Global warming versus economy: Economy wins
versus economy: Economy wins
Some news that I have been expecting for the past few
years arrived in the last month. It was not unexpected news; rather, it was
something that has been clear to me and to many others for a long time. It is
simply this; dangerous global warming is irreversible and unstoppable.
Perhaps I should clarify that statement. Since at least
1995, it has been accepted that two degrees of global warming is the point of
‘dangerous warming’, the ‘tipping-point’, when global warming becomes
self-sustaining and self-magnifying. At this point, Arctic permafrost unfreezes
and methane vents into the air, carbon dioxide absorption by land and ocean
ecosystems reduces and what is called ‘runaway’ warming begins. At this point
what we do will mean little and large natural changes begin increasing the rate
and severity of global warming. If we act now, and in unity across the world,
it is possible that we can hold global warming below the critical two degrees.
James Hansen, one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on
global warming, has recently been putting forward arguments that the ‘tipping
point’ is actually 1.8 degrees, and there is mounting evidence to support that.
Permafrost is warming faster than expected and releasing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) five times faster than previous
estimates; sea levels are rising faster than projected; Arctic ice is
retreating faster than expected; glaciers and icesheets are more unstable and
reactive than previously thought.
But back to the news I expected. However, there are some
preliminary concepts to introduce.
The first is committed warming; global warming is not
instantaneous, absorbed heat takes a while to move through the global system.
There is almost two-thirds of a degree of warming to come on top of the warming
we have already experienced, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases
overnight. For example, because of the warming that has happened, and is
committed, sea levels will continue to rise for centuries. We cannot
stop this. Committed warming exposes ‘carbon offsets’ for the lie and the sham
The second is residence time. Carbon dioxide does not
disappear overnight, whatever we do. Carbon dioxide emitted today will stay in
the atmosphere for over a century. The oceans are a major absorber, or ‘sink’,
of carbon dioxide. However, absorbing carbon dioxide causes the sea to acidify
and with the present amount of carbon dioxide in the air the oceans will
acidify for the next century or more, causing enormous changes to the marine
environment. We cannot stop this because the carbon dioxide is in the air, now.
This is also the reason why technological solutions by putting carbon dioxide
into the deep sea to ‘sequester’ it will not work. Do that and we kill the ocean; which choice do you
To try and prevent the tipping point of two (or 1.8)
degrees researchers, since about 1995, have produced emission scenarios for the
reduction of human-caused carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is not
‘offsets’, this is reduction – not releasing carbon dioxide – and because of
committed warming and residence time, reductions have to start right now
(commonly described as within the ‘next decade’).
Over the last decade or so, each time the necessary reductions
are calculated, because of increased emissions, residence time, and committed
warming, the depth of the reductions we must make have increased every few
years: 40%; 60%; 80%. Each year of inaction and growing carbon emissions
increase the cuts and the logical conclusion is that, at some point, we would
have to reach 100% reductions simply to stabilise the carbon dioxide
concentration in the atmosphere. By doing this it is possible to limit the
temperature changes we are experiencing; hopefully keeping them below the
This is the first piece of news. The most recent research
shows that to prevent the dangerous two degrees of global warming, global
industrial society must move to a zero emission of carbon dioxide within the next
fifteen years. A 90% reduction, if it is reached by 2050, will see the
two-degree level of global warming reached shortly thereafter. This means that
every nation in the world must stop emitting carbon dioxide; stop burning oil
and coal within a decade or two.
The second piece of news follows naturally from the
first. Because of residence time, committed warming, politics, global economic
demands, current emission trends and the amount of carbon dioxide already in
the air, the two-degree ‘tipping point’ is unavoidable. As is the 1.8-degree
level of dangerous warming, which is becoming the more likely ‘tipping point’.
We are driving global warming but we are the passengers in climate change.
