Transitions to a Warmer World
Dr Robert Howell, August 2016
Leading climate scientists have warned that the Earth is perilously close to breaking through a 1.5oC upper limit for global warming, only eight months after the target was set. According to John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, to achieve a 1.5oC by 2025 we will have to have closed down all coal-fired power stations across the planet. And by 2030 we will have to get rid of the combustion engine entirely. That decarbonisation will not guarantee a rise of no more than 1.5oC but it will give us a chance. But even that is a tremendous task (McKie).
We currently face a 2oC warmer climate very likely sometime during the decade beginning 2030 (Robertson). According to Linas (writing in 2007), a 2oC world is enough to make every European summer as hot as 2003, when 30,000 people died from heatstroke. Extreme summers will be much hotter still and the death toll may reach into the hundreds of thousands. There will be an increase in the fire risk. Water worries will be aggravated as the southern Med loses a fifth of its rainfall, and the tourism industry could collapse as people move north outside the zones of extreme heat. Two degrees is also enough to cause the eventual complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which would eventually raise global sea levels by seven metres. This melting will also continue to affect the world's mountain ranges, and in Peru all the glaciers will disappear from the Andean peaks that currently supply Lima with water. In California, the loss of snowpack from the Sierra Nevada - three-quarters of which could disappear in the two-degree world - will leave cities such as Los Angeles increasingly thirsty during the summer. Global food supplies, especially in the tropics, will also be affected but while two degrees of warming will be survivable for most humans, a third of all species alive today may be driven to extinction. Large areas of the southern oceans will become more acidic, reducing their capacity to absorb CO2 and be the essential link in the ocean's food chain (Linas).
The impacts of this change will bring greater numbers and severities of fires, droughts and floods, and a continuing degradation of the ecosystems essential for human and non-human life (Carrington, April 21). We do not really know the full impact of these changes, where the tipping points are, especially considering the multidimensional complexity of our world. Our current energy use is unsustainable and less energy will be available (Heinberg and Fridley). There will be a decrease in the human population, the availability of water and food, and international trade (Carrington, April 4).
What are the ways in which humankind can avert this future? What can governments do? What can business do? What is the role of market economics? Can technology provide solutions? Where does civil society come in? What priority should be given to mitigation versus adaptation?
There are a number of options that humans can take to avoid these catastrophes. First, governments can, through a variety of instruments such as taxation and financial incentives, regulation, and legal means, reduce and eliminate the behaviour that causes climate warming. To date this option has failed. The recent decisions at COP21, if all governments did what they committed to, would only delay a 2oC warming by a few years (Gillis and Davenport). The COP21 agreement excluded air travel. According to David Suzuki, aviation has a disproportionately large impact on the climate system. It presently accounts for 4-9% of the total climate change impact of human activity (Suzuki). Moreover, more than 2,400 coal-fired power stations are under construction or being planned around the world (Watts). Post COP21, the richest nations cannot agree to a phase out deadline of the $444 billion subsidies to oil, gas and coal (Prupis).
The EU has yet to take some of the necessary steps because of the disruptive threats of the oil industry (Neslen). China is starting to curb building new coal plants but it is not enough to redress its use of coal (Chen and Stanway). While there are some preliminary indications that China’s emissions are levelling off (Harvey), that does not mean that China will meet its commitments to the necessary levels because of fears to its political control if the standard of living drops, and because of corrupt officials. Analysts expect India’s power sector emissions to treble by 2040, blowing the 2oC carbon budget, unless clean energy investment increases (Darby). While Obama has taken some steps to control USA greenhouse gas emissions, the fossil fuel lobby has proved too powerful for any comprehensive legislative action. To date national governments and international agencies have not been able to take the necessary steps to avoid a warmer world.
