The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From The Future

Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, co-authors of the acclaimed Merchants of Doubt, have joined forces again to produce a striking short fictional work The Collapse Of Western Civilization: A view From The Future. It purports to be an essay written by a Chinese historian three hundred years after the collapse of western civilisation towards the end of the 21st century when untrammelled climate change took its full effect.

The period of the Penumbra (1988-2093) ended in the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2073-2093). That’s the scope of our Chinese historian’s survey. He (or she)records the dawning scientific realisation of the effects human activities were having on the planetary climate, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the first manifestations of the change in the intensification of fires, floods, hurricanes, and heat waves. Thus far he writes of matters familiar to us.

He then moves on to recount the rapidly mounting disasters as the century proceeds. It’s somewhat unnerving to read of what we know as predictions as if they had already become the stuff of history. All the more unsettling because anyone who follows climate science will recognise that the chain of disaster he traces, from failing food crops in intense heat waves to unmanageable sea level rise as the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets begin to disintegrate is entirely possible if greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the atmosphere by human activity. The resultant human suffering and death the historian records may be more speculative from our end, but his calm account of the human consequences has a dismaying ring of likelihood to it.

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Life Without Oil

Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy FutureA gradual contraction into more sustainable patterns of resource use is not the norm for a society that is exploiting the environment. The norm is a last-ditch effort to maintain outward displays of power, and then a sudden, and dramatic, collapse.”   That’s one of the foreboding statements with which Steve Hallett and John Wright punctuate their preview of past civilisations in the opening section of their book Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future.

They consider we are at the peak of oil production and that we’re not facing that reality. There are late flurries to extend the discovery of further oil.  Deep sea drilling, the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands and oil shale extraction are among them, the latter two causing horrendous environmental damage. But all they will produce is a temporary delay of the decline. The authors judge that around 2015 oil production will show a clear and convincing decline, and the world will be at the beginning of the end of what they call the petroleum interval. It’s an interval that will have occupied a couple of centuries in the long history of humanity. Oil has enabled the construction of a monumental global civilisation in which we have become dependent on the increased productivity and efficiencies of scale it can provide. As it diminishes and disappears we require an energy transition which the book considers we are not geared to make in good time. We therefore face a long global economic contraction as the price of oil escalates, a sequence of economic slumps which will continue until fundamental problems of energy availability, food production, water supply and population control are sufficiently well corrected.

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Ethics and climate action: we’re in this together

World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice (Edinburgh Studies in World Ethics)

The reason international negotiations to tackle climate change are not working is because they have been premised on long-established norms of state sovereignty and states’ rights. Consequently they are characterised by “diplomatic delay, minimal action -– especially relative to the scale of the problem – and mutual blame between rich and poor countries, resulting in a ‘you-go-first’ mentality that has prevailed even as global greenhouse gas emissions have exploded.”

This is Paul Harris’s perception in his book World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice. He argues that the communitarian principle which underlies the concept of the sovereign state is too limiting to be able to deal adequately with environmental issues which extend beyond state borders. It’s not that states have completely ignored the problem of dangerous climate change. They have recognised that collective action is required, and have agreed that climate change is a common but differentiated responsibility, with developed states obligated to act first before developing countries are expected to limit emissions. Some governments have already started to act on their obligations. But national responsibility remains the focus and although international justice is enunciated it is not implemented. It’s almost as if it can’t be because it is easily at odds with perceived national interests – as we’ve seen all too clearly in New Zealand’s highly cautious approach to participating in the global effort.

Harris makes the case for the cosmopolitan ethic to be brought into play as a supplement or corollary to the communitarianism which governs inter-state relations.  As its name suggests cosmopolitanism emphasises the sense of global community.  It draws attention to human obligations beyond state boundaries. It sees the world as one domain in which there are some universal duties and global responsibilities.  Unless such a perspective can find a place in climate change negotiations Harris thinks we are likely to remain locked in the limitations of national interest which so easily block effective action.