No economy without environment: Economy wins
We are in the middle of the sixth extinction of life on
Earth. We are the cause and animals and plants and ecosystems are dying off at
a rate not seen since the last great extinction event some 65 million years
ago. It has been pointed out time and again that our existence depends on
healthy, thriving forests, rivers, oceans and all the other ecosystems that
sustain us. Yet we are tearing them apart for consumer goods, lifestyle, and
profit. Recent research showed that we consume at least 25% of the productivity
of the entire planet, but this did not take into account the damage done by
pollution and species loss. To that we can add the damage done by global
If we are to feed ourselves and change to biofuels to
slow global warming we will have to almost double agricultural land. This means
razing the Amazon to start with. For example, if France were to convert to biofuel
to fuel its vehicles, about 97% of its agricultural land would have to be
devoted to biofuel crop production. The answer is, of course, to source biofuels
from places like Malaysia
which means cutting down their rainforests. The other answer is to stop using
In other words, to find an alternative to the oil that is
the source of global warming we would have to clear and convert almost half the
world to agriculture, taking the last great forests and making them into farms.
Unfortunately, this will destroy thousands of species and have a dramatic
worsening effect on global warming, but it is happening. Malaysia is enormously expanding its biofuel
industry and Australia
is licking its lips. Last year the head of Uganda’s Forest Authority was
forced to resign when he opposed rainforest clearing to make way for biofuel
plantations. ‘Every Ugandan can plant a tree but not every Ugandan can put up a
factory’, commented the Ugandan presidential secretary, with stunning ignorance
of forest ecology.
This is the first problem of global warming, before the
heat itself. In terms of what is called the ‘ecological footprint’ we are
already consuming more than one Earth. In terms of sustainability some research
published last year showed we are entering what is called ‘ecological
overshoot’; we are close to consuming more than the ecosystems of the Earth can
provide. It may not look like it but research from around the world, from
neurotoxins in whales to jellyfish populations, is indicating that we are
reaching the limits of sustainability. Then there is global warming and
Our world depends on oil and coal. From plastics to
medicine, to clothes, to food, to transport, to industry, oil and coal is the
root from which we grow. It is also the cause of global warming. To combat
global warming we have to reduce the consumption, to stop, avoid and not use
oil and coal. The Australian politician, Bob Brown, said recently that if Australia is
committed to preventing global warming it should stop exporting coal. For Australia, this
is not an economic option. The alternatives, however, consume the Earth and put
us into ecological overshoot.
Quite simply, we will not stop using oil and coal as the
basis of our society. Our lifestyles, wealth, power and success depend on oil
and coal. This leads us to another truth. Since our industrial society is
fuelled by oil and coal and this will not change, we will not stop using them
until they are gone. If we reduce our use now, it simply lengthens the time
until we have burnt them all up. Pandora’s Box has been opened.
Although most nations have said that they are ‘concerned’
and want to avoid the two degrees of dangerous warming there has been no
action. The Kyoto Protocol was signed but there are two caveats about this. The
first is that signatory nations have not made changes and Kyoto is not enforceable. For example, since
it signed the Kyoto Protocol, Spain
has increased by 50% its greenhouse gas emissions.
Last year Canada,
which is feeling the changes in the Arctic environment, had their environment
minister from the Liberal (Conservative) party announcing that, ‘Canada remains strongly committed to Kyoto’. That same year,
that same Minister said that Canada
is breaking its commitment for reducing carbon emissions under Kyoto. ‘We cannot meet the target. We have
ample evidence that this is not feasible.’
Prime Minister John Howard has been clear that Australia
will not agree to Kyoto
because it will ‘economically disadvantage’ that country. For the same reason,
the USA has ignored Kyoto. At the recent
political gabfest in Sydney,
only ‘aspirational’ targets were discussed.
The Kyoto Protocol has not slowed global warming. It
expires in 2012 and there is no new agreement about real reductions in
emissions. The main carbon emitters refuse to sign up and speak only of
aspirations. The strongest reductions are between 20% and 50%; targets only
made by a minority of nations, not by the major carbon dioxide emitters, and
are mainly ‘aspirational’. There are no firm commitments and none approach the
90% to 100% reductions that are now required globally, by all nations, to
prevent two degrees of warming.
The second caveat is developing nations. They are
essentially exempt from the Kyoto Protocol carbon reduction targets. Yet they
are enormous sources of carbon dioxide emissions, mainly for the benefit of
countries like America, Australia, and
regions like the European Union. Some recent research estimates that at least 25% of
carbon emissions from China
are caused by the export industry.
The factories that make the throw-away plastic toys you
get free with a McHappy meal; the latest season in fashion sunglasses, the
mobile phones; each one essential for our health and well-being.
