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Global warming versus economy: Economy wins

Global warming versus economy: Economy wins

By Jon Sumby

Some news that I have been expecting for the past few years arrived in the last week. It was not unexpected news; rather, it was something that has been clear to me and to many others for a long time. It is simply this; dangerous global warming is irreversible and unstoppable.

Perhaps I should clarify that statement. Since at least 1995, it has been accepted that two degrees of global warming is the point of ‘dangerous warming’, the ‘tipping-point’, when global warming becomes self-sustaining and self-magnifying. At this point, Arctic permafrost unfreezes and methane vents into the air, carbon dioxide absorption by land ecosystems reduces and what is called ‘runaway’ warming begins. At this point what we do will mean little and large natural changes begin increasing the rate and severity of global warming. If we act now, and in unity across the world, it is possible that we can hold global warming below the critical two degrees.

James Hansen, one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on global warming, has recently been putting forward arguments that the ‘tipping point’ is actually 1.8 degrees, and there is mounting evidence to support that. Permafrost is warming faster than expected and releasing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) five times faster than previous estimates; sea levels are rising faster than projected; Arctic ice is retreating faster than expected; glaciers and icesheets are more unstable and reactive than previously thought.

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But back to the news I expected. However, there are some preliminary concepts to introduce.
The first is committed warming; global warming is not instantaneous, absorbed heat takes a while to move through the global system. There is almost two-thirds of a degree of warming to come on top of the warming we have already experienced, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases overnight. For example, because of the warming that has happened, and is committed, sea levels will continue to rise for centuries. We cannot stop this. Committed warming exposes ‘carbon offsets’ for the lie and the sham they are.

The second is residence time. Carbon dioxide does not disappear overnight, whatever we do. Carbon dioxide emitted today will stay in the atmosphere for over a century. The oceans are a major absorber, or ‘sink’, of carbon dioxide. However, absorbing carbon dioxide causes the sea to acidify and with the present amount of carbon dioxide in the air the oceans will acidify for the next century or more, causing enormous changes to the marine environment. We cannot stop this because the carbon dioxide is in the air, now. This is also the reason why technological solutions by putting carbon dioxide into the deep sea to ‘sequester’ it will not work. Do that and we kill the ocean; which choice do you prefer?

To try and prevent the tipping point of two (or 1.8) degrees researchers, since about 1995, have produced emission scenarios for the reduction of human-caused carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is not ‘offsets’, this is reduction – not releasing carbon dioxide – and because of committed warming and residence time, reductions have to start right now (commonly described as within the ‘next decade’).

Over the last decade or so, each time the necessary reductions are calculated, because of increased emissions, residence time, and committed warming, the depth of the reductions we must make have increased every few years: 40%; 60%; 80%. Each year of inaction and growing carbon emissions increase the cuts and the logical conclusion is that, at some point, we would have to reach 100% reductions simply to stabilise the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. By doing this it is possible to limit the temperature changes we are experiencing; hopefully keeping them below the two-degree threshold.

This is the first piece of news. The most recent research shows that to prevent the dangerous two degrees of global warming, global industrial society must move to a zero emission of carbon dioxide within the next fifteen years. A 90% reduction, if it is reached by 2050, will see the two-degree level of global warming reached shortly thereafter. This means that every nation in the world must stop emitting carbon dioxide; stop burning oil and coal within a decade or two.

The second piece of news follows naturally from the first. Because of residence time, committed warming, politics, global economic demands, current emission trends and the amount of carbon dioxide already in the air, the two-degree ‘tipping point’ is unavoidable. As is the 1.8-degree level of dangerous warming, which is becoming the more likely ‘tipping point’. We are driving global warming but we are the passengers in climate change.

No economy without environment: Economy wins
We are in the middle of the sixth extinction of life on Earth. We are the cause and animals and plants and ecosystems are dying off at a rate not seen since the last great extinction event some 65 million years ago. It has been pointed out time and again that our existence depends on healthy, thriving forests, rivers, oceans and all the other ecosystems that sustain us. Yet we are tearing them apart for consumer goods, lifestyle, and profit. Recent research showed that we consume at least 25% of the productivity of the entire planet, but this did not take into account the damage done by pollution and species loss. To that we can add the damage done by global warming.

