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The Monsters of Growth Shock Rise: Conflict in the Ukraine, Global Food Crisis, and Spending 500 Billion Dollars to Permanently Wreck the World’s Climate

nasa_p1089035

(Immense Russian wildfires burning through the thawing tundra’s carbon pool during summer of 2012. The bar on the lower left denotes 50 kilometers. From end to end, the burning zone seen is about 500 miles in length. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada.)

The radio and television today blares with the news but never the causes:

US meat, coffee, almond and milk prices to sky-rocket. Ukraine invaded by the Russian petro-state. Exxon Mobile to partner with Russian Rosneft and invest 500 billion dollars in extracting oil and gas from the increasingly ice-free Arctic.

What has caused all this? In a term — Growth Shock.

What is Growth Shock?

It’s what happens when any system grows outside of the boundaries of its sustainable limits. In the current, human case, its primary elements are overpopulation, renewable and nonrenewable resource depletion, climate change, poisoning the biosphere and wasting livable habitats, and a vicious system of inequality in which an amoral elite loots and pillages the lion’s share of planetary resources while driving increasing numbers of persons into poverty, hunger, and vulnerability to environmental/ecological collapse.

In the more immediate sense, human burning of fossil fuels is now intensifying droughts and extreme weather around the world. This is negatively impacting agricultural production. In addition, military aggression on the part of Russia has destabilized one of the world’s largest food producers — Ukraine. But these causes and effects are all a part of the larger structure of an ongoing Growth Shock crisis. The most recent and more intense iteration of a series of events that began in the 1970s and continues today.

In my own writing, I have described the forces of Growth Shock as four monsters (overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, institutionalized human greed) and, like the Diakiaju of Pacific Rim, they continue to grow stronger and to devour increasingly large chunks of our world.

In the context of our intensifying Growth Shock, conflicts can rapidly escalate as resources grow scarce and various nations, powerful individuals and corporate entities jockey for dominance in the context of increasing limitation and peril. But it is important to note that unless the underlying condition that caused the crisis — what is now likely the most terrible manifestation of Growth Shock ever witnessed by humans — is addressed, then there are no winners. No dominators that survive to flourish in the end. No remnant that sees a prosperous future. Only an ongoing string of worsening conflicts, disasters and temporary victories leading to a terrible and bitter ultimate defeat.

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The Special Interests of a Corporate Petro-State, its Dictator and its Oligarchs

So many of you are probably wondering why Russia suddenly invaded Ukraine? Why the West is taking an increasing stake in this country that, until recently, rarely showed on the international stage?

The reasons currently given by US officials certainly appear noble. We should not allow one country to simply invade, bully and rig the electoral process for another. We should not allow a single nation to flaunt international law and behave in a manner that better fits an age of anarchy and brutality. We should not permit these things from the member of the international community with broad responsibilities and obligations that is Russia.

These are moral and, indeed, appropriate frames for the current conflict. As they are appropriate rhetorical responses to international bullying. But we would also be wise not to ignore the underlying drivers — food crisis and overwhelming political power of fossil fuel special interests.

If anything Russia is now little more than a dictatorial, nuclear-armed petro-state, run by corporate oligarchs and a brutish strong man in the form of Vladimir Putin. A man who has ruled this country for a period now going on two decades through a combination of bullying, trickery, and poll fixing. The kind of character many conservatives these days seem to appreciate…

At 2.2 trillion dollars in GDP each year, its economy is comparable to that of the UK — sizable, but not an equal to economic powerhouses US, China, Germany or Japan. But what the Russian petro-state lacks in economic girth, it more than compensates for in two very destructive and destabilizing items — nuclear weapons and fossil fuels. It also retains a rather sizable and effective military — one whose forces are capable of projecting power and toppling governments throughout both Europe and Asia. One that retains its ability to rain nuclear Armageddon on any nation of peoples around the globe.

And this set of powers is increasingly being used to advance the special interests of the corporate, dictatorial state that is today’s Russia.

But it is Russia’s vast oil and natural gas wealth, the single-minded and narrow interests of its rulers, and the dark impetus that is global climate change that have likely combined to spur Russian’s current aggression.

Food, Fossil Fuels and the Compost Bomb

Burning Rings of Fire

(The tundra compost bomb explodes into burning rings of fire that illuminate the Russian night during 2012. The fire rings seen here are each between 10 and 100 kilometers across. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Burning Rings of Fire.)

For the very natural gas, oil and coal that Russia uses as a mainstay for its economy are now in the process of wrecking its future prospects and propelling it to ever more desperate and violent action.

