GLOBAL WARMING AND THE END OF GROWTH

Earth
by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, World War 4 Report

Two landmark scientific reports on climate change have just been published. File them under "H" for "horror."

The first one is a digest of the most recent findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was formed in 1988 to advise the United Nations on all scientific information relevant to the implementation of the UN Climate Change Convention. The Panel periodically publishes a summary of the latest climate science for policymakers, which is subject to line-by-line approval by the 195 participating governments.

The report (PDF), published in September, says that:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased… Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

According to the document, the planet will continue warming under all scenarios: "Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped."

The IPCC is 95% certain that climate change is not the product of some natural cycle but the result of human actions, mainly the burning of fossil fuels. Those who might be scientifically challenged should know that 95% certainty is the gold standard among scientists.

Following hot on the heels of the IPCC report, a University of Hawaii study directed by ecologist Camilo Mora published in Nature magazine in October reached some terrifying conclusions. "Unprecedented climates will occur earliest in the tropics and among low-income countries, highlighting the vulnerability of global biodiversity and the limited governmental capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change," says the study's abstract. 

"[W]ithin 35 years, even the lowest monthly dips in temperatures will be hotter than we’ve experienced in the past 150 years, according to a new and massive analysis of all climate models," according to a University of Hawaii press release (PDF). "The tropics will be the first to exceed the limits of historical extremes and experience an unabated heat wave that threatens biodiversity and heavily populated countries with the fewest resources to adapt."

The UK Daily Mail summarized the study thus:

Apocalypse Now: Unstoppable man-made climate change will become reality by the end of the decade and could make New York, London and Paris uninhabitable within 45 years, claims new study

Research from the University of Hawaii claims that man-made global warming is now inevitable

The Earth is going to dangerously heat up over the next 50-years

The tropics will bear the brunt of the disastrous temperature increases of as much as seven-degrees-centigrade

Millions of people will be displaced, millions of species will be threatened with extinction

Major cities such as New York and London will fight to survive the rise in temperatures the likes of which humans have never experienced before.

It's important to point out that warnings about this global disaster have been issued for decades now. As early as 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich mentioned the greenhouse effect in his Malthusian classic The Population Bomb, in which he said: "At the moment we cannot predict what the overall climatic results will be of our using the atmosphere as a garbage dump." In 1979 a US National Research Council Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon and Climate reported that "the more realistic of the modeling efforts predict a global surface warming of between 2°C and 3.5°C, with greater increases at high latitudes." Later that year, the World Climate Conference of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) concluded (PDF) that "it appears plausible that an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can contribute to a gradual warming of the lower atmosphere, especially at higher latitudes.... It is possible that some effects on a regional and global scale may be detectable before the end of this century and become significant before the middle of the next century." Then in 1985 the WMO and the UN Environment Program jointly released an "Assessment of the Role of Carbon Dioxide and Other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impacts" which concluded that significant warming is to be expected in the 21st century and that at least some warming was already inevitable.

In June 1988 NASA scientist James Hansen delivered devastating testimony to the US Congress (PDF), in which he informed that atmospheric warming caused by human activities had already measurably affected global climate. That same month the WMO held a "World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security" in Toronto (PDF). The hundreds of scientists gathered concluded that the human-caused changes in the atmosphere "represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe."

As you can see, we were warned. If some people learned of human-induced climate change rather late or spent years doubting it was real, it was due to a deliberate strategy of the oil industry. As early as 1994 I was reporting on corporate front groups that were formed and funded by oil corporations to confound the citizenry, the press corps and the US Congress about the reality of climate change. The strategy worked. We wasted precious years discussing whether global warming was real or not, while the scientific evidence became increasingly overwhelming, and we ended up having less and less time to take action. Even nowadays, there are right-wing groups in the USA that claim climate change is a fiction that forms part of a sinister plot for world domination, while others turn to irrational and pseudo-scientific theories, like the so-called "chemtrails."

The recent reports by the IPCC and the University of Hawaii come just as the ever-growing global energy demand runs right into the energy crunch predicted by geologist M. King Hubbert six decades ago—call it "Hubbert's peak" or "peak oil." In concordance with Hubbert's prediction, the easily extracted and refined petroleum is running out. Energy companies are responding to this situation with demented schemes that imply extreme risk, capital cost and environmental destruction:

* Mountaintop removal in the Appalachias

* Shale oil and tar sands mining in Canada

* Fracking for natural gas all over the USA

* Deep sea oil drilling, as in the case of Brazil’s Petrobras oil company exploiting the "pre-sal" oil deposits in the Atlantic Ocean. The kilometers-deep waters over these deposits are deeper and more dangerous than those where the recent Deepwater Horizon disaster took place.

Usually, information like this begets waves of support for nuclear energy as an alternative, but the Fukushima disaster has been pretty much the death knell for this energy option. According to Harvey Wasserman in The Progressive last month:

There are some 1,300 intensely radioactive fuel rods weighing some 400 tons stuck in a spent fuel pool 100 feet in the air at Fukushima 4. They are brittle to the point of crumbling… If coolant is lost, the resulting conflagration could release 15,000 times more radiation than came from the bombing of Hiroshima. Fukushima is less than 200 miles from Tokyo.

