Monday, August 21, 2006

A call to evolution

(text of a presentation I'm to give soon, to an inter-faith group)

  1. What is global warming, and what causes it?
  2. What are its effects likely to be?
  3. How we can counteract it? Both by making changes in our lifestyles, and by mobilising politically?
  4. Finally, what opportunities could climate change represent, for the evolution of a new pattern of society?

1. What is global warming, and what causes it?

Manmade climate change is the warming of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere caused primarily by the working of greenhouse gases which are emitted when we burn fossil fuels, but also as a result of land use changes, including deforestation (these two account for about 80% and 20% of the phenomenon respectively)1. It has come about since industrialisation first took hold around 1860 - when fossil fuels first started being burned in large volumes in factories2.

Since this time, temperature increases have been gathering pace exponentially. The world’s temperature has increased about 0.6ºc since 1860, and is projected to rise by anything between another 0.9ºc (a very low and optimistic estimate) and 5.2ºc over the course of the coming century3. It’s estimated that there is another 0.6ºc of rises already “locked in” - in other words if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the “momentum” from the gases we’ve emitted to date would cause temperatures to rise 0.6ºc before levelling out4.

It is figured that 2ºc is the amount of total temperature rise we can generate, from 1860 levels, before we trigger what’s known as “runaway climate change” - where climate change produces vicious cycle effects, which mean it would carry on perpetuating itself, and getting worse, even if we were to burn no more fossil fuels5. An example is that peat bogs would start releasing methane, a key greenhouse gas, in large quantities at this temperature6. It’s estimated that we need a reduction of carbon emissions by 90% on 1990 levels by 2030 in order to have a chance of limiting temperature increases to 2ºc7.

2. What are the effects of global warming likely to be?

That global warming is happening is clear: the 1990s was the warmest decade since the mid-1800s, when record-keeping started. The hottest years recorded: 1998, 2002, 2003, 2001, and 1997, and hottest of all, 2005 8.

As far as the effects, we have already begun to see them: Hurricane Katrina in the US last year, for example, is thought by many commentators to have been made much more severe by ocean temperature rises created by global warming9. The 2003 heatwave in Northern Europe is estimated to have taken around 35,000 lives10.

In the coming years and decades, as the Earth’s atmosphere warms further, we will see more and more disasters. Glaciers and icecaps will steadily melt, causing sea levels to rise, wiping out lowlying land and displacing populations. 100 million people live within one metre of sea-level and are at risk from flooding11. Glaciers melting in the Himalayas will lead to huge floods along the seven enormous rivers in South and South East Asia fed by those glaciers (including the Ganges, the Mekong and the Yellow river) - wiping out crops upon which hundreds of thousands of people depend12. After the floods in these areas there’ll be droughts, causing further problems (ibid). Increased temperatures will pressurise food supplies in many parts of the world, by causing droughts and desertification (maize-growing in Africa, for example, is already being affected13). Similarly, the increased acidification of the oceans will have severe impacts on fish stocks, and will take thousands of years to be reversed14.

Africa and the Indian subcontinent, in particular, will experience grave effects. Temperature rises will be much higher in these regions than in temperate zones; causing desertification, drought, increased prevalence of tropical disease especially malaria, and massive displacement of people15. As people are displaced they will move to neighbouring areas, which in turn may also have been adversely affected; causing widespread and cumulative strain on already fragile ecosystems.

Climate change will cause mass extinctions - something on the order of one million species are expected to become extinct by 2050 16. It will cause drying out and resulting dying out in the rainforests of the world17, and other self-reinforcing causes possibly leading to runaway climate change, as mentioned before18.

So we see that the effects are primarily in the developing countries, while the causes - industrial processes of production and transport - are overwhelmingly located in the developed countries, including China (the US accounts for about 21%, and China 15% of greenhouse gas emissions19).

