Monday, December 21, 2015


Is the Paris Climate Accord “Good Enough”?

When I read the draft text still in play last Friday morning, I was close to despair. Here we go again, I thought. The same issues dividing the rich and poor nations seemed to have the delegates at loggerheads. Then, Saturday morning, the leaders of the conference appeared, holding victorious hands aloft over an agreement which stated in principle that climate diplomacy had some common goals and guidelines. This was clearly a victory, and I breathed more easily for a day. For the first time since Kyoto, the planet had a climate accord.

But as the Nation's blog put it, “the fate of the world changed in Paris, but by how much?” It all depends on how quickly we can convert to a carbon-neutral economy (“the last half of the century,” as the agreement puts it, is clearly too late). And one of the mechanisms upon which the agreement leans heavily to reduce the CO2 already in the atmosphere – biofuels producing CO2 that will generate heat and electricity as they are sequestered, has already been dismissed by serious scientific studies. This continuing reliance on global corporations' profits is what those demanding they be banned from the table had predicted. Other more promising solutions, like soil carbon storage, are not even mentioned in the text. What is mentioned is the much-touted forestry initiative (REDD) preserving forests and planting more trees in countries with few resources but forests, offsetting continued carbon emissions whose negative effects are traded with a supposedly marginal benefit (loss) in net carbon. This is more of the failed Kyoto process, and it deserved no place in a viable agreement. Carbon credits can be gamed, as has been abundantly shown in the EU's carbon market.

A carbon cap-and-tax program, however, with revenue going to climate ameliorzation (not individuals) would be something that could move us swiftly towards the carbon-neutral goal (for 2 degree C max rise, by 2050; for 1.5C, 2030-40. These are the “official” figures from IPCC consensus, but they are compromised by political pressures upon and within the IPCC).I find the best site for unraveling the complexities of a carbon tax is the Carbon Tax Center.  But the key move, one which needs to become the international norm, is to revise income and corporate taxes by re-working them in accordance with taxing fossil carbon.  The bottom line in a post-Paris economy is carbon, not dollars.  

It was probably too much to hope for a binding agreement that would finally set the world on a crash-course for averting catastrophic climage change. Such an agreement is not possible until the US has a senate which is willing to debate a treaty on its merits. As we all know, the party in power there requires a litmus test denying anthropogenic warming, making passage of an international treaty impossible. The US requested the voluntary language, for the administration knows that it could not get a treaty through the present Senate (or probably the next one). The rest of the world understood this. And they understood the need to get China on board any agreement, so they exempted China from promising more in 2020, the first review date at which countries are strongly encouraged to rachet up their INDC's (intented nationally determined contribution – how's that for gobbley-speak!).

The biggest players asked for some of the biggest leniency, but in fact these two countries led the way into the INDC era with early pledges in a joint press conference last fall. Such behavior promises a different scenario for geopolitics than sparring over artificial islands in the South China Sea. The paradoxes are endless, but if these two countries can really work together towards carbon neutral economies - with the US contribution coming mostly before China's promised peak in 2030 – then the rest of the world may well do their part, especially with the EU continuing to lead in carbon reductions.

Despite the new international consensus which Paris COP 21 represents, we need to be realistic about the monumental task ahead. The speed at which climate change is disrupting the world makes talk of future carbon neutrality extremely tenuous. We already have several failed states, with climate change, mostly from drought, the key element in each collapse. These failed states have sent the first wave of climate refugees into the world, and finding homes for them has proved hugely challenging. With tens to hundreds of million more in upcoming decades, just keeping the world out of a war of all against all will be the utmost security threat. No wonder George W. Bush's defense department ranked abrupt climate change as our country's greatest risk, even as the President's party was hardening its position of denial.

Agriculture in an age of rapid climate change is the biggest challenge. In our reliance upon agricultural conglomerates, we tend to forget how important small and subsistence farmers are.  These are at greatest risk in threatened areas such as Africa, India, and Bangladesh.  The loss of farming opportunities in the drought-hammered Middle East has combined with the ill-advised US war on Iraq to lead to an increasingly desperate situation in the entire region.  In a politically precarious area, the relationship between water, small farming and refugees is now a permanent condition. Feeding the world's enormously bloated population in turn creates pressure for more top-down solutions, which further delays carbon neutrality, for that very pressure encourages increased reliance on oil, even with more sophisticated tech.  A vicious cycle is already in motion, even before the cascading positive reinforcements of global warming.

The biggest shift in the run-up to Paris has been the growth in renewable energy, especially solar. And the Paris pact is a boon to this industry, which the US House just helped in its budget bill (with trade-offs in a bill that was indeed a Christmas gift to virtually everybody, thus marginal progress at best). Though renewables still provide a very small portion of the total energy needs of some of the biggest polluters, some small countries, notably Uruguay, Costa Rica, Iceland, and Denmark, have made huge strides towards a carbon-free grid. But what about manufacturing and heavy industry? How exactly do we move away from oil, and in the case of industries like steel-making, coal? Almost every part of modern life involves habitual reliance upon oil, including every plastic in the world (except the imperceptible trials of plastics from artificial oil). I've seen no roadmap for this, only for retrofitting the grid.

No longer our grandchildren, but Boomers themselves.

We have seen this coming for a long time, since before Kyoto. We have spent the whole time, the Exxon interval, making up our minds over how to respond to something which means the end of our methods of production, requiring more than rearranging the furniture, creating more chances for profit among financially-savvy individuals and companies. Contrary to what the polyannas continue to say, it will require a huge change in our lifestyles, and a damping of the ambitions of developing nations. The changes in climate equilibrium which I first read would come in the latter third of this century are hard upon us. It is no longer our grandchildren at risk. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and some wise lifestyle choices, many in my generation stand to be alive at the beginning of climate catastrophe in a couple of short decades. 

We remain a species that has evolved to exacerbate growth, and just saying we want to change (voluntarily) doesn't alter that. A friend recently sent me a link to a blog (forgive the title; it's not mine) which speaks eloquently to our dilemma.  I have previously addressed this intractable species-defined problem in reviewing Too Smart for Our Own Good.

Can we change fast enough, now that the world agrees that we must? The fate of the world has indeed changed, due to the globalization of the industrial revolution, powered by fossil energy. Can it change yet again on an equal scale, with a huge down payment in the next five years? I take that challenge personally, with a huge gulp and a depth sounding of the gut. It's time to really bring everything I have to the fight – as a writer, as a person of faith, as a consumer, as a pensioner with a few financial resources to leverage, and as a political animal with the temperament of a contemplative.As I posted today at another site, we must all follow our marching orders from the Inner Light

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Climate Justice: Does the Industrial West Owe Reparations?

As the talks in Paris entered their second, crucial week, unresolved issues that have been hanging for years of negotiations remain the sticking points. They center around climate justice, or the obligations of the rich, developed nations to the poor, developing ones. In a rather shocking “non-paper” sent to fellow rich countries before COP 21, the US urged its peers to hold firm against the demands of poor countries, for the main issue remained getting CO2 emissions down, not administering justice, which our government correctly saw as an ongoing (eternal) process, not something that could be resolved by one treaty.

It is a sad, harsh reality that certain nations face earlier climate ruin than others. The Pacific island nations, much of Africa, and Bangla Desh come immediately to mind, as do the South Indians who are being flooded as I write. An international Green Climate Fund has been created, with a goal of $100 billion for helping weaker countries adapt to climate change. As nations entered the Paris talks, this fund was less than 3% funded, though many are encouraged that some private capitalists, notably Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have committed to the process in a big way in Paris. Current U.S. commitments are paltry, dwarfed by our governments continuing huge subsidies to gas and oil interests.

I agree that firm commitments from the wealthier nations to make this fund a robust instrument of both adaptation and mitigation – as in the accord between France and India to invest $3 billion to supercharge solar energy in India – are absolutely required as part of a document that most of the world's nations could sign. And it is a major gesture, a huge shift since Copenhagen, that China has committed to contributing to this fund.

