The Great Pause Week 63: Mr. Anderson’s Warning
“Our recipes for a prosperous future are a prediction of what society will be forced to consider.”
Recently I had the good fortune to listen in on an interview with one of my favorite climate scientists, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndell Centre. I have often quoted Anderson in these pages and I profiled him in my books, The Paris Agreement (2015) and Burn: Igniting a New Carbon Drawdown Economy to End the Climate Crisis (2019). In this interview of May 13, 2021, Anderson brought home these salient points:
The political challenge is an order of magnitude different than from what most people would interpret from The Paris Agreement.
If you want to hit the 1.5°C target, the world would need to stop emitting any CO2 from about 2029…. You have to draw a straight line from 2022 to 2029 and eliminate all CO2 emissions — that would just barely keep you in the budget.
I think all of climate change pushes our imagination to the extreme so the one thing I will say is that there are no non-radical futures. The future is radically different from the present either because we make huge, rapid shifts in reducing our emissions with profound shifts in our society, or we hang onto the status quo for a few more years whilst we lock in huge shifts from the impacts of climate change. So the future is radically different — there is no neat way around that.
I can’t see any way we can do it by 2029. But I think we could hold to 2 degrees of warming, which is deeply depressing because that’s huge levels of impacts. … We just had a paper last year where we actually unpacked what would (attaining) 2 degrees C look like… and for the wealthier parts of the world they’d need to be at zero CO2 by somewhere around 2035. Now that might be a bit later for some of the less wealthy countries in that group. If you‘re Poland or somewhere like that it might take a bit longer. If you’re Switzerland or Luxembourg or some of the wealthier parts you’d be a bit earlier than that… But that is only if you start now. Because it is a cumulative problem, every year we choose to fail, or every year our reduction rates aren’t the rates that are necessary, then the end date comes closer to us.
If we start in the wealthier part of the world, we’d need 10 percent reductions every single year starting from now. But given that it takes us 2 or 3 years to reach 10 percent, even if we were serious about it, which we’re not, because our emissions are so high in the near term, the 2 or 3 years it takes us to get to 10 percent actually means you need to aim more likely at 20 percent per year by 2030 to get to zero by 2035.
For the poorer parts of the world there is about a 15 year lag for them to get to zero emissions… by about 2050. But they will still need to peak their emissions by about 2025. Now, no-one is talking about that. China is saying, “Well we might peak by 2030,” India by 2050.
Even Covid was only 6 to 7 percent. You would need a couple of those per year…. It is only a metaphor and like most metaphors it quickly falls apart. But it does show us that we can make rapid changes in our society if they are necessary.
We have been cautiously but definitively informed by numerous scientific conferences and publications now that both of the following statements are true:
- In the business as usual scenario presently being followed, Earth is on track to a global average temperature increase of 3.7 to 6.9 degrees C by the end of the present century.
- At any temperature above 3 degrees, no organized human civilization will be possible. Agriculture will not work. Our sweat glands will not cool us outdoors (they fail above 40 to 50°C, depending on individuals). Superstorms will wreak havoc on wind farms, solar arrays, and hydroelectric dams. Fires and floods will take down our cities.
“There is no suggestion that all humans would die and all life would go off the planet,” Anderson said, “and there is no suggestion that that would be the case, but it would be a devastatingly different world than where we are today and it also wouldn’t be stable.”
There might be no stopping at 4°C. It looks like that if you head up into that temperature that you are starting to kick in lots more feedbacks. Four degrees is a temperature threshold that you are passing through as you head towards some new stabilization at a much higher level. Anyway, at every level it is something we should be avoiding.
We are into the third phase of Odum’s pulsing cycle, which he termed, “descession.” Now the system goes through a phase shift. Instead of maximizing growth, it adapts to resource limits by optimizing. Waste is converted to circularity. “To sustain the emergy per person requires rapid decrease in population” (as we are seeing). Reduced resources and negative factors of crowding cause the population to decline until resources begin to accumulate again.
Population triggers feedbacks when it becomes large. One feedback is that wealth accumulation allows gradual liberation of some oppressed classes — wage slaves, immigrants, women, minorities — who then have aspirations to wealth and power that are best furthered with fewer children. Another is the innate desire for space and a modicum of privacy, a yearning to touch and be part of the natural world, and having fewer children is viewed as a means to escape one’s crowded, impersonal conditions.