Harris values the cosmopolitan principle not least because it focuses on people. He lives in Hong Kong and observes that the emerging affluent groups in the large developing states are engaging in similar behaviours to the affluent in the developed states and becoming responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions. The focus on states means that this now very substantial group may escape accountability for their contribution to climate change, simply because they belong to a developing country. He lays climate change responsibility at the feet of affluent people wherever they live. They are the people who actually cause the most pollution and are the most capable of reducing it. The consequences of climate change, on the other hand, are suffered most by the poor, wherever they are to be found. They are disproportionately in poor countries, but even in developed countries the poor suffer first, as was apparent in the effects of hurricane Katrina. Climate change shows the world’s affluent benefiting at the expense of the world’s poor in a relationship that can be plausibly described as exploitation.

Questions of justice are involved. But what is fair and just from the perspective of international justice is not necessarily fair and just from other perspectives. He agrees it would not be fair if China and other less-developed countries were required to take on the same obligations to combat climate as the US and other affluent countries. “But it is also not fair, nor is it environmentally sound, for the many affluent people in developing countries, and especially the rich elites there, to be absolved of duties regarding climate change.” Cosmopolitanism demands more than international justice; it requires global justice. The discourse about justice needs to shift to some degree from a focus on rich and poor countries to one on rich and poor people.

Sounds good, but how does cosmopolitanism get a look in in a world where states’ rights and interests predominate? Harris doesn’t seek more than a supplementary role, but he describes the cosmopolitan corollary as principled, practical (because it reflects climate change realities) and politically viable. Indeed it is likely to become politically essential if the climate change regime is to move towards more robust outcomes. Implementation will be through changes in international agreements which will recognise and enable global citizenship, at least in the context of climate change, alongside national citizenship.

New funding mechanisms are suggested as one example of how the cosmopolitan corollary might be implemented among states. Specific measures might include a carbon tax on greenhouse gas emissions collected directly from the users or polluters, and other earmarked taxes on non-essential activities related to climate change, such as international airline flights and luxury goods. The international funds collected could pay for things like disaster relief, poverty alleviation, sustainable development, mitigation and adaptation measures, and technology transfers.

In a section on the implementation of the corollary within states he urges the establishment of a climate change curriculum in all countries with effective and sufficiently funded educational systems. This would attune people, especially the young, to the need for action and to precisely what they can do.

The book is intended for academic use, and Edinburgh University Press provides a freely downloadable learning guide to assist lecturers and students who will be reading it as part of courses and seminars. But although the author has done plenty of scholarly research he emphasises that he does not intend the book as a work of abstract philosophy. He sees it as about practical world ethics –- what we ought to do as well as why we ought to do it. I think he succeeds in this aim. I was prepared to plough stolidly through an academic treatise if need be, because I wanted to know what an academic might be saying about the subject. But the book has an edge which made reading it much more engaging than I expected. Harris cares deeply about what climate change is doing to the world and advances his cosmopolitan ethic as necessary to effective action. It is in keeping with his commitment that he has arranged for all the royalties on his book to be paid directly to Oxfam, in support of their work among the world’s poor, including those people most harmed by climate change –- an act not of  altruism, charity, or generosity, he insists, but of straightforward cosmopolitan obligation.

Cynics may scoff at the notion that ethics can play much of a part in international negotiations, but cynics don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.  I liked Harris’s quote from Brian Barry: “unless the moral case is made, we can be sure nothing good will happen. The more the case is made, the better the chance.”  Some of the generation of students that engages with books like Harris’s may well carry the cosmopolitan perspective into spheres where it can be employed to good effect.

The Carbon Age

The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat

Journalist and science writer Eric Roston’s book The Carbon Age, highly praised when it was first published last year, is now available in paperback.  It’s about carbon in the universe and the essential part it plays in life on Earth. It’s also about climate change, as its subtitle suggests: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilisation’s Greatest Threat.

Roston begins by offering two basic observations that are explored through the book. The first is that Earth’s temperature and the carbon content of the atmosphere are correlated on every geological time scale. The usual sequence is temperature rise first, then elevated carbon content. The reverse is the case today. The second observation is that humans have accelerated the geological carbon cycle to at least one hundred times faster than usual. Man-made global warming is a geological aberration, nearly meteoric in speed.