The removal of the Fukushima 4 fuel rods could mark the most dangerous moment in human history since the era of atmospheric atomic testing and the nuclear confrontations between the US and USSR. A mishap that compromises those rods or some of the thousands of others sitting nearby could release clouds of fallout that would affect the entire planet.

I do not particularly enjoy shaking my index finger while saying "I told you so," but journalists like Karl Grossman and anti-nuclear advocates such as Wasserman and myself had been warning about just such a disastrous scenario for decades.

We are likely to see more Fukushimas in the future, even if nuclear power is phased out worldwide today. Nuclear reactors need perpetual cooling, and so does the used nuclear fuel. If the cooling system on a nuclear reactor or a spent fuel rod depot fails and can’t be gotten back on in time, the ensuing explosion and fire would be a worst case scenario: unprecedented amounts of radiation would be released and eventually blanket the whole planet. Terrorists know this already.

So, what do we do then?

It seems all roads lead to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, but the road ahead is not so simple. Most renewable energy proposals rest on fantastic and unreal assumptions, according to experts like Canada's Vaclav Smil and Australia's Ted Trainer.

They both point out that most renewable energy proposals grossly underestimate the amount of capital and time required for the changes necessary to reduce our fossil fuel dependency. This should not be surprising. Renewable energy entrepreneurs are capitalists, no less so than oil company executives, and every capitalist tends to, at least at an unconscious level, to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.

Let it be clear that Smil and Trainer do not oppose renewables. According to Smil, writing in IEEE Spectrum last year: "The quest for non­carbon sources of electricity is highly desirable… But this can happen only if planners have realistic expectations."

For his part, Trainer advocates an ecologist and frugalist philosophy he calls "The Simpler Way," which he presented in his 1985 book Abandon Affluence, and more recently in The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, published in 2010. Trainer warns that renewable energy sources are not feasible in an economic system based on growth for its own sake, in which demand for energy and raw materials is constantly on the rise, and in which society is trapped in a spiral of ever increasing consumption and waste.

Trainer advised, writing in Resilience last year, that "we can and should transition to 100% renewable energy, and... we could run an idyllic society on it… but only if we scrap the commitment to economic growth, market domination, globalisation, capitalism and affluent lifestyles, and instead adopted the basic principles of The Simpler Way."

"A radically different 'Simpler Way' could be viable and attractive. This vision embraces frugal lifestyles, small and highly self-sufficient local economies, and participatory and cooperative ways in an overall economy that is not driven by growth or market forces," he wrote this year for Synthesis/Regeneration. The proposal is perhaps utopian, but definitely worth discussing.

We must talk about stopping the growth of the global economy, with the same zeal and passion that we talk about economic justice and equity. Fortunately, degrowth—decrecimiento in Spanish and decroissance in French—is not a new proposal. It has already been developed and proposed for years by leading figures in the field of ecological economics, such as France's Serge Latouche, Catalonia's Joan Martinez-Alier, and USA's Herman Daly, among others. More recently a couple of new voices have entered the fray, economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor, from the UK and Canada respectively, who are inviting us to consider prosperity without growth.

The ecological critiques of economic growth come not only from economists but also from political groupings, such as the Greens/Green Party USA. Only months ago, the GPUSA published "A Deep Green Alternative," an economic and political manifesto which questions the compatibility of economic growth with environmental protection and renewable energies. It points out that at an annual 2% growth rate: "In 200 years the economy would be 256 times what it is now. This would flood the world with toxins, collapse biodiversity, and cause uncontrolled climate change. Suggesting that solar and wind power can meet not only all household energy needs but 100% of current industrial needs is a fantasy. Suggesting they could do so for an economy that is 256 times as large is silly."

The solution to the global ecological and energy impasse cannot be reduced to the replacement of bad technologies with good technologies, no matter how environmentally sound these might be. Without radical changes in economic models, renewable energy sources of energy will amount to barely more than temporary patches that will not prevent the collapse of the natural and social systems that make human life possible.

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Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, investigative journalist and environmental educator. He has a Master's Degree in Social Ecology from Goddard College, and is a Research Associate of the Institute for Social Ecology and a Fellow of the Oakland Institute. Since 2004 he keeps a blog called Haciendo Punto en Otro Blog. He is on Twitter as @carmeloruiz.

This article also appeared in Spanish on América Latina en Movimiento (ALAI)

Photo by FlyingSinger

NoteGreens/Green Party USA has nothing to do with presidential candidate Jill Stein. She is with the Green Party of the US (GPUS), a wholly unrelated political organization.

From our Daily Report:

Study: global economic growth 'isn't possible'

World War 4 Report, Jan. 25, 2010

Peak oil apocalyptoids: eating crow yet?
World War 4 Report, March 11, 2013

Fukushima: the cover-up continues
World War 4 Report, April 14, 2013
 

'March for Life' from Fukushima to Hiroshima, as Japan revives reactors (on reactor No. 4)
World War 4 Report, June 17, 2012

From Deepwater Horizon to Fukushima: your choice of planetary ecocide!
World War 4 Report, April 20, 2011

Oil shock: denial in the New York Times (on Paul Ehrlich's predictions)
World War 4 Report, Aug. 23, 200