Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, November 4, 2012

We have been chasing the wrong demon!

Guest post by Graeme Maxton. This text has appeared in several newspapers on Nov 1st, 2012. It is reproduced here by permission from the author





Look behind you!

It's climate change we need to worry about, not economic growth and al-Qaeda

It almost seems fitting.

The country that uses the most oil, that has produced the greatest amount of CO2 emissions for decades and that has consistently denied the evidence of climate change, has received the slap it required. With tens of deaths, a crushed infrastructure and billions of dollars worth of damage, Hurricane Sandy was the wake up call America needed. More than that, it was an event to which we should all pay heed. It is time to stop wasting money on fake wars and start spending it to protect us from a much graver threat.

In October 2012, I attended the General Assembly of The Club of Rome, in Bucharest. There, we were presented with the latest evidence on the effects of climate change, and they were scary. Predictions made just five years ago have already proved wildly wrong. In 2007, scientists said that they thought the Arctic would be ice free by the end of this century. At the current rate of melting however, it will now be ice free in the summer of 2015. It will be ice free all year by 2030.

This is not the main worry, however, as this is floating ice. When it melts it does not raise sea-levels. The real worry is the Greenland Ice Shelf, which is also melting at an unprecedented rate. If this disappears too, the effects will be catastrophic. Sea levels around the world will rise between six and seven metres, wiping out cities like New York, London and Shanghai. The addition of so much cold fresh water into the seas would also change ocean currents and weather patterns in ways we can barely imagine. At the same time, rising temperatures in the northern hemisphere now risk melting much of the Siberian permafrost, which will release vast clouds of trapped methane, accelerating the speed of climate change even more. This risks starting a chain reaction, which we could do nothing to stop.

The effects of what we are doing to the planet are all around us. From the storms and floods this year, to the record droughts. Since 1980, the number of natural catastrophes has risen from an average of 400 a year to nearly 1,000 now, according to Munich Re. Ironically, North America has already been more affected by “extreme weather” than anywhere else.

We need to make urgent changes to the way we live if we want to avoid a crisis. The changes now anticipated will not just affect our children and grandchildren. They will affect us all.

When predictions were made a few years ago, scientists said it would all be more or less okay if we limited the rise in average global temperatures to 2ºC. Yet we will miss that target now. Because we have not actually done anything to halt the damage we are doing, the amount of gas being released into the atmosphere has continued to grow. Without change, we are now heading for a 4ºC rise, which will take the Earth's average temperature back to levels last seen 40 million years ago. This will cause the Antarctic to melt too, with sea levels rising 60-70 metres. The droughts and floods we would experience along the way would make the planet virtually uninhabitable.

While these changes have been happening, while they have been denied and ignored, we have been fighting two senseless wars instead. The first has been the fight for growth. Governments around the world have spent trillions trying to prop up their economies, to keep them growing and keep people spending. In the process, they have kept us digging up ever more of the world's raw materials and consuming even more stuff we don't need, making the changes to the climate even worse.

The second senseless war has been the War on Terror. According to a study by Brown University last year, the cost to America in the first ten years after 9/11 was a staggering $4trn. Trillions more have been spent in Europe and elsewhere. During all this time, there have been just 251 terrorism-related deaths in the developed world and none in the US. Over the same time, tens of thousands have been killed by climate change. According to Munich Re, 30,000 people have been killed in North America alone, between 1980 and 2011 because of weather related incidents.

For more than a decade we have been chasing the wrong demon. The biggest threat to our existence is not the lack of economic growth, nor al-Qaeda. It is the Earth itself. Unless we learn to treat it with respect and start responding to the signals it is sending us, it will consume us all.


Graeme Maxton is a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome


8 comments:

  1. "This will cause the Antarctic to melt too, with sea levels rising 60-70 metres."

    i'm not sure what to think of that scenario. it sounds rather extreme, and mainstream climate science would probably say its not that likely to happen. however, i'm beginning to think they have been ridiculously conservative considering the unfolding situation in the arctic.

    maybe its time for all scientists to get political, and just call for an immediate end to growth. and its certainly time for the people high up in power that are responsible for pushing growth to be listed and made aware they will be held directly responsible for any commons damage caused, and that they will receive the severest punishment for it. at the moment, we have the ridiculous situation of there not being any personal risk in promoting these unscientific political ideas. but we need to start holding people accountable for what they promote.

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  2. The problem's not growth per se, but consumption of non-replenishing resources in a damaging and unsustainable fashion.

    We could very easily move to negative 'growth' and still destroy the planet.

    That the 'growth' meme should die is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

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    Replies
    1. Phil,

      why should "growth" meme die, if its coded in our DNA???

      Alex

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    2. "We could very easily move to negative 'growth' and still destroy the planet."

      This looks to me like the default position that would occur if we failed to gather the collective will to overcome the US policy of awaiting the climatic destabilization of its Chinese rival for global economic dominance.

      In this sense, the passion for ending economic growth can be added to that of population control, anti-capitalism, veganism, solar power, etc, that each claims to be the prerequisite change that will resolve the climate threat, but which are actually distractions from the paramount task of advancing a commensurate global climate treaty.

      Only a treaty can agree and enforce a global carbon budget, and only a treaty can mandate the crucial governance of the requisite geoengineering.

