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Beyond Dangerous: the Politics of Climate

Kevin Anderson is the Deputy Director for the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester. Here is a talk he gave in 2011. Unlike many who talk about climate science, Anderson sticks closely to the numbers. Those in a hurry might skip to 15:00. Anderson shows, starting around there what it would take to actually achieve the goals of the Copenhagen Accord, limiting Global average temperature rise to 2° C. He shows several graphs each with a number of scenarios that take into account the uncertainty of the science. Anderson has examined every scientific assessment he could find. He has selected three different peak emissions dates. All scenarios require a drastic reduction of emissions from peak at rates never achieved before even as economies collapsed, for example in the former Soviet Union.

In this video Anderson still contemplates the possibility of emissions peaking in 2015. Later peaks require steeper reductions. The last graph shows what would happen if we wait until 2025 to peak emissions. Some of the more pessimistic scientific assessments would no longer be possible, their threshold carbon budgets having already been exceeded. Those that still have something left require an immediate end to all fossil fuel use except for the production of food.

Later in the video (around 46:00) Anderson does offer some suggestions for reducing emissions quickly without affecting, too much, our way of life. Only rapid reductions in depand have any chance. These reductions need be taken by only 1% of the population and their sacrifices in doing so would be minimal. They would result in little or no reduction in life quality and a large reduction in emissions. Why have they not been done? That they haven’t, I think, demonstrates that the 1% have a lot less control than they think. Their actions must fit tightly within the growth paradigm. Using more is the reward for success.

These measures would have offered and still offer quick early reductions, but not enough to stave off a rise in world average temperature of 2° C. That would require some pain. If emissions do not peak by 2025 all scientific assessments predict the impossibility of staying within 2° C, as the Copenhagen Accord requires.

Earlier in the video Anderson points out that the assessment of dangers that produced the threshold of 2° C as a safe threshold in 1992 were redone later with more data and scientists discovered that these effects occurred at much lower temperatures. So even if we could keep temperature rise to 2° we would be beyond dangerous, hence the name of the talk.

The effects of 4° C on agriculture, heat waves, and the like would make  civilization impossible, and perhaps also human life.

Anderson still believed, in 2011, that there was a remote chance to keep the global average temperature rise under 2°, but the chance was slight and is growing slighter. The rates of reduction necessary even with a 2015 peak were far beyond anything ever achieved, and later peaks require even steeper reductions. Anderson was speaking in 2011. Even then virtually all scenarios required carbon capture with technology that does not yet exist. Of course the 2015 peak is no longer possible. Obviously, the situation is more desperate now.

This should put into perspective the coming Presidential election between Clinton and Trump. Does either of them have any idea of the gravity of the situation? Is there a remote chance that either has the intellectual equipment to understand it? I am not talking here about native intelligence, whatever that is, but habits of thought. Clinton looks for the way the wind is blowing. Trump polishes his own star. Will either of them be able to see beyond a world of class and personal interests and actually bite down on a fact? The people they talk to have known for 25 years what was happening and have done nothing to reduce emissions. How would implications from the actual facts enter those minds? Think of Clinton and Libya; Trump and his failed casinos. Has either shown the capacity for making good, or even sane, decisions? Could either of them even begin to organize what has to be done? Could Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump find a way to convince the entire nation to change its ways, its very thought processes, so drastically? Could either actually lead anybody? Are there people who actually believe in either of them? Wouldn’t either rather take the easy popular choice of doing nothing and letting the good times roll as long as they can? Is it sensible to pay so much attention to these two when we should be doing something about humankind’s immanent demise? Given the total disaster that either of them presents, and the utter irrelevance which one we choose, does it make sense for a serious person to give them another moment’s thought?

Anderson complains that scientists self-censor because they cannot fund bad news and don’t want to be its messenger. But it seems to me that he is guilty of the same fault when he offers hopeful answers that affect our lives little.

Only someone who knows the danger and cares about the future of humankind could make the last ditch effort to try and keep global average temperature rise to 2°C. For that effort cannot be made without total upheaval in how we live. We are not going to do this with a simple painless adjustment of the knob. We cannot use hydrocarbon fuels for energy, period. But within the global economic system using fossil fuels is a rational choice. Poorer developing countries will use fossil fuels in addition to whatever alternatives show up. If laws in richer countries forbid the use of fossil fuels, their price will drop and that will only make them that much more attractive elsewhere. The highly-competitive growth-seeking global economy will use every scrap of every resource in time.

So the economy predicated on growth must go, as Anderson recognizes, if civilization, and perhaps human life, is to survive. The conclusion is as clear as noon day, and anyone who denies it is just afraid to look. If growth is the end, burning fossil fuels will be a rational choice. No law, no tax will prevent it so long as economic growth, meaning cars, air conditioning, airplanes, big houses, and other energy intensive comforts, is the goal– as it is, everywhere, now.

It is only when we grasp this astonishing fact that we can even begin to think about our predicament. Really, the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as truly lamentable as that choice is, is also irrelevant. Obviously neither has a clue, and neither has much familiarity with the implications of the truth. Both Clinton and Trump, each in her/his way, have signed on to the use of language to deceive and persuade, that is rhetoric, rather than to tell the truth. It would be wasting one’s breath to try to explain it to either of them. Could you imagine Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump embracing a no growth policy? They would both be looking for an angle, as they always do. Habits of thought are real.

To save ourselves we need to change everything. Growth is in our language, our thought, our DNA, our very idea of time. Growth seems like an advance in linear time. We can’t just go nowhere forever. Growth, as the essential human purpose, will force us to burn carbon based fuels. This should all be obvious but crosses the threshold of allowable thought for many people. Time must again become a spiral, and success measured in lack of change, lack of growth, indeed shrinkage, year to year. Only that kind of about face will give a remote chance of human survival. And of course even then the chance of remaining below 2° C is remote. The implications are enormous but not too hard for anyone to see in outline. Of course nobody wants to see it. For how is such a momentous change to be effected? And if it is not, what do we do then?

Well, there we are. If whoever we elect gets a second term (Bush did, Obama did) that will take us to 2025, where, if the use of fossil fuels is still rising, all scientific projections for keeping below 2° C end. I suppose the hope for human survival then would hang upon all scientific assessments having been wrong and Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, whoever we have elected, having been right.

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Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College.

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