To understand why, one simply has to think a little bit about permafrost and frozen ground.

A majority of Russia’s land mass sits on a pile of permafrost ranging from 1 to more than 10 meters in depth. In the past, this frozen substrata underlay many of Russia’s fields, cities and towns, forming a kind of frozen bedrock. But over the past few decades, the permafrost began to rapidly thaw under the radical and violent force that is human-caused warming. At first, this event was thought to weigh in Russia’s favor. The newly thawed permafrost would become more productive farmland, many assumed, and the added warmth would extend Russia’s growing season.

But few apparently accounted for the speed and violence of human-caused climate change. What happened instead was literally a firestorm. For the thawing peat retained a combustibility roughly equivalent to brown coal. Even worse, it contained pockets of highly flammable liquified organic carbon and methane. Over top this volatile layer were the great boreal forests and the vast grasslands of the Russian land mass. During the periods of summer drought that emerged as human caused climate change amplified at the end of the 2000s, these forests and grasses were, increasingly, simply piles of kindling growing atop a meters thick layer of volatile fuel.

By 2010, climate change brought on a series of record droughts and heatwaves extending far into the Arctic that set both permafrost thaw and lower latitude regions ablaze. As a result, Russia suffered agricultural losses unlike anything seen in its past. Fields and towns burned. The productive regions burned. Russia was forced to close its agricultural market for exports. World food prices hit all time record highs and the food riots that followed were enough to topple regimes and alight civil wars throughout the world’s most vulnerable states.

Through the summers of 2013, Russia suffered amazing fires in its thawing tundra lands. These blazes were, at times, intense enough to require the calling up of its military and the mobilization of up to 200,000 people simply to fight the fires. Heat and moisture from the thawing tundra spilled out into the Jet Stream and amplified the storm track. By 2013, record drying and burning in the tundra lands turned to record floods in the Amur region of both China and Russia. A tragic song of flood and fire.

Song of Flood and Fire

(Massive wildfires burn over Yakutia as an immense rainstorm begins to form over the Amur region of Russia and China. The fires and deluge would together ruin millions of acres of crops during 2014. Image credit: Lance-Modis. Image source: A Song of Flood and Fire.)

It was a string of climate change induced disasters that produced blow after telling blow to Russian agricultural production.

Meanwhile, around the world, similar droughts, floods and severe wind storms were ripping through the world’s croplands. By early 2014, the world food price index was again on the rise. By February, the index had climbed to 208, a very high level that would put those countries and populations at the margins at risk of increasing poverty and hunger all while potentially destabilizing any number of nations.

Ukraine — The Breadbasket of Europe

Perhaps the irony is lost on Russia that the very fuels — oil, gas and coal — that it views as an economic strength are also the source of its increasingly marginal food security and the ongoing and growing devastation of its lands. But Russia, its strongman, and its corporate oligarchs likely haven’t overlooked the fact that Ukraine is one of the world’s largest food producers. In a world where food is becoming increasingly costly and scarce, this particular commodity may well be more important than even oil, gas, or coal.

Ukraine possesses 30% of the world’s remaining richest black soil. It regularly ranks within the top ten producers of both wheat and corn. It is the world’s top producer of sunflower oil. The reach of its agricultural exports extends to the UK, Europe, Japan, China and into Russia itself. If Russia has a food crisis, it will be to the Ukraine that it turns to first. Moreover, the current Russian dictator must see an imperative not to rely overmuch on the US or its other economic rivals for food.

So it is in this context — a one in which climate change is causing Russia to flood and burn, in which climate change is now beginning to take down global agricultural productivity, and in which the Ukraine could well be seen as the Iraq of world food production (one of the only countries with the ability to radically increase production) — that we must also view both the Ukrainian revolution for independence and the Russian armed invasion as a response.

Russia Already Taking Hold of Some of Ukraine’s Most Productive Farmland

Centuries ago, during the dark ages, bad winters drove waves of tribes out of the frigid northern lands and into the then fertile fields of Rome and Europe. History, it seems, is not without its rhymes. For now, a fiery human-driven thaw and climate change appears to be having a similar impact on the Russia and Ukraine of today.

For the lands already under Russian occupation and threat of invasion (Eastern Ukraine primarily) are also some of Ukraine’s most productive wheat and corn growing zones. These lands under threat of additional Russian incursion, if added to the already occupied and planned to be annexed Crimea would compose the bulk of Ukraine’s agriculture.

Russia’s invasion, thus, must be seen as a direct looting of Ukraine’s lands and productive capacity for Russian and, by extension, Putin’s self interest. A set of interests likely inflamed by Russia’s own declining state of food security.

