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.
When New Zealand hydroelectric power stations ran low last summer, we beefed up electricity generation with another coal fired unit in Huntly. Environmentalists were shocked. How was New Zealand going to meet its climate targets now?
Genesis Energy had planned to close Huntly station in 2018 but is still using it. Greenpeace has wanted it shut for years. The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run on gas and coal. As Māui gas supplies began to run out in the early 2000s, coal increasingly became the major fuel. RNZ reported that more coal was burned in the 2021 March quarter than each of the years 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Aotearoa/ New Zealand is hooked on coal, importing more than one million tonnes of low-grade coal from Indonesia last year. The fuel was burnt at the Huntly to keep the lights on, as hydro and gas failed to meet demand.
Due to rising greenhouse gas emissions we are experiencing warmer winters and drier summers.
So will we painlessly transition to renewables as we had hoped? As we face our climate predicament, we have to realise that over 80% of the world’s energy use still comes from fossil fuels. Let that sink in. It’s big. So it’s going to be really hard to wean ourselves off them.
Of course, the low rainfall for our hydropower dams was not new. But climate change is going to make matters worse decade by decade.
Perhaps many thought then we were the only country having to revert back to fossil fuels.
Far from it. And it is often happening because an extreme weather event cut hydropower generation.
It is happening elsewhere but sometimes it is accompanied by geopolitical tensions as well. Southern China for instance, when its hydropower capacity ran low after droughts, reverted to coal. And this happened at the same time as China, angry at Australia’s support for an enquiry in the Wuhan Covid origins, stopped importing Australian coal.
In Europe there has been a big move towards renewables, with wind and solar beefing up. But solar and wind are intermittent and less reliable. Wind comprised 27% of Germany’s generation mix in 2020. But this all changed in 2021 when the winds died down and the percentage of the total generation dropped to 22%. So they had to revert to natural gas. A great deal of their gas came from Russia. Over the last decade the EU has imported more and more gas from Russia as their own gas ran out. Gas prices have skyrocketed along with electricity prices.
The apparent reluctance of Russia to release gas at the onset of winter has been attributed by many commentators to its desire to put pressure on the remaining EU countries to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is a twin pipeline under the Baltic Sea. It had already cost US$11 billion and was ready to go. Eastern European Countries like Ukraine and Poland and the Baltic States withheld approval for two reasons. 1) Because Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 leaving 14,000 dead over seven bitter years and 2)because they feared it would give Russia too much leverage over EU and Putin too much power.
As the price of natural gas rises, so does electricity. The TV agency WION reports (28 Sept 2021) that electricity prices are spiralling out of control in France (up 149%), Spain (up 250%, UK 298%, Germany (up 119%) and the situation will get worse as winter closes in. Governments are already warning of blackouts and factories will be forced to shut down. Inflation has already arrived.
They finish by saying, “European countries are going to learn just how much their economies are reliant on natural gas.”
Brazil has also had to ramp up its gas fired generation after a bad drought.
Energy and Climate Clash in China
There is also the move from high energy coals to lower energy coals. In Northern China where coal mines were flooded in an extreme weather event in May 2021, they had to move quickly to find other coal sources for electricity. In early October 2021 a heavy downpour in China shut down 27 coal mines. So Chinese officials have ordered more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia to ramp up coal production.
At the other extreme there is growing demand for air conditioning. CNBC said Japan, China and South Korea had extremely hot weather so the demand for power rose.
As if all this weren’t enough as the global mega-economy gets more and more complex, we just need more and more electricity. Despite a slight drop during Covid, by July 2021 a headline reported the International Energy Agency saying, “Global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables, driving strong increase in generation from fossil fuels.”
Oh yes that’s because we have to have economic growth at all costs. More, more, more as comedian John Clarke says. Everything flows from growth as he says.
Smooth transitioning to renewables is looking a great deal more difficult than we ever imagined.
At a time when climate induced droughts, extreme precipitation and heat waves are disrupting hydropower generation and storage all over the world, governments are reverting to some form of fossil fuel to generate their electricity. And this all comes at a time when electricity from air conditioning and gas or power to heat homes is under pressure. Even if Europe and UK insist they want to meet their climate targets at COP26, politicians will be faced with the alternative of leaving their families in the dark without cooking facilities – or effective climate action.