Second, business can provide the leadership to make the necessary changes. To date this option has also proved a failure. Business, particularly the fossil fuel industry, has not made any significant transitions to renewable energy, and has obstructed government attempts to make changes. The example of Exxon Mobil illustrates how it has manipulated government and public opinion since the 1960’s when it was informed by its scientists of the threat of global warming and the contribution of the fossil fuel industry to that warming. BP’s threat to the EU in 2013 to relocate major industry out of the EU identifies government’s vulnerability to economic disruption (Neslen).
In New Zealand, when the fifth Labour Government (1999-2008) talked about introducing a carbon tax, business groups commissioned a report that estimated it would cost about $1 billion or 1% of GDP. Business leaders such as Liddell from Carter Holt Harvey, Norgate from Fonterra and McDonald from Tiwai Point Smelter, lobbied to protect their businesses (Hot Air). They campaigned to persuade public opinion against a tax.
Much of business is using the world’s natural resources in a way that damages the environment and creates costs in terms of health costs, social costs, lost ecosystem services, and pollution. Primary production and primary processing sectors of the world's 3,000 largest publicly-traded companies have been estimated to have unpriced natural capital costs totalling US$7.3 trillion. The majority of unpriced natural capital costs are from greenhouse gas emissions (38%) followed by water use (25%); land use (24%); air pollution (7%), land and water pollution (5%) and waste (1%). The study investigated agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mining, utilities, and the production of hydrocarbons, cement, steel, paper, and petrochemicals. The data revealed region-sectors with high impacts, none of which generate sufficient profit to pay their environmental debts. In total, they represent an unpaid cost to natural capital equal to 13% of global economic output in 2009. (Trucost).
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership initiative is aimed at undermining the sovereignty of countries, and their ability to address ecological degradation. Business generally, at corporate and collective levels, has failed to provide the leadership and action to make changes.
Third, the market mechanism might be considered an option to signal to investors the vulnerability of goods and services (such as coal and oil) to future profitability, and hence close down activities contributing to a warmer world. This option has also failed at a theoretical and practical level. The market mechanism is based on prices determining supply and demand, and assumes that higher prices of scarce inputs will enable substitutes to be found. But substitutes cannot always be found. Graedel, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, reported that out of 62 rare metals he studied, not one metal has a substitute that can replace it for all its original major uses. Twelve have no suitable substitute for any of their properties (Graedel).
The financial sector, that uses the market mechanism, generally does not take into account ethical factors. Rubenstein, the billionaire co-founder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, the private-equity firm, stated that the general theory in investing is that the highest returns go to those who are unencumbered by sustainability or other environmental and social constraints (Fallows). The banking and financial sectors have many personnel motivated by short term greed and selfishness (Howell).
The market cannot provide the constraints necessary for money creation to provide a stable currency for economic purposes. This exclusion is due to neoclassical economists’ inadequate understanding of how money is created, and their treating the financial sector as having a neutral impact on economic stability. Critics such as Ingham call the orthodox concept of money for practical monetary policy, “incoherent”. If the neoclassical economists included the impact of the financial sector in their models, they would have to recognise that the market alone is not able to deliver efficient goods and services. If they continue to believe that the market is the best mechanism for the allocation of resources, then their ability to predict instability, economic collapses and depressions is severely compromised (Howell).
The market does not take into account the science of entropy or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy is energy that has lost the capacity to work. Work equals a physical alteration that occurs on other than a random basis. In 1865 Clausius used the word entropy He and others developed this law when attempts were being made to try to make steam engines more efficient. They found that there was some energy that was lost and not recoverable. Work can only be accomplished at the expense of some irreversible alteration in the surrounding environment. For example, the natural flow of heat from hotter to colder can only be reversed by the expenditure of more energy.
