It’s Too Late to “Save” the Climate, But Not Too Late to Save Ourselves

Paris_VistaYet another United Nations climate confab is about to commence, this time in Paris, France, where the tragic backdrop of terrorism, war, and a growing immigration crisis now grips the country. It’s fitting that global warming talks should happen here, considering the role that climate-induced drought in Syria has played in worsening the wave of the violence and desperate migration that’s spread throughout the region. Perhaps the gravity of the moment will weigh more heavily on UN delegates as they ponder a world where extreme weather, rising seas, and punishing droughts become the norm, leading to ever more conflict and misery.

Still, we’re unlikely to see a plan emerge from the Paris talks that truly stems the tide of rising carbon pollution, much less any binding agreement to ensure that meaningful climate protection goals are met. Those who’ve pinned their hopes on a global accord that ramps down carbon levels are singing from the same songbook as they always have, year after year, from Rio in 1992 to Kyoto in 1997 to Copenhagen in 2009. Time and time again the refrain is always: “It will be different this time.”

Environmental commentator Brian Tokar has outlined each of these progressive failures in his painfully incisive piece, Is the Paris Climate Conference Designed to Fail? With excruciating detail, Tokar provides a behind-the-scenes look into why these global processes have perpetually missed the mark, concluding that “progress toward a meaningful climate agreement has continued to be stifled by big-power politics and diplomatic gridlock.” That appears unlikely to change anytime soon, certainly not in the 20-30 year timeframe that climate activists proclaim is critical to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels to stave off massive climate disruption.

Recent news from climate scientists isn’t encouraging. Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) released a bulletin noting that the Earth’s climate will soon enter a new “permanent reality” when concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are almost certain to pass 400 parts per million (PPM) — already 50 units higher than the 350 PPM ‘safe’  threshold advocated by climate scientists and activists alike. “It means hotter global temperatures, more extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods, melting ice, rising sea levels and increased acidity of the oceans. This is happening now and we are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed,” said WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud. What’s more, researchers at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research just concluded that a major section of West Antarctica’s ice sheet has destabilized, the melting water from which is likely to raise global sea levels by three meters. It’s worth noting that more than 150 million people globally live within just one meter of the sea; at 3 meters, the number climbs to at least 300 million. In the United States alone, a 3-meter sea level rise would inundate many of the East Coast’s largest cities, including huge metroplexes like Boston, Miami, and New York.


Climate justice rally, Nov. 21, 2015, Oakland. Credit: Aaron Lehmer-Chang

And that’s just a sampling of the climate impacts that are already in the cards. Even if we look optimistically at what we can expect a global agreement to achieve, there’s simply no way it will stave off massive climate disruption. Independent researchers at Climate Action Tracker project a global temperature rise between 2.2°C and 3.4°C by 2100 if all current country-by-country pledges are fully implemented (emphasis mine). Those who are still committed to making the most of the UN talks in Paris, to push global leaders to ratify the boldest, most equitable climate agreement possible, deserve enormous praise and respect. May their efforts bear fruit, in spite of the odds. But given all the well-established impacts of the pollution that has already happened — let alone all the gigatons of carbon and methane releases to come — it’s simply irresponsible not to refocus our efforts on preparing for the worst.

To date, only about $57 billion in annual funds have been mobilized globally to mitigate and adapt to climate impacts, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That pales in comparison to the $6 trillion needed for infrastructure transformation over the next 15 years alone, according to the Global Commission of the Economy and Climate Change. And even that figure sounds woefully inadequate when the costs of shifting from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based entirely on renewables are factored in — roughly $60 trillion to maintain current world per-capita energy use, or $150 trillion to achieve European per-capita energy use, according to Searching for a Miracle, a joint study by the International Forum on Globalization and the Post Carbon Institute. The UN climate negotiations thus far have settled on a goal of just $100 billion annually in adaptation financing — a mere fraction of what’s needed to truly prepare communities for what’s coming.