If we are to feed ourselves and change to biofuels to slow global warming we will have to almost double agricultural land. This means razing the Amazon to start with. For example, if France were to convert to biofuel to fuel its vehicles, about 97% of its agricultural land would have to be devoted to biofuel crop production. The answer is, of course, to source biofuels from places like Malaysia and Indonesia, which means cutting down their rainforests. The other answer is to stop using oil.

In other words, to find an alternative to the oil that is the source of global warming we would have to clear and convert almost half the world to agriculture, taking the last great forests and making them into farms. Unfortunately, this will destroy thousands of species and have a dramatic worsening effect on global warming, but it is happening. Malaysia is enormously expanding its biofuel industry and Australia is licking its lips. Last year the head of Uganda’s Forest Authority was forced to resign when he opposed rainforest clearing to make way for biofuel plantations. ‘Every Ugandan can plant a tree but not every Ugandan can put up a factory’, commented the Ugandan presidential secretary, with stunning ignorance of forest ecology.

This is the first problem of global warming, before the heat itself. In terms of what is called the ‘ecological footprint’ we are already consuming more than one Earth. In terms of sustainability some research published last year showed we are entering what is called ‘ecological overshoot’; we are close to consuming more than the ecosystems of the Earth can provide. It may not look like it but research from around the world, from neurotoxins in whales to jellyfish populations, is indicating that we are reaching the limits of sustainability. Then there is global warming and economy.

Our world depends on oil and coal. From plastics to medicine, to clothes, to food, to transport, to industry, oil and coal is the root from which we grow. It is also the cause of global warming. To combat global warming we have to reduce the consumption, to stop, avoid and not use oil and coal. The Australian politician, Bob Brown, said recently that if Australia is committed to preventing global warming it should stop exporting coal. For Australia, this is not an economic option. The alternatives, however, consume the Earth and put us into ecological overshoot.

Quite simply, we will not stop using oil and coal as the basis of our society. Our lifestyles, wealth, power and success depend on oil and coal. This leads us to another truth. Since our industrial society is fuelled by oil and coal and this will not change, we will not stop using them until they are gone. If we reduce our use now, it simply lengthens the time until we have burnt them all up.
Pandora’s Box has been opened.
Although most nations have said that they are ‘concerned’ and want to avoid the two degrees of dangerous warming there has been no action. The Kyoto Protocol was signed but there are two caveats about this. The first is that signatory nations have not made changes and Kyoto is not enforceable. For example, since it signed the Kyoto Protocol, Spain has increased by 50% its greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year Canada, which is feeling the changes in the Arctic environment, had their environment minister from the Liberal (Conservative) party announcing that, ‘Canada remains strongly committed to Kyoto’. That same year, that same Minister said that Canada is breaking its commitment for reducing carbon emissions under Kyoto. ‘We cannot meet the target. We have ample evidence that this is not feasible.’

In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard has been clear that Australia will not agree to Kyoto because it will ‘economically disadvantage’ that country. For the same reason, the USA has ignored Kyoto. At the recent political gabfest in Sydney, only ‘aspirational’ targets were discussed.

The Kyoto Protocol has not slowed global warming. It expires in 2012 and there is no new agreement about real reductions in emissions. The main carbon emitters refuse to sign up and speak only of aspirations. The strongest reductions are between 20% and 50%; targets only made by a minority of nations, not by the major carbon dioxide emitters, and are mainly ‘aspirational’. There are no firm commitments and none approach the 90% to 100% reductions that are now required globally, by all nations, to prevent two degrees of warming.

The second caveat is developing nations. They are essentially exempt from the Kyoto Protocol carbon reduction targets. Yet they are enormous sources of carbon dioxide emissions, mainly for the benefit of countries like America, Australia, and regions like the European Union. Some recent research estimates that at least 25% of carbon emissions from China are caused by the export industry.

The factories that make the throw-away plastic toys you get free with a McHappy meal; the latest season in fashion sunglasses, the mobile phones; each one essential for our health and well-being.

