Putting climate solutions in formaldehyde: A challenge to the climate movement

Photo by University College London

In 2004 Dov Weisglass, the Israeli bureau chief under Ariel Sharon, famously said that the various brokered Israeli-Palestinian disengagement talks were “actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Much the same could be said about the various agreements and proffered solutions to the climate emergency. .

The comparison of the climate movement with the Israeli so-called peace process is apt. In both, acclaimed forward steps conceal backward steps, namely expanded Israeli settlement and accelerated global greenhouse gas [ghg] emissions. In both there is an utter failure to appreciate the extent of population displacement and human suffering, and in both there is the hidden land and resource grabs. Lawfare that bends the meaning of humanitarian intervention deprives political and environmental refugees from provision of even basic needs. Most significantly, in both situations there is the absence of a regulatory body tasked with implementing the essential measures to protect people and their environment.

Celebrations of the 1.5C target set at the Paris COP21, and the unchallenged acceptance of a carbon budget that would allow approximately 270 billion tonnes more fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere, reveal fundamental ignorance or callousness about the climate situation. The 1.5C target is more than twice the temperature rise that has already caused unprecedented droughts, drought-related forest fires, floods, storms, sea level rise, changes in the jet stream and ocean circulation, rapid melting of Arctic ice sheets, accelerated and irreversible melting of Greenland glaciers and West Antarctic ice shelves. The impacts of current ghg concentrations are yet to materialize because of inertia in the climate system, but the impacts are irreversible and inevitable. At some point, the climate goal shifted from elimination of greenhouse gases to mitigation and adaptation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, mitigation means to render more gentle, milder, to appease, mollify, to lessen the stringency of an obligation.

In 1988, eminent climate scientist James Hansen gave his first congressional testimony to hearings chaired by Al Gore. He testified that there was incontestable evidence of human-caused climate change and that substantial greenhouse gas reductions were essential to avert disaster. In 2009, he published his book Storms of My Grandchildren, explaining climate science to the general public. There continues to be widespread ignorance about what he explains so clearly: amplifying feedbacks, climate sensitivity, and the significance of 350 parts per million.

The COP21 temperature and greenhouse gas emission targets, and the so-called carbon budget, are based on the erroneous assumption that it is possible to control and predict the concentration of added greenhouse gases (ghg). In reality there are sudden and abrupt increases in ghg emissions due to a wide range of amplifying feedbacks. These include the release of more potent greenhouse gases like water vapor (from evaporation) and methane (from melting permafrost), the deterioration or loss of carbon sinks, the transformation of carbon sinks into carbon emitters, and the transformation of white snow and ice cover that reflects solar energy to dark heat-absorbing surfaces. Because of these feedbacks, adding any quantity of carbon dioxide generates even more self-reinforcing greenhouse gas emissions. The climate system is highly sensitive to additional carbon dioxide. Hansen calculated that approximately 350 parts per million carbon dioxide is the turning point to an ice-free planet. COP21 numbers and targeted dates utterly ignore the process of amplification and acceleration.

Oft cited numbers are deceptive. The recently confirmed 1C increase in global average surface temperature is less significant for living conditions and for the climate system than regional temperature differences. The Arctic warms much more quickly than other regions. The decreased temperature differential between the Arctic and equator has caused disruption of oceanic currents and atmospheric jet streams. This seemingly small temperature increase results from a massive amount of retained solar energy, an amount that alters the vast flows of ocean and atmosphere. Further, simply reporting a 1C increase does not expose the accelerated rise of temperature. Careless news reports confusingly date the 1C rise from either the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, around 1780, or from 1880 when thermometer readings began. The implication is that it has taken 100 or 200 years for a 1C increase. What is left out is alarming, considering the massive changes brought about by less than a 0.8C increase: according to the World Meteorological Organization, temperature increased by 0.2C in only five years between 2010 and 2015.

The most frequently used word regarding solutions, since the 1960s, is “transition”. The rapidity of the accelerated rise of temperature and of ghg concentration contrasts with timelines of procrastination. Targets for capping emissions are all over the map, and they are not challenged – 2020 or 2030 or 2050 or by the end of the 21st century.

Cap-and-trade is the primary greenhouse gas reduction strategy of COP21. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres came to her position through the carbon markets. Cap-and-trade awards carbon credits to projects such as biofuel plantations with the rationale that biofuels decrease use of fossil fuels. But biofuel plantations involve the destruction of tropical forests often by forest fires which emit vast quantities of CO2. They lead to plantation monocultures, displacement of peasant and indigenous communities, paramilitary attacks including the death of at least eighty compesinos in Honduras, and the conversion of agriculture from producing food to producing fuel. According to an unpublished report by a World Bank economist, biofuels were responsible for a 75% increase in global food prices in the first decade of this century. Typical is a cap-and-trade program in Richmond, California. Chevron is wiggling out of compliance with the state’s emission limits by purchasing credits in an “under-emitting” area in Michigan. This will allow for a 16% increase in local emissions while poisoning the people of Richmond, California. There are similar schemes all over the world.

Carbon taxes are widely promoted and under-scrutinized. In British Columbia and in Australia they are flat, regressive taxes and have not in themselves reduced emissions. “Fee and dividend” means that the tax does not contribute to public infrastructure. In addition, the carbon tax has diverted attention from these regions’ massive expansion and investment in coal mining, liquefied natural gas extraction, oil pipeline and shipping infrastructure, and the offshoring of high-emitting manufacturing. In “green” British Columbia, coal is mined and then shipped to China to make steel which is shipped back to Canada: the coal used in power plants and the steel are counted as China’s emissions, and high-emitting international shipping is exempt.

Incredibly destructive alternatives are rationalized as transition fuels on the pathway to renewables: biofuels, natural gas, large hydro dams, and nuclear reactors. The transition time is never specified. While renewables are clearly necessary and could generate much employment, proponents leave out or distort vital information. Claims of strong growth are belied by government records (here and here) showing that renewables, after decades of promise, remain a very small portion of the energy mix. Generally lacking is information about the externalities and life-cycle analysis of renewable energy and green technologies. The most significant gap is that renewables only apply to a fraction of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions. 100% renewables will not by itself solve the ghg emissions problem. Renewables will not affect the agro-industrial complex with its methane-emitting cows, its reliance on fossil fuel based fertilizers that are also creating dead zones in the ocean, its destruction of soil carbon sinks through deep tilling and its destruction of forest carbon sinks through deforestation for cash crops. The global food economy relies on highly-emitting international aviation and shipping, both of which are exempt under the Kyoto protocol. And renewables will make a very minimal dent on the biggest single ghg emitter, the military.

What is sadly, and criminally, lacking in this scheme is the fate of people.The COP21 meeting grossly underestimated human impacts. In 2009, Oxfam and the Global Humanitarian Forum (Kofi Annan) reported that climate-related fatalities were 300,000/year.The Worldwatch Institute calculated that already in the 1990s, natural disasters that could be linked to- and exacerbated by- climate change already caused average annual economic losses on the order of $660bn. Yet a meager $100bn/year for climate adaptation was pledged at the Cancun climate meeting six years ago. So far, at most $4.5bn is now going towards climate protection measures. Through deceptive bookkeeping, climate adaptation funds can be taken out of Official Development Assistance, and new OECD rules on foreign aid will allow support for military and security forces to be counted as foreign aid. The saddest loss in these politically and environmentally fraught disasters is children. Indonesia’s tropical forests are being burnt down to make way for biofuel palm plantations: “After the last great conflagration, in 1997, there was a missing cohort in Indonesia of 15,000 children under the age of three, attributed to air pollution. This, it seems, is worse.”

The climate movement itself underestimates the magnitude of this urgent crisis. There is little attention to the Kyoto-exempt military and international aviation and shipping. Much focus is on energy substitution and little to the displacement of people due to climate change who are still not protected under refugee or human rights laws. The dissemination of information remains sorely lacking and distorted, and there is insufficient challenge to much misinformation. In part this is due to the immense power behind climate denial/distraction/delay, to the enclosure of academic research which makes accessing information prohibitively expensive (fought against so courageously by the late Aaron Swartz) and due to historically entrenched American anti-intellectual trends such as the focus on “news” without history, context, or exploration of causes and effects.

It seems it is taboo to say, simply, “stop!” Incremental monetary manipulations such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade, the excuse of awaiting more research and development, transitioning, and moratoriums partake of distractions and delays as emissions continue to dangerously increase. Not taken seriously is the inevitability of relocating populations and agricultural areas that are already affected by sea-level rise. Nor has there been attention by the climate movement to the very concerning policy of giving NATO and the Pentagon responsibility for climate “security”. To take the fate of people seriously, eliminating ghg emissions is urgent. There are logical measures: demilitarization; deglobalization with the aim of localizing agriculture (agro-ecology) and of localizing manufacturing for essential products only; reserving aviation and shipping for essential services only; substantially reducing the production of steel and cement; shifting labor from inessential manufacturing to agriculture, ecosystem restoration, infrastructure maintenance, human services. This very different kind of economy based on providing for everyone’s basic needs and protecting people from life-threatening impoverishment can draw on previous work that calls for a liveable international guaranteed income. There is enough wealth to expeditiously bail out banks and launch wars – without a “transition”.