Saturday, May 08, 2010

Without Leadership We Will Fail to Act on Global Warming

World leaders put on a brave face at the Copenhagen climate change summit but, in reality, it was a disaster. From a Western perspective we can claim that the talks were sabotaged by China and India. If you doubt that, der Spiegel, has an audio tape of the leaders that reveals how the talks failed. You'll find the tape here. Draw your own conclusions.

It certainly sounds as though India, China, Brazil and South Africa don't want to see the 50% by 2050 emissions cut target put in place. Don't be so sure. There's another side to this, their side.

Their way of looking at it doesn't accept the West's "clean slate" approach. We want to forget about the past, the CO2 emissions going back to the start of the Industrial Revolution, most of which is still in the atmosphere. We're practical people (tee hee), we want to deal with today, the real world. What that means is we want across-the-board percentage cuts, specific percentage targets for all nations, with little tweaks here and there for the emerging economies.

Their approach doesn't let us off the hook for what we've done over the past two centuries. They want a reduction regime that reflects per capita quotas. Of course China and India between them account for a third of the global population so per capita is pretty attractive from where they sit.

Per capita quotas, however, are pretty alarming from our perspective. That's because we North Americans now put out about 20-tons of CO2 emissions per person per year. On a per capita basis we'd have to trim that in very short order to less than 2.7 tons per person per year. Unfortunately that would be the death knell of the fossil fuel industry as we would effectively have to decarbonize both our economy and our society.

But are per capita quotas fair? Well, they're at least as fair as our, across-the-board reductions approach. The deal we want essentially locks in for us a priority to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Percentage cuts lock in the current inequities ratios. America, for example, would still get to produce 25% of global emissions (at whatever reduced percentages were introduced) with but 5% of global population. That's 500% better than a per capita arrangement where everybody's equal. We want to grandfather our unjustifiable advantage.

So, both sides have good arguments but neither approach will achieve the global consensus that's absolutely essential to make this work. Is there an alternative? I think there is.

As I've argued repeatedly, you cannot solve the global warming crisis in isolation, which is the only approach we've tried. We've tried it - again and again and again - and we've failed - again, and again and again. The Spiegel tape confirms how the industrialized world and the developing countries are at loggerheads both with defensible positions, both defensible positions - without more - irreconcilable. Without More - there's your problem.

As Jared Diamond argues in his terrific book "Collapse", mankind is facing a host of environmental calamities but we haven't come to understand that we absolutely have to solve all of them if we're to have any hope of solving any of them. It's an "all or nothing" world today.

Among these challenges we must confront are overpopulation, resource depletion and exhaustion, all manner of freshwater problems, air/soil/water pollution, desertification, deforestation, nuclear proliferation and other threats to global security - among others. We have to find a means to keep each of these under control or risk losing control of all of them.

Within a generation, two at the very outside, we're going to have to find a way to live within mankind's skin, our biosphere, the only ecology we have, spaceship earth if you like. We're nearing the railway crossing and the lights are flashing. Here's what I mean. On 28 April, I reposted an item from 2006 on World Overshoot Day. That is the day each year on which the world's population consumes the planet's annual production of renewable resources. In 2006 it stood at 9 October. By 2009 it had fallen to 25 September. That ought to be alarming because it means that, just last year, from 26 September to year end, we were eating our seed corn. Want proof? It's easily found in our disappearing forests, our diminishing aquifers, our collapsing fish stocks, our ongoing transformation of arable land into desert. We're exhausting the very resources we need to provide next year's essential resources. We're consuming ourselves faster and faster. We advanced overshoot day two full weeks in just three years which is like driving toward a brick wall with your foot hard on the gas pedal.

We're at the point where we need to make some pretty hard choices and, if we don't, we may not like the default option. One option is a massive die-off of mankind and other flora and fauna. That's the course we're already on. It's coming due to a number of contributing factors. Here are a few.

The collapse of global fish stocks is one example. For a lot of the Third World, fish is their major or only source of protein. We're not merely overfishing, we're fishing our way down the food chain which means exhausting one species after another according to their desirability. The best die first.

Climate change is causing havoc with precipitation patterns, particularly in Asia, South Asia, Africa, Central America, the Great Plains and the American south. Regions are getting whipsawed by cycles of drought and flood. Any farmer will tell you that crops cannot be grown unless you get the right amount of precipitation and the right time. Drought means your crop fails. Floods mean you may not be able to get on the land to plant or you may not be able to get on the land to harvest and your crops rot in the field. Oh sure there's groundwater for irrigation but here's the thing. Those vast underground swimming pools we've been pumping out to water surface crops are beginning to run on "empty" and we don't have any solutions for that, especially in the face of disruptions of natural rainfall patterns.

