Monday, July 17, 2017

Torn between two lovers

We are just prisoners
Of our own device
  -  The Eagles

Did you ever have to make up your mind
To pick up on one and leave the other behind

   -John Sebastian


         There are two recent climate change controversies that are sucking up lots of energy.  To my mind they both seem to be missing the point .   The first is over the Jacobson 100% renewable plan   and it's feasibility or lack thereof,  it has spawned an acrimonious debate in the relevant journals.  e.g. see here

        Richard Heinberg offers an intelligent commentary, noting that both sides seem to have accepted the premise that it is even possible to rebuild our modern society to run on renewables.. Based on his own research, has serious doubts.  He says:

"When we start our transition planning by assuming that future Americans will use as much energy as we do now (or even more of it in the case of economic growth), then we have set up conditions that are nearly impossible to design for. And crucially, that conclusion still holds if we add nuclear power (which is expensive and risky) or fossil fuels (which are rapidly depleting) to the mix. The only realistic energy future that David Fridley and I were able to envision is one in which people in currently industrialized countries use far less energy per capita, use it much more efficiently, and use it when it’s available rather than demanding 24/7/365 energy services. That would mean not doing a lot of things we are currently doing (e.g., traveling in commercial aircraft), doing them on a much smaller scale (e.g., getting used to living in smaller spaces and buying fewer consumer products—and ones built to be endlessly repaired), or doing them very differently (e.g., constructing buildings and roads with local natural materials).

                He may be wrong , he may be right.  What I find interesting is that question itself is never discussed.  Because, perhaps, it is inconceivable that things must change.

                 A more recent flap has arisen about the article by science writer David Wallace Wells,   about what the world will look like if (when?) we don't make big changes .   see The Uninhabitable Earth  .  Many commenters suggested it was "too doomerish"  and didn't offer enough hope that we would make the necessary changes  . And it is true, the article didn't pull any punches.  I urge to read it yourselves.  Here is short quote to give you a feel for it .

"The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the geological record shows that temperature can shift as much as ten degrees or more in a single decade. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*

              Too doomerish?        Dave Roberts responded to the controversy saying:  " Did that New York Magazine story freak you out? Good"  .   He suggests that the article is basically accurate and is just what is needed to get people to realize how serious the situation is.   (Note:   Wallace Wells has responded to his critics in an "annotated " version of the article, carefully footnoting his sources  see here)
         But, to me the more relevant question is," if we need to hold out hope -  hope for what?"    Hope  that we can continue to  have more growth, more stuff, and more high energy life styles?  As well as an intact biosphere?    If that's what we are hoping for, we will probably be disappointed.  Roger Boyd in his blog Humanity's Test, argues that it's time for us to recognize that growth and sustainability are not reconcilable. He offers a number flaws in the view that we can have growth and sustainability -  including.his view that there is no remaining carbon budget because of  

"The high probability of increases in natural emissions from forests, soils, permafrost etc. that will offset part of any human emission cuts
    • The probability that climate sensitivity is at least at the high end of the range used by the UN IPCC, and possibly higher than that range
    • The impact of an ice-free Arctic, as the reduction in albedo leads to energy balance of the Earth being significantly increased
    • The probability that sea level rise is much more sensitive to temperatures than previously assumed

             He also, offers a good explanation for the reason that all politicians and nearly all policy wonks refuse to consider the possibility that future growth must be curbed .

"The politicians understand the Pandora’s Box that will open up once they cross the Rubicon into acceptance of a period of degrowth. The horrors that sit within that box include:
    • A large-scale reduction in wealth, as much of that wealth represents the current value of future growth.
      • Share prices based on assumed rates of future profit growth
      • Loans based upon the assumption that future growth will provide the income to pay off the principal and interest
    • A financial system crash as the assets on the books of banks and other financial intermediaries lose significant amounts of value
    • A need for the rich to share their wealth and income with the less rich
      • Without the additional income produced by growth, the only way for the less rich to improve their lot will be by redistribution from the wealthy through such things as progressive taxation (higher taxes on the rich) and higher wages. This will be both within countries, and between countries.
    • A reduction in pensions and a reorientation toward public provision. The whole pension industry relies on future growth in asset prices to provide the majority of the funds required to pay future pensions.
      So, yes, we are "torn between to love(r)s."   The love of our riches and the goodies that implies , and our love of a future .  In a more recent article by Dave Roberts  The Best way to reduce your personal carbon emissions : don't be rich he notes a that a recent study evaluated a number of personal choices in terms of their impact, and he concludes:

"As you can see, your lightbulbs and laundry verge on meaningless, carbon-wise. The only “high-impact” actions are ditching your car, flying less, switching to a plant-based diet, and, the biggie, not having a child."

    He also includes this graphic from Oxfam - which is pretty telling.  

unequal emissions


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