Climate Change and Why This Fight Must Be Against Fossil Energy, Not for It

Unfortunately, this conflict, like so many others, falls under the ominous shadow of the global fossil fuel trade. A shadow that grows ever darker as the crises imposed by human-caused climate change become more and more dire.

In the context of what could cynically be termed American interests, the fossil fuel giant Exxon recently partnered with Rosneft, an oil corporation Putin and his oligarchs essentially looted from a political rival, to invest 500 billion dollars in drilling and exploration in the Russian Arctic. The zones included in the deal involve the highly unstable clathrate and natural gas stores of the Arctic Ocean. And considering the massive sum invested, one cannot overlook the likelihood that the ESAS’s store of up to 1400 gigatons of natural gas clathrate have now been targeted by global fossil fuel interests for burning. Such an exploitation would result in the near tripling of the current human atmospheric carbon loading — all by itself and without the added inputs from coal, tar sands, or other oil and gas reserves. In other words — corporate insanity in the mad pursuit of profits for a few supremely wealthy and powerful individuals. In this case, a breed of greed-driven insanity that falls under the specter of an increasingly violent and expansionist Russia. One driven to hunger for resources by the land and crops destroying influences of the fossil fuels it continues to seek to exploit.

Here is Growth Shock in its most brazen form when wealthy oligarchs, dictators and corporations collude to profit while ruining the productivity of the lands upon which even they rely. And it is this terrible state that cannot be allowed to continue.

The US, therefore, could strike a blow against both Russian aggression and climate change game over by sanctioning Russian-backed Rosneft, disallowing any American corporation from conducting business with them or any other Russian petroleum entity and going further to say that they will sanction any other global corporation with ties to Rosneft. Use of the power of the dollar and of the global monetary system, in this way, could strike a blow against both the greed that underlies the current Growth Shock crisis and against the maniacal continued and expanding exploitation of extraordinarily destructive fuels.

If the US wishes to continue to bring Russia to heel, it will also use the carrot of access to US grain and food shipments as well as providing partnership arrangements with US alternative energy and sustainability-based corporations in exchange for a peaceful withdrawal from the Ukraine. To help Russia save face, it could provide these offers in a less public fashion or in a way that is not personally insulting to Putin.

Little to No Time Left, But the Crisis Presents a Fleeting Opportunity

In broader context, the deteriorating global food situation, the deteriorating global climate situation and the maniacal quest by fossil fuel companies to access and burn an ever-growing volume of oil, coal and natural gas has reached a critical stage that simply cannot continue for much longer without entirely ruining the prospects for human civilization and, likely, much of life on Earth. The Russia and Ukraine conflict is an opportunity to begin a full attempt to change course and to bring the, now very large and growing, forces of our Growth Shock crisis to bay. If we do not, the window of opportunity may well be closed and we may well have consigned ourselves to ever-worsening conflict under a situation of ongoing resource destruction, destruction of modern civilization’s food base, a situation where the powerful are ever more enabled to take from the weak, and a situation in which a hothouse extinction eventually snuffs out most or all of those that survive the ensuing collapse.

Links:

Growth Shock

Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada

Burning Rings of Fire

Climate and Frozen Ground

Lance-Modis

A Song of Flood and Fire.

World Food Security in the Cross-hairs of Human-caused Climate Change

Climate Change Pushes FAO Food Price Index to 208 in February

The Economy of the Ukraine

Rosneft Warns West over Crimean Sanctions Woos Japan

Rosneft

Putin — the New Global Shah of Oil

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Obama’s Climate Action Plan: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Yesterday, President Barack Obama gave a rousing speech to promote his new Climate Action Plan. In it, he used a number of keywords that those concerned about the increasingly violent state of the world’s climate might appreciate. He used the term ‘tar sands,’ when making the equivocal statement that he ‘wouldn’t approve the Keystone XL Pipeline unless it was proved to be carbon-neutral’ and in his uplifting conclusion he used the terms ‘Invest’ and ‘Divest’ — slogans the climate movement have used in their efforts to shift investment funds from fossil fuel companies to those that support renewable energy.

The speech earned praise from the likes of Bill McKibben, Chris Hayes, Michael Mann, and Joe Romm. Joe Romm labeled Obama a ‘climate hawk,’ Michael Mann gushed saying:

“It is the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years and President Obama should be applauded for the bold leadership he has shown in confronting the climate change threat head on.”

Bill McKibben noted that Obama ‘had begun to advance the country in a sane direction.’ And Chris Hayes, citing the ‘invest, divest’ line from the speech, claimed these were the most ‘crypto-radical lines the President has ever uttered.’