The market does not take into account the science of entropy or the Second Law of Thermodynamics as it applies to the conversion of energy from one form to another. Clausius introduced the term “entropy” (Greek entro = to alter) in 1865 and developed this law when attempts were being made to make steam engines more efficient. They found that a fraction of the input heat energy was lost and not recoverable, and that the overall efficiency of conversion was limited by the achievable operating temperatures. There is an increase in entropy in any such process, entropy representing the waste energy that has lost the capacity to do work. Our use of fossil fuels to develop mechanical and electrical energy at ever increasing rates by an inherently inefficient process not only generates vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions but severely tests the ability of the biosphere to dispose of the resulting waste heat. A transition to the use of renewable forms of energy would not only reduce the emissions but in the case of solar, wind and hydro increase the efficiency of conversion by avoiding the thermal conversion process. However the review by Heinberg and Fridley of recent assessments of transitioning to a 100% renewable energy future, conclude that a variety of limiting factors support the assumption that available energy quantities will be lower, perhaps significantly lower, than business-as-usual global energy demand projections.
We are consuming energy at rates far exceeding the ability of the biosphere to dispose of the resulting entropy. There are at least three possible strategies. We can repair the environmental damage piecemeal by technology; we can replace fossil fuels with clean energy; and we can reduce economic production to levels the biosphere can tolerate (Sayre). The market mechanism cannot achieve any of these strategies because it does not acknowledge limits to growth, is unable to provide public goods, and cannot regulate unscientific or immoral behaviour.
The last reason why the market has failed is a practical one: the market is manipulated by both governments and business (Milman). Many fossil fuel companies continue to receive government subsidies and support, and the market has been open to widespread manipulation.
There is no question that technology will bring changes to the way we care for the planet. There are many technological advances that have yet to be brought to full production that will contribute to issues such as energy, water, and food. But while some technology has the potential to solve some of the problems of environmental impact, it does not mean that it will. The hybrid engine was developed in 1916. The average fuel efficiency of the US vehicle fleet has risen by just 3 miles per gallon since the days of the Ford Model T, and has barely shifted at all since 1991 (Glaskin).
The successful introduction of new technology is conditional on a variety of factors including government regulatory and tax regimes. An example is illustrated with carbon capture and sequestration plants in the USA. American Electric Power announced in 2011 that it was not going to proceed with plans to build a full-scale carbon-capture plant at Mountaineer, a 31-year-old coal-fired plant in West Virginia, where the company has successfully captured and buried carbon dioxide in a small pilot program for two years. The company would not continue with the larger, $668 million project because they did not believe state regulators would let the company recover its costs by charging customers, thus leaving it no compelling regulatory or business reason to continue the program (Kanter). “No technology can solve the climate problem on its own. Even in combination, today’s remedies – renewables, nuclear and energy efficiency – hardly seem up to the job. To have a reasonable chance of keeping down the rise in temperature to less than 2°C, industrial economies need to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. The true scale of this challenge is not widely understood. A thorough study of options for such cuts in California, long a leader in energy efficiency, concluded that with today’s technology and plausible extrapolations of it, 60% was the best that could be done. If California can’t do better than that, says Jane Long, of Laurence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the study, ‘neither can anyone else’.” (Morton).
There is also a question about the reliance of modern technology on rare earths and its supply in the amount required to have enough impact. China controls about 40% of all rare metal, and is the leading global producer of 28 advanced metals. But instead of exporting rare earths to help create jobs in Japan and elsewhere, China wants to build high-tech plants in China and employ Chinese. Already every major wind turbine manufacturer has moved operations to China. Historically the United States supplied all the cerium and neodymium for General Electric’s lightbulbs, but all that is now done in China.
China has been able to produce many of its rare metals due to lower labour costs and environmental standards. Their inadequate environmental standards have led to significant degradation, particularly around the mines. According to Beijing officials, 2000 kilograms of tailings are created to produce every kilogram of rare earths, and some officials believe that they have sacrificed the country’s environment for little profit. From a Chinese perspective countries have outsourced their pollution to it. A good deal of the rare metal that China produces could not be done elsewhere (such as Japan) because of environmental regulation. To deal with the environmental degradation worldwide, costs will rise across the whole cycle.