Maude Barlow warns that our rapidly growing freshwater crisis presents an existential threat to mankind that may rival even global warming.

Then there's soil exhaustion and desertification. Farmland is like a slave. You can only work it so hard before it dies.

There was a time when parts of the world faced grave food shortages. The answer was what became known as the "Green Revolution." This entailed the use of pesticides, fertilizers and lots of irrigation to produce bumper crops with which to feed the hungry masses. The Green Revolution transformed India into a net food exporter. Neat, eh? Well, not so much.

The Green Revolution did introduce hyper-agriculture but we failed to understand it was unsustainable. Part of that arose out of the aquifer/groundwater problem already discussed. Another part was the inevitable impact of those pesticides and fertilizers on the soil. As the Indians are now discovering, Green Revolution farming techniques work the soil so hard that growing crops becomes much harder. Some farmers now have to use twice the fertilizer they needed before and the pesticides are creating highly resistant weeds also. This is like burning a candle at three ends. I guess it really doesn't matter much whether that farmland gives up the ghost from the collapse of irrigation or the sterility of the land itself, does it?

So how are we to find meaningful, effective solutions to these vexing challenges? We have to see the common thread that runs through all of them - reduction. Whether it's reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or reduction of freshwater consumption and wastage or reduction of hyper-intensive but unsustainable agrictulture or reduction of fishing quotas, forestry and, yes, even population, we have to see the answers lie behind us, in stepping back onto terra firma, instead of ahead, growth that can only accelerate our problems and our day of reckoning with them.

We in the West are going to have to accept responsibility for our excessive, unjustifiable carbon emissions. China and India are going to have to acknowledge their population crises. The industrialized countries and the emerging economic superpowers together have to accept their responsibility to compensate the Third World for the very real injuries we've inflicted upon them.

There are no solutions except global solutions to these problems. That's going to be a tough sell in our own Canada where we have vast territory, abundant resources and yet a tiny population of (by my rough calculation) one half of one per cent of the global population. Canada and countries in similar positions need leaders who can engage their publics and make them see they are not immune to the challenges facing less advantaged countries; that these are truly 'global' crises and that we cannot allow ourselves, through false notions of superiority or simple greed, to become the bottleneck that thwarts global consensus.

As James Lovelock proposes in his book "The Revenge of Gaia," there no longer is such a thing as "sustainable growth" and mankind's only hope for coming through this century relatively intact rests on accepting "sustainable retreat."

We have to retreat, we have no choice. The Earth cannot produce renewable resources in the volumes we have already allowed ourselves to become completely dependent upon just to maintain the status quo. We're running out of water, we're running out of arable land, we're running out of forests, we're running out of fish stocks, we're running out here and there and over there too. So how do we expect more unless we're willing to take it from somebody else and what we're talking about here are the very cornerstones of life itself.

So that is the "without more" I mentioned at the outset of this piece. We have to embrace sustainable retreat as the core principle of solutions to each of these environmental challenges, including global warming. We have to see that we cannot keep eating am ever bigger slice out of next year's pie and we have to go back to living within our environmental means because we have no other choice. That means retreat and that means finding an equitable allocation of all the world's resources among all the world's people.

We in the West and the expectant populations of the emerging economies won't much like that idea but they need to be made to understand that ignoring this environmental imperative comes with very real and very ugly costs for us all. This isn't going away and the only option for reaching manageable solutions has to rest on accepting sustainable retreat in our lives, in our society and in our economy.

12 comments:

LMA said...

Very thought provoking post, as always. Ties in very well with comments over at Climate Progress on Gore's article in the New Republic "The Crisis Comes Ashore: Why the Oil Spill Could Change Everything". There are calls for Obama to address the public in prime time from the Oval Office and tell them face to face what we are facing in the coming climate crisis.

Yes, we have to retreat, to do without more, but can we overcome our greed? I don't know. The situation in the Gulf of Mexico will either be a consciousness shifting event, as Gore hopes, or will recede into yesterday's news as we deny yet again what is happening.

BTW, I am not as optimistic as you think. We may well be doomed as a species. We are driven both by our emotions, including greed, and our intellect which gives us the technology to acquire more and more and destroy more a more. This just might prove to be a deadly combination. I just wish we weren't taking so many other species down with us.

The Mound of Sound said...

And I am not quite as pessimistic as I may seem. Some part of me believes we may find solutions to our problems although those outcomes may not be of our choosing or even to our liking. I think the choice is between manageable solutions, that we invoke voluntarily, or lesser solutions that we're compelled, by circumstance, to accept.