Another key aspect is that it is the primary and most basic requirements of life - obtaining food and water, land and shelter - which are affected, while the causes have much to do with satisfying wants - such as tourist flights, manufacturing entertainment goods and so on.

It is strikingly clear that action in the form of ceasing to emit fossil fuels is needed urgently. The most amount of action is needed straight away - but it is one of the tragedies and dangers of the situation, that it is likely that a convincing response will only come about once the largest effects of climate change hit and then it will be too late. So it is a race against time to raise awareness as broadly and effectively as we can. And to make radical differences in our lives, not just in terms of our own climatic impacts, but I would argue more importantly, in terms of becoming activists.

The next ten years are crucial. While it is already too late to stop significant effects of climate change, we can make the difference between large regional crises and global catastrophe in the next ten years. If we don’t act to the maximum extent possible now, we will rue it in ten precious years’ time. We will be wishing we were in 2006 then.

3. How we can counteract global warming?

So what can we do? The solutions are as simple as the causes. We must reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn; and we must also reduce land use changes, especially deforestation.

How do we reduce fossil fuel consumption? Two ways - convert to clean alternative energies: solar, wind and wave; and reduce overall energy consumption.

Clean alternative energies all provide valuable partial answers to the problem, but none of them on their own, or even all of them altogether, including nuclear, is enough to cater for current, or projected future demand (including projected future increases in capacity of these energy sources20). The only non-oil energy source which can enable us to fulfil current levels of demand is coal (already a very important source of energy - providing 50% of electricity in the US and 28% in the UK21). To burn the amount of coal required, ordinarily, would spell climate catastrophe, as coal is more emitting than oil (ibid). That said, there is a possible means to reduce carbon emissions from coal power generation, by "carbon sequestration"22 - trapping the carbon produced, burying it underground, either inland or in seabeds (though this may be problematic - there is possible risk of eventual leaking23), or absorbing it into rich dark earth, known as "terra preta"24. However, the reality is that both the USA and China have hundreds of new coal power stations planned, and these do not feature carbon sequestration25.

It’s clear that the only way to make the sums add up in the short and medium terms - to meet our overall energy demand without using massive amounts of coal - is energy demand reduction26. This is the challenge facing us - to reduce our energy consumption: to do and buy less things that consume large amounts of energy.

In terms of switching to alternative energies, and reducing overall energy consumption, we can do a lot in our personal lives. We can use public transport where possible, and cycle; and not fly except when necessary; we can use energy-saving lightbulbs; purchase only locally-grown produce; and recycle; we can switch to an electricity provider which uses clean energy; and we can offset the carbon cost of our flights. We can try to implement some of these measures at work too.

However if we are all simply left to do these on an individual basis, it’s clear that they won’t be done as radically as is necessary. At times we will forget, or we will let ourselves off; or we will allow more immediate considerations to override. More importantly, the number of people and companies committed enough to implement these changes will always be a minority, as for example with those willing to pay extra for Fairtrade produce27.

What we need is a mechanism which makes the cost of using fossil fuels, or of consuming products made or transported using large amounts of fossil fuels, prohibitive compared to the alternatives. So that companies and people are incentivised en masse to produce, use and purchase the alternatives. So that climatic costs are reflected in the costs of various activities; and the development and use of alternative energies becomes financially incentivised.

That mechanism already exists and is called Contraction and Convergence28. The famous, or infamous, Kyoto Protocol29, is a partial implementation of some of the principles of Contraction and Convergence. Under Contraction and Convergence, a maximum overall level for concentration of carbon in the world’s atmosphere, from now right the way through the future, is decided, based on what is safe and achievable. Then, a sequence of year-by-year annual emissions targets is set for each country in the world, going forward perhaps fifty or seventy years; which are calculated in such a way that the overall global carbon concentration for all time stays within the limit which was initially decided. The targets for the industrialised countries will be set so that they will have to start reducing emissions quite radically straight away; meanwhile those set for developing countries will allow them some extra initial emission capacity in order to enable them to develop. Over time, the emissions of each country will converge, meaning that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by each country becomes proportionate to its population size - so the situation regarding greenhouse gas emissions becomes completely equitable. At the end of the process, overall world emissions will have been vastly reduced, almost down to zero; and the overall carbon concentration level will have been kept to the safe level initially envisaged30.

