Sunshine Recorder

Excerpt from “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life” by Kari Marie Norgaard

Introduction: The Failure to Act, Denial versus Indifference, Apathy, and Ignorance.

Environmental and social scientific communities alike have identified the failure of public response to global warming as a significant quandary. Most existing explanations emphasize lack of information (people don’t know enough information; climate science is too complex to follow; or corporate media and climate skeptic campaigns have misled them) or lack of concern (people are just greedy and self-interested or focused on more immediate problems). Such work emphasizes either explicitly or implicitly the notion that information is the limiting factor in public nonresponse to this issue, an approach that is often called the “informa- tion deficit model” (see, e.g., Bulkeley 2000). There is the sense that “if people only knew,” they would act differently: that is, drive less, “rise up,” and put pressure on the government. For example, psychologists Grame Halford and Peter Sheehan write, “With better mental models and more appropriate analogies for global change issues, it is likely that more people, including more opinion leaders, will make the decision to implement some positive coping action of a precautionary nature” (1991, 606). Researchers have lamented the confusion between global warming and the ozone hole (e.g., Bell 1994; Bostrom, Morgan, Fischoff, et al. 1994; Read, Bostrom, Morgan, et al. 1994), investigated the role of media framing (Bell 1994; Ungar 1992; Grundmann 2006, 2007), and described how understanding global warming requires a complex grasp of scientific knowledge in many fields. Also in this vein, John Sterman and Linda Sweeney examine public misperceptions of climate models as a cause for inaction. The authors conclude that “low public support for mitigation policies may arise from misconceptions of climate dynamics rather than [from] high discount rates or uncertainty about the impact of climate change” (2007, 606). Furthermore, they link this misunder- standing to the failure of response by U.S. policymakers. Yet as Daniel Read and his colleagues (1994) pointed out more than a decade ago, only two simple facts are essential to understanding climate change. If significant global warming occurs, it will be the result primarily of an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmo- sphere. And the single most important source of carbon dioxide is the combustion of fossil fuels, most notably coal and oil. How can it be that people don’t know these basic facts?

Finally, the information deficit approach cannot explain a para- doxical phenomenon: as evidence for climate change pours in, and as predictions become more and more alarming and scientific consensus increases, interest in the issue in Norway and elsewhere is declining. Biannual national surveys find a significant and steady downward trend in Norwegian interest and concern in the issue, with the percentage of respondents who replied that they were “very much worried” about climate change declining steadily from 40 percent in 1989 to less than 10 percent in 2001 (Hellevik 2002, 13; Barstad and Hellevik 2004).Hellevik’s explanation for declining concern is interesting: “A decline from such a high level of anxiety is to be expected. There are limits to how long it is possible for individuals to live with the extremely pessimistic environmental perspectives reflected in the 1989 results. Anxiety reduction mechanisms make people look for brighter aspects of development” (2002, 13). Although the situation is more complicated in the United States, we can see evidence of the same pattern here. For example, Paul Kellstedt, Sammy Zahran, and Arnold Vedlitz have found that increased levels of information about global warming have a negative effect on concern and sense of personal responsibility. In par- ticular, respondents who are better informed about climate change feel less rather than more responsible for it: “in sharp contrast with the knowledge-deficit hypothesis, respondents with higher levels of informa- tion about global warming show less concern” (2008, 120). Similarly, Jon Krosnic and his colleagues (2006) observed that people stopped paying attention to global climate change when they realized that there is no easy solution for it. They note that many people instead judge as serious only those problems for which they think action can be taken.

In the United States, there is also the phenomenon of outright climate skepticism, in which 26 percent of the population does not believe there is scientific consensus that climate change is occurring (Krosnic 2009). Is this phenomenon at all linked with the larger majorities of the U.S. public who find global warming alarming, but who fail to take action? If so, how?

Existing studies of how people process information on climate change have focused largely on either the individual level, examining “mental models” and cognitive schemas (e.g., Bostrom, Morgan, Fischoff, et al. 1994), or the national level, carrying out large-scale cross-national surveys (e.g., Dunlap 1998; Saad 2002, 2007 Nisbet and Meyers 2007; Newport 2008; Leiserowitz, Maibach, and Roser-Renouf 2008, 2010). No sociological work to date has taken an open-ended, ethnographic approach to the question of how people experience climate change. Results from the few studies that use interview data do not support the information deficit model. Instead, their results describe a complexity of response, situations of knowing and not knowing, and emotional ambivalence. Perhaps more significant, although information deficit explanations are indispensable, they do not account for the behavior of the large number of people who do know about global warming, believe it is happening, and express concern. Outright climate skepticism is flashy and attention grabbing, but survey data make clear that a much larger percentage of the Norwegian (not to mention U.S. and world) population is not skeptical (Hellevik and Høie 1999). If we look closely, these people’s inaction becomes an interesting, complex, and, I suggest, important barrier to social change.

Double Realities: Climate Change and Everyday Life

It was not long after my arrival in Bygdaby that I began to sense a paradox. Norwegians are among the most highly educated people in the world. Global warming was frequently mentioned during my time in Bygdaby, and community members seemed to be both informed and concerned about it. Yet at the same time it was an uncomfortable issue. People were aware that climate change could radically alter life within the next decades, yet they did not go about their days wondering what life would be like for their children, whether farming practices would change in Bygdaby, or whether their grandchildren would be able to ski on real snow. They spent their days thinking about more local, manageable topics. Ingrid, a local high school student, described how “you have the knowledge, but you live in a completely different world.” Vigdis told me that she was afraid of global warming, but that it didn’t enter her everyday life: “I often get afraid, like—it goes very much up and down, then, with how much I think about it. But if I sit myself down and think about it, it could actually happen; I thought about how if this here continues, we could come to have no difference between winter and spring and summer, like—and lots of stuff about the ice that is melting and that there will be flooding, like, and that is depressing, the way I see it.”

In the words of one person who held his hands in front of his eyes as he spoke, “People want to protect themselves a bit.” These voices are echoed in the United States. One of my female environmental studies students described how “solving global warming seems like such a daunt- ing task, and even I know that it can seem too overwhelming.” Another student observed, “Despite my knowledge of the wider climate issues, I am still living the same life.”

Community members in Bygdaby described this sense of knowing and not knowing, of having information but not thinking about it in their everyday lives. As one young woman told me, “In the everyday I don’t think so much about it, but I know that environmental protection is very important.” As a topic that was troubling, it was an issue that many people preferred to avoid. Or as Ingrid put it, “I think that there are lots of people who think, ‘I don’t have that problem myself; I can’t do any- thing about it anyway.’”

Community members describe climate change as an issue that they have to “sit themselves down and think about,” “don’t think about in the everyday,” “but that in between is discouraging and an emotional weight.” People in Bygdaby did know about global warming, but they did not integrate this knowledge into everyday life.

This state of affairs brings to mind the work of historical psychologist Robert J. Lifton. Lifton’s (1982) research on Hiroshima survivors describes people in states of shock, unable to respond rationally to the world around them. He calls this condition “psychic numbing.” Follow- ing his initial studies in Japan, much of Lifton’s work has been devoted to describing the effect of nuclear weapons on human psychology, par- ticularly for Americans (see, for example, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial [1995]). Out of this project, Lifton describes people today as living in an “age of numbing” (1993, 210) due to their aware- ness of the possibility of extinction (from the presence of both nuclear weapons and the capacity for environmental degradation). In this usage, numbing comes not from a traumatic event, but from a crisis of meaning. Lifton says that all of us who live in the nuclear age experience some degree of psychic numbing. We know that our lives can end at any moment, yet we live as though we do not know this. Lifton calls this condition the “absurdity of the double life.” We live with “the knowl- edge on the one hand that we, each of us, could be consumed in a moment together with everyone and everything we have touched or loved, and on the other our tendency to go about business as usual— continue with our routines as though no such threat existed” (1982, 4–5). According to Lifton, the absurdity of the double life profoundly affects our thinking, feeling, identity, sense of empowerment, political imagination, and morality. He writes, “If at any moment nothing might matter, who is to say that nothing matters now?” (1993, 23).

I adapt Lifton’s phrase “absurdity of the double life” in coining the term double reality to describe the disjuncture I observed that winter in Bygdaby. In one reality was the collectively constructed sense of normal everyday life. In the other reality existed the troubling knowledge of increasing automobile use, polar ice caps melting, and the predictions of future weather scenarios. In the words of Kjersti, a teacher in her thirties at the local agricultural school: “We live in one way, and we think in another. We learn to think in parallel. It’s a skill, an art of living.” This disconnect between abstract information and everyday life is also reported by Norwegian sociologist Ketil Skogen, who finds that for young people in a rural Norwegian community, “environmental issues in general and global threats like the greenhouse effect in particular, are seen as abstract and irrelevant, and are generally not something young people think about” (1993, 232).

It can be easy to take such statements at face value, and most people do. But through his work on the sociology of cognition, Eviatar Zerubavel reminds us that society teaches us what to pay attention to and what to ignore. We learn “cognitive traditions” through a process of socializa- tion. Deciding whether to pay attention to a given idea or event in a given moment or not is a learned process that Zerubavel calls “optical socialization”: “Separating the relevant from the irrelevant is for the most part a social act performed by members of particular ‘optical’ com- munities who have been specifically socialized to disattend certain things as part of the process of adopting the distinctive ‘outlook’ of their com- munity. In other words, we learn what to ignore, and only then does its irrelevance strike us as natural or ‘logical’” (1997, 47).

Zerubavel tells us that rather than taking thinking as matter of fact, we need to realize that notions of what to pay attention to and what to ignore are socially constructed. We learn what to see and think about from the people around us. Zerubavel’s work tells us that whether people notice information about climate change is related to socially shaped systems of perception and attention, whether they remember what they hear is a function of social systems of memory, whether it is considered morally offensive or not is a function of whether it is inside or outside socially defined limits of concern; and the relevance of climate change to daily life is a function of socially shaped systems of cognitive organiza- tion (see Zerubavel 1997). “Cognitive traditions” or collective patterns of thinking differ from one “thought community” to another. How we think is part of culture and marks our participation in community. Cog- nitive traditions and thought communities thus shape how and whether groups of people think about climate change and whether they perceive the topic as relevant for everyday life. From the inside, boundaries of thought appear “natural,” and “commonsense” decisions about what to pay attention to or ignore appear strange only when we are outside a given cognitive tradition. Zerubavel (2002, 2006) calls this social shaping of our awareness, memories, and thought patterns the “social organiza- tion of denial.” Most research to date has examined denial on the level of individual psychology. Yet what individuals choose to pay attention to or to ignore must be understood within the context of both social norms shaping interpersonal interaction and the broader political eco- nomic context. Thus, Zerubavel argues, and I agree, that we need both psychology and sociology to study “the mental processes of attending and ignoring” (1997, 11). From the former perspective of individual psychology, people block information on their own as individuals, but from the latter perspective denial occurs through a process of social interaction.

