Friday, November 14, 2014

Why the Obama-Xi Emissions Deal is Window Dressing.

The CO2 emissions deal reached this week by the presidents of the US and China is a positive step, no doubt about that.  It's also far too little, much too late, although it's reflective of how inflexible our global society has become even in matters of our very survival.

Even the numbers are squishy.  Obama has pledged that America will reduce CO2 emissions by 25 to 28% from 2005 levels by 2020.  The Chinese pledge is even more obscure.  It commits China to cap its emissions by 2030 and then begin reductions.

What's wrong with this?  Well, for starters, these are political numbers.  Neither commitment is demonstrably tied to a clear objective or purpose.  The numbers can't be shown as relevant in the context of avoiding climate "tipping points" that will trigger natural feedback mechanisms that lead to runaway global warming.

Taking a step toward the "exit" sign when the church hall is afire is a good thing but it'll take a lot more than a step if you're going to have any chance of escaping the flames.

Another troubling aspect of the Obama-Xi deal is the fudging of benchmark dates.  Look at what the Euros are doing.  The EU has pledged 40% reductions from 1990 levels.  1990, not 2005 - big difference.  1990, not 2030.

Slashing emissions is critical.  In its 2011 outlook, the International Energy Agency, warned we had five years to stop building fossil fuel energy plants and get into renewables or "the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be lost forever."  Fast forward three years to the IEA's 2014 outlook.  Echoing an OPEC forecast released last week, the IEA predicts CO2 emissions to increase another 20% between now and 2040.  And the IEA concludes our fossil fuel habit will lock in at least 3.6 degrees Celsius of warming, "making catastrophic sea level rise, polar ice cap loss, water shortages and other severe effects nearly inevitable."

A meaningful emissions reduction programme doesn't begin with a number pulled out of the air.  It begins by identifying the problem.  Then you have to calculate what's needed to solve it before moving on to the practical questions of how you can achieve that.  Tossing out percentages and dates that aren't coherently linked to the problem is simply disingenuous.  Yet perhaps we're really not capable of much more than that today.

We need to focus intently on tipping points.  At the end of the day there's nothing that matters more.  We need a clear idea of the point at which our man-made greenhouse gas emissions trigger natural feedback mechanisms that will drive uncontrollable global warming.  It's a bloody dangerous game, akin to holding a pistol to your head and trying to guess just how far you can squeeze the trigger before you release the firing pin to strike the round in the chamber.  That, however, is the game that we're in.

Why do we approach climate change as a stand-alone problem?  It's not.  In fact, you have to add climate change, in all its permutations, to overpopulation, in all its permutations, to over consumption, in all its permutations.  We need to see climate change, overpopulation and over consumption for what they are - symptoms of a larger, more intractable threat to our survival.

A few months ago I read a paper on food security written by three top Chinese experts.  What struck me was that these experts saw China, by 2030, growing by another 200-million people while per capita GDP soared from $7,000 today to $16,000.  That's an enormous increase in economic activity that will require commensurate increases in fossil fuel consumption, equally large increases in production and even greater increases in emissions, waste and pollution of all descriptions.  China is already the world's biggest single greenhouse gas emitter. Now imagine that more than doubling in under two decades.  Best not to dwell on what's in store for India, Brazil, etc.

Population.  Just a few years ago we projected our global population would peak around 9-billion.  Now we commonly hear 11-billion by 2100, perhaps more.  At the same time, we're growing a huge "consumer class" within that burgeoning population.  We're racing ahead on raw numbers and on per capita consumption. Can you see where this is heading?

Water.  In the minds of some rather bright people we're in a freshwater predicament potentially as perilous to our civilization as climate change.  The reason we were able to grow from under 3-billion at the end of WWII to 7+ billion today, heading for 9+ billion by 2050, has been our access to cheap fossil energy and abundant freshwater.  It took both.  That was the miracle.  Yet in our post-war growth spurt we came to view our water resources quite differently from the past.

In the post-war era we began to mine groundwater rapaciously.  We didn't give a second thought to just how much or how little water actually existed underground.  We just went at it and it produced some amazing results.  India, that had a history of periodic famine, achieved not only full food security but even ventured into the food export markets.  This same phenomenon allowed both India's and China's populations to treble in the post-war era.  Truly amazing.

Now we're in a real water jam.  NASA's Grace satellites have been mapping global surface subsidence which is used to measure the state of our aquifers.  As Maude Barlow has warned for many years, we're running on empty.

The groundwater at some of the world's largest aquifers - in the US High Plains [Ogallala], California's Central Valley, China, India, and elsewhere - is being pumped out "at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished."

The most worrisome fact: "nearly all of these underlie the world's great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity."

So dependent are we on ever increasing access to a rapidly diminishing resource that a recent US intelligence estimate foresaw water wars looming within a decade: "As water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives will become more likely beyond 10 years." 

Where are these "water wars" hot spots?  They're all in areas that are already water stressed, that have critical groundwater issues and shared access to equally critical surface water.  Foremost is Asia where Pakistan, India and China have conflicting dependencies on the Himalayan headwaters.  As local groundwater resources falter, the dependency on this surface water worsens.  Did I mention that all three nations have nuclear arsenals?

Next up are the Tigris and Euphrates and the conflicting dependencies of Turkey, Syria and Iraq.  Of the three it's Iraq, as the downstream nation, that is most at risk from water diversion by the upstream neighbours.