And there is much in the plan to be praised though, perhaps, not enough to earn President Obama the label of ‘climate hawk,’ despite his very encouraging statements and use of language. In fact, there is compelling reason to believe that the Obama plan represents a response that is a too little, too late confrontation with a growing age of consequences.

The Good: Begins to Lay the Groundwork for Comprehensive Climate Policy

When we cut past the, admittedly encouraging, rhetoric and look at the nuts and bolts of the Obama plan, what we find are a few moderate steps in the right direction and a structured Action Plan that begins to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive climate policy. These steps in the right direction, however, may well represent walking when we should be running (see more on this in ‘The Bad’ and ‘The Ugly’).

The keystone (pun intended) of this plan is to establish carbon as a pollutant and to set in place a framework to begin direct legal regulation of the potent greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide (CO2). This is important because it spells the beginning of the end for CO2 emissions from a policy standpoint. It involves re-tooling and working with existing power infrastructure and supply lines to find ways to reduce CO2 emissions. So this first step is well worthy of the ‘good’ label.

It is worth noting that the US has achieved serious reductions in CO2 emissions over the first five years of Obama’s Presidency. These reductions were achieved via a combination of switching to a greater reliance on natural gas, markedly increased vehicular fuel efficiency standards, a rapidly increasing adoption of renewable energy generation, increased building efficiency and light bulb efficiency standards, and an increased reliance on biofuels (which currently uses a portion of the food crop to fuel vehicles).

Obama has also been helped by a massive campaign by environmentalists to shut down the nation’s dirtiest coal plants and to halt new construction of these carbon belching behemoths. These campaigns are one key reason why renewables and natural gas have had the opportunity to take greater market share.

If other countries around the world had achieved the CO2 reductions America has seen during Obama’s tenure, we would be in a much better place globally. Total CO2 emissions would have begun to fall off. Instead, the world has seen successive gains in the volume of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere with the total hitting nearly 32 gigatons this year. So US achievements in this area are both positive and noteworthy (Good).  But they occur against a very stark global background.

Natural gas, however, does have a darker side (see Bad and Ugly) in that its enhanced production via fracking results both in more methane emissions even as it threatens local water supplies. Obama is right to seek to regulate industry, via his action plan, in an attempt to reduce methane leaks. Sadly, his speech and plan had no content involving threats to water, which appears to have been left out.

Obama’s proposal to remove all funding for new foreign coal plants, except in the poorest of countries and when carbon capture technology is applied, can also be labeled ‘Good.’ It represents starting to apply pressure on almost all countries to begin to remove this most polluting of all greenhouse gas sources or to construct means to capture and store the carbon emitted. It could well be labeled extraordinarily good because it will give the US the opportunity to diplomatically oppose massive new coal plant construction projects on the books for India and China unless Carbon Capture and Storage CCS facilities are added. This particular policy measure does look rather ‘hawkish’ so I’m tentatively hopeful we may see more diplomatic effort on the CO2 front. If such policies are aggressively applied we could see a start to a falling off of new coal plant construction as well as some of the first actual applications of CCS (making renewables more competitive vs coal).

Lastly, the Obama plan includes a raft of new alternative energy and efficiency measures. These include setting aside enough public land to support new renewable energy projects for 6 million homes, a number of increased building efficiency standards, constructing gigawatts worth of wind and solar capacity for US military bases, and a number of more minor, but still worthwhile, measures. Such efforts can all well be labeled ‘Good.’

In sum, these policies seem to represent a grand vision on climate change that seeks to:

1. Regulate and reduce carbon emissions at the source.

2. Begin putting in place the regulatory precedent for requiring fossil fuel facilities to capture carbon, both in the US and overseas.

3. Target new coal plant construction overseas for removal of US funding or, otherwise, pressuring nations to build CCS at these facilities.

4. Reduce methane emissions that result from hydraulic fracturing.

5. Continue to increase renewable energy adoption while pushing efficiency standards higher.

6. Establish a precedent whereby the US can employ diplomacy in an effort to reduce carbon emissions worldwide.

When taken together, Obama’s approach is far more rational than those submitted by Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. At this point, Mitt would be submitting his policy to rapidly drill our way to oblivion while ignoring the fact that climate change is a problem altogether. Obama, on the other hand, moves gradually but decisively in the right direction. So all the efforts above are positive innovations. As such, we can expect loud and outrageous opposition to this, somewhat rational, approach to come screaming up from the ranks of conservatives. The ‘job killing’ rhetorical horse will be beaten to death yet again. So everyone prepare.