Zerubavel also calls our attention to the normative aspect of how we direct our awareness. Indeed, in every community there are social rules for focusing attention, including rules of etiquette that involve tact- related ethical obligations to “look the other way” and ignore things we most likely would have noticed about others around us. “Not only does our social environment provide us with a general idea of what we can disattend, it very often also tells us what we should repress from our consciousness and ignore. In other words, there is an important (though relatively unexplored) normative dimension to relevance and irrelevance. Indeed, probably the main reason that our own focusing patterns seem so natural or ‘logical’ to us is that they are usually normatively binding” (Zerubavel 1997, 50).

But why would thought communities be normative? And if they are, then how are the boundaries enforced? Questions about whether people pay attention to climate change can suddenly start to look much like theoretical questions about the nature of power. In the midst of whether climate change is defined as near or far, relevant or irrelevant, we find entree into the heart of concepts such as hegemony and ideology and into the role of culture in the reproduction of power.

Ann Swidler’s Cultural Tool Kit and the Production of Culture

One of Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) key contributions to social theory is his emphasis on how social control is enacted through the acceptance of ideas that prevent social change and on the important role of culture in legitimating those ideas. If we entertain for the moment the notion that power may be located in the realm of culture, then we must next ask both how and why particular systems of memory or cognition concern- ing climate change are enforced. How exactly does power operate through culture? Up until the mid-1980s, many social scientists under- stood culture to shape human activity in a fairly static manner, through providing values that direct actions.

Then in 1986 Ann Swidler’s work described an alternative framework for a causal role of culture in social action. In a groundbreaking essay, Swidler describes how “culture influences action not by providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented, but by shaping a rep- ertoire or ‘tool kit’” (1986, 273). In her view, culture shapes social action not by providing guiding values, but by providing cultural components or “chunks of culture” (283) that can be used as tools by individuals to construct “strategies of action” (273). Such a “tool kit” may contain “symbols, stories, rituals and world-views which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems” (273). For example, “Publicly available meanings facilitate certain patterns of action, making them readily available, while discouraging others” (283). For Swidler, “This revised imagery—culture as a ‘tool kit’ for construct- ing ‘strategies of action,’ rather than a switchman directing an engine propelled by interests—turns our attention toward different causal issues than do traditional perspectives in the sociology of culture” (271). I build on Swidler’s tool kit concept in chapters 4 and 5.

Read More

Link: Climate Ethics: Individual vs. Collective Responsibility

Abstract: Anthropogenic climate change (ACC) has been described as a tragedy of the commons (T of C) by Baylor Johnson. Johnson argues that solutions to T of C scenarios reside in collective action rather than individual action, and that our moral obligation is to advocate for collective solutions to ACC. Marion Hourdequin argues that individual action can serve to promote collective action and in doing so it can also serve as an ethical obligation. I contend that individual action holds intrinsic value in lieu of its ability to counteract our susceptibility to the kind of moral corruption espoused by Stephen Gardiner.

The endeavor to provide substantive solutions to the crisis of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is riddled with many and varying difficulties. At the very least there exist practical, logistical, theoretical, and philosophical obstacles that we as a people (both nationally and globally) must traverse before a real resolution to our collective predicament can be found. I choose now to focus on the philosophical hurdles, specifically the moral and ethical issues preventing us from achieving a solution to our climate troubles. Those who agree that a climate crisis exists and that action must be taken are faced with the problem of deciding exactly where their ethical obligations reside. I now understand, to some extent, the impact that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have on the environment. Should I not now restrict my own emissions so as to limit my personal contribution to ACC? Baylor Johnson argues that such views are fundamentally mistaken in his essay “Ethical Obligations in a Tragedy of the Commons.” The problem of ACC, according to Johnson, is symptomatic of a tragedy of the commons, or a collective action problem. A tragedy of the commons (T of C) scenario is resolved not by “acting unilaterally,” but by “acting as one of many in a cooperative scheme to address [the] problem.”1 I will argue that Johnson’s view is potentially problematic because it makes a hierarchical distinction between unilateral actions and collective actions, and characterizes the former as inconsequential when done in isolation. With help derived from the work of Marion Hourdequin, I will argue that unilateral actions, even in isolation, are essential to solving the climate problem and should not be discounted.

I will begin by explaining Johnson’s argument. As stated above, Johnson claims that the climate problem is essentially a T of C. The basic structure of a T of C is grounded in three central premises. Hourdequin provides an excellentreiteration of Johnson’s original explication of the premises, which accurately serves our purposes:

1. The only incentive players have is to maximise [their individual] benefits from use of the commons.

2. The only way players can communicate is by increasing or reducing use of the commons.

3. Use of the commons is shared, [however not all costs and benefits associated with use are shared.] Therefore:

a. Costs (to the commons) of increased use are shared, but benefits from increased use accrue to the individual …

b. Benefits (to the commons) of reduced use are shared, bu costs of reduced use are borne by the individual …

c. Resources saved by one individual are available for use by any other user.

Johnson states that “a T of C occurs when many independent agents derive benefits from a subtractable resource that is threatened by their aggregate use.”We can think of the atmosphere as a commons resource, the utilization of which consists of emitting GHGs for some benefit. There is a limit to the amount of aggregate GHG emissions the atmosphere can withstand before ACC begins to occur. Past this threshold point, we can say that the commons resource is being overused and the resulting ACC threatens the commons itself. It is important to note that individual GHG emissions result in no change in global temperature or in the occurrence of ACC. Rather, it is everyone’s emissions combined that causes the harm resulting from ACC. When we combine the excessive use of the atmospheric commons, the absence of harm associated with individual actions, and the three premises outlined above, we can see that a T of C scenario obtains.

From here Johnson goes on to conclude that unilateral actions, which are individual actions not coordinated with some collective effort, are “ineffective in averting a T of C.”In our specific case, the unilateral actions are reductions in GHG emissions, and henceforth I will refer to these actions as unilateral reductions. Johnson’s conclusion is grounded upon the idea that unilateral reductions without collective agreement will result in no alteration toward whether ACC will or will not occur. In order to prevent ACC, we must either prevent the T of C from obtaining or break out of it once it has obtained. Unilateral reductions lack the ability to do either, according to Johnson. In a T of C scenario, if an individual reduced his/her GHG emissions absent a collective agreement, then according to premise 2 and premise 3c above, that reduction would communicate to other individuals that additional resources are available for use. Consequently, according to premise 1, other individuals would be motivated to make use of the available resources for their personal benefit. Each individual who chooses to make use of the commons in such a way would be making the individually rational choice, given the parameters of the T of C scenario. There are no assurances that any unilateral reductions will be mirrored by other unilateral reductions. Thus, any unilateral reduction will result in no change to the amount of GHG emissions made in aggregate, and so ACC remains inevitable.

Since unilateral reductions do not suffice as a means of averting ACC, the solution must reside in some other action. For Johnson, the solution is “to work for a collective agreement that could avert a potential T of C.”Once a collective agreement is established, it will bind everyone’s actions and ensure that each individual will reduce their GHG emissions to sustainable levels or suffer possible repercussions and sanctions. Once this happens, the T of C is no longer in effect, and the commons will no longer suffer from overuse. Consequently, Johnson argues that advocacy for collective agreement is the primary ethical obligation for individuals if they seek to avert ACC. It is worth noting that Johnson seems to endorse a consequentialist moral theory that determines moral duties by reference to the success of their outcomes. In this sense, success is determined by avoidance of negative consequences, or promotion of overall utility.

Marion Hourdequin has advanced two arguments that challenge Johnson’s claims of the limited ability of unilateral reductions. The first argument Hourdequin gives is the integrity argument, which aims mostly at invalidating Johnson’s first premise.According to Hourdequin, the principle of integrity can provide an alternate motivation for individual agents. Hourdequin initially calls the obligation for moral integrity “an obligation to avoid hypocrisy.”Instead of explaining the obligation with the negative connotation that hypocrisy implies, Hourdequin espouses a positive virtue of integrity that one should strive toward as an obligation. According to Hourdequin, integrity involves the idea of integrality, which is the internalizing of particular commitments which then become essential to the individual’s identity. If a commitment is integral to an individual, then that commitment should be compatible or “well integrated with other commitments the individual holds.”So in the case of integrity with respect to addressing the climate problem, one must not only advocate for some collective agreement, but must “act also on a personal level to reduce her own emissions.”8

Hourdequin’s second argument is centered on an espousal of a Confucian interpretation of identity, which challenges Johnson’s second premise. According to Hourdequin, “Confucian philosophy does not understand the individual as an isolated, rational actor,” but rather as an entirely social being.Thus, an individual’s identity is a conglomeration of all the social interactions and relationships that individual holds. If an individual can be interpreted in this manner, then any or all unilateral actions made by an individual can influence others within a shared social contact. Further, such an individual learns about moral and ethical actions and behaviors through observation and interaction with surrounding people. In this sense, the Confucian interpretation of the self can effectively nullify the restrictions in communication inherent in the T of C framework.

In response to these arguments, Johnson, in a later work, altered some of his views on the importance of unilateral actions. Most importantly, Johnson now agrees that “unilateral reductions can be valuable” insofar as they complement and support the call for collective action and agreement.10 This is an important reevaluation, because it concedes the fact that unilateral actions have a communicative property such that they can help to influence the behavior or views of others. Though Johnson does make this concession, he states that we must clearly distinguish “unilateral reductions in isolation from unilateral reductions in combination with a richer strategy for communication.”11 In essence, Johnson says that the value in unilateral reductions resides in their ability to combine with and promote the social advocacy for collective agreement. But, when unilateral reductions are done in isolation and communicate no morally salient ideas to others, then they continue to be morally neutral or inconsequential. Finally, Johnson also makes a hierarchical distinction between the two forms of action. Advocacy of collective action, insofar as it is the primary means of effecting change, continues to hold precedence over any communicative unilateral reductions.

Hourdequin issues a reply to Johnson that primarily argues against the hierarchical distinction Johnson makes between unilateral reductions and the advocacy of collective action. She argues for the increased importance that must be placed on unilateral reductions. Hourdequin emphasizes that “individual emissions reductions can themselves contribute to the generation and stabilization of effective collective schemes” and as such, the distinction between the two is not at all decisive.12 In response to the distinction between unilateral reductions done in isolation and those made with the intent to complement social advocacy, she says that “barring an unusual degree of isolation from others, very few ‘unilateral reductions’ will be truly private.”13 In essence, her argument against this distinction is simply to say that most acts of unilateral reduction are not entirely isolated. However, it is important to note that Hourdequin does not provide a clear and salient argument for the importance of unilateral reductions even in complete isolation. Even though she may not espouse any clear argument in her response to Johnson, perhaps we may look back to her argument on integrity in order to facilitate the creation of such an argument. For instance, she could perhaps pin the importance of unilateral reductions in isolation upon the moral importance of maintaining integrity and avoiding hypocrisy.