Much and freely as I castigate them for their arrogance, selfishness and blindness, I feel for our American cousins. There is a goodly minority of them who understand what's happening and want another way, mostly along both coasts but they've been lulled into complacency, allowing corporatism too strong a hold on their legislators.

Somehow I think we'll know the Americans are serious when they stop building golf courses in the middle of deserts and artificial lakes around casinos. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Palm Desert - that's where God has shoved America's environmental thermometer.

If we don't reach out and take manageable solutions while that option remains to us, an enormous number of people are going to have to die and they won't all be killed by nature either.

Some hold to the theory that our civilization took hold due to our ability to grow grain in surplus. As we learned to store grain in silos we received free time necessary to organize ourselves into the beginnings of sophisticated societies. We still depend on those silos, metaphorically, but now we're no longer filling them with surplus. Instead we're steadily emptying them. Overshoot is accelerating and it's now up to about 8 days per year. That's 8 days' supply that we're drawing from that silo every year.

The British environment secretary, Miliband, pointed out that Britons consume their country's entire volume of renewables by Easter each year. After that they have to rely on their relative wealth to buy other countries', other peoples' renewables to meet British demand. That means in poorer countries, the population is being "priced out" of their own food. At some point, however, it's going to take more than money alone to ensure our access to foodstuffs and other resources urgently needed in their home countries. It will take some measure of force, by the wealthy, to take food out of the mouths of the poor, their food.

Okie said...

Pt 1

"Then there's soil exhaustion and desertification. Farmland is like a slave. You can only work it so hard before it dies."

I could take you to an area on the marshes in N.B. that was extensively farmed for hay which began during WW1, and continued until the early 50's. Chemical fertilizer was heavily used and now that ground sits idle, and grows nothing but a few weeds. 50 some years later. The ground around it which was ditched, drained and allowed to produce naturally still grows quality hay that grows belt high.

I know that seems like a small thing, but it is an example of where it all starts.

My blood starts to bubble everytime I visit this issue, and I will try not to rant, rather I will provide a link that discusses many agricultural and marketing issues related to the subject of the growth of corporate influence and sustainable retreat. It is a huge issue that I couldn't even begin to tackle via posting here.

Here is an exerpt from the many items discussed in the link.

"Tom Webb, in an article in Rural Development (July, 2005), takes up the story. "Stiff competition from multi-national retailers made it difficult for Co-op Atlantic to invest its planned 50 per cent share to make the beef-processing plant a reality."

Co-op Atlantic faced two relentless pressures. "Aggressive price competition between the major competitors drove down retail markets and margins, forcing retail co-ops to focus diminished profits on defensive retail strategies. Its planned $1.5 million investment (in the beef-processing plant) had to be reduced to $500,000," explains Webb.

That is to say, the Maritimes' "own" Sobeys together with Atlantic Wholesalers (owned by Loblaws, controlling 34 per cent of the national retail market), both linked with the big U.S. beef processors in Western Canada, retaliated, staging a phoney price war.

Both behemoths are the result of mergers which took place late in 1998, which also created the largest grocery wholesale companies this country has ever seen. Stellarton-based Empire Co., parent company of Sobeys, bought out the Oshawa Group, as well as Knechtel, Food Town, Bonichoix and Price Chopper chain. Loblaws bought IGA and Agora Food Merchants in Atlantic Canada, and Montreal-based Provigo. These monopolies then forged deals with food suppliers who can service all their chain from coast to coast, not just in one region. So much for "thinking locally."

Through exclusive contracts with the supermarket chains, Sobeys, Atlantic superstores and Wal-Mart, this food cartel is squeezing all non-monopoly competition, from independent meat-packing facilities to independent retail chains such as the co-ops, as well as the non-corporate farm."

Tom Webb, in an article in Rural Development (July, 2005), takes up the story. "Stiff competition from multi-national retailers made it difficult for Co-op Atlantic to invest its planned 50 per cent share to make the beef-processing plant a reality."

Co-op Atlantic faced two relentless pressures. "Aggressive price competition between the major competitors drove down retail markets and margins, forcing retail co-ops to focus diminished profits on defensive retail strategies. Its planned $1.5 million investment (in the beef-processing plant) had to be reduced to $500,000," explains Webb.

Okie said...

Pt 2

Much of what is discussed in the link is not only applicable locally, but describes issues across the country. I have read a number of things written by and about Western producers and realize the problems are National, and to a large extent affect both Canada and the US.

Much of what is posted here is dated but much of what they projected has already happened such as the closure of the Larsen pork processing plant in Berwick N.S. after being acquired by Maple Leaf Foods.

The link; http://www.cpcml.ca/Tmld2007/D37077.htm#4

Please get past the small political aspect of the link. I'm not promoting anyone's politics, but merely trying to reach a National audience to help people become aware of what is going on.