More than that, last year China said in clear terms that it will not reduce carbon emissions until it has ‘modernised’ and its people enjoy a high standard of living. That standard is America, with about three percent of the world’s population but almost the highest level of global warming emissions. People the world over aspire to live like the Americans; to have ‘McMansions’ with an en suite and TV in every bedroom, ducted heating, a large four-wheel drive recreational vehicle to drive to the take-away food ‘restaurant’. India has made the same commitment to raising the standard of living for its more than one billion people. Who can blame them? Who can blame Brazil? Iran? Chechnya? Who can blame Mark Latham’s ‘aspirational classes’? Who can blame Malaysia and Indonesia for profiting from the biofuel demand by vastly increasing the clearing of ‘their’ rainforests?

This is another facet of global warming. To mitigate it we must reduce, not increase, our use of oil and coal. This means that the ‘have nots’ will do without and never reach what the ‘haves’ (Americans) enjoy; and even the ‘haves’ must make a dramatic reduction in their lifestyles. Think on it. At it’s simplest an 80% reduction in carbon emissions translates to your car. If you drive to work five days a week (ten trips to and fro) an 80% reduction means that you drive to work only one day every week. C’est impossible!

From your car, go to oil. A resource like gold, its price is bound to its value at the mine.
To reduce carbon emissions means a reduction in extraction. Would a company like Shell, a company with a multi-billion dollar income greater than the country it is based in, accept a cut in its profit? Would the economically and politically powerful mid-East oil countries, like Saudi Arabia, reduce oil production by 80%? If it did, how would that affect your world?

This, in part, is what the economist Stern meant by ‘transitional shifts’ in his famous report to the UK Government. For our best economic and environmental future we have to make tough changes now to avoid worse problems when the climate changes in the near future. We will not make them because we will be ‘economically disadvantaged’.

There is an additional factor: Population. The population of the world is projected to rise by 50% over the next four decades, from the present 6.6 billion to over nine billion by 2050. These people will need growing economies to provide employment, food, healthcare, housing, transport and consumer goods. An economy based on oil and coal. If we reduce oil and coal burning, wind back production and consumption to minimise global warming, where are the jobs? The cars? The houses? The iPods?

This is also the trap of ‘alternatives’. Nearly every alternative presupposes maintaining current consumption. We replace coal-fired electricity with nuclear power and we have as much electricity as we need to keep our current lifestyles now and into the future. It is not about reduction. Most alternatives try and say that we can keep our present consumer lifestyles but be ‘clean and green’. Most of these technologies are still decades away. Ten years ago, ‘clean coal’ was a decade away. It is still a decade away and closer examination reveals that ‘clean coal’ is simply normal coal but with about 25% less carbon dioxide, which has been removed and somehow sequestered (perhaps in the oceans?). A closer look reveals that operating coal-fired power stations cannot be adapted to the proposed new technologies; they must be replaced with new power stations, a task that will take many years. So will building nuclear power stations to replace coal. Years that we do not have, especially when China is building a new coal-fired power station every two weeks to feed the needs of its growing economy.

Consider biofuels. I said earlier that France would have to reserve 97% of its agricultural land to fuel its car and trucks. Try this thought experiment. Imagine that Australia needs 50% of its arable land to be self-sufficient in biofuels. One half of the land to feed its citizens the other half to feed its cars. Where does the export market for wheat and other foods fit in? Now imagine this: There is a long and harsh drought, don’t laugh, it might happen. Agricultural production falls by twenty per cent. Now Australia does not have enough food for its people, enough fuel for its cars. What happens?

It may be tempting to dismiss these ideas by saying that technology will solve these problems. But think on this; what is this technology based upon? The industries it needs to make these solutions? The simple answer is oil and coal. To convert the world to solar power, we need an enormous effort by oil- and coal-based industry to make, transport, install and maintain this ‘alternative’. With a growing population aspiring to live like the Americans how do we meet the demand? Will the American air force, navy and army stop using oil? The military of any nation?