Meanwhile, Contraction and Convergence can also tackle land use changes, such as deforestation, by including within its frameworks the emissions created by them.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said Contraction and Convergence was "inevitably required" to achieve its objective. The New Statesman magazine has said it is “compelling logic that could, without exaggeration, literally save the world”. And the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Anyone who thinks that Contraction and Convergence is Utopian simply hasn’t looked honestly at the alternatives”(ibid).

Now the unfortunate, indeed life-threatening situation, is that Contraction and Convergence is far away from the prospect of being implemented. Here in the UK, Labour MP Colin Challen is trying to put a Contraction and Convergence bill through Parliament, but this is a difficult prospect31.

The Kyoto Protocol was a partial implementation of Contraction and Convergence, because it only applies to industrialised countries so far, and because the emissions targets envisaged are not enough to make a meaningful difference to global warming. However, it was widely seen as a very hard-won, worthy and necessary beginning. It came into force in December last year, and already the participating industrialised countries are facing limits on emissions, and penalties if they exceed them. Even Kyoto, though, as a first step, has not been ratified by the US, the world's largest emitter, and this means that developing countries like China and Brazil are unlikely to want to take part in emissions agreements any time soon.

The US argues that the Protocol is unfair, because developing countries are not included (so it will be at a competitive disadvantage); and that it won’t be effective because the targets are too modest; and thirdly that it will be too harmful to its economy; and specifically for its standard of living32.

However the Protocol, especially if eventually implemented worldwide, would not actually be significantly harmful either to individual or to the global economies33, especially beyond the short term, but would mostly affect very large corporations within the energy producing and intensive sectors34.

These companies would likely see their costs rise and their bottom line hit in the short term, and this would have an impact on GDP in the short term. But this is precisely the point - to restructure the economy.

Smaller and non-energy intensive companies may feel better about the opportunities offered by new technologies, lacking the burden of significant investment in fossil fuel-based processes. Meanwhile financial companies such as insurance firms and banks are already beginning to tally the trillion-dollar risks of current and future climate impacts, and to reflect them in premiums and other product prices35.

The energy corporations, for their part, are investing large amounts of money in developing alternative technologies, and making a big fanfare about this36 – however these investments do still represent small proportions of their budget compared to fossil fuels, and these companies still remain massively invested, financially and libidinally, in oil - which is after all the purest and most concentrated source of industrial and therefore political power and wealth the world has ever known, and which, unlike many alternative energies, it is possible to monopolise, control and reap massive profits from37. Exxon made $10.4 billion profit this quarter38.

So the business world by no means has a single stance on climate change. Rather its positions are a mixture of: oil companies making marginal changes; some other companies attempting to seize the opportunities it presents, and simultaneously prudently trying to preempt legislation; and still other companies actively calling for regulation, so that the climate adaptation measures they wish to take will not be penalised in competition with companies who don't take them39. Meanwhile, in US domestic politics, many states are already implementing regional climate accords, which will put pressure on the national administration to implement a states-wide policy (ibid).

The greatest obstacle perhaps to the implementation of Contraction and Convergence is the acute control the oil companies have over the Bush Administration40; combined with and spurring on a foreign policy based on a messianic and hubristic vision of world domination, centred on spreading "American values"41. The influence oil companies have over policy has serious effects in other areas too, in particular underwriting a territorial logic which leads to aggressions (and support for aggressiveness) in the Middle East42.