These industries and the many people affected need a National voice to speak on their behalf.

Okie said...

Sorry for the duplication at the bottom of Pt 1. I couldn't post it all at once and muffed the copy paste apparently.

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the link Okie. Agricultural monopoly is indeed insidious but our political class, our technocrats, have become quite acquiescent to concentration of power in many, many areas of the economy.

If you read my piece today on journalistic privilege you'll see an example of the ongoing marriage of political and corporate journalistic power. It's become such a reality today that people like David Frum freely admit it.

Okie said...

Read and duly noted Mound. Le Daro commented on my favorite Ogre in that field. The one who has been reported to have set aside $1 million just to drive out one fledgling weekly.

One of the reasons I am flagging the Ag issues again is because of the acquiescent attitude and an attempt to hold this out in consideration of the Liberal Party's recent announcement on Food Policy.

The Liberals have no rallying point. They need something that appeals to a wide cross section of the population. Something that touches everyone and isn't divisive like the long gun registry or the abortion issue overseas.

Not that I favor Iggnatieff over Harper, it's more that I want to see forward movement and that, it seems, will have to begin with the small battles. Many small battles, that will require considerable funds. Far more than what the Libs have talked about regarding their buy local program.

Small entities are going to require the same level of assistance that governments have given the giants, and the giants will have to be weaned. Forthwith, as you legal beagles would say.

Practices such as sending fish from both of our coasts to China to be processed, then back again has to stop. We have idle processing capability here. The meat processing industry is trying to concentrate in a very few locales. In our case, shipping livestock to Ontario then shipping the meat back. That has a limited future.

What it comes down to is, do the Liberals have the intestinal fortitude to stand up against the conglomorates in the interests of the people and fossil fuel waste? Or will it just be Moeofthesame?

The Mound of Sound said...

I know how I would like to be able to answer the last question you pose. I can't.

Okie said...

I don't really expect an answer Mound. Actually I'm trying in my own small way to put some fire in the bellies of the lot you share this aggregate with.

This is an essential issue and it is a core issue in respect to climate change and our physical and economic environment. If we can't even band together to protect those who provide us with the most basic elements of life, how are we going to make timely progress on alternative energy and ending situations like what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico?

There are many people who write on this aggregate who are good writers, intelligent and I expect some who share these concerns, but I don't see real dialogue on the blogs. Unless it's an issue related to the likes of Ezra or some "rightey troll" dares show up and lays on the sacrificial alter.

I won't run on anymore today, but will simply say this. It isn't so much the leading edge of Liberal political thought process pulling the ladder up behind themselves, as is it a case of them remembering to climb back down occasionally, and having a look around.

You do that regularly, and that is why I read what you write. Good blogs on the Israeli left and life in Pakistan btw. Your efforts to explore issues beyond what is normally circulated for public consumption provide a stimulating alternative for those who seek more than the rush of mush offerings from offically approved sources.

Keep up the good work

The Mound of Sound said...

Okie I do attempt to be somewhat eclectic in what I write. While the subjects may seem at times disparate - the environment, global security, national politics, social justice and so on, I do see all of these things linked, sometimes interwoven. There are connections, some of them subtle others powerful and direct.

Like you I wish more Liberal or progressive bloggers were more engaged in their world, less focused on politics, less introspective in their outlook. Yet the same complaint could be leveled at all of our political parties also. If we can't become more committed to our world and somewhat less to ourselves we stand very little chance of achieving the consensus essential to tackling the issues that threaten our children and grandchildren.

BTW a bit of good news. You'll recall that earlier this week I mentioned my brother having been felled by a massive heart attack. His doctors prepared us for the worst as his coma dragged on. Their prognosis was death or, if he survived, significant brain damage.

That gloomy diagnosis got stood on its head when he awoke on Friday as though nothing at all had happened. Absolutely no mental impairment, no loss of vision, nothing. The drugs he's been on and the heart attack itself did cause a short-term memory issue but that too has now resolved itself.

The medical staff in the ICU cannot explain it and simply describe it as a "miracle."

Okie said...

Thanks for writing about your brother. I wanted to say something, but was unsure.

His story is very similar to a situation involving a young child I became aware of this past summer while spending my days in and around hospitals. The little guy was also written off by his doctors, only to recover to the amazement of all, and the extreme gratitude of his father, the fellow who refused to authorize pulling the plug.

Best wishes to both and or all of you, whichever is the case.

LMA said...

So glad to hear the good news about your brother. He's a lucky man indeed. My husband lived only three weeks after his heart attack and never regained his physical strength although he remained mentally alert until the end. My sister had a mild heart attack, bypass surgery, and is going strong after five years. We just never know do we? Every day is precious.