Of course, were we to downscale our overall energy demand, opt for radical conservation measures, phase out private automobile use, relocalize our economies, and shift our food system away from animal agriculture — then modern society’s energy requirements would be far less than they are now, our lives would be far more fulfilling, healthy, and connected, and our impact on the climate would be drastically reduced. And rather than scramble in vain to maintain unsustainable levels of consumption — albeit through supposed “green” technologies, nearly all of which require extensive fossil fuels and toxic chemicals to produce — we could instead focus on bracing our communities for climate change’s inevitable impacts, simplifying our infrastructure, and moving population centers away from rising waters. Unfortunately, in terms of overall investments and socioeconomic trends, we’re doing precisely the opposite: building more and more energy-intensive infrastructure, sprawling networks of roads and highways, vaster trade routes and shipping fleets, and ever-larger cattle, pig, poultry, and fish production facilities.


Climate justice march, Nov. 21, 2015 Oakland. Credit: Aaron Lehmer-Chang

Still, while global climate talks and dominant trends are falling far short, a rising tide of local actions around the world to push governments, institutions, and communities toward climate sanity are providing a glimmer of hope for the future. To name but a few noteworthy developments:

On the weekend of November 28-29, the Global Climate March will take place in hundreds of cities around the world to coincide with the start of the Paris talks. The breadth and tenacity of the global climate movement has already made impressive strides, having forced governments to take bolder stances than they clearly would have otherwise, and shifting popular consciousness largely away from the deniers and diminishers of our day. But the vital task of shifting trillions away from fossil fueled infrastructure, oil wars, and wasteful consumption toward a just, regenerative, balanced way of life for us all remains the most critical unfinished challenge of our time. It’s too late to “save” the climate as we know it, but it’s not too late to save ourselves.

If we can face the gathering storms, the rising seas, and the social turmoil that’s coming with honesty, humility, and boldness, we may just make it to the other side. How that “other side” shapes up is still largely up to us, depending on whether we continue to squander this planet’s abundant natural wealth or harness its remaining bounty toward a life-affirming future. The costs of fossil fuels on our world have been staggering, to be sure, to our health, to our communities, and to the biosphere at-large. But whether by design or some fantastical quirk of geological fortune, the endgame is nigh for fossil fueled industrialism. The mad dash for more, more, more into the furthest, most remote corners of the globe will eventually fade into distant memory, replaced with cultures and economies that flow with the rhythms of sunlight, water, and wind. Why not get started with the exciting work of recalibrating ourselves to the natural cadence of life on Earth?

Google: Renewable Energy Won’t Stop Climate Crisis

Google Renewables Won't Save UsIt should go without saying that there’s no silver bullet solution to the climate crisis. Indeed, it’s simply too late in the game for anything resembling a “solution” at all. Industrial civilization’s slavish devotion to economic growth-at-all-costs, coupled with its fossil fuel-strapped infrastructure, have already dealt a body blow to our atmosphere’s stability — promising centuries of harrowing conditions ahead for humanity and countless other species on Earth, regardless of how we respond.

The latest climate news has only confirmed the worst fears of scientists. Weather Underground bloggers reported last week that Antarctica hit a record-breaking high of 63.5 F (17.5 C).  Even more disturbing is a recent discovery by an international team of scientists who found that the Totten Glacier of East Antarctica is now melting. The Totten, it turns out, is the last line of defense against the melting of a vast catchment of ice that would raise sea levels by more than 11 feet. And that’s on top of a 10 feet rise predicted by another finding last year showing massive glacial thawing well underway in West Antarctica. To underscore what even a 10-foot sea level rise will mean for coastal cities, researchers at Climate Central have produced a jaw-dropping interactive mapping tool called “Surging Seas” that shows which coastal areas and cities will be flooded with alarming clarity. Their findings demonstrate that the United States would lose 28,800 square miles of land, which is home today to a mere 12.3 million people. Among the most threatened cities: New York, New Orleans, and Miami.

