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.


Trailblazer said...

I have long argued that part of the reluctance to wean ourselves off fossil fuels is that so many people will lose money.
By that I mean the pension funds, stock holders etc.
A mass dumping of fossil fuel stocks would lead to immediate chaos.

As usual mankind is trying to fob off the pain to the next generation.
Or, if that fails then to brown people with small defence budgets.


Lorne said...

A thought-provoking post, Mound. I wonder what impact the diversification that some fossil fuel corporations and pension funds are now engaging in will have on the economic chaos you predict?

Anonymous said... out Qingdao, China and have a look at what they are doing about Global Warming. I spent time there in 2007-08 and they have done a massive job producing solar engergy. Maybe we ought to take a look at what they are doing about the mass dumping of fossil fuel stocks.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, TB, vested or "invested" interests continue to play a powerful role in perpetuating the fossil energy economy. The consequences of a major shift to alternative energy would be catastrophe. They must forestall it for as long as possible. The case being built against their executives is based on misleading investors and shareholders about the true value of these proven reserves. The crime has, in effect, been committed. Those reserves have been fully subscribed, the shares sold based on their supposed market value. That can't be undone on any large scale.

The Mound of Sound said...

Diversification is overdue, Lorne, but the $27 trillion in proven reserves already subscribed by shareholders, investors and such probably can't be made good. That's wealth lost and there'll be no end of adverse ramifications all the way down a very long line. Who knew? Who ought to have known and known better? Who didn't heed warning signs? When the head of the London Stock Exchange and the Governor of the Bank of England issue clear and dire warnings year after year that go unheeded, there'll be a lot of people called to account for why.

The Mound of Sound said...

Anyong, I'm not sure what you're getting at. I know there are several ambitious solar projects in China but you're suggesting the folks at Quindao have been involved in a massive dumping of fossil fuel stocks. Really? I've heard nothing about it.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm often disappointed at how these "train of thought" essays stray, meander and sometimes lose focus, this one being a fair example. Three comments, all of them focused on the Carbon Bubble and looming market calamity, show how I missed the mark again this time. The economic discussion eclipsed the other points I sought to make about the real danger which is not fossil fuels but mankind due to unprecedented and massive increases in our total numbers, our longevity and our per capita production and consumption. To think that in little more than a century our already dominant species has increased our impact on the world, our biosphere, Spaceship Earth, by upwards of 48 times, 4,800%, reduces consideration of $27 trillion in lost value to a mere stumbling block. Perhaps I should edit this, break it into two essays and flesh out the second part with more detail and argument.

I'm not blaming anyone else. This is entirely on me. Sorry.

Toby said...

Mound, you do a great job here initiating discussions on serious subjects. Don't worry if a post has a few rough edges.

As to the one above, I zeroed in on the population issue; I generally do. I see it as a lifeboat issue. Too many people sink the boat; it doesn't matter how well intentioned the rescuers are.

Northern PoV said...

Ya this is possible: "if humankind gets serious and sharply cuts greenhouse gas emissions now" but alas not conceivable (to me).

Recently Mark Jaccard (one of Canada smartest scientists and part of the IPCC) defended (ok he posed as neutral but...) Site C by saying we will need it IF we quickly kick the fossil-fuel habit. (and it doesn't take forever to build - why not wait?)

Too many effing "IFs" imho.
If ifs and ands
were pots and pans
there'd be no work for tinkers.

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