10 December 2011

In which I say stuff you won't like after finding out stuff you don't want to know

The last few weeks have provided lots of food for thought on climate issues and I've arrived at a pretty horrifying conclusion.

First, there was my predictably disappointing meeting with Gordon O'Connor, my Member of Parliament.   I knew he wouldn't say anything other than the official party line, because no Conservative MP does, but I had really hoped that by going, I might leave him with the impression that ordinary people want the government to do something to reduce Canada's disproportionately large carbon emissions. He kept telling me that the government just wasn't getting that kind of vibe from people. I had to point out to him that I am also a person, citizen and voter, even though we both knew I'd never vote for him. Not the right kind of people, apparently.

With that visit fresh in my consciousness, last week I hosted a meeting of several environmentally-minded folks from my community including a town councillor. All of us had expressed a strong concern about the lack of action nationally on climate change and a willingness to take action locally. There was talk of planning a county-wide environmental conference that would educate folks about climate issues while also developing a white paper that would be presented to local governments. A similar conference was held five or six years ago to great praise from the attendees and polite disinterest from the government recipients of the resulting paper.

I said that I thought that there was a high risk that we could go to a huge effort to basically preach to the converted, like a Billy Graham crusade, and it was pointed out to me that most of the residents of my municipality are either ambivalent or climate deniers and needed convincing. There were suggestions of an art contest for kids and skits and maybe a place for "green" retailers to showcase their recycled denim handbags and whatnot. I was not left with any sort of optimistic energy at the conclusion of the meeting - in fact I'm still reeling from it, because I truly believe the time for diddling around with songs and skits and talking about ways to use old milk bags is well behind us.

Then I read an article in Grist magazine called The Brutal Logic of Climate Change. I strongly encourage you to do the same, though it will stretch your powers of cognitive dissonance to read it and carry on with life as though the implications are not pants-shitting scary. The executive summary of the article is this:  If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale. Keeping in mind that there is no hyperbole in the above sentence, the executive summary of that is: We're fucked.

The article is based on a report by Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester and Deputy Director of The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He produced a paper with his colleague, Alice Bows, called "Beyond 'dangerous' climate change: emission scenarios for a new world". Mr. Anderson gave a presentation of his paper, with slides, that is available here. He gives a surprisingly engaging talk at a citizen level of detail, which outlines the carbon budgets available for limiting global temperature increases to 2 and 4 degrees Celsius. It would be wonderful if everyone took an hour and listened to this talk, but hardly anyone will, and those of us that have are left with this terrible knowledge and nothing to do with it.

The gist of his talk is that there is a limited amount of carbon that can be dumped into the atmosphere to limit temperature increases. The amount of carbon that can be emitted that would have us stop at 2C is so small we have practically no chance of being able to reduce emissions quickly enough to stay within the budget. The carbon budget for a 4C degree increase is larger, but requires us to peak our emissions in 2020, then decrease by 3.5% per year until we reach zero. Zero, zip, nada, zilch (the good news is that the jet ski industry will disappear long before that). Just for comparison, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in 5% reductions per year for a few years. In 2010, we increased emissions by 5.9%, so this could be hard. Oh, and by the way, a 4C degree increase in average global temperatures is, according to Anderson, "incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond 'adaptation', is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable." That might affect your retirement plans.

As I write this article, the world is negotiating yet another climate agreement in Durban, South Africa. Canada once again won the "Colossal Fossil" award for it's appalling behaviour and bad-faith negotiating. In response, Michelle Rempel, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment had this to say: "With regard to the fossil of the year award, the member opposite should know that the real award that counts is that our country sits on top of the G7 with regard to economic growth and job creation." And much cheering and clapping ensued from the Conservative benches. If there are terrorists in this country, they are currently sitting in the House of Commons, actively seeking to destroy the environment that is the foundation of life as we know it.

So if you've stuck with me this far, I wonder if you have arrived at the same horrifying conclusion I have? Since there isn't a global reset button and current governments and industry seem only interested in burning fossil fuels as fast as they can be extracted from the earth, the only way to prevent catastrophic warming is to have a complete and swift global financial collapse that consigns us to pre-industrial levels of energy consumption. Perhaps you haven't, in which case I'd like you to read the article and listen to the talk and then leave a comment with your conclusion.

Luckily, world events seem to be leading us in the direction of global collapse, but in my next post, I'll talk about ways that you and I can act to accelerate bringing down the economy. And it will take a bit more than changing our lightbulbs.


  1. It is intriguing, to think of our time as being analagous to the end of the Roman empire...albeit with a much greater technological cliff to decend once the Vandals arrive and destroy life as we know it. People are fond of thinking that change comes slowly, but it seems more and more likely that the end of the Plastic Age (or whatever we call this era of ours) will come with startling rapidity.
    I watched the film The Road last year, and left the cinema feeling seriously depressed about mankinds' future...perhaps it should be mandatory viewing for everyone in the west!
    Back to the romans, I wonder if anyone was working on the "inside" to hasten the downfall...there surely must have been those who were upset with the decadent culture of the time!

  2. Hey canuck,

    I couldn't think of watching the movie, because I read the book and I'm not masochistic enough to put myself through that again.

    I'm far too uneducated to speculate on the Romans, but I certainly agree that our cliff is pretty high, and I would guess that we have a greater sense of entitlement than the average Roman ever did. And their internet service sucked.

  3. Thought you might also find this video interesting if you have not already veiwed it. - http://permaculture.tv/paleoclimate-record-points-toward-potential-rapid-climate-changes/

  4. Mr. H, I wish everyone would watch that video, though it's difficult to know what to do with the knowledge. One thing I took from it is that really we ought to start reducing emissions by 6% a year right now, which seems to me is only attainable by severe economic disruption.

    How do you unsee this stuff?

  5. in Gibbons book on the fall of the Roman empire he cast some of the blame on the cumbersome credit system and inflation.
    Entropy in inevitable...but sadly while being aware of it, it seems it is far too enormous to resist.I suppose that humans will adapt...I'm an optomist....but it will definitely be interesting to say the least....a few generations of extreme hardship will establish a new equilibrium . But that too will fluctuate as the eons pass .

    1. Taking the long view may be the safest from a mental health perspective. I suppose it's rather nihilistic of me to say nothing matters, after all, we'll all be dead in 100 years, but like you say - there will be a new equilibrium, and hardship is a pretty normal part of the human condition. We moderns are pretty spoiled after all.



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