If we are to show the importance of unilateral reduction in isolation, our argument cannot depend on challenging Johnson’s second premise, that of communication. Rather, integrity must be something that is morally significant in its own right regardless of its influence on others. This is exactly what Hourdequin does when she describes the positive connotations of the obligation of moral integrity. If I am truly committed to addressing the climate problem, I must make my commitment integral to who I am as a person, and my commitment must be integrated into all of my activities so as not to create conflict among my actions. So, if I value integrity, then I must value the personal commitment of unilaterally reducing my emissions even in isolation. This seems rather straightforward. But there is a problem: what Hourdequin merely provides is a contrary principle to challenge Johnson’s principle of self-interest. Her argument is to pose an alternative principle and espouse its qualities and hope that in doing so it will prove to be more of an incentive than self-interest and personal utility. This form of argumentation does not establish in a compelling fashion why we should adopt integrity over self- interest. But I believe there is a different road to be taken.

Link: Jan Lundberg on Car Culture

Excerpt from “How Shall I Live my Life” by Derrick Jensen. In this collection of interviews, Derrick Jensen discusses the destructive dominant culture with ten people who have devoted their lives to undermining it.

DJ: What’s wrong with cars?

JL: For one thing, the number of them. Right now there are about 130 million registered passenger cars in the United States, and about 486 million in the world. We can go through the litany of problems caused by our reliance on the car culture. First, each year more than 500,000 people die in road accidents. Two-thirds of these deaths involve pedestrians, of whom one-third are children. Just in the United States about 46,000 people die per year be- cause of auto collisions, nearly as many as the total number of Americans killed in Vietnam. Everybody knows someone who has died or been seriously injured in a car crash, yet cars have insinuated themselves into our social life and our psyches so thoroughly that we somehow accept these deaths as inevitable, or not shocking, as opposed to perceiving them for what they are: a direct and predictable result of choosing to base our economic and social systems on this particular piece of technology.

Motor vehicles are the biggest single source of atmospheric pollution worldwide. Just in the United States about 30,000 people die each year from respiratory illness stemming from auto-related airborne toxins. Sixty-five percent of all carbon monoxide emitted into the environment is from road vehicles. Carbon monoxide, besides being fatal, contributes to global warm- ing by removing hydroxyl radical from the air, allowing buildup of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas). Automotive fuels account for 17 percent of global carbon dioxide releases, two-thirds as much as rainforest destruc- tion. Motor vehicle air conditioners in the U.S. are the world’s single larg- est source of CFC leakage into the atmosphere, and subsequent destruction of the ozone layer.

Speaking of ozone, motor-vehicle-generated ozone costs an estimated $9 billion per year in health costs, lost labor hours, and reduced agricul- tural revenues.

DJ: Agricultural revenues?

JL: Automobile exhaust damages crops to the tune of $2 to 4 billion per year just for corn, wheat, soybeans, and peanuts.

If we open our vision beyond cash crops to generic damage from motor vehicle air pollution the price goes up to about $200 billion per year. That doesn’t include global warming. Nor, of course, does that include deaths, on which you can’t put a price.

Cars kill nonhumans, not only by paving over or fragmenting their habi- tat, giving industrialized humans access to their homes, and changing the weather, but also simply by running them down. Approximately one million animals per day are killed on U.S. roads, including endangered species like the Florida panther. In Southern California, cars are the leading cause of death of mountain lions. Add to this the countless small rodents and insects obliterated by cars. A moth fluttering into your windshield at sixty miles per hour may not seem like much of a tragedy to you, but I guarantee you the moth perceives it differently.

We have become slaves to these machines. If a group of aliens came to this planet and said they would bring us all sorts of goodies like jet skis, to- matoes in January, computers, and so on (or at least they would bring them to the richest of us), on the multiple conditions that we offer up to them a yearly sacrifice of a half-million human lives, change our planet’s climate, individually spend increasing amounts of time serving them, and socially de- vote an ever-increasing amount of land and other resources to their service, we would rebel in a flash. Or at least I hope we would.

But that’s the reality we face. And that’s the reality we accept. It’s a real- ity we don’t even talk about. More teenagers are killed by oil-consuming cars across the U.S. every afternoon than the 14 highschoolers gunned down in Littleton. Everybody says that living in an inner city is dangerous, that you’re going to get shot. But the truth is that because of car crashes, suburbs are statistically far more dangerous places to live. I’ve proven this to people, and they still refuse to walk with me in downtown Seattle, but they’re perfectly happy to get in a car, just because it’s normal. We don’t talk about any of this because this violence—the violence of U.S. transportation policies— is so ingrained into our psyches that we believe it is inevitable, and not the result of policy decisions and subsidies.

In this country, close to half of all urban space goes to accommodate the automobile, leaving more land devoted to cars than to housing. Nearly 100,000 people a year are displaced in the U.S. by new highway construc- tion. Every minute, the U.S. loses three acres of productive farmland to urban sprawl via roadbuilding and automobile dependence. That’s 1.5 million acres per year. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, we’ve lost more than 40 million acres of farmland to so-called development. In Lodi, California, for example, rich soils forty feet deep were recently covered by a Wal-Mart parking lot. Pavement now covers over sixty thousand square miles in the United States. That’s two percent of the surface area, and ten percent of the arable land.

And we pay for the privilege of destroying the continent. The United States spends nearly two hundred million dollars per day building and re- building roads. Total state and federal expenditures on highways and major roads are two hundred and fifty-five million per day. Even in purely fiscal terms, roads are monumentally expensive: the 4.5 mile Cyprus Freeway in Oakland, to choose just one example, cost taxpayers $3,500 per inch.

To simply maintain roads in their current poor state would cost U.S. tax- payers about $25 billion per year. Yet we spend typically $13 billion per year on maintenance, assuring existing roads will deteriorate. Meanwhile, the gov- ernment spends $16 billion to widen existing roads and to build new ones. Setting aside for a moment all the deaths and pollution and global warming, it makes no sense, even when we confine ourselves to a strictly fiscal stand- point, to build more roads when we cannot maintain the ones we’ve got.

All told, the United States subsidizes roads and cars by more than $300 billion per year. This is in addition to annual outlays of tens of billions of dollars from dedicated gasoline tax receipts.

And things are only getting worse. Even though the United States popula- tion increased “only” about 40 percent between 1960 and 1990, the number of licensed drivers nearly doubled, the number of vehicles did double, fuel consumption more than doubled, and the number of miles driven almost tripled. The percentage of U.S. citizens who commuted by car went from about 70 to 87 percent. The percentage of people commuting by public transit dropped by far more than half. Walking to work decreased from 10 to 4 percent. Those working at home decreased by half. In the 1950s and 1960s, 60 percent of children walked or rode their bikes to school. Now it’s down to 10 percent.

All of this adds up to more traffic jams. The way to measure road con- gestion is by figuring the percent of roads near or at capacity during rush hour. Between 1975 and 1993 that number went from about forty to seventy percent. This means that average vehicle speed for crosstown traffic in New York City, for example, is under six miles per hour, which is less, by the way, than it was in the days of horses and buggies.

The U.S. General Accounting Office predicts that even if this country’s road capacity were to increase by 20 percent over the next fifteen years— a very unlikely goal—congestion will triple. Driving delays are expected to waste more than seven million gallons of fuel per year over the next two de- cades, increasing travelers’ costs by $41 billion, and adding 73 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. You think road rage is bad now, just wait a few years.

DJ: We’ve got a ton of disparate facts here. Bring them together for me.

JL: The car is an environmental problem to solve. It’s too late to try to modify it or bring it somehow under control. For us to really reverse the trends, the car has got to be targeted for extinction. In a world being hit by global warm- ing, and wracked by an epidemic of cancer, it’s not enough at this point to declare progress when emissions go down. Pollution accumulates. We need to stop emitting pollution.

DJ: Can’t we just make cars that pollute less?

JL: I see three problems with that. The first is that I just don’t think it’s go- ing to happen. The power and size of the oil and auto industries guarantee that for the time being, any policies that curtail the massive subsidies handed over to these huge corporations by governments, or that in any way impede their profitability, will never be put into practice. Not only are these corpo- rations larger than most governments, in many ways they already are the de facto governments. The second problem is that the question implies that we still want cars to do their basic function. We will come back to this problem later. And the third is that while most people think that the problem with cars—in terms of air pollution—is what we see coming out of the tailpipe, the German Environmental Forecasting Institute revealed that most of the air pollution associated with a car is not out of the tailpipe, but instead because of pollution caused by mining and manufacturing associated with cars. So, switching fuels? Sorry, doesn’t do it. Similarly, it doesn’t help matters much if a clean car runs over you. You won’t be any less dead.

Our entire economy is based on petroleum. Cars are only the single big- gest user, in this country anyway, and oil is used for asphalt in the roads, tires on the cars, plastic for the cars. The whole system is absurd.

DJ: I don’t understand. Why is it absurd?

JL: All the reasons I gave a moment ago. Cars kill, they’re stressful, and they’re totally inefficient. They’re a joke. Ivan Illich performed calculations revealing the absurdity of the whole car culture. If you divide the distance we travel by the number of hours we spend taking care of our cars, not just behind the wheel but in some way associated with the car and supporting it through our work and our time and our efforts, it comes to around five miles per hour. And that doesn’t even include the environmental or social costs. That’s just the time you spend earning money—the hours you sell—to buy the car, pay for insurance, buy tires, and so on.

As you know, we can walk about five miles per hour. But when you show this to people, they still say, “I’ve got to have a car, because I’m in a hurry.” It’s crazy. It’s just cognitive dissonance.

Cars are absurd. We can’t afford them, as a society, as a planet, as in- dividuals. Ten to fifteen thousand dollars is the average cost of a registered vehicle. Why not save that money? Why not get your exercise? Why not live longer?

DJ: You mean by not getting in a car wreck.

JL: I mean by not leading a sedentary lifestyle. In a book called The Right Medicine, David Cundiff, MD, calculated the monumental cost to society and our health of our being so sedentary: it’s higher even than tobacco. As he writes, “Out of the over one trillion dollar health care budget that people in the United States shouldered, two hundred billion dollars a year is from sitting in cars, that’s from spending one hundred billion hours in cars, while not exercising our bodies, at two dollars per hour compensation.” That is the cardiovascular-related cost of car-dependency. He continues, “An even greater cost comes from car crashes. Without pain-and-suffering, the medi- cal costs of car crashes total about one hundred and sixty billion dollars per year. With the pain and suffering, which is a related medical cost of crashes, the total has been estimated at 300 billion dollars per year. As for pollution, the American Lung Association estimates the direct health cost is fifteen bil- lion dollars per year.”