Energy and other corporations exercise vast political power, in the US and the UK and elsewhere, through direct influence on government representatives, and through lobbying; and also have a great deal of influence on public opinion, by virtue of their advertising and public relations activities, and the complicity of corporate media which depends on them for advertising revenue43: with all of this reaching an apex when ExxonMobil effectively wrote the US national climate policy44.

Additionally, fuel companies have consistently lobbied the media to represent the opinions of a handful of climate change skeptics on an even footing with the views of the 2,000 climate scientists who form the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change45.

Our governments have to take a view on which aim is more sacred - averting climate chaos and saving millions of lives; or safeguarding the quarterly results of leading corporations. And the problem is that the companies have so much leverage on the government that it’s all too easy to see which way they will go46 – certainly which way they have gone so far.

The nonetheless encouraging fact, that many companies are taking account of the issue and attempting to alter their practises, is not enough. What is needed is a framework which can genuinely, convincingly and non-negotiably put the interests of the planet, and of humanity and nature, above those of companies.

Contraction and Convergence gives a means to set in advance a target which, based on climate science, will enable us to avoid catastrophe, and then uses economic means, powered by markets, to lead us to remain within that target. It lets us factor future and global effects, into prices, and therefore behaviours, here and now.

So while the efforts and policies of a good number of companies are to be welcomed, they cannot replace an international framework, which the companies should call for because it will incentivise and reward their good policies anyway.

So, in the face of the current impasse in the political situation regarding climate change, the gauntlet is thrown down to us. Are we going to let corporations decide the energy and climate policies of our democratically elected governments? Are we going to let profitability concerns override the preservation of climatic stability; at the cost of millions of lives all around the world; and an unimaginable toll of human upheaval and suffering? Are the next few years of financial results of leading corporations going to take precedence over the future of the planet? Over the rights of all of our children and grandchildren to inherit a viable climate? Will we allow corporate executives to enrich themselves in a one-time closing-down sale of oil and environment goods, comfortable in the knowledge they can inhabit temperate areas and pay for climate protection and mitigation?

The social and political force which can outweigh the corporate interests writing ruinous climate policy is us - a massive mobilisation of the people. We need to take advantage of the full array of interventions available to us in democracies. We can write to our MPs47, urging them to support Colin Challen’s Contraction and Convergence bill. We can vote for or support parties or figures which endorse the proposal. We can demonstrate - worldwide demonstrations are scheduled for November 4th, to coincide with the next high-level UN climate conference. We can inform ourselves and our friends about the issue, and about the stances of the various political and corporate players that count. We can raise the profile of the issue, in any way we can think of, in the media for example. We can join green activist groups; and contribute to community organisations that attempt to set an example by adopting localised, low emission lifestyles.

All these things are important.

4. What opportunities for evolving our society might be presented by climate change?

Now a brief word about what I feel climate change potentially represents as both a challenge, and an opportunity for humanity to grow and evolve as a species.

Modern life is characterised by a disconnect, sometimes a contradiction, between our personal interest, and that of broader contexts - of society, of ecology and so on.

This is a relatively recent state of affairs – it was with the onset of capitalism and the end of feudalism that we became truly individuals, capable of seeing ourselves (to a greater or lesser extent falsely or unhealthily) as standing apart from society. It was at the same time that we, as a species, began to be able to have truly global ecological impacts. And we became progressively more disconnected from our ecological context - ever more removed from the environment which sustains us.

In this paradigm, we become incentivised to concentrate on our own personal issues. We get on with our careers; we pursue our own interest. We may get in a car to go shopping, because it is convenient for us to do so, even though we know it is harmful to the environment we also know we rely upon. As an individual it is in a sense irrational not to take the car; but from the point of view of the environment (a composite of all life, bound in a system), it is irrational to do so. So there is a contradiction - an "antinomy"48, 49.