Then there's the Nile where Egypt relies on an old colonial-era British pronouncement for its claim to 70% of the river flows.  Egypt's several upstream neighbours don't think much of the British ruling and seek to divert Nile waters for their own purposes.  Egypt responds by regularly threatening to bomb any installations these smaller countries might dare construct.  Yet as dependencies deepen and approach the threshold of survival itself, countries can become destabilized and threats escalate into armed conflict. 

Climate change compounds all this.  One aspect of our warming atmosphere that's most obvious is our broken, hydrological cycle.  Precipitation patterns are badly skewed.  Rather than receiving the relatively steady, moderate rainfalls that were so essential to the expansion of modern agriculture, we're now experiencing cycles of drought and flood that are also more severe, more sustained and more frequent.  That, in turn, increases the demands on the dwindling remnants of global groundwater reserves.

The global water crisis points to a major part of the solution to what truly ails mankind - fairness.  Only equitable approaches can possibly forestall conflict. Nations - all nations - have to share and that includes sacrifice.  When you have a pie cut into four pieces and you suddenly find it has to feed twelve people, you have to cut each of those pieces into three.  The problem is we're not conditioned to do that.  We want others to do the sharing and the sacrifice, just leave us out of it.  That's practically the mantra of the Tea Party.

Equity is deliberately omitted from the Obama-Xi emissions pact.  Nowhere is there any discussion of whether the relatively modest cuts envisioned are "fair" to the rest of the world, especially the poorest and most vulnerable nations of the Third World.

Emissions quotas are about more than cuts.  They're also a way of defining a claim to some share of the atmosphere's remaining greenhouse gas carrying capacity.  We know how much that is with some pretty specific numbers.  Yet just who 'owns' the atmosphere?  Who holds what right to pump what amount of emissions into it?

The issue is fraught with unwelcome implications.  If we explore the nature of the atmosphere it's clearly a "commons."  It belongs to nobody and, hence, to everybody.  That means a nomadic herder on the Sahel has as valid a claim to it as a bitumen worker in Athabasca.  But if we ever recognized that we'd be in a hell of a fix because our way of life is dependent on keeping the lion's share of the remaining emissions carrying capacity.  We need the atmosphere as our own and we need it free of charge.  That the people whose equitable entitlement to it we're rejecting are also those reeling from the worst impacts of our Industrial Revolution emissions and for whom catastrophic climate change is already a reality is merely the icing on the cake - our cake.  Ours first, ours alone.

During the 19th and 20th centuries the major powers wrestled and periodically fought each other over how to divide the world among them.  The French got this, the Germans that, the Spanish and Portuguese bits here and there, the Brits everything else.  It seems to be an approach we're going to stick with on the environment.

It could be argued that the Obama-Xi deal is an exercise along these same lines. Obama has essentially decreed how big will be America's excessive share of the atmospheric commons in the future.  China says it'll let us know what it's after by 2030.  Other countries, our own Canada for example, are playing coy, jockeying for an even larger share.  It's a ploy that will eventually lead to the failure of whatever efforts we take to deal with climate change.

If we can't find an equitable solution to the atmosphere our chances of finding acceptable solutions to global fisheries or water resources or any of the other threats and challenges now looming are significantly diminished.  You simply have almost no hope of solving these problems when you're constrained by the straight jacket of neoliberalism.

Some, such as renowned intellectual John Raulston Saul, see revolution in our future.

“The collapse started in 1973,” Saul continued. “There were a series of sequential collapses afterwards. The fascinating thing is that between 1850 and 1970 we put in place all sorts of mechanisms to stop collapses which we can call liberalism, social democracy orRed Toryism. It was an understanding that we can’t have boom-and-bust cycles. We can’t have poverty-stricken people. We can’t have starvation. The reason today’s collapses are not leading to what happened in the 18th century and the 19th century is because all these safety nets, although under attack, are still in place. But each time we have a collapse we come out of it stripping more of the protection away. At a certain point we will find ourselves back in the pre-protection period. At that point we will get a collapse that will be incredibly dramatic. I have no idea what it will look like. A revolution from the left? A revolution from the right? Is it violence followed by state violence? Is it the collapse of the last meaningful edges of democracy? Is it a sudden decision by a critical mass of people that they are not going to take it anymore?”

It's best not to get too gushy about the Obama-Xi deal for it speaks more to their limitations and shortcomings than it does of any genuine commitment to address our existential threats.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps converting the transportation infrastructure to move fresh water instead of oil would be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

While poor old Newfoundland sinks.

The Mound of Sound said...

Every place with a coast is in the same boat (or wishes it could get into a boat).

Purple library guy said...

It is a measure of my disheartenment that, an anticapitalist, I am driven to seek comfort in market rather than political solutions. I think the only real hope is that solar and wind power are getting cheaper so fast that we are reaching a tipping point on cost, such that it soon won't be economically viable to install anything else. At which point shifts will happen whether the politicians want them or not.

Anonymous said...

Anyone with more than 2 kids is a villain. The key is arresting of population growth and eventually reduction of population.
All other issues are only distractions and provide no long term solutions for the planet. Only crutches.
Cannot wait for the comments: you first ;-)

The Mound of Sound said...

It's telling that nations with the lowest birthrates tend to be the most economically secure. Who knows whether that will continue in our turbulent future.