Since global climate protection summits have thus far produced more photo-ops than agreements, it’s understandable that many would pin their hopes on technological advancements in renewable energy systems, along with their scaled-up deployment, to stave off catastrophic climate change. It’s become something of a sacred belief among mainstream environmentalists that if only we could shift society’s investment in dirty fossil fuels toward cleaner, safer energy that all would be fine in the world, and we could all continue to happily consume our way to industrial nirvana, powered by solar, wind, and geothermal electrons, of course. All that’s needed, it is typically argued, is massive education about the problem of climate change, and a massive redirection of funding and policy favoritism away from the bad stuff toward the good stuff.

Well, despite their own deep-seated belief in such a vision, a well-funded team of researchers at Google have concluded that even if we could muster enough momentum toward a future powered by renewables, clean energy systems simply cannot and will not save us from devastating climate impacts. Known as RE<C, Google’s initiative launched in 2007 with the aim of developing renewable energy sources that could generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants through a combination of investments in clean energy start-ups and its own internal R&D program. By 2011, however, as it became increasingly clear that RE<C was not on track to meet its stated goals, Google shut down the initiative, according to program engineers Ross Koningstein and David Fork.

In the words of Koningstein and Fork: “At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope — but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.” They’re right, of course. Even though climate instability will make life increasingly difficult for us humans — as droughts, storms, killer viruses, creeping deserts, tsunamis, and floods devastate population centers and force tens of millions to migrate to more welcoming climes —  most will learn to adapt, improvise, and devise new lifeways in the face of chaotic conditions. The most successful will learn to reconnect with this magnificent world’s vibrant, life-giving rhythms and cycles, and ever more deeply with one another, perhaps even without — gasp! — more and more high-tech, energy-intensive devices.

And the planet? Doomed? Nah. It will simply adopt a new “normal” of an increasingly warmer climate and tumultuous water cycle, balancing itself back to a recalibrated equilibrium. Eventually, even the excess carbon that we’ve so carelessly ejected into our atmosphere will filter out of the skies and return to the oceans, the land, and subterranean realms. In the process, industrial civilization will become yet another layer in the fossil record of geological time.

Of course, in all fairness to the Google research team, their project was doomed from the start. The underlying assumptions were that industrial society will grow forever using ever more energy (thus requiring the replacement of finite fossil energy with renewables) and that some sort of “radical” technological breakthrough can save the day (thus demanding ever more investment in clean energy R&D). It was never imagined that industrial society must face up to its own end, dependent as it is on cheap and abundant fossil fuels — fuels which just so happen to be declining in quality, quantity, and accessibility each and every day. No, the Google team’s efforts never stood a chance against ecological or geological reality, much less the deep-seated denial that pervades the industrial mind.

And yet, they deserve praise for making such a bold and gallant effort. For through their failure, they’ve helped to illuminate a critical blind spot in our thinking about energy: that no matter how much we may wish to believe in the value of renewable energy systems (I, for one, am a strong proponent), they’re not our saving grace. We are.

Weathering the Storms, Planting the Seeds

plant-in-handThe recent mass marches for climate justice in New York City and around the world were truly historic. It’s no small feat to inspire 400,0000+ Americans to take to the streets for anything these days, much less global climate change. Spearheaded by and an incredibly diverse range of environmental activists, labor organizers, indigenous peoples, and social justice advocates, these actions represented a watershed moment for the climate protection movement.

For social change artist and CultureStrike co-founder Favianna Rodriguez, the People’s Climate March was unprecedented in the ways that immigrants, youth of color, and women took on leadership roles in shaping the message and connecting social justice issues to the growing call for climate sanity. “Climate change is inextricable from social issues like feminism and immigration policy,” she recently told Time Magazine. It’s deeply heartening to witness this evolution of climate change activism. Indeed, it offers real hope for a more promising future.