I’m happy to walk. I’m happier walking than biking. Biking is sort of a stressful activity, when you’re on pavement and you’re dodging cars. And if we really care about sustainability we have to ask ourselves how many bil- lions of bicycles made of fancy alloys can be produced efficiently, sustain- ably, forever. It’s just not possible. It takes so much energy to create some of the more expensive, lightweight bikes, because of the alloys, that you could never pedal far enough in your lifetime to save the energy that was consumed in manufacturing.

DJ: You said driving is stressful, but think of the freedom of the open road, windows open, tunes blaring, wind in your hair…

JL: If driving weren’t stressful, would we need laws against road rage? Also, there are some very interesting statistics about road noise. Studies have found that nighttime traffic noise deprives people of dream-rich REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, encourages psychosomatic illnesses, and may cause car- dio-circulatory problems. It may also affect your social life: people living on streets with less traffic have been found by other studies to be more friendly, pleasant, and cooperative. And they hear better. A comparison of Sudanese tribesmen with Americans discovered that because they live in a naturally quieter environment, eighty-year-old Sudanese heard far better than thirty- year-old Americans. And I’m sure you’ve heard that in Europe many song- birds are not learning their songs because they cannot hear over the noise of the traffic.

Driving is violent, because of what the exhaust does to you and others, and because of running over creatures, and because you’re burning oil that men are going to fight and die over in another part of the world.

But more fundamentally, driving is a kind of violation of the spirit. You’re not connected to the earth, your feet aren’t on the ground, you’re going at inhuman speeds, and all the while you’re not moving at all. If I run fast I at least have the physical sensation of everything whizzing by.

DJ: I got in the car this morning in Crescent City, and got out in Arcata. On the way I passed through several squalls. But I didn’t experience any of them. There’s something existentially odd about that…

JL: You weren’t living, and you obtained something without earning it. You got somewhere with no energy expenditure of your own, and with no effort.

There is something strange about speed. The faster we go, or the more ground we cover, the more we lose time, and we shrink the universe. Whereas a long time ago the universe was incomprehensibly big, and filled in with all the stories just in your neighborhood, now that it’s all con- nected with roads and oil-burning machines, we’re destroying that previ- ous perception and reality of the universe being such a huge place. We’re destroying the largeness and the magic. Even though we say, “Oh, now I can go to London, and so I can ‘experience’ the whole world,” the truth is that we’re cheating ourselves out of the experience of whatever we would be doing at a natural speed. You see more stuff when you are sitting still, or when you are walking. And you can smell the flowers. You notice things that even with a bike you don’t see. You’ve got to be going pretty slow and looking right down at the pavement in order to see a snake that has been smashed down and has become the color of the asphalt. You would never see that from a car.

DJ: I can almost hear someone saying, “Look, I need a car because I’ve got to get to work. The mass transit systems don’t take me where I want to go…”

JL: Mass transit systems in most cities are as bad as they are because they were demolished by the auto industry. Back in the 1930s, the electric rail- way systems that served most big cities were a major threat to the profits of big oil and automobile companies. So General Motors, Firestone, Standard Oil of California, and others bought out more than one hundred systems in forty-five cities, then ripped up the tracks and paved them over. GM and these other companies were eventually convicted of criminal conspiracy. For this our stalwart government—“of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as they say—fined these corporations $5,000, and the guilty indi- viduals were fined a whole dollar each.

DJ: “Be that as it may,” I can hear the person say, “I’ve still got to get to work.”

JL: People make decisions every day of their lives. If they say they’re stuck, they’re admitting, ultimately, that they’re prisoners or slaves. But if you’re not a slave, you can make new and different decisions. You can decide that maybe you’re not going to work for the rest of your life at one job, and if you switch jobs, you may consider finding one closer to where you live. Or you may consider changing homes. You don’t have to move farther away from where you work—you can live closer, or you can change your career entirely. Some people work out of their homes.

Another thing people can do is try to relate more to what dollars are supposed to bring us, instead of orienting themselves toward the dollars themselves. What’s the point of working and then of money? It’s not to collect some green pieces of paper, or to shuffle electrons on a bank’s hard drive. It’s to get us things. But we need to ask ourselves what we really need. We need food, clothing, and housing. Can we get by more cheaply, so we don’t have to sell so many hours? How much sense does it make to work extra hours to pay for a car that we use to drive us to where we work in order to pay for the car?

Or here’s another thought: we all need love, which of course dollars don’t buy. Maybe it’s easier to find love—not just romantic love but love of ourselves and our communities—if we’re not stuck all day in an automobile or in an office. So when people talk to me about needing a car to get to work, I urge them to change the terms of the debate: to think in terms of personal liberation, and maybe living better without so much money. Having more time. It’s a real simple equation: if you don’t have a car, you have more time. And you have better health, which means you’re better able to enjoy the time you have. I’ve met so many people who live well and are happy without a lot of material possessions, without a lot of money. Now, by and large these people are young and free, but there are a lot of clever people who have learned how to benefit from intelligent choices. It all boils down to what you value.

This leads us directly to what is often called anarchy, which is really all about taking care of each other on a community basis, without the necessity of structured work or government regulation. We raise our kids communally. We take care of each other. We share. That’s an alien concept in this materialistic culture. Why is it that when you go down any residential street in this country every family has its own separate oven? That’s a terrible waste of energy. One oven could be baking a half- dozen loaves of bread, instead of one.

If happiness is what we really care about, we realize very quickly that we don’t need money, we don’t need cars, we don’t need government. We don’t need pollution.

But it’s hard to achieve any of these—to get rid of money, cars, gov- ernment, pollution—when we’ve got so many people. To be honest, the number of people, and the fact that our entire system is based on pe- troleum and automobiles, sometimes makes things seem hopelessly dif- ficult, and leads to a conundrum for any activist trying to be honest yet trying to get a message out. The conundrum is this: How do you speak the truth while still seeming “realistic”? “Get rid of car culture?” the mainstream media says, “You must be joking.” But we continue with our form of activism and our message because our hope is that when the big wrenching socioeconomic adjustment comes—and it will come—we may have helped to pass on some helpful concepts, a body of experience, and even some technical knowledge that will help the people who come after to rebuild some kind of human cultural system, and not make the same mistakes again. To help them to not start building new roads. In a sense we see ourselves as writing off the present culture as being un- reachable, too tightly caught up in its materialistic death urge to salvage, and so we’re looking past that to do what we can now to help the hu- mans and nonhumans who come after. 

Link: How to Fry a Planet

When it comes to energy and economics in the climate-change era, nothing is what it seems. Most of us believe (or want to believe) that the second carbon era, the Age of Oil, will soon be superseded by the Age of Renewables, just as oil had long since superseded the Age of Coal. President Obama offered exactly this vision in a much-praised June address on climate change. True, fossil fuels will be needed a little bit longer, he indicated, but soon enough they will be overtaken by renewable forms of energy.

Many other experts share this view, assuring us that increased reliance on “clean” natural gas combined with expanded investments in wind and solar power will permit a smooth transition to a green energy future in which humanity will no longer be pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. All this sounds promising indeed. There is only one fly in the ointment: it is not, in fact, the path we are presently headed down. The energy industry is not investing in any significant way in renewables. Instead, it is pouring its historic profits into new fossil-fuel projects, mainly involving the exploitation of what are called “unconventional” oil and gas reserves.

The result is indisputable: humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables. Instead, it is pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.

That we are embarking on a new carbon era is increasingly evident and should unnerve us all. Hydro-fracking - the use of high-pressure water columns to shatter underground shale formations and liberate the oil and natural gas supplies trapped within them - is being undertaken in ever more regions of the United States and in a growing number of foreign countries. In the meantime, the exploitation of carbon-dirty heavy oil and tar sands formations is accelerating in Canada, Venezuela, and elsewhere.

It’s true that ever more wind farms and solar arrays are being built, but here’s the kicker: investment in unconventional fossil-fuel extraction and distribution is now expected to outpace spending on renewables by a ratio of at least three-to-one in the decades ahead

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an inter-governmental research organisation based in Paris, cumulative worldwide investment in new fossil-fuel extraction and processing will total an estimated $22.87 trillion between 2012 and 2035, while investment in renewables, hydropower, and nuclear energy will amount to only $7.32 trillion. In these years, investment in oil alone, at an estimated $10.32 trillion, is expected to exceed spending on wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, hydro, nuclear, and every other form of renewable energy combined.

In addition, as the IEA explains, an ever-increasing share of that staggering investment in fossil fuels will be devoted to unconventional forms of oil and gas: Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale oil and gas, Arctic and deep-offshore energy deposits, and other hydrocarbons derived from previously inaccessible reserves of energy. The explanation for this is simple enough. The world’s supply of conventional oil and gas - fuels derived from easily accessible reservoirs and requiring a minimum of processing - is rapidly disappearing. With global demand for fossil fuels expected to rise by 26 percent between now and 2035, more and more of the world’s energy supply will have to be provided by unconventional fuels.

In such a world, one thing is guaranteed: global carbon emissions will soar far beyond our current worst-case assumptions, meaning intense heat waves will become commonplace and our few remaining wilderness areas will be eviscerated. Planet Earth will be a far - possibly unimaginably - harsher and more blistering place. In that light, it’s worth exploring in greater depth just how we ended up in such a predicament, one carbon age at a time.

The explosive growth of automotive and aviation travel, the suburbanisation of significant parts of the planet, the mechanisation of agriculture and warfare, the global supremacy of the United States, and the onset of climate change: these were the hallmarks of the exploitation of conventional petroleum. At present, most of the world’s oil is still obtained from a few hundred giant onshore fields in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Venezuela, among other countries; some additional oil is acquired from offshore fields in the North Sea, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Gulf of Mexico. This oil comes out of the ground in liquid form and requires relatively little processing before being refined into commercial fuels.
But such conventional oil is disappearing. According to the IEA, the major fields that currently provide the lion’s share of global petroleum will losetwo-thirds of their production over the next 25 years, with their net output plunging from 68 million barrels per day in 2009 to a mere 26 million barrels in 2035. The IEA assures us that new oil will be found to replace those lost supplies, but most of this will be of an unconventional nature. In the coming decades, unconventional oils will account for a growing share of the global petroleum inventory, eventually becoming our main source of supply.

The same is true for natural gas, the second most important source of world energy. The global supply of conventional gas, like conventional oil, is shrinking, and we are becoming increasingly dependent on unconventional sources of supply - especially from the Arctic, the deep oceans, and shale rock via hydraulic fracturing.

In certain ways, unconventional hydrocarbons are akin to conventional fuels. Both are largely composed of hydrogen and carbon, and can be burned to produce heat and energy. But in time the differences between them will make an ever-greater difference to us. Unconventional fuels - especially heavy oils and tar sands - tend to possess a higher proportion of carbon to hydrogen than conventional oil, and so release more carbon dioxide when burned. Arctic and deep-offshore oil require more energy to extract, and so produce higher carbon emissions in their very production.

