Can humanity solve climate change, and if so, how?

by Bernice Maxton-Lee

It’s a few seconds to midnight, and the climate clock is ticking. Some say it’s already too late to stop climate change, that no matter what we do now, the emissions already in the system have kicked off chain reactions that will take us to 450 parts per million (ppm). That’s the tipping point of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations that will trigger runaway climate change. That means Game Over.

Patrick Chappatte (There’s no way back | Chappatte.com)

But if you aren’t ready to give up all hope, buy a Ferrari, and party like it’s 1913, what kind of solutions might actually help? What can humanity do, in the scant 8-10 years left to prevent runaway climate change?

Here are some brief ideas, which are discussed more at length here and here.

  1. The approach needs to be radical, but also simple enough (without being simplistic) that people can get behind it.
  2. It needs to address the whole system, not individual elements of it.
  3. It needs to strike at the heart of the problem: fossil fuel combustion.
  4. It needs to take care of the human realities: first and foremost, livelihoods.

Radical but simple: think ‘fish and loaves’

Innovative ideas like bitcoin for Brazilian coffee farmers sound sexy, but extends the complexity way beyond what is helpful or necessary. But working out how to scale up a fossil free energy source for German farmers, who are deeply dependent on vast amounts of diesel to plough, seed, fertilize and harvest their fields, take animals to market, anesthetize the animals before slaughter, process the meat…. that’s an immediate fossil-based problem that needs a solution. It also needs governments to support farmers while they make those expensive and uncertain transitions. Funky financing and new currencies won’t solve climate change, and they also aren’t necessary. There’s plenty of money out there – we just need to change our ideas about who gets it, and how. You don’t divide up a cake by hiring a private equity manager. Jesus didn’t have bitcoin, but I’m told those fish and loaves got shared out just fine.

Think of the whole system

What if I ride my bike to work? Or stop using plastic bags? How about solving deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil? It’s true that many tiny trickles, coming together, make a deluge. But if dams, and destruction, and extraction are allowed to go unchecked, those tiny trickles dry up before they have a chance to grow. That’s the problem with putting too much focus on individual elements of the global system, while ignoring the phenomenal weight on the other side of the ecological scales. And while all those individual elements are important, they are tiny in comparison to the megalithic industrial activities of energy production, global transportation, or construction.

Strike at the heart of the problem

What about offsetting carbon emissions? This is the idea that planting trees, increasing wetlands, or reducing emissions in one area, can essentially buy credits somewhere else, balancing out the global carbon budget. But like many supposed solutions cooked up by economists to problems of physics, the maths doesn’t add up. Global construction is a fossil fuel nightmare – all that concrete, steel, and glass produce terrifyingly large volumes of greenhouse gases. Cement, iron, and steel produced 10% of global emissions all on their own in 2016. Manufacturing and construction added in another 12% of total global emissions. No amount of offsetting can negate those carbon emissions – and remember we have 8-10 years to reduce emissions by 60%, and 18-20 years to come to a full stop.

Take care of the human realities

So should we be heading down to the Ferrari dealership, or lying in a darkened room, waiting for the end to come? It’s tempting at times to feel despair, but there is still hope – if we stop wasting energy and empathy on ‘solutions’ that will only delay our dwindling chances of success. We don’t need to reinvent finance, or relocate to Mars, or help some cool start-ups invent an app-based carbon neutralizer that will allow us all to go on burning fossil fuels and poisoning the biosphere. We need to face reality, and start making fundamental changes to our societies, economies, political structures, and ultimately our value-systems. That sounds like a lot, but it starts at the basic level of livelihoods. And that needs to start with humanity – seeing people not as expendable economic inputs, but, well, as humans.

And from a position of humanity and of empathy for the biosphere, basic solutions need to be found to shut down construction and all the sectors and functions that feed into it, from low-cost labourers on building sites in Indonesia, to fabulously well-paid executives in powerful cement companies in Switzerland. Oil and gas extraction, processing, and combustion needs to stop, completely. Manufacturing of short-life consumer products, the kind that are designed to break or become obsolete within a few years, must stop. All the people who work in those sectors will need financial and emotional support, and alternative positions that make them feel okay about their lives.

None of this needs to happen through the market. Actually, it cannot happen through the market, just like a fox cannot run a care home for senior chickens. The market is geared to maximise profit. Trying to change that incentive to make it more responsible, with all the powerful vested interests that don’t want it to change, will take far longer than the 8-10 years we have to stop atmospheric carbon emissions reaching 450ppm.

It does not require 7.7 billion consumers to consciously buy-in as informed decision-makers. Most ‘ordinary’ people are too busy and distracted just trying to get on with their lives, make a living, stay alive in many cases, and get through every day in one piece with a little dignity. If solutions can be created that don’t seem to add complexity or burden, or require them to make informed decisions, that support them in those lives they’re trying to live, that will make for a smoother and more successful transition. It would require a small number of very determined, visionary change-makers who fully understand the problem and who are not motivated by financial profit.