And yet, a haunting question remains: “Isn’t it too little, too late?” Despite the momentum that organizers have built in recent years, it’s not yet strong enough to win the grand prize: binding commitments by the largest polluting nations to make the deep emissions cuts needed to stop global warming — at least 80% by 2050 — let alone slow its predicted impacts. Despite the massive demonstrations worldwide, the current round of climate talks scheduled to yield a new global pact in Paris next year have thus far shown little prospect of curbing emissions enough to stabilize the climate. Indeed, the much-talked-about position of the European Union to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 is still, in the end, woefully inadequate. “The EU 2030 target is 10 years too little and too late,” said Claudia Salerno, chief climate negotiator for Venezuela.

What’s more troubling is that few funds are materializing to help our economies transition from fossil fuels to clean energy or to protect people in harm’s way from the worst climate impacts. Of the $10 billion promised by the end of 2014 for the Green Climate Fund, a UN bank to finance efforts by developing countries to address climate change, only $2.3 billion has been pledged. What’s really needed is more like hundreds of billions annually.

Let’s be real: climate instability is already here with a vengeance in the form of ferocious storms, extreme droughts, rising sea levels, supercharged diseases, mass migrations, and drowning communities. Of course, we can and must build on growing popular momentum to help stave off even worse conditions, but the reality is that we’re simply going to have to weather the storms. Those storms are gathering strength on the horizon just now.

Gathering Storms on the Horizon

The situation in Iraq and Syria has become particularly precarious, as Islamic State forces terrorize local communities, seize control of northern oil fields, and advance ever-closer to Baghdad (frequently, with U.S.-made vehicles and weaponry). President Obama has been forced to ramp up military involvement yet again, exposing the oft-repeated lie that the U.S.-led invasion there has done anything to stabilize the region. Indeed, the real goal of ensuring long-term control over the planet’s second largest proven oil reserves remains as elusive as ever.

Here in California, the state’s punishing drought is entering its third consecutive year (see NASA satellite imagery of worsening conditions), prompting massive cutbacks in water use by agriculture, municipalities, and industry. Some Central Valley communities are now literally running out of water, resorting to portable toilet service and relying on subsidies for bottled water just to survive. State officials warn that even if significant rainfall returns this winter, drought conditions would remain for most of the state. A high-pressure ridge off the West Coast is preventing most rain from making landfall, the same phenomenon that occurred during an even worse regional drought in 1934, according to atmospheric scientists.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, the specter of ebola spreading far and wide now haunts the modern world, with near-panic conditions setting in among some American cities. And while the average Westerner’s chances of contracting the disease are currently slim to none, the virus in its present form nonetheless has a gruesomely impressive death rate, killing around 70% of those who contract it. According to the World Health Organization, there could be as many as 10,000 new cases per week in west Africa as early as December. It doesn’t help that the virus is constantly mutating and adapting, or that nearby war-torn landscapes are suffering from inadequate sanitation infrastructure and broken health systems. Some countries, most notably Nigeria, have made impressive progress against ebola’s trajectory, but if it spreads to Egypt or other major international population epicenters, the prospect remains that the current outbreak could very well become a global pandemic.

Hospicing the Old World, Planting Seeds for the New

“How do you stay positive with all that’s going on?” asked a close friend of mine recently. We were sharing some quality time with our giddy toddlers after dinner in a local park by the lake, painfully aware that the serenity we now take for granted is by no means guaranteed in our sons’ futures, much less our own. Both of us are long-time environmental and social justice activists, so we’re no strangers to the horrific devastation being wrought against our planet’s life support systems or the violence and gross inequities still plaguing our world.

Still, it’s a fundamental question, and one for which I have no easy answer. My friend and I both know the old, fossil-fueled industrial world is dying, but that there are critical things worth saving along the path to laying it to rest. As she so eloquently puts it, we have to “hospice what’s left of the system we’re leaving behind, while planting the seeds for the future we’re building.” For me, it’s the planting part that holds the most promise.

