Often when groups talk about climate action or lack of it, a sort of despair sets in and people go quiet. It’s as though society demands a compulsory optimism. How dare you be pessimistic about the prospects of having a liveable climate?
“It has become a paradox”, write Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens in their book How Everything Can Collapse, “we have to face this deluge of disasters in the media, but we’re unable to talk explicitly about the really big catastrophes without being called alarmists or catastrophists.” The book was originally published in French in 2015 and in English in 2020. These two young Frenchmen were part of a trio who met at a Joanna Macy workshop.
Maybe we thought that our optimism of the 1960s to 1980s of continual progress would just continue. But by the 1990s we wondered. In early 2000s we learnt more of climate change, biodiversity loss and ocean acidification and began to panic a little inside. Things didn’t seem to be getting any better. They were getting worse.
The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of what I believe to be an inevitable near-term societal collapse due to climate change.
Deep Adaptation by Jem Bendell 2018, revised 2020
He note the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done useful work but has a track record of significantly underestimating the pace of change. Then he reviewed the scientific evidence on abrupt climate change and noted, “Non-linear changes are of central importance to understanding climate change, as they suggest both that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections.”
After a long summary of the possible tipping points, he concludes that his experience is that “a lot of people are resistant to the conclusions I have just shared” Then he considers some of the emotional and psychological responses to the information he just summarised.
Often during the last twenty years, climate activists have had high hopes that humanity will avert a climate catastrophe.
Thousands of scientists warned us not once, not twice but four times – in 1992,2017, 2019 and 2021. On each occasion it was that humanity was on a collision course with nature.
A search on “climate action” yields 26 million results. There are climate action groups all over the world. Even in New Zealand with a population of 5 million, there is a Climate Action Network comprising major groups like 350.0rg, Gen Zero etc. In 2017, former Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons got 3000 people to sign Our Climate Declaration. Now we have Extinction Rebellion and a myriad of local groups to add to this list.
Various IPCC reports have warned us how urgent this all is.
Political interference again
COP26 is now just days away. The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC was compiled by thousands of scientists. But BBC revealed a leak that “Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.” The leak also revealed Argentina, Norway and Opec talking up the possibility of CCS (carbon capture storage). They want to emit in the hopes that new technologies will capture their carbon from the atmosphere. IPCC scientists doubt that technology is good enough.
There was still some hope in 2015 with the Paris Agreement. In 2018 the IPCC warned there was just a decade to get climate change under control. They warned “emissions would have to be on an extremely steep downward path by 2030 to either hold the world entirely below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or allow only a brief “overshoot” in temperatures.” But emissions kept rising.
In the US, Democrat Senator Joe Manchin is blocking effective action on climate. Not surprisingly he is a recipient of fossil fuel money. The Guardian reports, “In the current electoral cycle, Manchin has received more in political donations from the oil and gas industry than any other senator, more than double the second largest recipient.”
In Brazil Bolsonaro has presided over the destruction of about 10,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most precious ecosystems on the planet. The destruction started around 2002 but was slowing down at the time Bolsonaro became president in 2019. By July 2021 the Amazon, instead of being a carbon sink, has become a carbon source.
So when COP26 fails are we to blame Mohammed bin Salman, Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison and Joe Manchin?
Five years ago a Pakistani delegate on his way to COP21 in Paris, Adil Najam wrote in the Guardian, “I am not a cynic – just old. Old enough to remember the dashed hopes of Kyoto (COP 3, 1997), the purposeful energy of Berlin (COP 1, 1995), the naïve optimism of Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) was first adopted, and even the calls for urgency when the negotiation process was first launched by the United Nations in 1990.”
The big emitting countries
China, India, the EU, and the US contributed around 60% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2017. Add Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Australia and the percentage rises. Few of these apart from some EU countries have reduced emissions since COP25 in 2019.
The UN warned that more than 70 countries are expected to submit revised (stronger) plans to curb emissions before Glasgow. This summit COP26 was originally scheduled for 2020 but because of Covid it is 2021. We are not holding our breath.