A key element in the climate justice demands of the G77 block in Paris is the historical carbon debt of the First World. It is true that the Western powers, primarily the UK and the US, have contributed most of the historical CO2 emissions. This historical carbon, as James Hansen recently pointed out, continues to represent the huge bulk of the extra CO2 burdening the carbon cycle. It persists for a long time, most of it a mere 500 years, but a quarter of it lasts essentially forever. See the sobering article in Nature.

The persistence of fossil CO2 in the atmosphere means that we must not only ramp down our emissions as fast as possible, but also find ways to pull it back out of the atmosphere (my post on fixing CO2 in soil last month outlines one pathway). So, yes, our industrial error has proved to be a mammoth one. But at the time of the industrial revolution in England, and later with the rapid industrialization of the US, we simply did not know what we were doing. The consensus was that the inventors were improving the lot of mankind. We now need to leave the platform which fossil fuels built, but we also need to recognize the many aspects of the modern world which were created by, and continue to be fueled by, oil in particular. This is part of the legacy of those who industrialized first to the rest of the world, even as we acknowledge the brave new world of new sources of energy, and new materials (see the current Economist for a fascinating look at the emerging materials universe), one which needs to replace the fossil platform as fast as possible.

In a recent wide-ranging historical overview of climate science, US science advisor John Holdren argued that scientists reporting to the President reached consensus by 1990 that the CO2 burden added by burning fossil fuels was greater than the opposing effect of industrial aerosol pollution (these aerosols, primarily sulfates, ironically hinder the warming effect of greenhouse gases by damping the amount of incoming solar radiation through re-reflection). If political leaders had accepted that scientific consensus, then any fossil-sourced emissions from that point on could be charged as culpable, witting ecological sin. That would of course include most of the cumulative emissions from China and India, as well as the continuing emissions from countries who industrialized first. The fact that the Republican Party continues to deny that climate change is human-driven is probably the greatest moral error in history, given this consensus. Even worse, Exxon scientists had reached the conclusion that fossil carbon would prove catastrophic before 1990.

But given that concerns about fossil greenhouse gases did not lead to any conclusive research until so late in the history of industrialization, I do not think that the US and the UK (plus Russia, Germany, and Japan) owe “reparations” for the historical carbon they dumped into Gaia's system. However, given the clear judgment in hindsight of the dominant role of the Anglo Atlantic partnership in the process of industrialization fueled by fossil carbon, India's argument that they and other developing nations like Indonesia should be alloted the lion's share of the remaining fossil carbon production is a convincing one – much as I would like to see all fossil carbon burning cease in the critically immediate future. China, which has developed faster than India, used to make the same argument, but air quality there, not to mention recognition at the highest levels of state of the imperative to limit global CO2 emissions, has shifted their tone (China has arguably the strongest renewable program in the world, despite the fact that it continues to use a lot of coal, though at a significantly decreasing rate).

What does make sense, which the wealthy nations continue to resist, is to fully fund the Green Climate Fund, with no more dithering. Yes, mitigation, as well as adaptation at this initial level of climate disruption is expensive, but far, far less than what would be required with disastrous BAU. The Stern Review remains the primary source clearly documenting this. At the halfway point in negotiations, it looks as if the wealthy nations will acknowledge some historical responsibility, but only if the issue is never brought up again. That feels like they are ramming through their will once again, and such a demand is unfair, if one looks at it in terms of value statements about justice and responsibility.

Nevertheless, I think the international community needs to put the idea of “reparations” behind it. The West correctly sees that setting any kind of precedent for that opens the door to being given a bill for any future disasters in the Third World, no matter what their cause. Though I have enormous sympathy for those who are on the frontlines of climate disruption, it is too much to expect a blank check accepting blanket responsibilities from the heirs of some innovative tinkerers in the coal country of England 300 years ago.

As for justice, Exxon should be heavily prosecuted for their willful climate change denial, the lynchpin in a strategy previously set by the tobacco industry, which also cynically denied their own internal research. Except that it is not just individual smokers killing themselves in the instance of strategically motivated climate denial, but ecocide. Reparations to extinct species are impossible.

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