This will sound terrifyingly Marxist to those raised in the post-1980s free market world. More terrifying, even, than a world of wildfires, killer heatwaves, and regular pandemics? Is it more terrifying than melting ice caps, disappearing winters, droughts in the tropics, wave after wave of migration, and water wars? Perhaps. We will see. The jury is out.

The specific steps needed to cut emissions. What societies need to do (www.graememaxton.com)

What different groups should do: How to save the world – To Do List (www.graememaxton.com)

Bernice Maxton-Lee is co-author of A Chicken Can’t Lay a Duck Egg: How Covid-19 can solve the climate crisis and author of Forest Conservation and Sustainability in Indonesia: A Political Economy Study of International Governance Failure.

Understanding Carbon Budgets

I am personally not a friend of carbon budgets, as they convey the impression that there is a safe limit to carbon emissions. This is simply not true at this point: every additional ton of CO2 entering the atmosphere will make us more miserable.

More importantly, the often-quoted carbon budgets for a specific temperature only give us certain probability of staying below. A recent publication by Knutti et al contains a nice summary of carbon budgets, which I have turned into the plot below.

The probability of staying below +1.5°C of global function as a function of cumulative carbon emissions from 2020 onwards, i.e. from the beginning of 2020. We currently add roughly 40 Gt of CO2 annually.

The blue curve represents the probability of staying below 1.5°C of warming as a function of cumulative carbon emission, starting from the beginning of 2020. If we want a 50% probability of staying below this limit, the carbon budget was 443 Gt. If we want an 80% probability, the remaining carbon budget was 0 Gt and for a 95% probability, the budget was -307 Gt.

In other words, there is already far too much CO2 in the atmosphere. Even if we stopped emissions today, there is still no guarantee that we will stay below 1.5°C.

BTW, below is my latest update of the Keeling curve, including data up to the beginning of May, 2021. Obviously, the are still no signs that the carbon concentration will peak anytime soon, as the annual rate of increase is still increasing. Put differently, we are heading for the precipice and have not yet decided to take the foot off the accelerator. Applying the brake is still completely out of the question.

Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere from the Scripps CO2 Program. The dashed line is a simple fit with a second order polynomial and serves as a guide to the eye. We are currently adding roughly 2.4 ppm annually.

When sheer stupidity becomes a governing principle

One of my favorite moments in human history was when Alan Greenspan, the legendary chairman of the Federal Reserve, had to admit in front of a congressional committee that he never really understood how the economy works (you can find the quote and the reference here). BTW, if you are under any illusion that mainstream economists learn from their mistakes, I encourage you to google the word bitcoin. Or read this article by Paul Krugman.

There is no wealth on a dead planet. Cartoon by the brilliant Patrick Chappatte.

Another person who apparently never understood anything is William T. Nordhaus, recipient of the The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2018. The point is not that his conclusions about managing climate change were all wrong. The real outrage is that they were based on completely ridiculous assumptions, as pointed about by Professor Steve Keen in a paper appropriately titled “The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change”.

Anyway, it turns out that the reason for why we almost lost the only habitable planet in the known universe is down to a most unfortunate accounting error by mainstream economists. Professor Keen recently gave a short interview with CNBC (‘War’ footing needed to correct economists’ miscalculations on climate change, says professor), which is well worth watching.

I will try to be more polite in my choice of words than professor Keen, but my conclusion is the same: Classical economic theory cannot be applied to climate change, because we are facing a situation where all societal structures could break down. If you believe that I am exaggerating, I encourage you to read “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” by Hannah Arendt. Her starting point is a quote by Winston Churchill: “Scarcely anything, material or established, which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure, or was taught to be sure, was impossible, has happened.” She then points out that “We – at least the older ones among us – have witnessed the total collapse of all established moral standards in public and private life during the 1930s and 40s.” My father was already alive the last time society collapsed. There is no reason to be believe that this could not happen again. As a matter of fact, it is already happening in many parts of the world.

Only if we are prepared to accept the magnitude of the challenges facing us, will we have any chance of responding in an appropriate fashion. Basing our decisions on an already discredited theory does not seem very clever.

Furthermore, I believe that Global Climate Compensation is a realistic proposition for halting climate destruction, ensuring global stability, and alleviating poverty.

Und sie dreht sich doch!