Politicians want to get re-elected. That’s why my bet is that they will choose to care for their citizens and to try to ensure its factories don’t close down through lack of electricity. China has already stated its power rationing is in order to keep its climate targets and doesn’t seem to have a renewable alternative.
And all this is without ever discussing the physics or the geology of it all. For a start fossil fuels are used in the production of solar and wind power. Secondly the energy return on energy invested for solar and wind is much less than with oil, coal, diesel or gas leaving less for the economy. Thirdly there is matter of the metals required.
Are there enough metals to transition to renewables?
Professor Simon Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland has done a remarkable study of the probable metals required for all the batteries for all the vehicles involved worldwide and his answer in the case of cobalt, nickel, graphite and lithium is a loud NO. He says,
“The current system was built with the support of the highest calorifically dense source of energy the world has ever known (oil), in cheap abundant quantities, with easily available credit, and seemingly unlimited mineral resources. The replacement needs to be done at a time when there is comparatively very expensive energy, a fragile finance system saturated in debt, not enough minerals, and an unprecedented world population, embedded in a deteriorating natural environment. Most challenging of all, this has to be done within a few decades. “
The zen riddle for our Government is will they recognise the predicament we are in or will they opt for Business As Usual, thereby disappointing millions of climate activists once again? In my view COP26, like 25 other COPs before it, will fail once again and to a few it will be no surprise. But they might just entertain a fleeting thought…”If only….”
The problem with reading too much world news is that you notice so many freak weather events. As I write this, for instance, there are landslides in China, and the drought in Syria is getting desperate. The recent floods in Germany, says the Guardian, were nine times more likely to be caused by climate change than just by chance. The fires in California continue and there has been rain instead of snow at the top of a two-mile-high mountain in Greenland for the first time ever. Floods in Tennessee have caused deaths of twins lost from their mother’s arms and the death toll was rising. There is a flash flood warning in New Mexico. There are fires in Greece again. And in Siberia, Algeria, Lebanon, France, Turkey, Paraguay. The 14,000 foot Mount Shasta of Northern California was just photographed without snow for the first time ever.
Of course that’s when you only have one crisis. Afghanistan is facing three – conflict, drought and pandemic. Haiti has an earthquake, an assassination and a pandemic let alone dire poverty. The Danish Refugee Council says, “Water crisis and drought threaten more than 12 million in Syria and Iraq”. The crop failure in Zimbabwe from the drought in 2017/18 is still affecting food supply and the Red Cross there says, “There are an estimated 5.5 million rural Zimbabweans to be food insecure as a consequence, with 3.8 million people in need of food assistance.”
Stop! It is clear that we are in a pickle. Or as comedian Steve Bhaerman describes our predicament, we worry about “our climate shituation”. Anyway, that might be enough doom-scrolling for now and congratulation to those who have read this far.
Climate and the growth imperative
I guess my new journey started this year when I worked on my submission to the Climate Commission. They were predicting virtually the same GDP in 2050 (27 years away!) while emissions had dropped. I thought about the material throughput and all the “chewing up the beauty and spitting out money” (as Charles Eisenstein would say) and I concluded you couldn’t tackle just one environmental problem at a time because the others persist. I argued their brief should be expanded to the whole future so that we had a Futures Commission again.
The Climate Commission’s assumption of continued GDP growth in rich countries seemed nonsense to me. At the end of her book, “This Changes Everything” Naomi Klein wrote, “the economy is at war with the climate”. But GDP growth results in species extinction too. What about food insecurity from loss of pollinators? Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury in 2018 commented, “Having heard the new Secretary-General of the United Nations say at the opening of COP that nothing in these reports, of maintaining it at 1.5C, will affect economic growth, I think we are still living in magical thinking.”)
Will green growth solve our climate shituation?
Over the last few months I have been to Extinction Rebellion websites and learnt about Degrowth. I read Jason Hickel’s Less is More and started a Degrowth column on my Tweetdeck. Would I try to start a Degrowth pressure group in New Zealand? Possible. Then during a Zoom meeting of the Living Economies Educational Trust Nicole Foss convinced me it wasn’t going to happen because it was wishful thinking that any politicians will advocate for this and expect to be elected.