"Many new breeds of petroleum fuels are nothing like conventional oil," Deborah Gordon, a specialist on the topic at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in 2012. ”Unconventional oils tend to be heavy, complex, carbon laden, and locked up deep in the earth, tightly trapped between or bound to sand, tar, and rock.”

By far the most worrisome consequence of the distinctive nature of unconventional fuels is their extreme impact on the environment. Because they are often characterised by higher ratios of carbon to hydrogen, and generally require more energy to extract and be converted into usable materials, they produce more carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy released. In addition, the process that produces shale gas, hailed as a “clean” fossil fuel, is believed by many scientists to cause widespread releases of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

All of this means that, as the consumption of fossil fuels grows, increasing, not decreasing, amounts of CO2 and methane will be released into the atmosphere and, instead of slowing, global warming will speed up.

And here’s another problem associated with the third carbon age: the production of unconventional oil and gas turns out to require vast amounts of water - for fracking operations, to extract tar sands and extra-heavy oil, and to facilitate the transport and refining of such fuels. This is producing a growing threat of water contamination, especially in areas of intense fracking and tar sands production, along with competition over access to water supplies among drillers, farmers, municipal water authorities, and others. As climate change intensifies, drought will become the norm in many areas and so this competition will only grow fiercer.

Link: On the Flight Path to Global Meltdown

There is no technofix to the disastrous impact of air travel on the environment, argues George Monbiot—the only answer is to ground most of the aeroplanes flying today.

Our moral dissonance about flying reminds me of something a Buddhist once told me: “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it with love.” I am sure he knew as well as I do that our state of mind makes no difference to either exploited people or the environment. Thinking like ethical people makes not a damn of difference unless we also behave like ethical people. When it comes to flying, there seems to be no connection between intention and action.

This is partly because the people who are most concerned about the inhabitants of other countries are often those who have travelled widely. Much of the global justice movement consists of people - like me - whose politics were forged by their experiences abroad. While it is easy for us to pour scorn on the drivers of sports utility vehicles, whose politics generally differ from ours, it is rather harder to contemplate a world in which our own freedoms are curtailed, especially the freedoms that shaped us.

More painfully, in some cases our freedoms have become obligations. When you form relationships with people from other nations, you accumulate what I call “love miles”: the distance you must travel to visit friends and partners and relatives on the other side of the planet. If your sister-in-law is getting married in Buenos Aires, it is both immoral to travel there, because of climate change, and immoral not to, because of the offence it causes. In that decision we find two valid moral codes in irreconcilable antagonism. Who could be surprised to discover that “ethical” people are in denial about the impacts of flying?

There are two reasons why flying dwarfs any other environmental impact a single person can exert. The first is the distance it permits us to cover. According to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the carbon emissions per passenger mile “for a fully loaded cruising airliner are comparable to a passenger car carrying three or four people”. In other words, they are about half those, per person, of a car containing the average loading of 1.56 people. But while the mean distance travelled by car in the UK is 9,200 miles per year, in a plane we can beat that in one day. On a return flight from London to New York, every passenger produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide: the very quantity we will each be entitled to emit in a year once the necessary cut in emissions has been made.

The second reason is that the climate impact of aeroplanes is not confined to the carbon they produce. They release several different kinds of gases and particles. Some of them cool the planet, others warm it. In the upper tropo-sphere, where most large planes fly, hot, wet air from the jet engine exhaust mixes with cold air. As the moisture condenses, it can form “contrails”, which in turn appear to give rise to cirrus clouds - those high wispy formations of ice crystals sometimes known as “horsetails”. While they reflect some of the sun’s heat back into the space, they also trap heat in the atmosphere, especially at night; the heat trapping seems to be the stronger effect. The overall impact, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a warming effect 2.7 times that of the carbon dioxide alone.


Oh, Canada
How America’s friendly northern neighbor became a rogue, reckless petrostate.
For decades, the world has thought of Canada as America’s friendly northern neighbor — a responsible, earnest, if somewhat boring, land of hockey fans and single-payer health care. On the big issues, it has long played the global Boy Scout, reliably providing moral leadership on everything from ozone protection to land-mine eradication to gay rights. The late novelist Douglas Adams once quipped that if the United States often behaved like a belligerent teenage boy, Canada was an intelligent woman in her mid-30s. Basically, Canada has been the United States — not as it is, but as it should be.
But a dark secret lurks in the northern forests. Over the last decade, Canada has not so quietly become an international mining center and a rogue petrostate. It’s no longer America’s better half, but a dystopian vision of the continent’s energy-soaked future.
That’s right: The good neighbor has banked its economy on the cursed elixir of political dysfunction — oil. Flush with visions of becoming a global energy superpower, Canada’s government has taken up with pipeline evangelists, petroleum bullies, and climate change skeptics. Turns out the Boy Scout’s not just hooked on junk crude — he’s become a pusher. And that’s not even the worst of it.
With oil and gas now accounting for approximately a quarter of its export revenue, Canada has lost its famous politeness. Since the Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament in 2011, the federal government has eviscerated conservationists, indigenous nations, European commissioners, and just about anyone opposing unfettered oil production as unpatriotic radicals. It has muzzled climate change scientists, killed funding for environmental science of every stripe, and in a recent pair of unprecedented omnibus bills, systematically dismantled the country’s most significant long-cherished environmental laws.
The author of this transformation is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a right-wing policy wonk and evangelical Christian with a power base in Alberta, ground zero of Canada’s oil boom. Just as Margaret Thatcher funded her political makeover of Britain on revenue from North Sea oil, Harper intends to methodically rewire the entire Canadian experience with petrodollars sucked from the ground. In the process he has concentrated power in the prime minister’s office and reoriented Canada’s foreign priorities. Harper, who took office in 2006, increased defense spending by nearly $1 billion annually in his first four years, and he has committed $2 billion to prison expansion with a “tough on crime” policy that ignores the country’s falling crime rate. Meanwhile, Canada has amassed a huge federal debt — its highest in history at some $600 billion and counting.
Liberal critics like to say that Harper’s political revolution caught many Canadians, generally a fat and apathetic people, by surprise — a combination of self-delusion and strategic deception. That may be true, but though Canadians live in high latitudes, they’re not above baser human instincts — like greed. Harper is aggressively pushing an economic gamble on oil, the world’s most volatile resource, and promising a new national wealth based on untapped riches far from where most Canadians live that will fill their pocketbooks, and those of their children, for generations. With nearly three-quarters of Canadians supporting oil sands development in a recent poll, Harper seems to be sellingthem on the idea.
The resource underwriting many of these ugly behavioral changes is bitumen, a heavy, sour crude mined from oil sands. Deposits of the badly degraded asphalt-like substance lie under a forest the size of Florida in northeastern Alberta and comprise the world’s third-largest petroleum reserves. Over the last decade, as oil prices increased fivefold, oil companies invested approximately $160 billion to develop bitumen in Alberta, and it has finally turned profitable. Canada is now cranking out 1.7 million barrels a day of the stuff, and scheduled production stands to fill provincial and federal government coffers with about $120 billion in rent and royalties by 2020. More than 40 percent of that haul goes directly to the federal government largely in the form of corporate taxes. And the government wants even more; it’s pushing for production to hit 5 million barrels a day by 2030.

Never mind that the entire process is a messy and wasteful one. It takes copious amounts of water, capital, and energy to dig out the carbon-rich sands, let alone upgrade and process the heavy crude, which can’t even move through a pipeline until it is diluted with an imported gasoline-like condensate. With brazen cheek, the government nonetheless defends the Alberta megaproject as “responsible” and “sustainable” — “an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramidsor China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.” Bigger indeed: Approved bitumen mining projects could potentially excavate a forest area six times as large as New York City. Reclamation and reforestation remain an uncertain and costly proposition. To date, oil companies have already created enough toxic mining sludge (6 billion barrels) to flood the entirety of Washington, D.C.

Unsurprisingly, Ottawa has become a master at the cynical art of greenwashing. When Harper’s ministers aren’t attackingformer NASA scientist and climate change canary James Hansen in the pages of the New York Times or lobbying against Europe’s Fuel Quality Directive (which regards bitumen as much dirtier than conventional oil), his government has spent $100 million since 2009 onads to convince Canadians that exporting this oil is “responsible resource development.” Meanwhile, Canada has bent over backward to entice Beijing. Three state-owned Chinese oil companies (all with dismal records of corporate transparency and environmental sensitivity) have already spent more than $20 billion purchasing rights to oil sands in Alberta.

Oh, Canada

How America’s friendly northern neighbor became a rogue, reckless petrostate.

For decades, the world has thought of Canada as America’s friendly northern neighbor — a responsible, earnest, if somewhat boring, land of hockey fans and single-payer health care. On the big issues, it has long played the global Boy Scout, reliably providing moral leadership on everything from ozone protection to land-mine eradication to gay rights. The late novelist Douglas Adams once quipped that if the United States often behaved like a belligerent teenage boy, Canada was an intelligent woman in her mid-30s. Basically, Canada has been the United States — not as it is, but as it should be.

But a dark secret lurks in the northern forests. Over the last decade, Canada has not so quietly become an international mining center and a rogue petrostate. It’s no longer America’s better half, but a dystopian vision of the continent’s energy-soaked future.

That’s right: The good neighbor has banked its economy on the cursed elixir of political dysfunction — oil. Flush with visions of becoming a global energy superpower, Canada’s government has taken up with pipeline evangelists, petroleum bullies, and climate change skeptics. Turns out the Boy Scout’s not just hooked on junk crude — he’s become a pusher. And that’s not even the worst of it.

With oil and gas now accounting for approximately a quarter of its export revenue, Canada has lost its famous politeness. Since the Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament in 2011, the federal government has eviscerated conservationists, indigenous nations, European commissioners, and just about anyone opposing unfettered oil production as unpatriotic radicals. It has muzzled climate change scientists, killed funding for environmental science of every stripe, and in a recent pair of unprecedented omnibus bills, systematically dismantled the country’s most significant long-cherished environmental laws.

The author of this transformation is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a right-wing policy wonk and evangelical Christian with a power base in Alberta, ground zero of Canada’s oil boom. Just as Margaret Thatcher funded her political makeover of Britain on revenue from North Sea oil, Harper intends to methodically rewire the entire Canadian experience with petrodollars sucked from the ground. In the process he has concentrated power in the prime minister’s office and reoriented Canada’s foreign priorities. Harper, who took office in 2006, increased defense spending by nearly $1 billion annually in his first four years, and he has committed $2 billion to prison expansion with a “tough on crime” policy that ignores the country’s falling crime rate. Meanwhile, Canada has amassed a huge federal debt — its highest in history at some $600 billion and counting.