The first half of the book explores the origins of carbon and life. On earth carbon is “the ubiquitous architect, builder, and most basic building material of life.” Roston follows it into many of its functions and manifestations in fascinating detail. He discusses how carbon’s ability to bond, unbond, and rebond with the other atoms of life makes it a central element in many of life’s necessary components. He considers how the course of evolution both influenced and was influenced by the global carbon cycle. Living matter since its inception has helped regulate the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and seas and on land, conditions that in turn influence evolution. Roston uses the story of cyanobacteria to illustrate how evolution hit on an innovation – an organism which exchanged atmospheric carbon dioxide for atmospheric oxygen. It threw the carbon cycle as it was then into catastrophic disarray and forced its re-invention.

In a chapter on the ocean carbon cycle Roston includes attention to coccolithophores, microscopic shelled algae that colonised the open ocean for the first time after the Permian extinction 250 million years ago. As their shells passed to the seafloor they left their mark in the world’s chalk formations which accumulated from about 100 million to 65 million years ago, at the rate of a millimetre a century. Today they form a vital part of both the marine food chain and carbon’s transport from the ocean surface to the seafloor. They have been remarkably resilient to shocks, but the threat of ocean acidification this century is large enough to threaten their continuance.

A further chapter describes the part played by trees in storing carbon as cellulose and lignin and the formation of coal and oil deposits as carbon burial in the Carboniferous period. The gingko tree and its powers of survival features here. The author comments in relation to our discovery and use of fossil fuels that we are burning part of the pre-Carboniferous greenhouse back to the skies, where the Earth  – at least our Earth – no longer needs it. We are rebuilding the greenhouse Earth decimated by trees more than 300 million years ago.

A brief but interesting chapter on the human body’s conversion of fuel energy into motion concludes Part I of the book on the natural processes of the play of carbon in the evolution and functions of life. Roston then moves on to cover the last 150 years and explains how scientists, industrialists and consumers created what amounts to an industrial carbon cycle — something he characterises as the flushing of millions of years of geological sediment back into the atmosphere. Here he explores a selection of activities, ranging from the development of cars, through synthetic chemistry, to bullet-proof clothing, all followed through in satisfying detail. For the purposes of this review I’ll pause on the chapter which centres on the hundredfold acceleration of the carbon cycle through industry. The flow of carbon through living things has entwined evolution with the inanimate forces of nature. But there is no evidence before now to suggest biology has ever accelerated the long-term carbon cycle on to a short-term path. Only meteorite impacts can compare with the speed with which our industry has interacted with geology. Roston quotes a paleobotanist: “We are plate tectonics!”

But it’s possible to slow down our impact on the carbon-cycle without sacrificing our industrial fire, if we move fast. Technological investment in new energy and materials industries could remake the way we make things. At this point Roston discerns an obstacle in politicians and economists. “What scientists describe as well beyond their danger zone, economists and politicians treat as the bottom of the potentially achievable.” Chemistry gives way to a discussion on economics with the conclusion that as long as we are pegged to an economic orthodoxy that equates well-being with per capita income we are unlikely to address the fundamental drivers of climate change: materialism, crass commercialism, and waste made easy by cheap, plentiful fossil fuels. He considers that industrialised nations can transfer civilisation on to an energy system that will not scorch the earth, though finds it a big ask for a narcissistic generation. Hope springs eternal.

Roston’s book is packed full of investigations and explanations of the chemistry of carbon. I have selected parts where he makes the connection with global warming explicit and in so doing have not done justice to the scope of the book. But it was what I understood to be the depth of his concern over global warming that attracted me to the book in the first place as worth reviewing on a climate change website.  The illuminating explorations into the chemistry of carbon were a bonus.

Hell and High Water

Hell and High Water: The Global Warming Solution

For some months now I have been visiting Joseph Romm’s blog Climate Progress regularly, valuing it for its lively and informed commentary on climate science and politics and its focus on the solutions already available to us. The cover of his book Hell and High Water is prominent on the website and I grew uncomfortably aware that I hadn’t read it, and perhaps I should.  At last I have.

It was well worth the reading.  Romm holds a PhD in physics from MIT and is a senior fellow at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress. During the Clinton Administration he was Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy with a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy.  His service towards a sustainable energy future was recognised last year when he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The fact that the book is addressed to Americans doesn’t lessen its significance for the rest of us. What happens in the US is crucial in determining whether we succeed in successfully addressing global warming.