      Regards,

      Lewis

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  3. but a global climate treaty runs counter to the globally unquestioned economic growth paradigm. so unless that idea is put in the dock by science, thus forcing the public to be aware of its nonsense thus making the mention of growth become a vote loser, a treaty is a non starter, as history has shown. governments won't even think about climate change now as its in their interests to ignore it. they are ONLY concerned with popular opinion and keeping their corporate paymasters happy, and as things get worse they will get even more desperate. to these idiots, climate change only exists as another fringe topic to get a few crumbs of attention in the good times. as economists, business people and loony lefties at best, they simply lack the capacity to see the bigger picture from outside a short term human centered perspective.

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  4. Scientific reticence is partly to blame.

    But you're assumptions "Hurricane Sandy was the wake up call America needed" will be proven false.

    Americans are woefully under-informed and undereducated regarding climate science and the latest developments. Several studies have shown that Big Oil is behind almost all of this "dumbing down". Money always controls the so-called "debate". Greed rules in people's minds and corporate boardrooms.

    It will take far, far more then Hurricane Sandy to waken the people to clamor for climate action, or support a treaty. Climate is considered low-priority, intangible "benefits", even if this actually translates to the survival of the human race. People and especially politicians simply cannot make the connection or justify the so-called cost.

    There really is no doubt about what we are going "to do". Just look around, the evidence is everywhere. The answer is very obvious and very simple: Nothing.

    It's also very obvious that "stopping climate change" is impossible already. Positive feedback and decades-long lag times are already in effect. We are only currently experiencing the effects of 1970's era emissions. What does this mean when the effects of the 80's and 90's and the millennium are finally experienced?

    Gigantic methane releases are now a documented fact. Methane hydrates are destabilizing in the Northern Hemisphere. This will greatly contribute to runaway warming.

    It took less the 2% additional heat to melt the Arctic to where it is today, yet the energy absorption is far higher then that.

    An ice-free Arctic is now virtually guaranteed -- and so is the loss of Greenland ice except for a small lingering amount (maybe). Antarctica is losing ice, including entire sections the size of small countries. These events cannot be "stopped" by any human endeavors, certainly not by treaties or even geo-engineering now.

    What you fear the most will most certainly happen.

    Most scientist are VERY reticent about all of this, but if you look carefully, you can indeed find the evidence that this will all definitely occur.

    Humanity does not have the time that it wrongly assumes to adapt (forget "stop"). Mitigation remains "too expensive", so they'd rather just "deal with the problem" when it arrives (somebody else's future). Cognitive dissonance helps, but it all means what you think it means -- humanity has really screwed itself over.

    What is needed will NEVER be considered. Desperation will increase in direct proportion to effects and events. Failure however, is really all that awaits as the climate continues to destabilize. Eventually and new equilibrium will occur, but not for hundreds if not thousands of years. By then most life forms on the planet will be dead.

    This sounds very doomerish, but it's actually all based upon scientific facts and evidence. Wet-bulb temperatures will make many regions inhospitable to any life.

    So "discussions about what we can do" are woefully incorrect on the many assumptions being made. We are indeed chasing the wrong demons - asking the wrong questions - attempting to address the wrong issues. Our plight is severe, more serious then anyone can imagine. What we could be doing, what we SHOULD be doing isn't even being discussed. ~Survival Acres~

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  5. although i agree climate change will probably lead to the 6th mass extinction, and therefore the extinction of humans and most larger mammals and birds, i don't buy 'the end of all life on earth' scenario. i dont think that is very likely going by past extinction events which failed to wipe out even a phylum let alone all life.

    however big 'our' event becomes, it would certainly pale into insignificance to the last one, the KT event asteroid impact 65 million years ago. not only a continent sized fireball and blast that killed everything in one hemisphere, it caused a global tidal wave several hundred or thousand meters high that swept over the entire earth several times over, and plunged the earth into darkness for several hundred years, making plant growth for anything more than dim light loving ferns almost impossible. that event has been calculated to have released more energy instantly than all the worlds hydrogen bomb arsenal put together. but several hundred times over (or thousand - i cant remember the exact figure, but it was a truly astronomical event). but even that was far less than was required to wipe out 'all life', or even a fraction of it. in fact apart from a few large animals at the top of the food chain, it was a mere blip in the story of life on earth. the next few million years saw life rebounding with a different set of animals, and having much the same diversity as before. i dont want to sound like a climate change denier, but we mustn't forget the negative feedbacks that will occur as higher temps are reached; those that bring temperatures down and prevent it spiraling up forever. higher global temps will mean relatively more heat will escape into space, and higher temps will increase the chemical process in erosion that sequesters carbon. these feedbacks will slow warming eventually at levels that most groups of plants and animals can survive at, even if only in pockets. they will then sweep back to colonize any dead areas as climate normalizes. in geological time scale, i would expect life to quickly spring back to its former abundance with new animals evolving to replaces ones that become extinct.

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  6. The article's justification for combating climate change by comparing it to terrorism is just silly. Why not compare it to hunger? Far more people have died because of hunger than terrorism, but I suppose that is climate change's fault. Now what they (Club of Rome) are saying is that climate change is the cop out answer/solution - and that is just even more silly.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)