More than that, last year China said in clear terms that it
will not reduce carbon emissions until it has ‘modernised’ and its people enjoy
a high standard of living. That standard is America, with about three percent
of the world’s population but almost the highest level of global warming
emissions. People the world over aspire to live like the Americans; to have
‘McMansions’ with an en suite and TV in every bedroom, ducted heating, a large
four-wheel drive recreational vehicle to drive to the take-away food
has made the same commitment to raising the standard of living for its more
than one billion people. Who can blame them? Who can blame Brazil? Iran? Chechnya? Who
can blame Mark Latham’s ‘aspirational classes’? Who can blame Malaysia and Indonesia for profiting from the
biofuel demand by vastly increasing the clearing of ‘their’ rainforests?
This is another facet of global warming. To mitigate it we
must reduce, not increase, our use of oil and coal. This means that the ‘have
nots’ will do without and never reach what the ‘haves’ (Americans) enjoy; and
even the ‘haves’ must make a dramatic reduction in their lifestyles. Think on it. At it’s simplest an 80% reduction in carbon
emissions translates to your car. If you drive to work five days a week (ten
trips to and fro) an 80% reduction means that you drive to work only one day
every week. C’est impossible!
From your car, go to oil. A resource like gold, its price
is bound to its value at the mine.
To reduce carbon emissions means a reduction in
extraction. Would a company like Shell, a company with a multi-billion dollar income greater than
the country it is based in, accept a cut in its profit? Would the economically
and politically powerful mid-East oil countries, like Saudi Arabia,
reduce oil production by 80%? If it did, how would that affect your world?
This, in part, is what the economist Stern meant by
‘transitional shifts’ in his famous report to the UK Government. For our best
economic and environmental future we have to make tough changes now to avoid
worse problems when the climate changes in the near future. We will not make them because we will be ‘economically
There is an additional factor: Population. The population
of the world is projected to rise by 50% over the next four decades, from the
present 6.6 billion to over nine billion by 2050. These people will need growing economies to provide
employment, food, healthcare, housing, transport and consumer goods. An economy
based on oil and coal. If we reduce oil and coal burning, wind back production
and consumption to minimise global warming, where are the jobs? The cars? The
houses? The iPods?
This is also the trap of ‘alternatives’. Nearly every
alternative presupposes maintaining current consumption. We replace coal-fired
electricity with nuclear power and we have as much electricity as we need to
keep our current lifestyles now and into the future. It is not about reduction.
Most alternatives try and say that we can keep our present consumer lifestyles
but be ‘clean and green’. Most of these technologies are still decades away.
Ten years ago, ‘clean coal’ was a decade away. It is still a decade away and
closer examination reveals that ‘clean coal’ is simply normal coal but with
about 25% less carbon dioxide, which has been removed and somehow sequestered
(perhaps in the oceans?). A closer look reveals that operating coal-fired power
stations cannot be adapted to the proposed new technologies; they must be
replaced with new power stations, a task that will take many years. So will
building nuclear power stations to replace coal. Years that we do not have,
especially when China is building a new coal-fired power station every two
weeks to feed the needs of its growing economy.
Consider biofuels. I said earlier that France would
have to reserve 97% of its agricultural land to fuel its car and trucks. Try
this thought experiment. Imagine that Australia needs 50% of its arable
land to be self-sufficient in biofuels. One half of the land to feed its
citizens the other half to feed its cars. Where does the export market for
wheat and other foods fit in? Now imagine this: There is a long and harsh
drought, don’t laugh, it might happen. Agricultural production falls by twenty
per cent. Now Australia
does not have enough food for its people, enough fuel for its cars. What
It may be tempting to dismiss these ideas by saying that
technology will solve these problems. But think on this; what is this
technology based upon? The industries it needs to make these solutions? The
simple answer is oil and coal. To convert the world to solar power, we need an
enormous effort by oil- and coal-based industry to make, transport, install and
maintain this ‘alternative’. With a growing population aspiring to live like
the Americans how do we meet the demand?
Will the American air force, navy and army stop using oil? The military
of any nation?