Liberal critics like to say that Harper’s political revolution caught many Canadians, generally a fat and apathetic people, by surprise — a combination of self-delusion and strategic deception. That may be true, but though Canadians live in high latitudes, they’re not above baser human instincts — like greed. Harper is aggressively pushing an economic gamble on oil, the world’s most volatile resource, and promising a new national wealth based on untapped riches far from where most Canadians live that will fill their pocketbooks, and those of their children, for generations. With nearly three-quarters of Canadians supporting oil sands development in a recent poll, Harper seems to be sellingthem on the idea.

The resource underwriting many of these ugly behavioral changes is bitumen, a heavy, sour crude mined from oil sands. Deposits of the badly degraded asphalt-like substance lie under a forest the size of Florida in northeastern Alberta and comprise the world’s third-largest petroleum reserves. Over the last decade, as oil prices increased fivefold, oil companies invested approximately $160 billion to develop bitumen in Alberta, and it has finally turned profitable. Canada is now cranking out 1.7 million barrels a day of the stuff, and scheduled production stands to fill provincial and federal government coffers with about $120 billion in rent and royalties by 2020. More than 40 percent of that haul goes directly to the federal government largely in the form of corporate taxes. And the government wants even more; it’s pushing for production to hit 5 million barrels a day by 2030.

Never mind that the entire process is a messy and wasteful one. It takes copious amounts of water, capital, and energy to dig out the carbon-rich sands, let alone upgrade and process the heavy crude, which can’t even move through a pipeline until it is diluted with an imported gasoline-like condensate. With brazen cheek, the government nonetheless defends the Alberta megaproject as “responsible” and “sustainable” — “an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramidsor China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.” Bigger indeed: Approved bitumen mining projects could potentially excavate a forest area six times as large as New York City. Reclamation and reforestation remain an uncertain and costly proposition. To date, oil companies have already created enough toxic mining sludge (6 billion barrels) to flood the entirety of Washington, D.C.

Unsurprisingly, Ottawa has become a master at the cynical art of greenwashing. When Harper’s ministers aren’t attackingformer NASA scientist and climate change canary James Hansen in the pages of the New York Times or lobbying against Europe’s Fuel Quality Directive (which regards bitumen as much dirtier than conventional oil), his government has spent $100 million since 2009 onads to convince Canadians that exporting this oil is “responsible resource development.” Meanwhile, Canada has bent over backward to entice Beijing. Three state-owned Chinese oil companies (all with dismal records of corporate transparency and environmental sensitivity) have already spent more than $20 billion purchasing rights to oil sands in Alberta.

Link: Goodbye, Miami

By century’s end, rising sea levels will turn the nation’s urban fantasyland into an American Atlantis. But long before the city is completely underwater, chaos will begin.

Even more than Silicon Valley, Miami embodies the central technological myth of our time – that nature can not only be tamed but made irrelevant. Miami was a mosquito-and-crocodile-filled swampland for thousands of years, virtually uninhabited until the late 1800s. Then developers arrived, canals were dug, swamps were drained, and a city emerged that was unlike any other place on the planet, an edge-of-the-world, air-conditioned dreamland of sunshine and beaches and drugs and money; Jan Nijman, the former director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Miami, called 20th-century Miami “a citadel of fantastical consumption.” Floods would come and go and hurricanes might blow through, but the city would survive, if only because no one could imagine a force more powerful than human ingenuity. That defiance of nature – the sense that the rules don’t apply here – gave the city its great energy. But it is also what will cause its demise.

You would never know it from looking at Miami today. Rivers of money are flowing in from Latin America, Europe and beyond, new upscale shopping malls are opening, and the skyline is crowded with construction cranes. But the unavoidable truth is that sea levels are rising and Miami is on its way to becoming an American Atlantis. It may be another century before the city is completely underwater (though some more-pessimistic­ scientists predict it could be much sooner), but life in the vibrant metropolis of 5.5 million people will begin to dissolve much quicker, most likely within a few decades. The rising waters will destroy Miami slowly, by seeping into wiring, roads, building foundations and drinking-water supplies – and quickly, by increasing the destructive power of hurricanes. “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,” says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.”

Sea-level rise is not a hypothetical disaster. It is a physical fact of life on a warming planet, the basic dynamics of which even a child can understand: Heat melts ice. Since the 1920s, the global average sea level has risen about nine inches, mostly from the thermal expansion of the ocean water. But thanks to our 200-year-long fossil-fuel binge, the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are starting to melt rapidly now, causing the rate of sea-level rise to grow exponentially. The latest research, including an assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, suggests that sea level could rise more than six feet by the end of the century. James Hansen, the godfather of global-warming science, has argued that it could increase as high as 16 feet by then – and Wanless believes that it could continue rising a foot each decade after that. “With six feet of sea-level rise, South Florida is toast,” says Tom Gustafson, a former Florida speaker of the House and a climate-change-policy advocate. Even if we cut carbon pollution overnight, it won’t save us. Ohio State glaciologist Jason Box has said he believes we already have 70 feet of sea-level rise baked into the system.

Of course, South Florida is not the only place that will be devastated by sea-level rise. London, Boston, New York and Shanghai are all vulnerable, as are low-lying underdeveloped nations like Bangladesh. But South Florida is uniquely screwed, in part because about 75 percent of the 5.5 million people in South Florida live along the coast. And unlike many cities, where the wealth congregates in the hills, southern Florida’s most valuable real estate is right on the water. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development lists Miami as the number-one most vulnerable city worldwide in terms of property damage, with more than $416 billion in assets at risk to storm-related flooding and sea-level rise.

South Florida has two big problems. The first is its remarkably flat topography. Half the area that surrounds Miami is less than five feet above sea level. Its highest natural elevation, a limestone ridge that runs from Palm Beach to just south of the city, averages a scant 12 feet. With just three feet of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings and crumbling overpasses. And the waters won’t just come in from the east – because the region is so flat, rising seas will come in nearly as fast from the west too, through the Everglades.

Even worse, South Florida sits above a vast and porous limestone plateau. “Imagine Swiss cheese, and you’ll have a pretty good idea what the rock under southern Florida looks like,” says Glenn Landers, a senior engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This means water moves around easily – it seeps into yards at high tide, bubbles up on golf courses, flows through underground caverns, corrodes building foundations from below. “Conventional sea walls and barriers are not effective here,” says Robert Daoust, an ecologist at ARCADIS, a Dutch firm that specializes in engineering solutions to rising seas. “Protecting the city, if it is possible, will require innovative solutions.”

Those solutions are not likely to be forthcoming from the political realm. The statehouse in Tallahassee is a monument to climate-change denial. “You can’t even say the words ‘climate change’ on the House floor without being run out of the building,” says Gustafson. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, positioning himself for a run at the presidency in 2016, is another denier, still trotting out the tired old argument that “no matter how many job-killing­ laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather.” Gov. Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican, says he’s “not convinced” that global warming is caused by human beings. Since taking office in 2011, Scott has targeted environmental protections of every sort and slashed the budget of the South Florida Water Management District, the agency in charge of managing water supply in the region, as well as restoration of the Everglades. “There is no serious thinking, no serious planning, about any of this going on at the state level,” says Chuck Watson, a disaster-­impact analyst with longtime experience in Florida. “The view is, ‘Well, if it gets real bad, the federal government will bail us out.’ It is beyond denial; it is flat-out delusional.”

Local governments, including Broward and Miami-Dade counties, have tried to compensate by forging regional agreements to cut carbon pollution and upgrade infrastructure to make their cities more resilient, but without help (and money) from the state and federal governments, it’s pretty ineffective. Given how much Florida has to lose from climate change, the abdication of leadership by state and federal politicians is almost suicidal – when it isn’t downright comical. Watson recalls attending a meeting on natural-hazard-response planning in South Florida, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state: “I mentioned sea-level rise, and I was treated to a 15-minute lecture on Genesis by one of the commissioners. He said, ‘God destroyed the Earth with water the first time, and he promised he wouldn’t do it again. So all of you who are pushing fears about sea-level rise, go back and read the Bible.’”

Link: The Inevitable Climate Catastrophe

Should we invest today in preparing for extreme weather or face the consequences of inaction? The 17th century offers crucial lessons.

… So far, most attempts to predict the consequences of climate change look to the future by building on recent trends, but another methodology exists. We can look back to a past climate-induced catastrophe, using sources created by both humans (narrative and pictorial as well as archaeological) and nature (above all, annual ice-core and tree-ring data). In a 2012 article in The American Historical Review, Julia Adeney Thomas, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, reminded her colleagues that “climate change—or climate collapse—and all of its related global transformations” is “a world-altering force,” one “more devastating, and more definitive” than any other. She called for an “environmental turn” in the field, one that foregrounds climate as a protagonist in human affairs.

The evidence for major climate change in the 17th century is both copious and unambiguous. Consider the year 1675. In July, the Paris socialite Madame de Sévigné complained to her daughter, who lived close to the Mediterranean: “It is horribly cold: We have the fires lit, just like you, which is very remarkable.” She added: “We think the behavior of the sun and of the seasons has changed.”

Madame de Sévigné was correct on both scores: 1675 is one of the few years with an exceptionally cool summer on record, and the narrow tree rings from that time reveal unusually poor growth; both grape and grains ripened later than at any other time in the previous five centuries. As for the sun, much of the 17th century saw a remarkable aberration: an almost total absence of sunspots, those dark regions of intense magnetic activity on the solar surface surrounded by flares that make the sun shine with greater intensity. The development of telescopes after 1609 enabled observers to track the number of sunspots, but although astronomers around the world stared at the sun on more than 8,000 days between 1643 and 1715 (the duration of the reign of Louis XIV, popularly known as the Sun King), the grand total of sunspots they observed scarcely reached 100, fewer than appeared in even a single year of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, it took human stupidity to turn crisis into catastrophe. The meager French harvest of 1675 occurred just as the king raised new taxes to pay for his wars, with predictable results. Many people died of hunger, many more migrated in search of food, and in the west of France, many took part in the “red bonnets” revolts. Most striking were the signs of hardship written on the bodies of survivors. Government officials in France compiled data on each man who enlisted in the royal army, including his height; those born in 1675 stood on average just five feet tall, the shortest cohort of Frenchmen ever recorded.

The earth also experienced an unusually cold winter in 1620-1, when the Bosporus froze so hard that people could walk across the ice between Europe and Asia—a climatic anomaly. The summer of 1627 was the wettest recorded in Europe for 500 years, and 1628 was another “year without a summer,” with temperatures so low that in many areas food crops never ripened. From 1629 to 1632, northern India suffered a catastrophic drought, while much of Europe suffered excessive rains. In the Alps, unusually narrow tree rings reflect poor growing seasons throughout the 1640s, and glaciers advanced more than a mile. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1641 saw the third-coldest summer recorded over the past six centuries; 1641-2 was the coldest winter ever recorded in Scandinavia; and 1649-50 was the coldest winter on record in both northern and eastern China.