Intellectual property rights, held as patents, cripple these technological alternatives. Corporations, such as BP, own the innovations and inventions behind wind power and solar power and they see global warming as a business opportunity for growth and profit. To achieve the fastest possible change around the world the best solar- and wind-power technology should become patent-free, available to everyone to make and make cheaply but this means that these corporations would have to forego their profit. In a world where drug companies are not willing to allow life-saving drugs, like HIV medicines, to be made cheaply and generically across the world it is unlikely that BP will give away its solar power technology to help minimise global warming.

The technological solution is not a solution. We emit billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year by burning the solid carbon that is stored in the ground. The ultimate aim of technology is to still to burn the carbon but catch the carbon dioxide and put it back into the Earth, and our consumer lifestyle continues unchanged. We don’t know how to, or have the capacity to, put billons of tonnes of gas back underground (or in the ocean) and the most honest answer is to stop digging it up and burning it – leave it in the ground.

Consider these final questions about biofuels: Are any biofuels sufficiently refined (fractionated) to fuel aircraft engines? If we were to grow biofuels for land transport and use half the land on the world, how much more must we grow to fuel air transport and the lifeblood of international trade; cargo ships?

Cargo ships carry more than 90% of global trade; coffee from Brazil, coal and live sheep from Australia, cars from Japan, shoes from Indonesia, prams, televisions, and children’s toys from China, the list is endless. There are more than 20,000 new cargo ships being laid down around the world, each one being built to serve the growth in the global economy of production and consumption. All are built around oil-fuelled engines. The question is when and how these large ships are converted to zero emission propulsion, given that sea travel is responsible for a significant amount of global emissions, indeed, more carbon dioxide than is emitted by the UK.

In a recent speech, Condoleeza Rice said that we must cut the ‘Gordian knot’ of economy and global warming. The powerbrokers of the world are aware of this dilemma. Oil and coal are intertwined into our present lifestyles and in global warming. The Americans will not give up their lifestyle and the worlds billions aspire to that lifestyle. It is not possible to give up the oil economy and keep this lifestyle as it is. It is not possible for the Europeans, Chinese, or Indians to live like the Americans and prevent dangerous, destructive, global warming and environmental destruction. It is not possible to live the American lifestyle and keep the forests, oceans, ecosystems, and the animal and plant species that share this world with us. It is not possible to keep this consumer lifestyle for everyone by being ‘clean and green’.

Furthermore, every attempt at change is met with resistance At the last IPCC meeting, five of the seven Saudi Arabian delegates were representatives from the petroleum industry and they spent their time lobbying to remove connections and information linking oil consumption to global warming from the final IPCC report. The giant oil company ExxonMobil has worked for years attempting to deny the science of global warming. The carbon emitting oil, coal, and car industries are now, as George Monbiot points out, engaging in a wide-ranging and comprehensive campaign of ‘green-washing’ their activities.

In Australia, the chief executives of major mining and coal companies are founding members and supporters of influential organisations that deny global warming and oppose measures to reduce emissions. Organisations like the ‘Lavoisier Group’ whose members have the ear of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard.

What do I owe the future? I’ll be dead then
In technical terms this relates to what is called ‘intergenerational equity’ (preserving and enhancing what we have now to pass on the environment and life we enjoy to our heirs) and to ‘temporal myopia’ (acting now for our benefit without regard to the future). Both are bound up in what is called the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Simply put, the ‘commons’ are what we all enjoy and benefit from but we do not own as private property and so do not value highly. Examples are the air, water, ecosystems and ocean fisheries.

In the classic example of the tragedy of the commons the case is given for an area of land. This land is ‘common’: Open to use by a group of cattle herders. Only a certain number of cattle can graze the land before it becomes overgrazed and degraded. For each farmer, the benefit to themselves by adding a cow to their herd is greater than their loss to overgrazing. The environmental damage caused by one extra cow is shared among all the users of the commons.

It is to the individual benefit of each farmer to maximise their profit by running more cattle, the result is the eventual destruction and loss of the common resource for all. This model has been seen time and again in global fisheries and fishers resist closures of ‘commons’ into marine protected areas, both locally and internationally. Now consider global warming.