H.T. Odum advised that the hair shirt approach — asking people to change their diets and drive or fly less — is both unnecessary and counterproductive. He thought that reducing luxuries and closing the wealth gap was the best course.
To simply limit resource use is not a useful policy since it goes against the maximum empower principle of self-organization, which dictates the maximization of energy and resource flows through all hierarchical levels of a system for it to be sustainable. But limiting luxury and wasteful uses allows resources to go into productive functions and is adaptive. Thus, measures to limit unnecessary horsepower stimulate the economy, whereas taxing or limiting useful resource uses is not a viable option, since it forces the system to decrease its resource base, affecting use and misuse.
For Odum, the megalithic, petroleum–dominated, capitalist systems were just another ecosystem but with greater infrastructure investment and energy throughput. He urged societies to reorganize for descent, which with adequate preparation could be just as prosperous as ascent. He envisioned that a shift in the nature of capitalism would be part of that reorganization.
When there are resources to develop, rapid competitive growth of a few enterprises prevails. In ecosystems, this is called eutrophic overgrowth by weeds. In the economy, this is growth capitalism. Those developments with investment loans outgrow those without the more rapid start.
During growth, capital earns high interest as enterprises pay back loans and dividends. People with money have large incomes for which they did no work for the system. After growth, unearned income decreases. A system is more efficient if money is paid for real work.
If the principles (emergy, maximum empower, pulsing paradigm) are correct and we interpret their application correctly, then our recipes for a prosperous future are a prediction of what society will be forced to consider. If civilization is to progress, it has to learn to advocate the patterns that these principles predict. In the process, a growth culture will be able to change smoothly into a culture of descent. However, history records many systems that crashed instead. Showing a good way down is a call for everyone to think ahead and plan.
Family planning is merely part of the process as we round the bend at the Anthropocene apogee and start to progress towards something resembling the Holocene we left. It will not be that, it will be different, but these coming decades will take us there as we learn to steward rather than spend, gather rather than disperse, and contract rather than expand. The alternative is unthinkable.
As it is, we probably went further in this end of the cycle than we should have and needed to be cornering much sooner. The wealth we squandered was biodiversity, something that takes not centuries to recover, like soils and forests, but millions of years. We need to curtail that profligacy quickly and save what remains.
Last week the Biden Adminstration took a remarkable step that very few noticed. The President issued an executive order directing all agencies of government to conduct a sweeping climate risk assessment. While that may seem common sense — something many banks and insurance companies already do — it is actually a first step towards Odum’s maxim of pricing-in true costs. The Federal Government’s “climate risk exposure” will be assigned a dollar figure for the first time, and in fine detail.
While the opposition party has so far been quiet about this, it is unlikely their major donors in the coal and gas states will let it go unnoticed. Last week, when the International Energy Agency flexed its muscles on climate change, the industry pushed back:
No new oil and natural gas fields are needed in the net-zero pathway.”
— Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency
[The above statement] “…not only runs entirely contrary to the main reason that the IEA was founded, namely, to promote secure and affordable energy supplies to foster economic growth, but it also seems to forget the pivotal role hydrocarbons, mainly oil and gas, play in the global economy.”
— Cyril Widdershoven, international consultant and commentator, on Oilprice.com
Widdershoven will never grok the pulsing cycles of ecosystems. He is not paid to. But the rest of us can.
Bardi, Ugo, The Seneca Effect, New York: Springer Publishing (2017).
Bardi, Ugo, Sara Falsini, and Ilaria Perissi. “Toward a general theory of societal collapse: a biophysical examination of Tainter’s model of the diminishing returns of complexity.” BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality 4, no. 1 (2019): 3.
Catton Jr, William R. Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse: Humanity’s Impending Impasse. Xlibris Corporation, 2009.
Odum, Howard T., and Elisabeth C. Odum. “The prosperous way down.” Energy 31, no. 1 (2006): 21–32.
Schröder, Enno, and Servaas Storm. “Economic Growth and Carbon Emissions: The Road to “Hothouse Earth” is Paved with Good Intentions.” International Journal of Political Economy 49, no. 2 (2020): 153–173.
Steffen, Will, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes et al. “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 33 (2018): 8252–8259.
Tainter, Joseph, The Collapse of Complex Societies. London: Cambridge University Press (1988).
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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