Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Another Year Older and Deeper in Climate Debt

As I write this, Australia is burning up.

Reports indicate that due to weeks of unprecedented 104 degree temperatures and drought, wildfires are burning across Australia, driving those who can’t evacuate into the ocean and creating toxic air in the major urban centers.  These conditions are, without doubt, due to human-caused climate change – except that Australia has a large reserve of climate-denier politicians and their allies who apparently are claiming that “if the Greenies had let us clean up the forests this wouldn’t be happening.”

In looking over the last year, therefore, I am reminded of an old coal-miner union song’s refrain:  “Sixteen tons, and what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t come/I sold my soul to the company store.”  Another year older, and what do I get?  A world that’s deeper in climate crisis than at the start of the year, because we continue to emit not only more carbon than is needed to stop atmospheric CO2 from rising, but more than in 2018 or any year before it.  

In effect, we are creating more and more “climate debt” that will have to be paid, by the Australians, by us, and by our descendants.

Let’s go through the latest dreary numbers.

Possible But Not Clear Hope On The Ground

An enormous shift occurred in societal terms over the last year or two.  For the last nine years or so, efforts in universities, NGOs, individual businesses, and interest groups have created what might be called a “climate change technology movement” in which efforts around sustainability, regenerative economics, solar and wind technology, and the like began, and began to coordinate with each other.  What has happened over the last year has been the embedding of the movement in society, so that schools, politicians, and workers feel comfortable making climate change a major part of the discussion.

What has not happened, as of yet, is the embedding of that movement in the bureaucracy of government, business, and other institutions.  I define a bureaucracy, in one sense, as an organization that operates on its own momentum, driven not by leaders but by the implications of rules and regulations.  In that sense, there is nothing driving considerations of carbon-emission reduction and measurement on a national, much less a global scale.  Nevertheless, there are some grounds for possible hope in this development.

Another possible ground for hope is the surprisingly rapid (to some) development of solar power.  As someone who experienced the power of Moore’s Law in the computer industry at first hand, I always believed that similar technologies in the solar field could lead to reductions in solar cost per watt comparable to computers’ rapid ongoing increases in computational power per dollar.  It now seems to be at the point where, despite the cost of batteries, building and operating an electricity grid based on solar is cheaper than doing so based on coal or oil.  Although we may not yet have reached the day where we are considering replacing operating fossil-fuel systems with their sunk costs and infrastructure designed for fossil fuels only, such a day may be in sight.

But despite this fundamental shift in the culture and the economics, the numbers seem to be telling us that we are not yet clearly making a dent in “business as usual”.  I always look to CO2 measurements (Mauna Loa) as indications of what is happening that cannot be distorted by our hopes, fears, and self-interest – and there the news continues to be grim.

Over the last year, for just about every month except November (2.25 ppm), atmospheric carbon has increased by about 3 ppm since the same month in 2018.  To put this in perspective, this high a rate has only occurred, iirc, in 1998 and in three of the last four years.  In other words, there is no clear sign in the atmosphere that we have begun to deviate from “business as usual”.

If we switched to more suspect numbers, there might be some more local signs of hope:  US emissions, for example, are alleged to be more or less flat over the last few years (although the Trump administration has fueled a slight increase), thereby “decoupling” economic growth from emissions rises – meaning that while the US may not be actually reducing emissions, we at least may not be increasing them.  Some credit for that appears due to energy-efficiency efforts, and some to the solar/wind revolution, while the switch to natural gas may or may not be playing a role – there are strong indications of major methane leaks that may make natural gas just as bad as oil or coal for carbon emissions.

However, we must bear in mind (a) our local and global measurements may not capture all sources; (b) local successes may be partly due to shifting economically to countries with fewer regulations that inevitably emit more than the US or similar operation that it replaced; (c) because of feedbacks and feedback loops, areas not under our control may be emitting more carbon – e.g., the black carbon from wildfires, or carbon/methane from melting permafrost.  Point (c) is especially important:  scientists talk of “tipping points” where atmospheric carbon increases and global warming happen even if we cut our emissions to zero, and so we have to “run harder” (cut emissions more) to stay in the same place (steady increases in emissions), and even harder than that to get anywhere (start achieving smaller increases in emissions).

And therefore, I believe, that is where our one small possible hope in all this gloom lies:  that we may indeed have reached the point where we would have decreased the rate of rise of emissions (if those pesky feedbacks were not occurring).

Final Thoughts

I would, in sad adieu to 2019, like to note the malefactors who continue to drive the climate emergency to new extremes.  I would cite in particular:

1.       President Trump, of course, who has effectively taken a leadership role in driving more emissions of carbon, by letting loose the fossil fuel industry and its enablers on the US government, leading to a bureaucracy that is abetting, by its rules and regulations, both increased emissions and the pollution and food/water problems that make the effects of climate change worse.  Compared to this, trashing the Constitution is minor stuff.

2.       Murdoch and Koch, who are driving these policies into our politics.

3.       Putin, not only for committing to oil as an instrument of Russian policy but also for abetting “Mafia government” across the world that is accompanied by lessened action on climate change, climate-science censorship, and physical repression of activists.

4.       Australia’s Conservatives, who seem to be recreating the denialism of the US Republican party, in a country that is far more economically involved in coal mining and similar emissions-friendly activities than most. 

That’s it.  Maybe next year will be better.  Oh wait, I said that last year.  And the year before.  And …All right, I’ll end in the words of Flanders and Swann:
“Bloody January again!”