The air we breathe is another clear example of a global commons. We all share the effects of degrading this commons (by pollution such as smog or carbon dioxide) but individually (or nationally) it is to our benefit to maximise our return from the industries and lifestyles that pollute it.

To that paradigm we add the quality of time. As I mentioned earlier, global warming is not instantaneous. You and I will not feel the greatest effects of how we live now. Our children, grandchildren and the environment in the future will pay the cost of our lifestyles. In philosophy this places our industrial society in the subjectivist existence. Since our existence depends on how we are now and because there is no ‘now’ when we are dead, there is no obligation to any future generation. They are on their own, in the world they are born into, a world we are not responsible for.

This is temporal myopia. Since we owe nothing to the future (‘our children’) we are free to maximise our benefit from what we have now. In the tragedy of the commons, the cattle herders have no problem. As economic rationalists it is logical to overgraze, the benefits (profits) go to them and the degraded, ruined, land is a loss that is shared across future generations – but it is not their problem; future people are, indeed, strangers to us.

There is a large body of work that examines this aspect of our way of life and clearly ties it into the market economy and corporate ownership, each of which leads to a disconnection from the continuing existence of environmental quality and a sense of place with the environment. A corporation’s sense of self is not connected to its resource, but to its profit and that can be anywhere. In market parlance this is seen as ‘diversification’, and it is good.

Similarly our lifestyles are disconnected from how they are produced; we do not see, do not feel, and do not experience the damage done to the environment by the things we buy or consume. We live like corporations; in the now, present benefit, present profit, and the future is nothing to do with us. If we do think of the future it is that our children will have better cars, houses, lifestyles and a better education so that they can afford these better things; a better ‘now’. We value our immediate kin, but will not sacrifice our lifestyle for the rapidly disappearing rainforests and the orangutan that make them their home, nor will we make a personal sacrifice for a drought-stricken Tibetan herder.

The antithesis is the ideas revolving around intergenerational equity; basically foregoing part of what we have now so that our children can enjoy what we have. Passing on quality of life to our future without maximising present benefits. The World Heritage Area in Tasmania is closed to exploitation because it is special and should be preserved as the ‘heritage’ we give our descendants, but that status may not last. The Great Barrier Reef is a national park because it is special to us and we want to preserve its values for our present and for our heirs, but it is unlikely to survive global warming. Will we stop using oil for our children’s world?

The world’s leaders are saying that they are concerned, that the ‘Gordian knot’ between economy and environment must be cut and a ‘clean and green’ solution found; one that keeps our present lifestyles but is ‘carbon neutral’. But in a time when all nations must act together and actively reduce emissions, every nation is acting to preserve and enhance its own lifestyle, wealth and power. Remember Australia, a country that will not sign Kyoto because it will be economically disadvantaged. Remember the decisions that lead to the tragedy of the commons.

There is a clear reality here. Politicians around the world will say they are ‘concerned’ about global warming and will ‘act’ to prevent it. To act now means to reduce our lifestyle, wealth, and growth; something we will not like. To act now is to help future generations enjoy a better, healthier, environment and world. However, for politicians and ourselves, there is no benefit in acting for future generations, our concerns are in the here and now and to act for the future is a self-sacrifice that no country, corporation, politician, or we are prepared to make.

The real inconvenient truth is this: Global warming cannot be stopped, we will not give up our oil- and coal-based consumer society and will struggle and aspire to live like the Americans, we will continue to strive to maintain this lifestyle and ‘adapt’ while the environment suffers. We cannot sustain our industrial society, our current levels of consumer affluence, but we will try; and we will consume this wonderful world.

The seas will continue to rise, the oceans acidify, and drought and storms will worsen. The polar bear will go, the sea turtle, the albatross, the proud Tuatara of New Zealand, countless species and environments will vanish, economies will stress, governments will fail and our children will live in a different, but not better, world.

There is a ray of light: We grew up, and live, in a rich consumer society and will continue to do so. We will live to see the bite of global warming but we will maximise our personal benefit and then we will each reach the end of our days, after that, it doesn’t matter. So it goes.


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