Liebe Mitmenschen, liebe Klimastreikende

Hier ein kleines Update zu meiner Präsentation «Auf ein Wunder zu hoffen ist keine Strategie» mit einem Vorwort von Galileo Galilei (vgl. Denken ist erlaubt). Der Auslöser dafür war nicht nur die Wiederaufnahme der Klimastreiks, sondern auch der fast komplette Realitätsverlust der offiziellen Klimadebatte. Alle reden von der Notwendigkeit, die Treibhausgasemissionen möglichst schnell zu senken. Gleichzeitig wissen wir, dass sie bis im Jahr 2030 kaum sinken werden, womit wir dann auch das Zwei-Grad-Ziel aufgeben können. Der Grund ist, dass eine schnelle Absenkung der Emissionen bei gleichbleibender oder sogar steigender Wirtschaftsleistung eine physikalische Unmöglichkeit darstellt, wie ich in meinem Vortrag zeige. Wir könnten genauso gut die Erfindung des Perpetuum Mobiles zur offiziellen Klimastrategie machen.

Leider ist der Vortrag etwas zu lang geraten aber er enthält einige interessante Informationen. Eine PDF-Version der Vortrages ist hier.

Auf ein Wunder zu hoffen ist eben keine Strategie. Wenn wir also jetzt nicht bereit sind, die wirtschaftliche Notbremse zu betätigen, gibt es keine Hoffnung mehr. Um mit Hannah Arendt zu sprechen, stehen wir dann wieder vor dem «totalen Zusammenbruch aller geltenden moralischen Normen im öffentlichen und privaten Leben», ausgelöst durch das banale Versagen der Eliten, das Richtige zu tun.

«Was eben wahr ist allerorten
Das sag ich mit ungescheuten Worten.»

Übrigens habe ich letzte Woche den Klimaplan von avenir suisse erhalten. Besten Dank dafür. Ich werde den Bericht unvoreingenommen und mit grossem Interesse lesen und bei Gelegenheit einen Kommentar dazu verfassen.

Mit nachhaltigen Grüssen,
Henrik Nordborg

PS: Ich rede in meinem Vortrag über die globale Situation. Für die reichen Industrieländer ist die Situation viel einfacher: Je schneller sie sich von fossilen Brennstoffen verabschieden können, desto besser. “When in a hole, stop digging”. Etwas Selbstversorgung wäre beim globalen Klimakollaps vielleicht gar nicht schlecht. Sie haben die Technologie und die finanziellen Ressourcen dafür.

Energie und Umwelt!

Frau Bundesrätin Simonetta Sommaruga und viele andere Politiker*innen haben sich vor zwei Jahren von der Klimajugend beeindruckt gezeigt. Das ist schön und gut, aber eigentlich sind es die gewählten Politiker*innen, die sich um die Zukunftsstrategie der Nation kümmern sollten, und nicht die Schulkinder.

Ich bin auch von der Klimajugend und ihrem Climate Action Plan begeistert. Sorgen macht mir eher die Nicht-Klimajugend. Wir dürfen nicht vergessen, dass die grosse Mehrheit der Jugendlichen sich anscheinend gar nicht für ihre eigene Zukunft interessiert. Wenn Studierende unserer Hochschule eine Nachhaltigkeitswoche organisieren, sind leider nur einige Studiengänge vertreten. Die grosse Mehrheit der Studierenden scheint nicht verstanden zu haben, dass die Welt sich verändert hat. Das ist übrigens an der ETH nicht anders. Ich finde dieses Verhalten merkwürdig. Der Generalsekretär der UNO nennt es selbstmörderisch. Wer nicht bereit ist, auf einem sinkenden Schiff mit dem Pumpen auszuhelfen, ist nicht besonders schlau.

Die Studiengänge für Enerige- und Umwelttechnik aus der ganzen Schweiz haben ein Video gedreht, um auf die spannende Karrieremöglichkeiten in diesem Bereich aufmerksam zum machen. Wenn wir in diesem Tempo weiter ausbilden, schaffen wir die Energiewende nie.

Wir stehen vor gigantischen Herausforderungen. Ein Teil der Lösung wird sicher der komplette Umbau der globalen Energieinfrastruktur sein. Die Frage ist nur, wer die ganze Arbeit machen soll. Wer heute Energie und Umwelttechnik studiert, erwirbt nicht nur das richtige Wissen für die Zukunft, sondern hat bereits am Ende des Studiums das richtige Netzwerk für eine erfolgreiche und sinnstiftende Karriere.

Die Generalversammlung und der Frühlingsanlass von swisscleantech vom 3. Mai hat wieder gezeigt, wie schnell sich die Wirtschaft verändert. Die Mitglieder dieses Wirtschaftsverbandes haben mehr als 400’000 Angestellte und das Netzwerk wächst schnell. Die grösste Sorge dieser Firmen ist inzwischen, dass sie nicht genug qualifizierte Arbeitskräfte finden werden.

Übrigens, es lohnt sich, die Agenda 2030 von swisscleantech zu lesen. Sie fasst sehr gut zusammen, was wir tun müssen.

Wenn der Wind der Veränderung weht, bauen die einen Mauern und die anderen Windmühlen.“