But despite the fact that Obama’s evolving climate policy is far, far better than anything submitted by the lunatics, deniers, fossil fuel cheerleaders, and curled into the fetal position while waiting for doomsday republican party, it still has a number of gaping holes in it. In short, there is reason for serious concern that Obama’s climate policy does not move fast enough.

The Bad: Slow Motion Carbon Reductions, Promoting Fracking Overseas, Pumping North American Oil and Gas Production

Though Obama’s proposed climate policy begins to construct the regulatory ‘stick’ to use against emitters in order to reduce carbon dumping into the atmosphere, it doesn’t apply this stick very liberally. Obama’s plan only calls for the US to reduce its total emissions by another 3 gigatons by 2030. Since the US in on track to dump 102 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere between now and then, the 3 gigatons reduction is less than 3%. This, somewhat blase, reductions plan is hardly worthy of the term ‘climate hawk.’ It’s more like a climate chicken trying to cross the road to climate hawk fame and getting creamed by an oil tanker on the way across.

Hyperbole aside, it is worth raising the question: does a US role as climate leader require more than a 3% total reduction in planned emissions between now and 2030? I would say the answer to this question is, unequivocally, YES. A more worthy and, safer for our kids, target of 20%, 30%, or even 50% by that time is what should be on the table for US climate leadership. By comparison, if the world took such an approach, global CO2 emissions would total in excess of 522 gigatons between now and 2030. This snail’s pace rate of reduction would surely consign ‘the kids’ to a devastating 2 degree Celsius warming by the end of this century and a brutal 4-5 degree Celsius warming long-term. It also almost assures that large-scale emissions will continue long past 2030, an event that puts in place serious risk of even more catastrophic consequences.

Even worse, the Obama plan openly pushes for the use of US hydraulic fracturing technology overseas. Recent reports show that fracking has added 11% to the world’s oil and gas reserves, thereby adding to the total volume of fossil fuels on the world’s oil and gas company books that will need to stay in the ground to prevent a climate nightmare. Yet the Obama administration appears keen on promoting this new technology. As a result, the conservative 11% addition to oil and gas reserves may well double to 20% or more — creating the potential for far more trouble than the US solves by cutting carbon emissions by 3 gigatons at home. It also dramatically eats into any gains policy-makers may achieve by reducing new coal plant construction. Further, there is no guarantee that the methane leaks associated with fracturing and which we are struggling with so mightily today will be responsibly contained in foreign countries. To wit, the countries most likely to make wide-spread use of fracturing — Russia, China, and India — are least likely to responsibly regulate these sources.

So it is worth noting that though natural gas burns cleaner than coal in power plants, new sources produce large volumes of methane via extraction and as such it cannot rationally be viewed as a bridge to anywhere but a climate change nightmare. The gas plants, extraction, and pipeline apparatus will create a carbon emitting structure that will last for many decades — perhaps 80 years or longer. So investing in its wide-spread expansion is a very, very risky endeavor. Though better than coal, it is certainly no leap frog, and use of the term bridge is highly questionable. In short, we achieve climate change game over faster with coal, slower with gas. So, at best, the expansion of natural gas production worldwide may buy us a little time. But even these marginal gains are called into question by the expanded methane emissions resulting from hydraulic fracturing. Meanwhile, the pace of climate change advances at such a rate as to indicate we have very little time left.

Lastly, the Obama plan continues to hint that North American oil and gas production will continue to expand for some time. Both his tacit support of expansion of domestic oil extraction via fracking and his continuing ambiguity on the issue of the Keystone XL Pipeline continue to be causes for concern.

Though Obama has rhetorically distanced himself from the ‘tar sands’ Keystone XL pipeline, there is no clear indication what his decision will be on a structure that is, in large part, already pre-constructed. Pipes are being laid at a feverish pace and simply wait signatory approval by leadership before they are joined. Should Obama not approve the Keystone Pipeline and endure a massive and vicious backlash from powerful vested business interests, we can shift this particular issue to the ‘Good’ category and even put a climate hawk feather in Obama’s cap. But this critical climate issue remains up in the air. Now, in all fairness, I had written earlier that we shouldn’t have the Keystone Pipeline without a comprehensive climate policy which pushes to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, I must say that the push for a 3% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the course of 17 years is no-where near enough to allay my concerns. So, in light of a notably robust regulatory advancement but with paltry goals, I must continue to fervently support efforts to block said pipeline.