Timothée Parrique, a leader in the degrowth movement has wryly tweeted, “The cool thing about working on degrowth is that everyone loves you. It’s overwhelming really. The idea sells like hot cakes, especially among economists who just cannot get enough of it.” Then he attached a list of examples of how they describe degrowthers – dogmatists, religious fanatics, anti-modern, misguided, wrongheaded, immature. Just imagine the derision that would follow from media and big business interests –and politicians of all stripes are very sensitive to the views of big business.
People asked me if I was writing a book and yes I have collected a lot of material. But I haven’t advanced it recently. I keep reading and thinking. I have understood the myth of green growth, about the declining return on energy invested (EROI) and how that makes the mining of oil and minerals more problematic, both environmentally and economically.
After digesting a great article about the limits to mining of metals for renewable energy from a prominent geologist Simon Michaux I can no longer enthuse about electric cars or solar energy or wind energy. Moreover Transitional Engineering Professor Susan Krumdieck has rubbished the idea of hydrogen as a renewable energy.
Will rationing energy do the trick?
On the other hand I have enthused about David Fleming’s great invention Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) and advocated for them on twitter. That would prevent instability as GDP declined. And like many of us I have been on Zoom calls where experts talk about climate change and urge various actions, and they almost always finish with the reassurance that if we do a, b or c or all three we will turn it around. COP26 in Glasgow will do it. Been there, done that.
Many alternatives to GDP have been proposed (OECD etc) but the GDP ‘mindset’ suits the ‘business as usual’ focus on economic expansion of goods and services, i.e. growth, over wellbeing. In fact New Zealand is cited as an example of a country which has wellbeing indicators, but there is no regular reporting of them in the media. In contrast business reporters regularly celebrate the growth of the economy.
Or protesting on climate?
By chance then I watched a talk by the delightful researcher Brenè Brown who had interviewed many courageous people. She asked them if the main thing they had to overcome was fear. No, they said, it was the armour you put round yourself to justify and explain your lack of action that stopped you acting. Fear was with you all the time.
So I reflected on the armour I put on. It goes like this: I say to myself, no I am not going to do this or that because I am a researcher/writer and that doesn’t fit with my self-image. So I decided to abandon the armour and get into protest mode. Having never been a big protestor except during the Springbok Tour and a joining a big climate change protest, at the time I was suddenly incensed that the All Blacks had signed a deal with INEOS, the oil company. I bought materials to make placards and made contact with others. A date was set. I practised my sign-writing.
Then lockdown came.
I was recently at a meeting where, after a conversation about the inaction of local and national government on climate, a person I respect said, “Don’t go down that rabbit hole I would never come out.” It set me thinking.
The Limits to Growth
In 1975 I was a candidate for the Values Party, three years after the landmark report The Limits to Growth which concluded that if global society kept pursuing economic growth it would experience a decline in food production, industrial output and ultimately population within this century. The Values Party had the nerve to question whether GDP was always progress. Twenty years later I was to learn the role of the money system in creating this growth imperative. Forty years later Wise Response, a group of environmental academics based in Dunedin, has been making submissions pointing out the limits to growth to government for years.
Then came Gaya Herrington’s article. She works at the accounting firm KPMG and holds a master’s degree in Sustainability Studies from Harvard University. Her July 2021 report appeared to show that controversial 1972 study predicting the collapse of civilisation was – apparently – right on time. Both of the most closely aligned scenarios with the data (“Business and Usual” and “Comprehensive Technology”) indicate that business as usual, pursuing continuous growth, “is not possible,” even when paired “with unprecedented technological development.” Such scenarios “would inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output, and welfare levels within this century.” In an article for the Club of Rome she says, ” The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from my research therefore, is that humanity is on a path to having limits to growth imposed on itself rather than consciously choosing its own.”
When I watched an hour long talk by ecological economist William Rees called “Climate change isn’t the problem, so what is?” I was struck by the graph of steadily rising emissions in the atmosphere with several landmark climate conferences placed in it. He said there were 34 international climate conferences held over 50 years and half a dozen major agreements.. “and they don’t produce a dimple on this rising curve of carbon dioxide emissions.” I couldn’t help wondering what makes us so optimistic and that the trend will suddenly stop. What on earth is this conclusion? Are we an intelligent species or not? That version of optimism is more like wishful thinking, which decides what works and tried to force that idea to work, even if it doesn’t.