Intellectual property rights, held as patents, cripple
these technological alternatives. Corporations, such as BP, own the innovations
and inventions behind wind power and solar power and they see global warming as
a business opportunity for growth and profit. To achieve the fastest possible change
around the world the best solar- and wind-power technology should become
patent-free, available to everyone to make and make cheaply but this means that
these corporations would have to forego their profit. In a world where drug
companies are not willing to allow life-saving drugs, like HIV drugs, to be
made cheaply and generically across the world it is unlikely that BP will give
away its solar power technology to help minimise global warming.
The technological solution is not a solution. Recent research
indicates that the greenhouse gases emitted by growing and producing biofuels
will cause more global warming than is prevented by the reduction in petrol
burning. We emit billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year by burning the
solid carbon that is stored in the ground. The ultimate aim of technology is to
still to burn the carbon but catch the carbon dioxide and put it back into the
Earth, and our consumer lifestyle continues unchanged. We don’t know how to, or
have the capacity to, put billons of tonnes of gas back underground (or in the
ocean) and the most honest answer is to stop digging it up and burning it –
leave it in the ground.
Consider these final questions about biofuels: Are any
biofuels sufficiently refined (fractionated) to fuel aircraft engines? If we
were to grow biofuels for land transport and use half the land on the world,
how much more must we grow to fuel air transport and the lifeblood of
international trade; cargo ships?
Cargo ships carry more than 90% of global trade; coffee
from Brazil, coal and live sheep from Australia, cars from Japan, shoes from
Indonesia, prams, televisions, and children’s toys from China, the list is
endless. There are more than 20,000 new cargo ships being laid down around the
world, each one being built to serve the growth in the global economy of
production and consumption. All are built around oil-fuelled engines. The
question is when and how these large ships are converted to zero emission
propulsion, given that sea travel is responsible for a significant amount of
global emissions, indeed, more carbon dioxide than is emitted by the UK.
In a recent speech, Condoleeza Rice said that we must cut
the ‘Gordian knot’ of economy and global warming. The powerbrokers of the world
are aware of this dilemma. Oil and coal are intertwined into our present
lifestyles and in global warming. The Americans will not give up their
lifestyle and the worlds billions aspire to that lifestyle. It is not possible
to give up the oil economy and keep this lifestyle as it is. It is not possible
for the Europeans, Chinese, or Indians to live like the Americans and prevent
dangerous, destructive, global warming and environmental destruction. It is not
possible to live the American lifestyle and keep the forests, oceans, ecosystems,
and the animal and plant species that share this world with us. It is not
possible to keep this consumer lifestyle for everyone by being ‘clean and
Furthermore, every attempt at change is met with
resistance At the last IPCC meeting, five of the seven Saudi Arabian delegates
were representatives from the petroleum industry and they spent their time
lobbying to remove connections and information linking oil consumption to
global warming from the final IPCC report. The giant oil company ExxonMobil has
worked for years attempting to deny the science of global warming. The carbon
dioxide emitting oil, coal, and car industries are now, as George Monbiot
points out, engaging in a wide-ranging and comprehensive campaign of
‘green-washing’ their activities.
the chief executives of major mining and coal companies are founding members
and supporters of influential organisations that deny global warming and oppose
measures to reduce emissions. Organisations like the ‘Lavoisier Group’ whose
members have the ear of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard.
What do I owe the future? I’ll be dead then
In technical terms this relates to what is called
‘intergenerational equity’ (preserving and enhancing what we have now to pass
on the environment and life we enjoy to our heirs) and to ‘temporal myopia’
(acting now for our benefit without regard to the future). Both are bound up in
what is called the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Simply put, the ‘commons’ are what
we all enjoy and benefit from but we do not own as private property and so do
not value highly. Examples are the air, water, ecosystems and ocean
In the classic example of the tragedy of the commons the
case is given for an area of land. This land is ‘common’: Open to use by a
group of cattle herders. Only a certain number of cattle can graze the land
before it becomes overgrazed and degraded. For each farmer, the benefit to
themselves by adding a cow to their herd is greater than their loss to
The environmental damage caused by one extra cow is
shared among all the users of the commons. The individual benefit for each
farmer is to maximise their profit by running more cattle, the result is the
eventual destruction and loss of the common resource for all. This model has
been seen time and again in global fisheries and fishers resist closures of
‘commons’ into marine protected areas, both locally and internationally. Now
consider global warming.