In light of these policy initiatives, it is worth noting that Obama is granted the unenviable position of attempting to balance an economic system that requires growth to survive against a coming climate catastrophe made worse by the exploitation of a resource upon which our economies are still mostly tooled to rely: fossil fuels. Obama appears to be attempting to keep the machine humming and build in fixes (renewables) while at the same time partly promoting economic expansion via enhanced fossil fuel extraction. Obama’s plan seems to, at least in part, cut against his rhetoric. If Obama were truly serious about achieving growth outside the structure of fossil fuels, he would promote alternative energy sources more and begin a more rapid cut-back of emissions-based fossil fuel use. His approach, therefore, is still heavy on the side of traditional, fossil fuel-based, growth and less so heavy on the side of safety for our children. His plan is extraordinarily risky and leaves open a high chance of serious climate change harm coming down the pipeline. On the other hand, I wouldn’t label his plan blatantly stupid. I reserve that for when republicans counter-propose with their ‘drill the world into oblivion and burn coal ’til the world burns’ mantra.

Together, slow motion carbon emission reductions, support for fracturing in the US and overseas, and continuing ambiguity over the Keystone XL Pipeline represent the ‘Bad,’ dark underbelly of an otherwise positive proposal. These particular issues raise the question of whether or not Obama’s new climate policy is serious enough to provide substantial help in addition to preventing and reducing the harm rumbling our way like a freight-train that inexorably accumulates steam and velocity.

The Ugly: Preparing Communities for Climate Disasters

Now we get to the Ugly part. The part that makes real all the troubles I’ve been doing my best to highlight here. The part where Obama talks about hardening communities against climate change.

Obama noted in his speech that he would set aside funds to make communities more resilient to climate troubles that are already emerging and are likely to continue to get worse at least for decades to come. He also noted that, in some cases, it may be impossible to prevent damage in some areas, so a system would be put in place to ensure that money is sent where it is likely to do the most good and not wasted in areas that cannot be saved. He didn’t use these exact words, but the implication in his speech is clear:

Some communities will probably not survive what we’ve already set in motion.

On the front line of our expanding climate emergency lies the coastal cities of the US and the world. In particular, Miami, has fallen into the cross hairs as a city that will be very difficult to save. Under current emissions scenarios, it is possible that the world will see a 10 foot or more sea level rise over the course of this century. In such a case, Miami would nearly be impossible to save. It sits on porous limestone and is surrounded on all sides by waterways. Few areas in Miami are more than 6 feet above sea level. Even if Miami were encircled by lines of barriers and levees, like New Orleans, the water would seep up through the limestone. City planners are aware of what’s coming. Some of the suggestions for saving the city including raising the whole structure (like Galveston) or even putting it on stilts.

Miami is just one example of a community under assault. Everywhere along the thousands of miles of US coastline, communities will face flooding, rising waters, and increasingly powerful storms. It is likely that there will not be enough in the way of resources to save all of these communities. And it is this new, Ugly, reality that Obama, for the first time, broaches in his speech. Communities will be harmed, homes, businesses, valuable infracture will be lost. In some cases, entire cities may well be lapped up by the ocean.

We were warned of this possibility more than 30 years ago. And had we aggressively pursued policies to reduce greenhouse gasses and to aid developing countries in building renewable energy infrastructures, we could probably have avoided the troubles we now stand at the brink of. Now we face rising costs, rising damage, more powerful storms, more rapidly rising seas. Now our President raises the entirely real possibility that some communities may well need to be abandoned. That funding must go where it is most needed and most useful.

This is the very definition of triage and we are currently involved in planning for climate change triage for our communities. A more clear sign that we are in the grips of a growing emergency could not be seen than this: the President proposes triage funding for coastal communities now under severe threat from storms and rising waters. And this was the ugly part of Obama’s speech. Not because he was wrong in proposing it. But because it is terrible that we have come to this pass. Because it is terrible that we must now begin to assess the potential loss of our communities. Potential losses in the billions and trillions of dollars. But more importantly, potential losses to lives and livelihoods.

Considering these emerging realities brings new urgency to light. Obama’s proposed policies, though rational, are not fast enough, do not cut fossil fuels deep enough, and do not promote the renewables strongly enough. We don’t need to begin walking in the right direction to avoid serious trouble. We need to begin moving with a measured and rapid urgency.

