Thursday, September 24, 2015

Running the river

Rolling on the river
    Tina Turner
The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the food
Some people got away all right
     Randy Newman

    Before I forget , happy overshoot day!  (Sorry I forgot to send a card  ;- ) The footprint folks have determined that up to August 19, , we were living off the what could be sustainably produced.  For the rest of the year, we are using stored resources, and potential future resources, by degrading the biosphere - mining groundwater, soil etc.  ..  Eating seed corn?
      There has been a fair bit if discussion on this article on air conditioning.  (Hat tip Jamie.)    The author makes a very nice argument  ( although a little long ) that simple living is the right, that is, moral approach.   There are many reasons to adopt a simpler lifestyle, psychological, medical, philosophical. 
        In this interview on KBOO, Nate Hagens argues that living simply will also be useful in adjusting to the " powerdown"  , i.e. a future which offers less and less cheap energy.  You may also want to see his chapter the the 2015 State of The World book ("Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability" ) put out by Worldwatch.    
      Crawling back from Overshoot is tricky business.  If a population is too large and the carrying capacity too degraded, there is no easy glide path, there is a crash.     
      One useful question that might be asked is "  Is it even possible for 7 billion people to live on this planet in a sustainable manner? ".    The answer may be "yes, but barely".   It is at least  possible as some countries are actually doing it.  Unfortunately, the lives of the people living in these countries is less than optimal.  In fact they do not meet the minimum UN  Human Development Index standards.  ( see the Footprint Networks its 2010 report,  page 21  using 2007 data.) .  And each year, the population goes, and the carrying capacity shrinks. 
          In general consumption and lifestyle determine whether a society is sustainable.      For a back of the envelope calculation of the size of the needed reduction of consumption taking into account current overshoot, likely future population growth, equity issues, and margin of safety see this article from The Conversation.  The conclusion is that those of us in the rich west would need to reduce our consumption to 6% of its current level.  
          This calculation is only a ball park figure, but may be close enough.  The foot print folks estimate that than 7 billion  living at an American lifestyle  would take the carrying capacity of  around 5 earths.  So, a sustainable lifestyle would be about 20% of the average American consumption.  If you factor in a projected population growth of up to 11 billion, maybe 10% is a good enough figure.
         Now, take a quick look at the efforts to address just one of the resource and pollution problems that affect our carrying capacity.    The nation's of the world have met 20 times to attempt to put together a treaty to address climate change.   This year it is COP 21.  see here
    Climate change is only one aspect of the overshoot.  (But it seems to be the only one that is getting any press.  see e.g. Climate Centrism.)   But it is one which much be solved in order to  crawl back from over shoot.    So it is important to ask, "Would the universal adoption of a simple lifestyle, or any other program short of magic, keep the planet from crossing the  2 degree threshold?   Probably not.  Basically, we have already used up, and probably exceeded , our "carbon budget" .   This carbon is already in the air, and will continue to raise the temperature for the next 40 years.  Merely ceasing to emit CO2 will not solve the problem, we will also need to suck carbon out of the air - a technology that has not yet been invented. 
         In a useful article in the New Yorker about Christiana Figueres, the person in charge of the UN Climate Change Convention,  Elizabeth Kolbert says the following:

"To hold warming to less than two degrees Celsius, global emissions would have to peak more or less immediately, then drop nearly to zero by the second half of the century. Alternatively, they could be allowed to grow for a decade or so longer, at which point they’d have to drop even more precipitately, along the sort of trajectory a person would follow falling off a cliff. In either case, it’s likely that what are known as “negative emissions” would be needed. This means sucking CO2 out of the air and storing it underground—something no one, at this point, knows how to do. The practical obstacles to realizing any ?of these scenarios has prompted some experts to observe that, for all intents and purposes, the two-degree limit has already been breached.

 “The goal is effectively unachievable” is how David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Charles Kennel, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, put it recently in the journal Nature.

 Even those who, like Figueres, argue that the goal is still achievable acknowledge that the I.N.D.C.s aren’t nearly enough to achieve it. “I’ve already warned people in the press,” she told the gathering at Citigroup. “If anyone comes to Paris and has a eureka moment—‘Oh, my God, the I.N.D.C.s do not take us to two degrees!’—I will chop the head off whoever publishes that. Because I’ve been saying this for a year and a half.”    

The Great Transition program attempts to describe scenarios under which this could accomplished , projecting out 50 years.     In a recent interview Dennis Meadows , professor of systems management, and one of the authors of Limits to Growth, commented on this program
"I think we are now in a situation where it doesn’t make much difference what we want to see happen fifty years from now.
"White water rafting provides a useful analogy here. When you are going down the river, most of the time it is placid, but every once in a while, you hit the rapids. When it is placid, you can sit back and think where you want to be, how you should time your journey, where you want to stop for lunch, etc. When you are in the rapids, you focus on the moment, desperately trying to keep your boat upright until you return to quiet waters. During the placid moments, it is very useful to have a discussion about where you want to be tomorrow or the day after. When you are in the rapids, you don’t have the luxury of that kind of discussion. You are trying to survive. Our society has moved into the rapids phase.
"Climate change is an example of this. There was a period where we had some possibility of influencing future climate by our decisions about the use of fossil fuels. I think that time has passed. Climate change is increasingly dominated by a set of feedback loops—like the methane cycle and the melting of Arctic ice sheets—which are beyond human control. They have come to be the drivers of the system. The dominant drivers of the system are not people sitting around trying to reach a consensus about which of several different possible outcomes they most prefer. -
         With respect to climate, we have moved from projecting and anticipating it's effects, to a point where we are experiencing and reacting to them  And we have only reached 1 degree above pre industrial temperatures.     Of course in some cases  the effects are obvious.  The water crisis in California, the wildfires raging through out the west.  The links between these situations and climate change are fairly clear.
  Less clear perhaps  is the refugee crisis In Europe.      For an interesting exp,oration of the climate connection ton to the Arab Springs   see e.g.
       Interestingly, Gwynn Dyer author of Climate Wars notes
"... this refugee crisis is only a rehearsal for the main event, which will probably arrive in 10 to 20 years’ time. It will be driven by global warming, which will devastate agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa and produce a five- or tenfold increase in the number of refugees heading for Europe.
This is not what might happen if the world’s governments don’t make the right deal at the climate summit in Paris in December. This is what almost certainly will happen even if they do make the right deal now. A considerable amount of warming is already locked into the system no matter what we do about the climate now – enough to produce that kind of refugee flow in the future.
Read more:here
          So, as Dennis Meadows points out, we are already in the rapids, with little opportunity to make long range plans to avoid the rocks.  One wonders what "resiliency" might mean in this context.  At a minimum, as noted above, having simple needs, and perhaps multiple strategies for meeting those needs will be useful.  Can we reasonably expect federal and state, emergency systems to deal with multiple simultaneous emergencies?  What will the effect of limited energy have on these issues?  For a an interesting perspective, suggesting a major disruption in the next 10-20 years , see this recent article published in PNAS ,  reviewed here.  Author interview here . 

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