But the biggest concern for rare metal supply lines, according to Abraham from the Technology, Rare and Electronics Materials Center, may be that our new energy saving gadgets work too well and that green tech will quickly become the best tech. With the demand to avoid the impact of climate warming, technology will become dependent on rare earth metals in quantities that are unlikely to be available. Costs will rise and political conflict is likely (Abraham).
Technology alone will not bring about the necessary changes for caring for the Earth.
The fourth option that can be taken to avoid ecological degradation is through civil society action. Civil society can empower citizens to publicise, disrupt and boycott goods and services and the companies and agencies providing such outputs. There is no doubt that the divest movement, through such groups as 350.org, have encouraged some large sovereign wealth and managed funds to exclude fossil fuel investments from their portfolios. Religious groups have been increasingly vocal about the pernicious effects of ecological degradation. But civil society has yet to have the necessary impact on business and government to change policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We are all dependent in some form on the existing social and economic systems: housing, energy, transport, food and water systems are not sustainable, yet we use them in order to live within existing cities and towns. We are caught in the dilemma of caring for ourselves and the vulnerable in our community (the old, disabled and ill, people in insecure work and the young) through existing infrastructures and organisations that are unsustainable but convenient, no matter how much we may try to be independent of them.
War Time Type Governments and Serendipitous Events
At some stage in the future as conditions worsen, and the majority of voters see through the propaganda of the elites, there may come a time when democratic governments are prepared to call the bluff of the business blackmailers and take strong action against them. Those governments will have the ability to persuade their electorates to reduce their damaging lifestyles sooner rather than have it imposed later by the forces climate warming is unleashing. They will need to take war-time-type powers, for the countries who first take such measures will have considerable pressure from the multinational corporations. But even then, the worldwide warming effect will not necessarily be avoided because of the impact of non-democratic countries, such as China and Russia, and failed states where civil war or social disruption restrict effective governance.
Unless there are major events, such as an international economic depression and financial collapse (which is certainly possible), climate warming and related ecological degradation is likely to occur and to bring widespread devastation to human society. The wealthy elites have a mistaken belief that they can avoid being included in this devastation.
Options For Action
What can an individual or concerned group do? Attempts at mitigation should continue, to try and persuade governments and business to cease their damaging behaviour, even though it is unlikely that we can reverse the damage that is already done. A warming world will happen: it is a question of how soon and how much.
Adaptation should be now an important focus. Although a global perspective is still necessary, adaptation requires a more regional and local approach. Different parts of the world will be effected in different ways and different time sequences. As individuals we can try to live so that our ecological footprint is sustainable. We have choices in the houses we live in, the energy and machines we use, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the way we get around. We can require any funds we invest in, our pension funds and the banks we use to invest according to our values (Ormerod, Remond and Howell). Heinberg and Fridley (as one example of many) in chapter 10 of their book list the types of things we can do at a community and personal level (examples: use solar panels for electricity and water heating; solar cookers: eating lower on the food chain, wearing clothes longer before discarding them, and repairing goods that break wherever possible, rather than replacing them). We will have to compromise because we cannot divorce ourselves from the restrictions our communities and countries place on us, but there is much that we can do to provide examples and models for how to live sustainably.
The Phoney War was a phase early in World War II where there were no major military land operations on the Western Front. The majority of people recognised that there was a war, but did little by way of preparation. Many did not want to talk about a future that would bring hardship and destruction. It was only when Churchill was appointed that changes came by way of investment: Britain rapidly switched to building fighter rather that bomber planes. It was also a time when western alliance-based multinational companies and financiers were duplicitous in working for profit rather than supporting the war effort. There are many parallels to the situation today.
We are at one of those times in history of epochal changes, or cultural and polical ruptures, to the way we live. The introduction of the printing press; widespread use of electricity; the use of fossil fuels, the use of the personal computer: each brought major societal and commercial change. The approaching ecological changes will force a new world on us in a way that we have not experienced since perhaps World War II. This is not a doomsday ficton, but hardheaded reality. We will most probably have to wait until it gets worse before we act collectively. In the meantime individual and community initiatives provide a realistic response to a warming world.
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