The air we breathe is another clear example of a global
commons. We all share the effects of degrading this commons (by pollution such
as smog or carbon dioxide) but individually (or nationally) it is to our benefit to maximise our
return from the industries and lifestyles that pollute it.
To that paradigm we add the quality of time. As I
mentioned earlier, global warming is not instantaneous. You and I will not feel
the greatest effects of how we live now. Our children, grandchildren and the
environment in the future will pay the cost of our lifestyles. In philosophy this
places our industrial society in the subjectivist existence. Since our
existence depends on how we are now and because there is no ‘now’ when we are
dead, there is no obligation to any future generation. They are on their own,
in the world they are born into, a world we are not responsible for.
This is temporal myopia. Since we owe nothing to the
future (‘our children’) we are free to maximise our benefit from what we have
now. In the tragedy of the commons, the cattle herders have no problem. As
economic rationalists it is logical to overgraze, the benefits (profits) go to
them and the degraded, ruined, land is a loss that is shared across future
generations – but it is not their problem; future people are, indeed, strangers
There is a large body of work that examines this aspect
of our way of life and clearly ties it into the market economy and corporate
ownership, each of which leads to a disconnection from the continuing existence
of environmental quality and a sense of place with the environment. A corporation’s sense of self is not connected to its
resource, but to its profit and that can be anywhere. In market parlance this
is seen as ‘diversification’, and it is good.
Similarly our lifestyles are disconnected from how they
are produced; we do not see, do not feel, and do not experience the damage done
to the environment by the things we buy or consume. We live like corporations;
in the now, present benefit, present profit, and the future is nothing to do
with us. If we do think of the future it is that our children will have better
cars, houses, lifestyles and a better education so that they can afford these
better things; a better ‘now’. We value our immediate kin, but will not sacrifice our
lifestyle for the rapidly disappearing rainforests and the orangutan that make
them their home, nor will we make a personal sacrifice for a drought-stricken
The antithesis is the ideas revolving around
intergenerational equity; basically foregoing part of what we have now so that
our children can enjoy what we have. Passing on quality of life to our future
without maximising present benefits. The World Heritage Area in Tasmania is
closed to exploitation because it is special and should be preserved as the
‘heritage’ we give our descendants, but that status may not last. The Great
Barrier Reef is a national park because it is special to us and we want to
preserve its values for our present and for our heirs, but it is unlikely to
survive global warming. Will we stop using oil for our children’s world?
The world’s leaders are saying that they are concerned,
that the ‘Gordian knot’ between economy and environment must be cut and a
‘clean and green’ solution found; one that keeps our present lifestyles but is
‘carbon neutral’. But in a time when all nations must act together and actively
reduce emissions, every nation is acting to preserve and enhance its own
lifestyle, wealth and power. Remember Australia, a country that will not sign
Kyoto because it will be economically disadvantaged. Remember the decisions
that lead to the tragedy of the commons.
There is a clear reality here. Politicians around the
world will say they are ‘concerned’ about global warming and will ‘act’ to
prevent it. To act now means to reduce our lifestyle, wealth, and growth;
something we will not like. To act now is to help future generations enjoy a
better, healthier, environment and world. However, for politicians and
ourselves, there is no benefit in acting for future generations, our concerns
are in the here and now and to act for the future is a self-sacrifice that no
country, corporation, politician, or we are prepared to make.
The real inconvenient truth is this: Global warming
cannot be stopped, we will not give up our oil- and coal-based consumer society
and will struggle and aspire to live like the Americans, we will continue to
strive to maintain this lifestyle and ‘adapt’ while the environment suffers. We cannot sustain our industrial society, our current
levels of consumer affluence, but we will try; and we will consume this
The seas will continue to rise, the oceans acidify, and
drought and storms will worsen. The polar bear will go, the sea turtle, the
albatross, the proud Tuatara of New Zealand, countless species and environments
will vanish, economies will stress, governments will fail and our children will
live in a different, but not better, world.
There is a ray of light: We grew up, and live, in a rich
consumer society and will continue to do so. We will live to see the bite of
global warming but we will maximise our personal benefit and then we will each
reach the end of our days, after that, it doesn’t matter. So it goes.