Thursday, September 21, 2017
Don't Give Up Hope But Try to Be Realistic
It was encouraging news, the first in a good while. A research team has concluded that, if humankind gets serious and sharply cuts greenhouse gas emissions now, there's a better than even chance we can limit man-made global warming to within the 1.5 degree target by 2100. There are some pretty big "ifs" associated with the outlook but, these days, you take rays of optimism where you can get them. Then again, "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride."
We are making progress weaning ourselves off fossil energy, no doubt about that. Several major automakers have announced plans to abandon internal combustion in the next decade or two. China has announced cars in the People's Republic will be all electric in the near future. In the US, state attorneys-general are closing in on Big Oil and gunning for its top executives. As the Brits have predicted, the Carbon Bubble may be about to burst. When it does you'll know it. It'll be when the Tar Sands shuts down.
How the global economy will weather the transition is unclear. There is a load of money, estimated at upwards of $27 trillion, invested in known reserves of fossil energy on the stock exchanges and bourses around the world. A bursting Carbon Bubble will wipe out most of that wealth and, with it, the holdings of major banks, pension funds and institutional investors. Petro-states will be in serious trouble as resource revenues collapse. From everything I've read, no one seems to have any happy solutions to this dilemma.
$27 trillion isn't all that bad. American households lost $16 trillion in the Great Recession. The difference is that much of the wealth lost in 2007-2008 has been recovered. That's different from the permanent loss of wealth from "stranded" assets such as fossil fuels - oil, gas and coal. That wealth, those reserves, will stay in the ground where they have a realistic value of approximately nil.
There aren't many willing to venture what our tightly integrated, globalized world is going to look like post-Carbon Bubble. What will the Middle East look like without its petro-clout? Anyone in the market for sand?
What if the consequences of abandoning fossil fuels are simply too disruptive for some states to bear? What about the United States with its fracked oil and fracked gas and its seabed oil and all those Gulf coast refineries? Its economy already overtaken by China and falling behind faster with each passing year, how much of a fossil fuel hit can the US take?
This rosy outlook is also reached in isolation of a number of critical considerations. It focuses on man-made inputs and yet we know that we have already triggered several natural feedback loops that could rival or even exceed anthropogenic warming including the release of Arctic methane from both permafrost and seabed clathrates and the heating effect of the loss of sea ice as well as glaciers and ice caps. These are forces we've already set in motion and we're just along for the ride at this point.
For years I've argued that global warming is just one of at least three existential crises, all of which must be resolved if we're to win on any of them. It's great to slash greenhouse gas emissions but bear in mind those emissions are also a reflection of human economic activity - production, consumption and waste.
Another recent report predicts an expansion of what's now called the "consumer class" by upwards of three billion in the next few decades. The prestigious OECD, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, forecasts that the middle class will grow from today's two billion to five billion by 2030. That's an extra three billion people lining up for new and bigger houses, cars, better food and plenty of it, consumer goods of every description, world travel and more - everything you've already got - by 2030.
Will that happen? I can't see how. We are already overtaxing our very finite planet's resources. Take one example, water. Where are we to find the ocean of freshwater that will be needed for the manufacture, distribution and use of this additional production? It takes 40,000 gallons of water to make a car. 2,000 gallons to make one tire. The average American's middle-class water footprint comes in at about 2,000 gallons a day.
It may not happen but the pressure for it to happen is beyond doubt. And if those demands and expectations aren't met, what then? What if we, the advantaged peoples, find ourselves losing out on competition for our own resources? Other, less fortunate areas are familiar with losing out but we haven't known that on any significant scale. Suffice to say there'll be a lot of pissed off people, billions of them, very unhappy with their governments. Even lemmings have sharp little teeth.
Overpopulation and over-consumption bear directly, and negatively, on our prospects for restraining climate change. My less than precise findings based on my research combine population growth, increases in longevity and growth in per capita GDP since 1900.
Global population in 1900 was 1.6 billion. At my birth (circa 1950) that had increased to 2.5 billion. Today we're at 7.5 billion, expected to easily reach 9 billion and perhaps 12 billion.
Life expectancy in 1900 ranged from 23 years in India to 45 years in Britain, 46 years in the US and about 48 years in Canada. Today American males can expect to live about 76 years with Canadians outlasting them by about 3-years. Globally, longevity has more than doubled.
As for the third element, per capita GDP, I'll rely on this chart:
You'll see that Canada's per capita GDP has grown about nine fold from 1900 to 2010. Global per capita GDP grew six fold over this interval.
So let's do the math. Longevity has doubled. Overall population has quadrupled. Per capita GDP has increased about six fold. That leaves 2 X 4 X 6 or a 48 fold increase in humankind's impact on Earth since 1900. And now we're told our consumer class will swell in numbers by another 150% by 2030 from two to five billion. Yeah, okay. Can you see where this is headed? What will that 48 fold increase look like if we swell to 9 billion, more than half of them middle class, by 2030?
The challenges facing mankind are, more or less, global. We have forged a deeply integrated civilization bound by an equally integrated economy. The continuation of that economy is dependent on a significant degree of stability among the participating nations. There are fewer self-sufficient nations. We rely on each other.
Each nation relies on the others in fighting climate change. It's our confidence in the willingness of others to make the necessary sacrifices and transitions that is the sine qua non of our own efforts. The fight against climate change, the fight to slash our greenhouse gas emissions, is heavily dependent on global stability.
There is no standard. Every nation differs in matters of climate change vulnerability, emissions, population pressures and sustainable resources. As these cumulative pressures mount more nations will succumb. Many are already showing signs of destabilizing forces whether it's resource shortages, especially food supply, or wars or mass migration and we're only looking at 'early onset' impacts.
How will we maintain the difficult global consensus so essential to our prospects of meeting these existential challenges even in the short- to mid-term? As one especially pessimistic climate scientist puts it, "Earth bats last." It's already at the plate.