The book is in two parts. In the first Romm surveys the science and what the future holds if we continue on our present path.  He doesn’t discuss the detailed evidence for global warming and climate science but rather selects some aspects to establish the seriousness of the future threat. Invoking Broecker’s image of climate as “an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges” he discusses the possibility of climate’s sudden response to forcings, which the paleoclimate record reveals so remarkably. Increased global hurricane intensity and frequency, a matter of great importance to the US, is investigated and affirmed in an interesting sequence.  Droughts and wildfires, also on the agenda for the US, are explained. He emphasises the need for systems thinking in considering how four key carbon sinks could turn to sources under increased warming and drive vicious feedback cycles – the oceans, the soils, the tropical forests, and the  arctic tundra, permafrost and frozen peat.  Finally he looks at the prospects for ice movement in Greenland and Antarctica and provides scenarios for US cities enduring continually rising sea levels combined with increased hurricane activity. On our current emissions path the planet will almost certainly be 3 degrees warmer than pre-imdustrial levels by the end of the century. In that case we can expect to battle with metres of sea level rise over a relatively short space of time.

The question of the century is: “Do we humans have the political will to stop the great ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica from melting … to stop Hell and High Water?” The global-warming problem is no longer prmarily a scientific matter.  Nor is it a technological problem because we have the technologies to avoid the disasters that await us if we keep doing nothing. It is a problem of politics and political will. This is the focus of the second part of the book.

Romm discusses how the cautious and factual language of  scientists has not availed against the conservative leaders in America who have chosen to use their superior messaging and political skills to thwart serious action on global warming.  It is hard to see how anything could avail against the counsel of Luntz Research Companies whose advice to politicians on how to prevent efforts to tackle global warming Romm describes.  The passages Romm refers to reveal a level of manipulative cynicism and disregard for truth which is breathtaking. (You can see the Luntz memo here.)  The advice has clearly been followed by many politicians and publicists.  Delayers and Denyers are Romm’s preferred names for the sceptics. He describes a campaign which certainly has little to do with scientific scepticism. But it has everything to do with political partisanship. Global  warming became a partisan issue, at least in the US, and the sorry consequences are detailed by Romm, including the Bush White House’s deliberate strategy of impeding the scientific message.

One of the tactics employed by the Delayers has been to speak of the need for long-term technological breakthroughs, conveniently some distance into the future. Romm regards this as mostly empty rhetoric because it has not been matched by adequate funding.  Meanwhile the Gingrich congress cut funds for programmes aimed at accelerating the deployment into the American market of  cost-effective technologies already available. Romm identifies three technology areas which offer dramatic emission reductions in electricity generation at low cost and are ready to hand. They are energy efficiency, cogeneration and renewables. Energy efficiency is the enabling strategy which generates the savings that pay for the zero-carbon energy sources.

Fuelling transport receives considered treatment.  Fuel efficiency standards are an essential start, and after discussing various options Romm concludes that the best option for the future will be plug-in hybrids using electricity generated by wind.  Cellulosic ethanol may also have an important part to play.

Why has media coverage of global warming in the US  failed to adequately inform the public about the urgency of the problem and the huge effort needed to avert catastrophe?  Romm points to a declining number of science reporters, but worst of all to the “misguided belief that the pusuit of ‘balance’ is superior to the pursuit of truth – even in science journalism.”  This has played into the hands of the Delayers and Denyers who have exploited the flaw very successfully.  Time is the one US publication which has consistently delivered timely and powerful stories on global warming, largely unfettered by faux balance.  Romm recalls the April 2006 cover: ‘BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED.’

Romm’s book was published in 2007.  Today there is a new Administration in the White House which has committed itself to positive action to combat global warming.  That does not mean that the Denyers and Delayers have gone away.  In his conclusion Romm, looking forward, feared that even after Bush had gone conservatives in Congress would hold enough strength to continue to block significant action on climate, should they so choose. The results of inaction will be dreadful and will eventually force government action on a scale that would dwarf the straightforward government-led solutions available today – and by then even drastic action may be ineffectual.  Romm’s advice? “Get informed, get outraged, and then get political.