Remember This: 350 Parts Per Million
Guess what - I'm starting to wonder whether I do have magic powers to predict the future (yeah, like common sense ;-)) - this blog, which has been going on for months about the notion that we have to cut emissions faster and harder than anyone has acknowledge turns out to have beaten even James Hansen and Bill McKibben to the punch. Why is it, I wonder, that my predictions are only right about things that suck?
"It means, Hansen says, that we've gone too far. "The evidence indicates we've aimed too high -- that the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2is no more than 350 ppm," he said after his presentation. Hansen has reams of paleo-climatic data to support his statements (as do other scientists who presented papers at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month). The last time the Earth warmed two or three degrees Celsius -- which is what 450 parts per million implies -- sea levels rose by tens of meters, something that would shake the foundations of the human enterprise should it happen again.
And we're already past 350. Does that mean we're doomed? Not quite. Not any more than your doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high means the game is over. Much like the way your body will thin its blood if you give up cheese fries, so the Earth naturally gets rid of some of its CO2each year. We just need to stop putting more in and, over time, the number will fall, perhaps fast enough to avert the worst damage.
That "just," of course, hides the biggest political and economic task we've ever faced: weaning ourselves from coal, gas and oil. The difference between 550 and 350 is that the weaning has to happen now, and everywhere. No more passing the buck. The gentle measures bandied about at Bali, themselves way too much for the Bush administration, don't come close. Hansen called for an immediate ban on new coal-fired power plants that don't capture carbon, the phaseout of old coal-fired generators, and a tax on carbon high enough to make sure that we leave tar sands and oil shale in the ground. To use the medical analogy, we're not talking statins to drop your cholesterol; we're talking huge changes in every aspect of your daily life.
Maybe too huge. The problems of global equity alone may be too much -- the Chinese aren't going to stop burning coal unless we give them some other way to pull people out of poverty. And we simply may have waited too long.
But at least we're homing in on the right number. Three hundred and fifty is the number every person needs to know."
McKibben is being cheery about the bad news, so I will be to. We've been given a huge and perhaps exciting challenge - how to entirely stop producing more industrial carbon emissions. And believe it or not, I've got a few ideas (doesn't she always you say, rolling your eyes ;-)).
Or rather, they are the same ideas. It turns out that Monbiot was far too conservative - he was trying to keep things at 450. This is going to require a fast and serious drop in our fossil energy use down to near 0. The fast part means we're going to have to prioritize - think hard about where we want to put our very limited carbon emissions. Building more renewables, keeping medical care and food supplies coming, enabling an educated populace - that's where they need to go, and that's where they should go.
I've been working on trying to create a model of life of some sort for a few years - not a perfect life. If I were perfect I would have had 1.5 kids, started before I was 30 and would be pedalling everywhere. But a model of an imperfect life in transition, making do with what I've got, the best I can. When I try and think about what my role in this is, it comes down to that - I'm an ordinary person, ordinarily selfish and cranky and lazy, greedy and flawed. So what I can do with my imperfect life, from my imperfect start, in my imperfect home with my limited funds and energies I believe others can do - or they will do it some other way and tell me, and I can tell others, so that there's one more model out there. It isn't a perfect solution, and maybe there's other work to be done that I should be doing. But maybe this is mine.
After we reallocate, our personal use is going to have to be done by our limited supply of renewables (that means we all get a little bit of energy to use) and our hands and feet, some animals and a complete change in our way of life. There is no model I've ever seen that enables us to do a very rapid (under a decade) build out of renewables, and keep the global economy going as is. We're simply entering uncharted territory. If we become serious about this, everything is going to change.
And everything will remain the same - we'll still be the people we are. We'll still care about the things we care about most - the people we love, keeping people healthy, cared for and fed, giving our kids a decent education, having good and honorable work to do. We'll do different work, different play, live different lives, but we'll still be us, and the things we always say we really care about - those will still be the things we can have.
We can do this. We have to, but more, we can.