pace, no matter hwo the interest rates are manipulated. Much more biological production than is now the case should be protected from this market vulnerability, and the most practical way to do so is by having more gardens. A garden economy would provide society with a much safer 'social security' than pension money sunk into volatile stock and bond markets...maybe this sub-economy could offset the money madness enough to avert a real catastrophe..." (32)
Is this any easy society to create? Of course not. It will be hard to keep our houses, it will require enormous advocacy. It will be hard to adapt our suburban and urban homes with comparatively little investment to serve us in hard times. It will be hard. It will undoubtably be disastrous for some of us.
But all of us can begin, just a little now, to put our feet on the comparatively stable ground of the informal economy - one that will never make you rich but might allow you to go on. We can begin adapting our infrastructure right now, using what we have and what we can acquire. We can pay down our mortgages a bit more each month while we've got the money and grow a bigger garden each year. We can start that cottage business and find time to do mending or bake bread and sell it, or tutor local homeschoolers. We can begin the process of creating Amish-style local economies, and teaching others how: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/04/production-consumption-and-amish.html
And we can begin to prepare ourselves and our gardens for a changing world, remembering that even though some options are gone to us, we are still the youngest and weakest fair godmothers at the Christening - we cannot take the curse away, but maybe, just maybe, we can soften it a little.