The Paradox of Post Doom
Recently I have been reading the book edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read Deep Adaptation:Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos and then my YouTube threw up a talk by a fellow I had never heard of. At first I thought he was a fraud. He was talking about writers I had never heard of. Then as we went further into his extraordinary presentation, I paid more attention. He said the decline was already happening and eco-anxiety was normal and healthy. He is Rev Michael Dowd and has a website http://postdoom.com. In his podcast section he lists his interviews with people like Shaun Chamberlin, Jem Bendell, Rupert Read, Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, Steve Keen, Joanna Macy, Matt Slater, Steve Bhaerman, Paul Ehrlich and many, many others, asking them the same set of questions about the future.
I have now listened to several of these interviews. Rupert Read, who often uses the sentence, “This civilisation is over” gave a very thoughtful interview. He related the story of how in 2018 he wrote a piece and sent it on email to several colleagues, asking them not to send it on. They replied saying it was worth publishing but he was too apprehensive so published it under a pseudonym. Once again a good response. He said he had a huge surge of energy to live a good life of service to others after he went through the door of gloom and grieving. Michael Dowd and he agreed on this. It’s a huge paradox. You don’t have to get stuck in a state of despair or cynicism, you don’t need to get paralysed. Once you stop fighting the denial, once you resist falling into the trap of compulsory optimism and hope, relief sets in and you emerge energised. The unnamed unease is gone. It’s a relief to face reality and the energy you spent in denial or false optimism is now available to use.
Similarly Jem Bendell was reluctant to put his thoughts out there in public for a start and got a fair bit of flak from his 2018 article Deep Adaptation.
So what is the alternative now? Face the coming decline of our civilisation and live a good life on this wonderful planet.
Politicians will chose economic growth not climate action
My observation is that the demand for economic growth will always trump meaningful action to halt the decline of the ecosystem on which we depend. It happens within Council’s departments and in Government departments and in Cabinet. It happens when global fossil fuel corporations, fixated on quarterly reports and profits, rationalise their way to ever greater extraction of oil and gas and coal. It happens because of our systems of government seem powerless to stop them. It happens after every international climate conference.
Why? Many years ago I did some quick research on the interlocking directorships of the major companies in New Zealand – banks, utilities, energy, transport, alcohol companies and so on and I came reluctantly to the conclusion that these few men were more powerful in many ways than the government.
The societal demand for compulsory optimism
Insisting on optimism in the face of so much evidence is maladaptive.
I am not sure where this will all take me. All I know is that during lockdown I am standing in awe at the miracle of spring, of emerging life. Just because I have somewhat given up hope that all my work and the work of countless others over the last decade or two on climate change will come to anything it doesn’t mean I will stop working. There is life on the other side of contraction and collapse. There are plenty of victories that can be won. There is community to build, there is my garden to tend to, there are people to care for and who care for me. There are things in our culture to save. All civilisations eventually die and homo colossus will not be spared. But what will rise from our mistakes? What lessons will be learned? How many groups will emerge and where? Will they be more humble, ecologically sustainable and equitable?
I am no more pessimistic today than I was last year. I smile as much. I cook just as many tasty meals. I laugh and sing still. It’s just that I believe it is time to face the fact that we are spoiling our home and it is probably irretrievable. Our civilisation is dying and the die-off will not be equal or fair. It’s time to grieve and emerge from the grief stronger and more loving.
As Ronald Wright observed in The Short History of Progress, civilisations like Easter Island and the Maya civilisation often fail because of some combination of overpopulation, environmental degradation, warfare, shifting trade routes and long drought. He argues that all successful cultures eventually fall victim to “progress traps” – technological adaptations which all allow excessive collection of resource wealth leading first to luxury, and then inevitable collapse. These cultures, before they collapsed, showed evidence of the development of social elites who contributed to the environmental abuses – another example of how our human species is so fragile. But whereas in all of these cases the collapse was local this time it involves the whole planet.
Now if you will excuse me there is new growth on my tamarillo tree to marvel at.