By planting seeds, I mean far more than gardening — though that act alone can be a profound act of resistance to the buy-consume-discard economy that’s severed our once-sacred relationship to land’s natural rhythms. Even in the face of knowing that much trauma awaits us — personally, socioeconomically, ecologically, and yes, civilizationally — there is still so much we can do to create joy, justice, and possibility in our world.

I used to think that activism wasn’t worth doing if it wasn’t focused on making large-scale impacts. Now that I see macro-level challenges bearing down upon us faster than we can effect, I actually take strange comfort in knowing that the smallest, most localized actions may now be the most vital. From lessening your dependence on fossil-powered machines, learning new permaculture skills, to even something as simple as meeting your neighbors, there are innumerable changes we can all make in our day-to-day lives that will help prepare us for the turbulence ahead. In their own right, such changes can also have a powerful effect on our outlook, our health, and our fundamental happiness.

Coupled with a commitment to working with others toward common cause, possibilities abound for building a more resilient, hopeful future. In the short time that I’ve lived in my diverse, economically distressed neighborhood in Oakland, I’ve witnessed incredible commitment to strengthening neighbor-to-neighbor ties and improving community life. Local parents have formed vibrant learning and activity centers and daycare coops for their children. Each of the corner medians that border my block are now spiritual sanctuaries adorned with ornate Buddhist shrines, flowers, and altars — creating a sense of calm, respect, and beauty in an otherwise drab sea of concrete. Several entrepreneurs have tapped into their own culinary skill sets to start up delightful new establishments specializing in Filipino comfort food, Burmese cuisine, and delicious baked goods. Groups have formed to organize community picnics, launch greening projects, plan neighborhood cleanup days, host public forums on local elections, and run workshops on rainwater harvesting and installing greywater systems.

Will such efforts be enough to meet the combined impacts of an unforgiving climate, a dying empire, and a viciously unequal economy? Not even close. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll allow us the space to reconnect, to reimagine, and to rebuild the kind of communities we truly yearn for in our hearts. In the end, those that can let go of fear and face the future with honesty and poise will be the most able to weather the storms — and best positioned to plant the seeds for a new world. That’s easier said than done, of course. But it’s a path that keeps me positive, each and every day.

Preparedness Matters More than CO2 Targets

[Reposted from the Winter 2014 issue of the Earth Island Journal.]

If we environmentalists were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that several decades of heroic efforts to curb carbon emissions have yielded very little progress. Despite repeated warnings from scientists and the inspiring rise of climate activism, global emissions continue to grow, having recently passed the dangerous threshold of 400 parts per million (ppm).

“Passing the 400 [ppm] mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels,” says Dr. Michael Gunson of the Global Change & Energy Program. Such views are sobering, to say the least, especially knowing that it takes about four decades for the impacts of prior emissions to take full effect. We’ve already witnessed nearly a 1˚ C increase in average global temperatures from emissions between 1900 and the early 1970s. If you add the emissions “already in the pipeline” over the decades since, we’re almost guaranteed another 0.5˚ C in warming by mid-century. This would take us precariously close to the much-dreaded 2˚ C increase that scientists warn would have “severe climate impacts on social and natural systems.”

Preventing Climate Change No Longer a Viable Strategy

Stabilizing the global climate at or below a 2˚ C increase would require unprecedented cuts in emissions — on the order of 80 percent or more — by 2050. Translated into real-life terms, residents, governments, and businesses the world over would practically need to cease their reliance on fossil fuels in little more than a generation.

Given the anemic international agreements attempted thus far and the glacial pace of progress in Washington, the prospects for meaningful political action seem remote. Moreover, if we were to continue being honest, we’d have to acknowledge that industrial civilization is simply too “locked in” to fossil fuel dependency to cut emissions quickly or deeply enough to prevent climate instability. We’re not only addicted to fossil fuels, the needle is grafted to our collective arm.

