As one of the dozen or so Australian lead authors on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report, currently underway, I have a deep appreciation of the speed and severity of climate change unfolding across the planet. Last year I was also appointed as one of the scientific advisers to the Climate Council, Australia’s leading independent body providing expert advice to the public on climate science and policy. In short, I am in the confronting position of being one of the few Australians who sees the terrifying reality of the climate crisis.
The world’s readiness for the inevitable effects of the climate crisis is “gravely insufficient”, according to a report from global leaders.
This lack of preparedness will result in poverty, water shortages and levels of migration soaring, with an “irrefutable toll on human life”, the report warns.
Trillion-dollar investment is needed to avert “climate apartheid”, where the rich escape the effects and the poor do not, but this investment is far smaller than the eventual cost of doing nothing.
The study says the greatest obstacle is not money but a lack of “political leadership that shakes people out of their collective slumber”. A “revolution” is needed in how the dangers of global heating are understood and planned for, and solutions are funded.
SA: This is a really powerful argument about the need for ending all fossil fuel use. Not “net-zero” but “real zero.” The implications of the first sentence alone for all planning and design disciplines is enormous.
ABSTRACT: To halt global warming, the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by human activities such as fossil fuel burning, cement production, and deforestation needs to be brought all the way to zero. The longer it takes to do so, the hotter the world will get. Lack of progress towards decarbonization has created justifiable panic about the climate crisis. This has led to an intensified interest in technological climate interventions that involve increasing the reflection of sunlight to space by injecting substances into the stratosphere which lead to the formation of highly reflective particles. When first suggested, such albedo modification schemes were introduced as a “Plan B,” in case the world economy fails to decarbonize, and this scenario has dominated much of the public perception of albedo modification as a savior waiting in the wings to protect the world against massive climate change arising from a failure to decarbonize.
But because of the mismatch between the millennial persistence time of carbon dioxide and the sub-decadal persistence of stratospheric particles, albedo modification can never safely play more than a very minor role in the portfolio of solutions. There is simply no substitute for decarbonization.
SA: Prof Sir Ian Boyd, the UK government’s chief environment scientist almost gets it right in his retirement interview with the BBC. But then he does what everyone in positions of responsibility right now does, and waffles….badly. There are hints of the truth in this interview, but his closing tells people it will be ok: nothing will really have to change.
“Emissions are a symptom of consumption and unless we reduce consumption we’ll not reduce emissions.”
“Emissions won’t be reduced to Net Zero while ministers are fixed on economic growth measured by GDP, instead of other measures such as environmental security and a relatively stable climate”
“We need to make major technological advances in the way we use and reuse materials but we (also) need to reduce demand overall – and that means we need to change our behaviours and change our lifestyles.”
“We certainly won’t be able to travel so much as we have in the past, so we have to get used to using modern communications methods.”
And the, he brings the waffles, bigly:
“It will very rarely come down to a direct message like ‘sorry, you can’t buy that but you can buy this’. But there will be stronger messages within the (tax) system that make one thing more attractive than the other.”
If it will “rarely” come down to such direct messages, and we will have to rely on the tax system, then I’m pretty sure we’re fucked. And he was coming so close to delivering the ultimate truth about the post carbon world: everything changes, in every single way.
Stories like this make me scream, silently: breathless reporting about such and such city, nation, corporation going “carbon neutral!” This sounds so cool! So progressive! S0 painless! So easy!
But in reading this particular story – like many others – it becomes clear that all the carbon neutrality refers to is electricity generation and some transportation. “The carbon-neutral goal, as in other cities, only includes emissions from transportation, electricity, heating, and cooling (not, for instance, the footprint of the items that people buy that are made elsewhere and shipped in).”
Well of course, that’s the fucking easy part! In most countries, electricity generation provides approximately 20% of total energy use. The other 80% is always fossil fuels.
There is no shaming in this critique. Copenhagen’s goal is extremely admirable and should be replicated immediately by every city in the world.
But the carbon accounting listed above accounts for less than half of all carbon emissions that make the city run. There is no accounting for the emissions in building materials and construction, embodied emissions, infrastructure maintenance, all consumer products, most food, air transportation to and from the city, etc, etc.
And anyway, we must get to BELOW ZERO, not “carbon neutral.” Even if we were to succeed in becoming “carbon neutral” as a civilization, all it would mean is that we would stop the atmospheric CO2 concentration from rising. But there are already too many negative impacts from the CURRENT CO2 level. Therefore, we must be working on REDUCING CO2 levels. And this story absolutely shows that Copenhagen is not doing that. At best, they are helping to slow the increase. That ain’t enough.
Thus, it is misleading reporting to state that Copenhagen will be a carbon neutral city in 6 years. And it is deceptive to not investigate ALL the city’s emissions. This is irresponsible because it gives people the impression that becoming zero carbon/negative carbon really wont be that hard. That it won’t mean much change in their lives. But it will, it will. Far better for stories like these to report on the great strides, but also allow for an honest accounting of ALL carbon emissions associated with the city and what zero carbon will mean to it.
Things seem to carry a terrible freight these days. Swimming at Nielsen Park, in Sydney harbour, an ancient river valley filled by melting Ice Age waters that stabilised seven thousand years ago, I find myself wondering how high the water will rise again when the ice caps melt. ‘Every time I see a bird or bee these days,’ a friend says when we are talking on the phone, ‘I find myself wondering if it’s the last.’
The sense of loss is everywhere as each day brings news of unfolding disaster. Vanishing creatures are only part of a suite of ongoing catastrophes we are starting to recognise under the umbrella of the Anthropocene. Heating of the atmosphere and the rise of CO2, loss of forests, disruption of weather systems and sea currents, pollution from plastic and micro-plastics, and ocean acidification; together, these have accumulated the force of geological change, pushing us out of the stable patterns of the 12,000-year-old Holocene and into a human-influenced new epoch.
And yet within the small span of one’s own experience, it’s hard to measure causes and effects, let alone how fast things are turning. As the world becomes more unstable in the grip of vast and all-pervasive change, it’s difficult to discern exact chronologies, relationships and meaning. In this unfolding context, small things take on terrifying and uncertain correlations. It’s as if, I found myself thinking, as I scoured the water for fish, that in trying to see into the future we’re returning to the dread speculation of the past. We’ve entered a new age of signs and wonders.
As I see things, there are three broad possible futures that lie ahead:
This civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally, as a result of climatic instability (leading for instance to catastrophic food shortages as a probable mechanism of collapse), or possibly sooner than that, through nuclear war, pandemic, or financial collapse leading to mass civil breakdown. Any of these are likely to be precipitated in part by ecological/climate instability, as Darfur and Syria were.
This civilisation (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation(s), as this one collapses.
This civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself deliberately, radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.
Any of these three options will involve a transformation of such extreme magnitude that what emerges will no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation: the change will be the kind of extreme conceptual and existential magnitude that Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of ‘paradigm-shifts’, calls ‘revolutionary’. Thus, one way or another, this civilisation is finished. It may well run in the air, suspended over the edge of a cliff, for a while longer. But it will then either crash to complete chaos and catastrophe (Option 1); or seed something radically different from itself from within its dying body (Option 2); or somehow get back to safety on the cliff-edge (Option 3). Managing to do that miraculous thing would involve such extraordinary and utterly unprecedented change, that what came back to safety would still no longer in any meaningful sense be this civilisation.
That, in short, is what I mean by saying that this civilisation is finished.