Climate change on this scale seems to have triggered an unusual concentration of extreme weather events. In France, the river Seine has experienced 62 recorded floods, 18 of which occurred in the 17th century. Grape harvests in western France between 1640 and 1643 began a full month later than usual, producing wine too bitter to drink, while grain prices surged as a result of poor cereal harvests. Unseasonable weather in England ruined the corn and hay each year from 1646 to 1651, with five more bad harvests from 1657 to 1661: 11 harvest failures within the space of 16 years. Such abnormal climatic conditions lasted from the 1620s until the 1690s, the longest as well as the most severe episode of global cooling recorded in the past 12,000 years.

Why did this happen? A spate of major volcanic eruptions, including 12 around the Pacific between 1638 and 1644 (apparently an all-time record), produced dust veils that cooled the earth’s atmosphere, reducing mean summer temperatures by about 2 degrees Celsius. To a skeptic, such a change seems insignificant. But since the difference between the hottest and the coldest temperatures recorded since the last ice age is no more than 6 degrees Celsius, a change of one-third of the historical maximum is dramatic. In the 17th century, those climatic changes coincided with both political instability and mass starvation.

That century witnessed more cases of state breakdown around the globe than did any previous or subsequent age. In the coldest decade, the 1640s, Ming China, the most populous state in the world, collapsed; the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest state in Europe, disintegrated; much of the Spanish monarchy seceded; and the entire Stuart monarchy rebelled—Scotland, Ireland, England, and its North American colonies. In addition, in 1648 alone, rebellions paralyzed both Russia (the largest state in the world) and France (the most populous state in Europe); while in Istanbul (Europe’s largest city), irate subjects strangled Sultan Ibrahim, and in London King Charles I went on trial for war crimes (the first head of state to do so).

Wars also became more frequent. Europe experienced only three years of complete peace during the entire 17th century; the Ottoman Empire enjoyed only 10 such years; and both the Chinese and Mughal empires fought campaigns almost continuously. Civil wars proliferated. For six decades, supporters of the Ming and Qing dynasties fought for control of China. The rebellions of large parts of the Stuart and the Spanish monarchies unleashed internal conflicts that lasted over two decades in the former and almost three in the latter. The Germanic states, with powerful foreign support, fought one another for 30 years. France endured a civil war that lasted five years; the Mughals suffered two wars of succession. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, war became the norm for resolving both domestic and international problems.

Link: Doubling Of CO2 Levels In End-Triassic Extinction Killed Off Three Quarters Of Land And Sea Species

“There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record.” That’s from a 2010 special issue on climate change and biodiversity from the UK’s Royal Society.

In 2011, a Nature Geoscience study found humans are spewing carbon into the atmosphere 10 times faster now than 56 million years ago, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a time of 10°F warming and mass extinction.

An even more ancient extinction is the subject of a new study in Science (subs. req’d), with the tongue-twister title, “Zircon U-Pb Geochronology Links the End-Triassic Extinction with the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province.”

As the MIT News release puts it:

Some 200 million years ago, an increase in atmospheric CO2 caused acidification of the oceans and global warming that killed off 76 percent of marine and terrestrial species on Earth.

Whereas human activity is the source of the rapid surge in CO2 emissions today, the source of the surge 200 million years ago is now widely thought to be volcanoes:

… most scientists agree on a likely scenario: Over a relatively short period of time, massive volcanic eruptions from a large region known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) spewed forth huge amounts of lava and gas, including carbon dioxide, sulfur and methane. This sudden release of gases into the atmosphere may have created intense global warming and acidification of the oceans that ultimately killed off thousands of plant and animal species.

Now researchers at MIT, Columbia University and elsewhere have determined that these eruptions occurred precisely when the extinction began, providing strong evidence that volcanic activity did indeed trigger the end-Triassic extinction.

Today, of course, notwithstanding the claims of some disinformers, “Humans emit 100 times more CO2 than volcanoes,” as Skeptical Science explains in one of their classic myth-debunking posts.

So what is the connection between what happened in the End-Triassic Extinction and our current mass extinction? As ClimateWire (subs. req’d) explains:

“In some ways, this event is analogous to the present day,” said study lead author Terrence Blackburn, of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Morgan Schaller, a research associate in earth systems history at Brown University, has previously published work in Science showing that these massive eruptions led to a doubling of carbon dioxide levels from 2,000 parts per million to 4,400 ppm.

Although researchers are not sure how quickly this doubling occurred, it could have been within a period as short as 1,000 years.

This leads them to draw analogies between today’s rapid CO2 increase and the past. Even though the base-line levels of CO2 were much higher 200 million years ago, a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations leads to a 3 degree Celsius increase whether it’s from 2,000 to 4,000 ppm or from 280 to 560 ppm, Schaller said….

Paul Olsen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a co-author on the paper released yesterday, said the extinction, however it happened, occurred in 20,000 years or less — but like the speed of the carbon dioxide doubling, it could have been a lot less.

In any case, what humans are doing to the biosphere today is mostly without precedent in the geologic record and poised to be far worse than most previous extinctions, according to recent research:

  • Study finds “mass biodiversity collapse” at 900 ppm, and possibly a “threshold response … to relatively minor increases in CO2 concentration and/or global temperature.”
  • Nature Climate Change: “The proportion of actual biodiversity loss should quite clearly be revised upwards: by 2080, more than 80% of genetic diversity within species may disappear in certain groups of organisms“
  • Scientist: “When CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans”
  • A 2009 study in Nature Geoscience warned that global warming may create expanding “dead zones” in the ocean that would be devoid of fish and seafood and “remain for thousands of years.”
  • Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century.”

There will always be zoos … won’t there?

Link: The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible

The CMO (Chief Misinformation Officer) of the climate ignorati, Joe Nocera, has a new piece, “A Real Carbon Solution.” The biggest of its many errors comes in this line:

A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Memo to Nocera: As a NOAA-led paper explained 4 years ago, climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”

This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous, as explained in this 2007 MIT study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.”

The fact is that, as RealClimate has explained, we would need “an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time” merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to “an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.” And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.

We’d have to drop total global emissions to zero now and for the rest of the century just to lower concentrations enough to stop temperatures from rising. Again, even in this implausible scenario, we still aren’t talking about reversing climate change, just stopping it — or, more technically, stopping the temperature rise. The great ice sheets might well continue to disintegrate, albeit slowly.

This doesn’t mean climate change is unstoppable — only that we are stuck with whatever climate change we cause before we get desperate and go all WWII on emissions. That’s why delay is so dangerous and immoral. For instance, if we don’t act quickly, we are likely to be stuck with permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and around the globe. I’ll discuss the irreversibility myth further below the jump.

First, though, Nocera’s piece has many other pieces of misinformation. He leaves people with the impression that coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a practical, affordable means of reducing emissions from existing power plants that will be available soon. In fact, most demonstration projects around the world have been shut down, the technology Nocera focuses on would not work on the vast majority of existing coal plants, and CCS is going to be incredibly expensive compared to other low-carbon technologies — see Harvard stunner: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 (20 cents per kWh)! And that’s in the unlikely event it proves to be practical, permanent, and verifiable (see “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved”).

Heck, the guy who debated me on The Economist‘s website conceded things are going so slowly, writing “The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.” And he’s a CCS advocate!!

Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions. No wonder people who misunderstand the irreversible nature of climate change, like Nocera, tend to be far more complacent about emissions reductions than those who understand climate science.

The point of Nocera’s piece seems to be to mock Bill McKibben for opposing the idea of using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): “his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem.”

It is Nocera who has been blinded. He explains in the piece:

Using carbon emissions to recover previously ungettable oil has the potential to unlock vast untapped American reserves. Last year, ExxonMobil reportedthat enhanced oil recovery would allow it to extend the life of a single oil field in West Texas by 20 years.

McKibben’s effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is based on the fact that we have to leave the vast majority of carbon in the ground. Sure, it wouldn’t matter if you built one coal CCS plant and used that for EOR. But we need a staggering amount of CCS, as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:

“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

D’oh! What precisely would be the point of “sequestering” all that CO2 to extract previously “ungettable oil” whose emissions, when burned, would just about equal the CO2 that you supposedly sequestered?

Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction. And yes, this ain’t easy. But it is impossible if we don’t start slashing emissions soon and stop opening up vast new sources of carbon.

For those who are confused on this point, I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract:

Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations or net radiative forcing can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions. Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults–graduate students at MIT–showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.

GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs-analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow-support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.

It’s also worth reading RealClimate’s piece “Climate change commitments,” based on a Nature Geoscience letter by Mathews and Weaver (sub. reqd.)

Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to fossil-fuel funded Tea Party politicians along with the deniers and the ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon.

Finally, I recommend RealClimate’s 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:

But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.

Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable — and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.

But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will at least double and probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years.

Link: George Monbiot: Selling Indulgence

Rejoice! We have a way out. Our guilty consciences appeased, we can continue to fill up our SUVs and fly round the world without the least concern about our impact on the planet. How has this magic been arranged? By something called “carbon offsets”. You buy yourself a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the harm you are causing.

The Co-op’s holiday firm Travelcare has just started selling offsets to its customers. If they want to fly to Spain, they pay an extra £3. Then they can forget about their contribution to climate change. The money will be spent on projects in the developing world, such as building wind farms and more efficient cooking stoves. In August, BP launched its “targetneutral” scheme, enabling customers to “neutralise the CO2 emissions caused by their driving”(1). The consequences of an entire year’s motoring can be discharged for just £20. Again, your money will be invested in the developing world – “a biomass energy plant in Himachal Pradesh; a wind farm in Karnataka, India and an animal waste management and methane capture program in Mexico” – and you need have no further worries about what you and BP are doing to the atmosphere (or, for that matter, to the people of West Papua or the tundra in Alaska).

It sounds great. Without requiring any social or political change, and at a tiny cost to the consumer, the problem of climate change is solved. Having handed over a few quid, we can all sleep easy again.

This is not the first time that such schemes have been sold. In his book The Rise of the Dutch Republic, published in 1855, John Lothrop Motley describes the means by which the people of the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries could redeem their sins. “The sale of absolutions was the source of large fortunes to the priests. … God’s pardon for crimes already committed, or about to be committed, was advertised according to a graduated tariff. Thus, poisoning, for example, was absolved for eleven ducats, six livres tournois. Absolution for incest was afforded at thirty-six livres, three ducats. Perjury came to seven livres and three carlines. Pardon for murder, if not by poison, was cheaper. Even a parricide could buy forgiveness at God’s tribunal at one ducat; four livres, eight carlines.”(2)

Just as in the 15th and 16th centuries you could sleep with your sister and kill and lie without fear of eternal damnation, today you can live exactly as you please as long as you give your ducats to one of the companies selling indulgences. It is pernicious and destructive nonsense.