Working alongside this, and another effect of our capitalist and subsequently consumer society, is the inflation of the importance, in the subjective imagination, of the self and of the current moment. Meanwhile there is also a feeling, quite prevalent in the sciences but also reflected in society at large, that we are at the highest state of awareness and knowledge to date, because of the technological know-how we have accumulated. However, we are in fact less wise than people in former times, who knew that the present moment is not the highest reality - that time and life are cyclical; and that the self is not the highest reality - but rather that we are all interconnected (See The Way, by Edward Goldsmith, first published 1992).

On the global level, meanwhile, the result of the disjuncture between our subjective experience, and the objective effects of our lives, has been that our way of life in the industrialised countries has had (has been allowed to have) all sorts of adverse effects at diverse points in the system; including widening gulfs in income at home50 and globally51, corresponding deepening immiseration of the working class in the North52, and of the vast majority of people in the South53, and numerous ecological catastrophes, crises and erosions54.

All this, because it doesn't adversely affect those whose material situation has benefited (broadly, well-off citizens of the industrialised countries, who are also those who have most political influence within them), has gone on relatively unseen; it's been able to be ignored; or there has been a feeling of being unable to do anything about it. Some may also have been taken in, perhaps, by the ideological argument that through the growing fortunes of big business and the capital centres, eventually the world would be enriched, with the rising tide lifting all boats - despite the existence of theoretical and empirical evidence to the contrary55 (also Capitalism and its Economics, Douglas Dowd, London: Pluto Press, 2000).

What climate change does, apart from disprove the ideological argument that capitalism can in the end create better conditions for all, is allows us, indeed forces us, to transcend the contradiction I'm describing, between personal interest and that of society, which has come to mark experience in modern capitalism. Because for the first time, the effects of the lifestyles of those in developed countries, will be felt by us all.

As a result of climate change, because of the potential it has to affect us so much in the future, we'll need more and more to actively factor in the environment, and each other, into our personal decisions, about our careers, our consumption habits, and so on.

In this way, climate change provides for us the opportunity, and the material imperative, to transcend our atomisation (to resolve the antinomy) and to find once more what is objectively a happy, healthy state for a human being - meaningful connection with one’s environment, and an enlightenedly altruistic concern for others which goes above, or rather is allied with (with the two overlapping), one’s concern for oneself.

There are all sorts of implications which could be enormously beneficial for society. We will have to be responsible; to think about the future, now; to think about "the elsewhere" here; and to operate according to principles of restraint, balance, measure and moderation.

We will need to put aside a paradigm which is based on continual growth, and competition, and rapacious cutting of costs (including environmental and labour costs - read, the security and livelihoods of the planet and of people).

We will have the opportunity to move to a more holistic way of life, more suited to the modes of the ecological and climatic contexts our society finds its home within and draws its life from anew every moment.

We will have to reuse, recycle, repair, make do; we'll involve ourselves in activities in the community and make friends with our neighbours. We will once again find ways of expressing our individuality, not through ephemeral, superficial consumption, but through our relationships and cultural creativity.

We can envisage a future, if we go further, where we will no longer be tempted, beguiled and distracted by an apparatus of ambient advertising designed to make of us mindless consumers; and will no longer caught up in oppressive working patterns, forced to work long hours in order to buy things we’ve been tricked into thinking we need, for status or gratification58, with unsatisfactory family and leisure lives, vast amounts of time spent in travel to get to work, working in jobs which we know deep down contribute to, or at best do nothing to resolve, a paradigm of unsustainability and human exploitation.

We will have the opportunity to adopt slower, more meaningful, local, reflective and self-ordered lives, more in tune with the natural rhythms of the spirit, with the predicates of human growth, of real and rich relationships, and of self-realisation, all of which, perhaps life is all about.

So let's campaign for Contraction and Convergence. Let's be imaginative and ingenious about coming up with ways of adapting our lifestyles, and about raising awareness about climate change. And let's take the opportunity to create a society which is sustainable because it is equitable, and peaceful because it is rational.

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