Peak Oil Will Curb Carbon Emissions

Thankfully, that one-time reservoir of fossil fuels we’ve been gifted is starting to run dry, which will grant our overtaxed atmosphere some reprieve from carbon emissions in the decades to come. We’re entering a period that petroleum geologists refer to as “peak oil,” that maximum point in production when we can no longer extract oil at rates higher than we have before. It corresponds roughly to the half-way point in our global endowment, which will soon mean that we modern-day humans will have less and less oil and related fossil fuels to work with each and every year.

According to a recent assessment by Europe’s Energy Watch Group, “world [crude] oil production has not increased anymore but has entered a plateau since about 2005.” We can expect crude oil from mature fields to continue to decline, dropping as much as 40 percent by 2030. In another new report, Climate After Growth, Post Carbon Institute’s director Asher Miller and Transition Network founder Rob Hopkins note that the planet’s oil fields are declining at an average rate of 4 million barrels per day — roughly one-fifth of what Americans consume every day.

In response, oil firms are desperately trying to replace those losses via costly and risky forms of extraction like hydro-fracking and deepwater drilling to reach unconventional forms of energy like shale gas and Canadian tar sands. Great media hoopla has accompanied the resurgence of the US fossil fuel industry from such development. But the Energy Watch Group’s analysis reveals that US shale oil will actually “peak between 2015 and 2017, followed by a steep decline,” a pattern that’s expected to repeat itself globally.

Energy analyst Chris Nelder sums up our present conundrum this way: “Global production will fall when the decline of mature fields overwhelms new additions. When, precisely, that will happen, no one can say for certain. But it’s almost definitely before 2020.”

Many environmentalists still hold out hope that we can simply “swap in” renewable energy to replace the vast, concentrated energy provided by fossil fuels. We’ll need all the solar, wind, oceanic, biomass, hydro, and geothermal energy we can get, but renewable energy (now about 13 percent of global energy use) simply cannot be scaled up at the pace needed to supplant our fossil fuel use — certainly not before the predicted down-curve in available oil and gas supplies.

Shifting the Debate to Infrastructure Transformation

If true, then the question shifts from, “How do we reduce fossil fuel use?” (which will happen anyway) to, “How do we make the best use of what we have left to adapt to climate change and the coming energy crunch?”

Mitigating climate change’s worst impacts is critical, especially when they disproportionately affect society’s most vulnerable and our vital life-support systems. But the idea that we should simply leave the rest of the recoverable fossil fuels in the ground is starting to sound increasingly naïve and morally questionable. It’s naïve because of the sheer inertia we’ve witnessed during the past three decades in terms of global climate action. To think that will change anytime soon is wishful thinking. And it’s wrong because leaving our remaining fossil fuels untapped would consign hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people to their deaths, given how dependent we are on fossil-fueled infrastructure.

What’s vital now is shifting our infrastructure away from fossil dependency and migrating threatened coastal communities and economies inland. As fossil fuels decline, we’ll need to rehabilitate rural economies, re-nutrify denuded soils, and rebuild diverse local food systems. As the snowpack diminishes from climate change, we’ll need rainwater catchment and storage basins, reforested watersheds, and water-efficient irrigation systems. As sea levels rise, we’ll need to build more dikes, levees, and channels to protect our cities. We’ll need to de-pave many of our streets, highways, and parking lots to free up space for growing food, open up covered creeks, and reseed natural landscapes. We’ll need to energy retrofit our buildings, revitalize rail transport lines, convert seafaring vessels to sail, and retool our decaying manufacturing infrastructure.

All of this will require redirecting substantial fossil fuels from wasteful consumption toward these ends. We face challenging times ahead from the global warming that is already coming, along with the consequences of overshooting our planet’s resource limits. We must brace ourselves. Instead of saddling future generations with a crumbling, oil-dependent infrastructure, our legacy must be to carefully apply the resources we have left to fertilize, fortify, and beautify our world.