Only 113 countries have come up with improved plans so far for COP26. BBC News said, “Analysis of the climate plans submitted so far shows that emissions are actually set to rise by 16% by 2030, which could lead to a temperature rise of 2.7C (4.9F) above pre-industrial levels.”
Hope is fading
Ever since 1992 when UN climate summits started, global emissions have steadily risen. Despite flashes of hope throughout those many years, the relentless upward trend continues. And now that big emitters have signalled their desire to water down ambitions, our hope is fading fast again.
We could spend a great deal of time assigning blame for this succession of failures. We could blame Bolsanaro or Trump, no trouble. After 2015 the Bolivian president was one of many low emitting nations to blame capitalism.
Political tensions add to the roadblocks for COP26, with President Joe Biden stepping up the rhetoric on Taiwan, angering China. Russia hasn’t had its natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 approved by all the European nations yet. So Putin may be punishing them by sending them less gas. Or else Russia simply needs the gas now for their own domestic purposes.
Then there is the problem of not transitioning to renewables early enough. After shutting its nuclear plants and setting up wind farms Germany has had to return to gas fired electricity generation when the wind died down. So it is experiencing high natural gas prices (they are now six times higher than at the beginning of the year). This in turn is leading to high power prices.
Britain is also coping with Brexit, a truck driver shortage and a natural gas shortage. There are going to be many Europeans and English people shivering this coming winter.
The outlook in northern China is bleak. They are paying the price for not transitioning to renewables in time. Their coal prices have soared and their coal mines have been flooded more than once. And this is at the time that Xi Jinping has decreed that coal usage must reduce in order to meet their climate goals.
While there is a tiny chance significant progress could be made, given the difficulty of transitioning to renewables together with the interference by nations dependent on fossil fuels, it is more likely that COP26 will fail.
The word of the year for 2020 was ‘doomscrollling’. Wikipedia says it can be defined as “an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news.”
We are used to it now. For four years we have been waking up in New Zealand to the latest outrage from Donald Trump. For me it was quite obsessive. Now we are more inclined wake up to sanity and competence from that part of the world.
Today we wake up to riots and arrests in Russia and a heat wave in South East Australia. Most major centres in the Victoria’s north will be surpassing 40 degrees. NSW-Victoria border towns could endure temperatures up to 44 degrees. The choice is do I read more stories about that? Maybe not. I know the climate story is grim. I have known for ten years.
Towards the end of last year, after finding myself always passing on alarming facts about the latest freak weather event or climate prediction too often, I realised that all this obsession with bad news keeps me from spending time on championing real solutions.
It wasn’t until I read Jason Hickel’s book Less is More that I found he had articulated what I had been struggling to do. He had just summarised the ghastly story of the climate emergency we are in. It was, he explained a series of eco-facts. He says “The philosopher Timothy Morton has likened out obsession with eco-facts to the nightmares suffered by people with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, where you relive your trauma and wake up viscerally terrified, sweating and shaking. The idea is that if you are able to anticipate the traumatic event, you might be able to avoid it – or at least prepare yourself psychologically. Morton thinks our eco-facts serve a similar function. By endlessly repeating terrifying eco-facts, on some subconscious level we’re trying to insert ourselves into a fictional moment right before the collapse happens, so we can see it coming and do something about it. At least will feel prepared when it arrives.”
“In this sense, eco-facts carry a double message. On the one hand they cry out, urging us to wake up and act right now. But at the same time they imply that the trauma is not yet fully here – that there is still time to avert the disaster stop this is what makes them so beguiling, so reassuring, and why we seem strangely to crave more of them. The danger of this is it will all be lulled into waiting around to waiting for the effects to become more extreme. Once we reach that point we tell ourselves will finally get round to doing something about it. But the ultimate echo fact is never going to arrive.”
So this year I am seriously trying to spend less on doomscrolling on climate and more on comparing the various proposals and acting.
Appealing though it is I don’t fancy the choice of doomscrolling to species extinction. Right now I see the most promising way forward as learning about Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs)