Approaches to the climate emergency can roughly be broken down into four categories.
Plan A, “business as usual,” is more-or-less a euphemism for accelerated greenhouse gas emissions, for promoting market mechanisms in order to profit from climate change, and for practices that treat the majority of humans, to say nothing of non-humans, as expendable. For the global plutocracy, climate change is one more rationale for expanding the military in the name of “security.” Gated military and civilian communities and settlements are enclosures of survival for the elite, with exclusive entitlements to energy and water, transportation, police and fire services, etc.
Plan B is based on extensive information about human/environmental interactions and is the antithesis of Plan A. It aims to save civilization and to provide basic security through a sustainable economy. Plan B emphasizes a shift to renewable energy through improved technology, a shift to a no-growth global economy with more equitable distribution of wealth and energy.
Plan C considerably expands and deepens the analysis and solutions by critiquing the inherent destructiveness of capitalism, making obvious the necessity of system change. This includes attention to class differences (in Canada, the richest 10 percent has an ecological footprint 66 percent higher than the average Canadian household – which is still much higher than the global average), land re-distribution, climate debt and the rights of ecological refugees and indigenous peoples, and the dismantling of the military –corporation complex
In practice, many proponents of Plans B and C inform each other about society and about the physical world. Yet in their plans, at least in North America and Europe, there is an underestimate of the unique threat posed by climate change itself. There is a critical time frame. Judging from the scientific evidence, what is at stake, soon, is survivability. The unprecedented, and dangerous interference with the global climate system cannot be underestimated. We are in a new era, the Anthropocene, “a stratigraphic interval without close parallel in the last several million years” (London Society, the world’s oldest association of Earth scientists). It needs to be understood that adding 1ppm carbon dioxide equivalent at this time is much more destructive than adding it 20 or 30 years ago. It is like increasing the temperature of a person who already has a high fever, all body systems will collapse with even an incremental increase.
Climate change threats to human survival are many – extreme heat, extreme weather events, and extreme food and water shortages. While there are many other causes of food and water insecurity, climate change has irreversible effects on plants, water and soil. A rule of thumb is that a 1ºC rise reduces grain yields by 10 percent. Current climate effects now exceed the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) worst-case predictions. This last year saw accelerated melting of Arctic sea ice and of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the Russian heat wave with temperatures 8ºC above normal generating massive forest fires and severely reduced grain harvest, the flooding of Pakistan displacing 20 million people, and an anomalous drought in the Amazon rainforest.
Plan D: It is with the urgent need to promptly eliminate human-generated greenhouse gas emissions and to ensure water and food supplies that Plan D recommends hard caps. This is not inconsistent with Plan B and C proposals, but the focus is immediate, deep reductions that cannot wait for new technologies or the effects of new taxes. The critical question about technology is scale, time frame and hidden environmental and health effects. Beware of the Jevons Paradox, in which increased energy efficiency leads to extensive, expanded consumption. Substantial cuts are likely to interact variably with political-economic processes in different societies and regions. In terms of costs, it is assumed that preserving life is worth all the money in the world. Use the trillions spent on the military and the $23 trillion in tax havens!
- Prompt phase-out of coal and tar sands (a demand by pre-eminent climate scientist James Hansen). Stop off shore and deep-sea oil drilling.
- Full life-cycle assessment of all production, including energy, water, soil, and social effects. This would aim at zero emissions and ensuring long-term water availability and prioritize energy use for essential goods and infrastructure. As of 2010, for example, estimated water lost via leaks in city water systems amounted to 50 percent in London, 55 percent in Manila.
- Limit international aviation and shipping to absolutely essential transport. Both are high emitters and were not included in the Kyoto Protocol. According to George Monbiot, in 2005, one round-trip New York-London trip equals one year’s allotted per person emissions at a level of 90 percent reduction, and it’s much worse in 2011.
- Convert the military into a civilian conservation corps and to a first responders corps. Kyoto exempted military emissions even though global petroleum consumption for military purposes is almost one half total consumption of all developing countries combined. The military consumes approximately 25 percent of all global jet fuels: a F16 jet on a training mission lasting less than one hour uses twice as much fuel as the average US motorist uses in a year. The Pentagon is the single largest US domestic consumer of oil and quite possibly the largest worldwide, and it is unclear whether this calculation includes military equipment and services now largely outsourced to the private sector.
- Impose a moratorium on biofuels. Corn-based ethanol actually increases GHG emissions. In Swaziland, 40 percent face acute food shortages and yet the government exports cassavas for biofuel.
- Promptly phase out private cars. Provide free public transportation. Each car requires the paving of land, from .07 to .02 hectares. In India, each new million cars translates to the loss of 50,000 tons of grain, enough to feed 250,000 people. And it takes 400,000 litres of water to make one car. And this is just one of the externalities.
- Fully assess all electronic equipment with the aim of meeting zero emissions. Sixty percent of PCs are left on overnight and emit 32 million tons of CO2/year. In the US alone, computer manufacturing produces over 300 billion litres of wastewater each year.
- Impose a moratorium on dams. Dam construction material requires immense energy, and dams ruin watersheds and farmland, release methane from decay of inundated vegetation, and drive inhabitants into urban slums. Many dams will be unusable because of water depletion.
- Restore soil, forests, wetlands, rangelands. Here there is a substantial need for labour.
- Massive investment in solar, wind and geothermal renewables, with these caveats: a) renewables are not usable by major emitters like aviation, shipping, the military; b) beware of the Jevons Paradox, in which increased energy efficiency leads to extensive, expanded consumption as has been the case with cars; c) often stated need for ever-increasing energy ignores the significant energy savings derived from implementing rigorous ecologically-sound building standards.
Will such changes bring economic collapse? What do we mean by collapse? What are our options? Without rebuilding our economies from the ground up, sustainably and on a human scale, we face relentless environmental degradation and planetary chaos. We must see this an opportunity for renewal.
This article appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Canadian Dimension (Indian Country and Climate Change).