Links:

Obama’s Climate Speech

Obama’s Climate Action Plan

Joe Romm Says Obama Goes Full Climate Hawk (I somewhat disagree)

Anne Petermann, Ecologist and Global Climate Justice Advocate, Says Obama’s Climate Plan is ‘Greenwash’

World CO2 Emissions Set New Record in 2012 at 31.6 Gigatons; On Current Path, World Locks in Dangerous, 2 Degree + Warming Before 2029

According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), world CO2 emissions hit an all-time high last year at 31.6 gigatons. This means that only a 532 gigaton cushion now remains between pushing the world above the dangerous 2 degree Celsius Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity threshold. At the current rate of emissions, we will run headlong into this threshold within a little more than 16 years. So before 2029, without major changes in the world’s energy structure, a civilization-endangering global warming of at least 2 degrees Celsius will be locked in.

In order to attempt to buy time to respond to this growing crisis, the International Energy Agency has published a policy paper containing recommendations for a path forward that is less damaging than the current one. The agency paper noted that the current emission path brings us to 3.6 to 5.3 degrees warming by the end of this century under Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (Which measures about half of long-term warming). This pace of emissions is well above that needed to reach the safer goal of 2 degrees Celsius equilibrium warming or less by the end of this century. A level that climate scientists say human civilizations are better able to adapt to.

Pace of Emissions Increase Slowed

Pace of emissions increase did, however, back off from 2011’s rapid growth, slowing to 1.4 percent. IEA noted that US switching from coal to natural gas and a Chinese energy policy that included greater focus on renewables were major contributors to this slower pace of emissions growth. US emissions fell by a total of 200 megatons, reaching a level last seen in the 1990s. Europe also saw significant reductions — cutting emissions by 50 megatons. Unfortunately, despite a stronger renewables policy, the Chinese still emitted 300 megatons more carbon than in the previous year, while Japanese carbon emissions also advanced by a total of 70 megatons. The loss of ground in Japan was primarily due to its switching away from nuclear power as a primary energy source and returning to more traditional fossil fuels — natural gas and coal.

The hiatus in US carbon emissions may also be somewhat temporary. Natural gas prices are rising and, traditionally, this has resulted in a whip-lash effect driving utilities back to coal generation. It is worth noting, however, that wind energy is now competitive with coal power, while long-term coal prices are increasing. Solar energy prices are also falling rapidly. So let us hope that the natural gas whip-lash effect is somewhat muted by more adoption of renewable energy sources.

IEA Policy Recommendations Both Modest and Ambitious

Despite a greater overall adoption of renewables and lower carbon energy sources, CO2 dumping into the atmosphere is still tracking along the worst case scenario for climate change projected by the IPCC. In order to meet this challenge of rising emissions, IEA urges a number of policy changes to be put in place immediately.

These policies include:

  • A partial phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies
  • Limiting construction of the least efficient coal-fired power plants
  • Increasing renewable energy’s percentage of total energy generation from 20% to 27%
  • Targeting energy efficiency measures for new buildings
  • Reduce methane releases from oil and gas industry activities by half

The IEA claims that these policies would reduce projected 2020 emissions by as much as 8%, preventing about 3.1 gigatons of additional carbon from entering the atmosphere. IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, the report’s lead author notes:

“We identify a set of proven measures that could stop the growth in global energy-related emissions by the end of this decade at no net economic cost. Rapid and widespread adoption could act as a bridge to further action, buying precious time while international climate negotiations continue.”

This IEA report can be viewed as a plea to slow the damage even as it provides a compromise plan that could be put in place. The plan is both modest and ambitious. Modest, because the initial changes are easy to incorporate into the current energy structure. Ambitious because long-term goals involve a phase-out of the use of fossil fuel assets.

This call for comprehensive policy-based fossil fuel stranding and phase-out is the first of its kind from a major world policy body. In total, about 5-6 percent of undeveloped oil and gas reserves are projected not to be used. Also implicit in the the report is a stranding of a large portion of the world’s coal reserves as a larger transition to renewable energy is constructed through 2035. The IEA recommends that oil, gas and coal companies can shift to carbon capture and storage if they wish to protect their assets.

In the end, though, the numbers provided by the IEA will require more clarity in order to add up. More than 2,800 gigatons of fossil fuel are on the books of the world’s fossil fuel companies and none of those assets are yet slated to be captured in order to prevent atmospheric release. Even worse, millions of tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere every year via the process of oil and natural gas extraction. These emissions are not listed as assets, but they still end up in the atmosphere. Cutting them in half, as the IEA recommends, will still leave half of this addition active.

Costs of Damage to Leap Higher If Action is Delayed Until 2020

The IEA’s recommended plan would, at best, keep world carbon emissions about stable through 2020. The result would be that 256 gigatons of carbon will be emitted by 2020 through fossil fuel burning, putting us about half-way on the path to 2 degrees Celsius (equilibrium warming) by that time. Such a plan would leave the world with only about 276 gigatons of carbon wiggle room, requiring a very rapid draw-down of carbon emissions post 2020.