Link: Forget Shorter Showers

Why personal change does not equal political change.

Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.

Or let’s talk energy. Kirkpatrick Sale summarized it well: “For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption—residential, by private car, and so on—is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government [he forgot military]. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution.”

Or let’s talk waste. In 2005, per-capita municipal waste production (basically everything that’s put out at the curb) in the U.S. was about 1,660 pounds. Let’s say you’re a die-hard simple-living activist, and you reduce this to zero. You recycle everything. You bring cloth bags shopping. You fix your toaster. Your toes poke out of old tennis shoes. You’re not done yet, though. Since municipal waste includes not just residential waste, but also waste from government offices and businesses, you march to those offices, waste reduction pamphlets in hand, and convince them to cut down on their waste enough to eliminate your share of it. Uh, I’ve got some bad news. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

So how, then, and especially with all the world at stake, have we come to accept these utterly insufficient responses? I think part of it is that we’re in a double bind. A double bind is where you’re given multiple options, but no matter what option you choose, you lose, and withdrawal is not an option. At this point, it should be pretty easy to recognize that every action involving the industrial economy is destructive (and we shouldn’t pretend that solar photovoltaics, for example, exempt us from this: they still require mining and transportation infrastructures at every point in the production processes; the same can be said for every other so-called green technology). So if we choose option one—if we avidly participate in the industrial economy—we may in the short term think we win because we may accumulate wealth, the marker of “success” in this culture. But we lose, because in doing so we give up our empathy, our animal humanity. And we really lose because industrial civilization is killing the planet, which means everyone loses. If we choose the “alternative” option of living more simply, thus causing less harm, but still not stopping the industrial economy from killing the planet, we may in the short term think we win because we get to feel pure, and we didn’t even have to give up all of our empathy (just enough to justify not stopping the horrors), but once again we really lose because industrial civilization is still killing the planet, which means everyone still loses. The third option, acting decisively to stop the industrial economy, is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world—none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.

Link: Chris Hedges: Stand Still For the Apocalypse

Humans must immediately implement a series of radical measures to halt carbon emissions or prepare for the collapse of entire ecosystems and the displacement, suffering and death of hundreds of millions of the globe’s inhabitants, according to a report commissioned by the World Bank. The continued failure to respond aggressively to climate change, the report warns, will mean that the planet will inevitably warm by at least 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, ushering in an apocalypse.

The 84-page document,“Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided,” was written for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics and published last week. The picture it paints of a world convulsed by rising temperatures is a mixture of mass chaos, systems collapse and medical suffering like that of the worst of the Black Plague, which in the 14th century killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population.

A planetwide temperature rise of 4 degrees C—and the report notes that the tepidness of the emission pledges and commitments of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will make such an increase almost inevitable—will cause a precipitous drop in crop yields, along with the loss of many fish species, resulting in widespread hunger and starvation. Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes in coastal areas and on islands that will be submerged as the sea rises. There will be an explosion in diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever. Devastating heat waves and droughts, as well as floods, especially in the tropics, will render parts of the Earth uninhabitable. The rain forest covering the Amazon basin will disappear. Coral reefs will vanish. Numerous animal and plant species, many of which are vital to sustaining human populations, will become extinct. Monstrous storms will eradicate biodiversity, along with whole cities and communities. And as these extreme events begin to occur simultaneously in different regions of the world, the report finds, there will be “unprecedented stresses on human systems.” Global agricultural production will eventually not be able to compensate. Health and emergency systems, as well as institutions designed to maintain social cohesion and law and order, will crumble. The world’s poor, at first, will suffer the most. But we all will succumb in the end to the folly and hubris of the Industrial Age. And yet, we do nothing.

“It is useful to recall that a global mean temperature increase of 4°C approaches the difference between temperatures today and those of the last ice age, when much of central Europe and the northern United States were covered with kilometers of ice and global mean temperatures were about 4.5°C to 7°C lower,” the report reads. “And this magnitude of climate change—human induced—is occurring over a century, not millennia.”

Link: Forget Kyoto: Putting a Tax on Carbon Consumption

Given the failure of international climate negotiations, a tax on carbon consumption is the most effective way of lowering CO2 emissions. If nations are serious about addressing climate change, then they must pay for the carbon pollution caused by what they consume.

It is a stark and frightening fact that, despite more than two decades of international effort — including enormous time and energy expended on the Kyoto Protocol — and significant economic costs, carbon emissions are now rising even faster than they were in 1990. Back then they were going up by about 1.5 parts per million (ppm) per year. Now it is 2 ppm. The critical 400 ppm global threshold will shortly be crossed, and there is little reason to believe that this trend is likely to be halted any time soon.

This raises two obvious questions. How could so much effort lead to so little result, and how could so much political capital and economic cost be expended to so little effect? The second follows from the first: Given that current approaches have so lamentably failed, what new directions do we need to take if climate change is to be cracked?

The obvious place to start is with the causes of these emissions. The answers are straightforward: Coal has been the big winner in meeting the growth of energy demand since 1990, particularly for electricity generation.

It has increased from around 25 percent of world primary energy demand to nearly 30 percent — a rising percentage on a sharply growing underlying demand. Much of that extra coal has been burned in China, and despite moves to reduce coal’s share of electricity generation, China is going to burn a lot more over the rest of this decade. China and India together currently add around three new coal stations a week, and between now and 2020 around 400 to 600 gigawatts of new coal is likely to come onto the world’s energy systems.

But before we get carried away blaming China, it is important to work out why this increase has taken place. China’s phenomenal economic growth has been based on exports, notably of energy-intensive goods, from steel and petrochemicals to a host of manufactured products. These have been bought largely by the U.S. and Europe, which together account for nearly 50 percent of world GDP.

It is carbon consumption that measures the carbon footprint and hence responsibility, not the carbon production in particular geographical areas. Yet remarkably the Kyoto framework does not take consumption into account. Instead it focuses on carbon production, and mostly in Europe, where deindustrialization and the collapse of the former Soviet Union make compliance with the targets easy. For example, the UK’s carbon production fell by more than 15 percent between 1990 and 2005, but once imported carbon is taken into account, carbon consumption went up more than 19 percent. This explains how carbon production can be falling in Europe in line with its Kyoto targets, while global carbon emissions keep going up.

This sadly is not the only fault line in the Kyoto-style approach. It is riddled with free rider problems — in which some nations reduce emissions while others do nothing — and it does not target the countries where the emissions really matter. No wonder the U.S. kept out. Indeed it is a miracle that the Kyoto Framework could even hold itself together at the Durban climate conference in December 2011. The price was inaction: All that could be agreed was that the parties would try to agree by 2015 what mighthappen after 2020. By that time, all those new coal power stations will have been built and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will be well above 400ppm. The upcoming summit in Doha, Qatar, will not make much difference to this timetable.

It is time to recognize that while talking is usually a good idea, the fabric of Kyoto is not going to head off climate change. So the answer to our first question — why there has there been no dent in emissions? — leads to the second: What would we need to do to make such a dent?

There are three parts to the answer. The first two are related. Unless people pay the cost of their pollution, they will not do much about it. And that pollution is best measured by carbon consumption, not carbon production. Therefore there has to be a price (a tax) on carbon consumption — a carbon tax with border adjustments to ensure that imports of carbon-intensive goods from countries without a carbon price are treated on the same basis as domestic production.

Immediately howls of political protest will be heard. Politicians do not like carbon taxes, because they fear we the voters will chuck them out if they dare to make us pay for our pollution. Carbon border taxes are claimed to be protectionist, interfering with world trade. Yet a moment’s reflection tells us something quite profound: If we don’t want to pay for the pollution we cause, we don’t really want to address climate change, since a carbon price is almost certainly cheaper than the alternatives of command-and-control and detailed government intervention. Setting specific pollution controls on large industrial installations, picking “winners” among technologies, setting quotas, and targeting subsidies to influence investment decisions are all open to interference by lobbyists seeking to profit from the interventions.

So if climate change is to be dealt with, there is no real alternative but to face down the critics of carbon pricing. Whether politicians rise to the challenge remains to be seen. Yet a combination of the need for new sources of revenue, coupled with the piecemeal emergence across a number

Link: A Grim Warning from Science

One of the things that makes Sandy different from Katrina is that it’s a relatively clean story. The lessons of Katrina were numerous and painful—they had to do with race, with class, with the willful incompetence of a government that had put a professional Arabian horse fancier in charge of its rescue efforts.

Sandy, by contrast, has been pretty straightforward. It’s hit rich, poor, and middle class Americans with nearly equal power, though of course the affluent always have it easier in the aftermath of tragedy. Government officials prepared forthrightly for its arrival, and have refrained from paralysis and bickering in its wake. Which allows us to concentrate on the only really useful message it might deliver: that we live in a changed world, where we need both to adapt to the changes, and to prevent further changes so great that adaptation will be impossible.

Science and its practical consort Engineering mostly come out of this week with enhanced reputations. For some years now, various researchers have been predicting that such a trauma was not just possible but almost certain, as we raised the temperature and with it the level of the sea—just this past summer, for instance, scientists demonstrated that seas were rising faster near the northeast United States (for reasons having to do with alterations to the Gulf Stream) than almost anyplace on the planet. They had described, in the long run, the loaded gun, right down to a set of documents describing the precise risk to the New York subway system.

As nature pulled the trigger in mid-October, when a tropical wave left Africa and moved into the Atlantic and began to spin, scientists were able to do the short-term work of hurricane forecasting with almost eerie precision. Days before Sandy came ashore we not only knew approximately where it would go, but that its barometric pressure would drop below previous records and hence that its gushing surge would set new marks. The computer models dealt with the weird hybrid nature of the storm—a tropical cyclone hitting a blocking front—with real aplomb; it was a bravura performance.

In so doing, it should shame at least a little those people who argue against the computer modeling of climate change on the grounds that “they can’t even tell the weather three days ahead of time—how can they predict the climate?” But in fact “they” can tell the weather, and in the process they saved thousands upon thousands of lives. They can tell the future too. No serious climate scientist believes that the sea will rise less than a meter this century, unless we get off fossil fuel with great speed; many anticipate it will rise far more. Think about what that means—as one researcher put it this week, it means that any average storm will become an insidious threat.

Having great scientists, and taking those scientists seriously, are two different things, of course. Our climate scientists—led by James Hansen, who lives in New Jersey and does his work from a NASA lab on the Upper West Side—have trotted patiently up to Capitol Hill every year for the last two decades to present their latest findings, and been entirely ignored, the fossil fuel industry having purchased one of our political parties and cowed the other. But it may be that firsthand experience will accomplish what academic studies have not—Governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, was forthright in his declarations this week that climate change was a “reality,” that we were “vulnerable” as a result, and that we would need to adjust to deal with it.