That said, starting implementation now would reduce the costs of a long-term transition away from fossil fuels by $3.5 trillion dollars, according to IEA estimates. So beginning changes now would lay the ground-work for a smoother, more rapid transition post 2020. Also, failure to implement these policies through 2020 puts the world on a path for 2 degree Celsius warming to be locked in sometime around 2025. So it is doubtful the goal of preventing a 2 degree Celsius warming (equilibrium) could be achieved without taking on the modest policy changes recommended by the IEA now.

For these reasons, the IEA plan should be both applauded and looked at with caution. Applauded, because it begins to put in place the necessary framework for long-term emissions reductions world-wide. Applauded, because it barely keeps alive the goal of meeting a less than 2 degree (equilibrium) temperature increase by the end of this century. And looked at with caution because it sails very close to a dangerous climate change wind.

For more comfort, we should ask for a more ambitious set of policies. But given a major dearth of such, the IEA measures are among the most prudent yet advanced. Not really much cause for comfort during this late hour.

Links:

Four Energy Policies to Keep the 2 Degrees Celsius Goal Alive

Delaying Action Until 2020 Costs the World 3.5 Trillion

Greenland Glacial Melt Rapidly Increasing, So Why is Andrew Revkin Telling us No Policy Response Necessary?

In 1995, Greenland contributed no melt water to global sea level rise. By 2012, melt had increased rapidly to more than 7 mm. By comparison, Antarctica contributed about 4 mm by 2012. Ever since 2003, melt rate growth from Greenland has outpaced that of Antarctica.

In total, Greenland contains enough ice to increase world sea levels by about 6 meters or 20 feet. Quite a lot of water. By comparison, West Antarctica, which is most likely to melt alongside Greenland due to human-caused global warming, contains enough ice to raise sea levels by about 5 meters (16.5 feet). The last time greenhouse gasses were as high as they are today, both these ice stores melted. Along with thermal expansion of water and additional contributions from mountain glaciers and other parts of Antarctica, total sea level rise at around 400 ppm CO2 was about 75 feet.

As the globe warms due to human-caused climate change, we can expect increasing outflows of water from both Greenland and West Antarctica. To prevent such changes, at the very least, will require serious improvements to world energy and climate policy. And so monitoring ice melt in these regions cannot be entirely divorced from the need for such policy if we are to maintain a world with stable coastlines, a world in which states and nations aren’t at risk of being wiped off the face of the Earth by rising waters.

So one wonders why Andrew Revkin recently made this statement in his dotEarth blog:

“The dramatic surface melting [in Greenland], while important to track and understand has little policy significance.”

Revkin’s statement has to do with a recent ice core sample study which found that, during the Eemian, the last inter-glacial period, Greenland melted ‘only’ enough to increase sea levels by 1-2 meters. The study did not conclude, as Revkin did, that Greenland ice melt caused by increases in greenhouse gas emissions would follow the same pattern as it did in the Eemian. Nor did it recommend, as Revkin did, divorcing policy from observations of increasing Greenland ice melt.

Revkin’s argument and assertions aren’t new. In fact, James Hansen in his most recent paper on Greenland and West Antarctic ice melt cautions that melt in Greenland is not likely to follow the same pattern as the Eemian and that inland glaciers aren’t so buttressed from ocean influence as some suppose. Even more disturbing is the fact that some climate change deniers tend to use the Eemian to support some of their own, non-scientific, arguments.

Professor Richard Alley, whom Revkin interviewed in his blog, had his own response to this point by Revkin:

“We have high confidence that warming will shrink Greenland, by enough to matter a lot to coastal planners.”

In other words, Greenland melt has serious policy implications for coastal planners (and many more people, for that matter). A recent report found that Miami may well not be a viable city before the end of this century and, possibly, before it is even half over. Much of south Florida and many low-lying regions of the world are likely to suffer similar fates.

In general, it is not a good idea to suppose that current melt trends will mirror those of the Eemian. Nor that melt will be as gradual as some expect. Nor that we should not base policy decisions on an observable and increasing danger of damaging sea level rise.

Links:

http://www.meltfactor.org/blog/?p=811

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/30/1260591/science-stunner-greenland-ice-melt-up-nearly-five-fold-since-mid-1990s-antarticas-ice-loss-up-50-in-past-decade/

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/24/eyes-turn-to-antarctica-as-study-shows-greenlands-ice-has-endured-warmer-climates/

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