Pulp Fiction on Paper

COP26 promise to ‘end deforestation by 2030’ is not worth the pulp and paper it’s written on

by Bernice Maxton-Lee

World leaders at the climate meeting in Glasgow are celebrating their agreement to stop deforestation by 2030, specifically naming Indonesia, Brazil, and Democratic Republic of Congo. The pledge is being hailed as the meeting’s first major deal, but in reality it is little more than a cheap, gaudy toy. If it weren’t so pathetic, it would almost be funny that this is being suggested as something new, clever, or remotely useful.

The idea of protecting forests as ‘the lungs of our planet‘ is old wine in new bottles. Indonesia’s former President Yudhoyono invoked the term back in 2012. Forest conservation has been a favourite of climate discussions for decades, as an easy, low resistance way of tackling climate change. It looks like a no-brainer: trees suck up carbon emissions and do lots of other things humans find useful, so why not kill two birds with one stone, and keep the trees standing? But we know perfectly well too, that for 20 years there has been no reduction in deforestation or emissions. In fact, both have risen.

The rate of deforestation is increasing globally (Source WRI and Bernice Maxton Lee)

An Executive Director at Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator, which produced a report to COP26 promoting the Amazon rainforest as an important building block in a climate agreement, said this deal is ‘a really important step’ to keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C, but that ‘the devil is in the detail’. Actually, the devil is in the whole idea in the first place, but economists and finance evangelists will now have their fun with discussions about how best to put a financial value on the carbon content of forests, and the biodiversity and ecosystem services they supposedly provide to the global economy. None of this is new, and none of it has even begun to make a dent in the real source of greenhouse gas emissions, despite years of refinement and practice.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol presented forest conservation as a magic bullet for mitigating climate change. Since then, billions of US dollars have been spent in rainforest countries on legal reforms, governance improvement, and transparency drives (all of which, by an amazing coincidence, are keystones of neoliberal free market ideology). Certification programmes (of which there are almost too many to count) have sprung up to encourage responsible consumer engagement in palm oil, soy, and timber markets (regulated by the very companies that produce those goods), conservation enclosures have been funded by big energy companies (who naturally support any alternative to a restriction on fossil fuel use), and national payments to rainforest countries have been promised (and sometimes made) by apparently beneficent wealthy industrialised countries like Norway (much of whose wealth comes from fossil fuel extraction and export). Yet despite all these activities (we might even say because of them) global emissions have risen at terrifying rates, and forest cover has fallen.

Deforestation is not the most important source of global long-term emissions, and nor are they now the most reliable carbon sinks. As the climate warms, forests are now turning from carbon sinks to carbon contributors. Their ability to absorb carbon is fading, thanks to greater heat and water stress. Many are also dying. If we actually want to prevent runaway climate change, there is a much quicker and more effective way to reduce emissions, which is to stop burning fossil fuels.

The carbon concentration of the atmosphere is not only rising, it is rising at an accelerating rate (Source: Henrik Nordborg)

But we shouldn’t expect any new ideas when the old ones still have such appeal to an audience that doesn’t want fundamental change. The deforestation agenda is, in fact, a massive smoke screen, designed to detract attention from the real emissions problem. 

The real cause of the emissions driving climate change is the fossil fuel combusting global economic engine. Global climate change is caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, and most greenhouse gas emissions come overwhelmingly from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes like cement production and chemical and metal processes. The vast majority of these have historically been emitted by countries in the Global North since the Industrial Revolution, which makes US President Joe Biden’s rant against China at the opening of COP26 especially nauseating. The rise in emissions from developing and later developed countries like India and China follows the model of industrialisation, economic growth through large-scale production, and compulsory participation in global trade prescribed by the Global North. But that essential context is omitted from the hypocritical finger-wagging lectures of rich countries.

Pretending to save the world’s rainforests is simply a more cost effective policy for the Global North, and an easier concept for their economists, businesses, politicians, and voters to accept, because it effectively means they have to do nothing. This way, rich countries get to maintain their status quo, and dictate the terms of engagement, while shirking the consequences of their historical and continuing actions.

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.

Das Klima wartet nicht!

Es geht wieder los! Nach fast drei Semestern Lockdown und sonstigen COVID-Massnahmen freut es mich sehr, dass die Nachhaltigkeitswoche an der OST in Rapperswil wieder vor Ort stattfinden wird. Einige engagierte Studierende sind dabei, das Programm der NHWR im Frühling 2022 zusammenzustellen. Weitere Infos werden auf der Webseite veröffentlicht werden: Rapperswil – Sustainability Week Switzerland.

Ich bin von den Studierenden eingeladen worden, mit einer Neuauflage meines Klimavortrages die Menschen wieder wachzurütteln. Dies mache ich selbstverständlich gerne, da ein Aufwachen nottut. Diesmal werde ich aber vor allem über Lösungen reden.

Öffentlicher Vortrag an der OST:

Globale Klimakompensation

Wie wir die Klimakrise in zwei Schritten lösen könnten, und warum wir es besser tun sollten.

Der Vortrag gibt einen Überblick über den Zustand des Planeten, erklärt wieso bisherige Lösungsansätze für die Klimakrise nicht nur versagt haben, sondern auch zum Scheitern verurteilt sind, und präsentiert eine realistische Vision für die Zukunft.

Zeit: 18. November 2021, Türöffnung um 17:00
Ort: OST – Aula, Oberseestrasse 10, 8640 Rapperswil

Link zur Anmeldung

Flyer zum Ausdrucken

Der Vortrag hat drei Teile:

Die Fakten sind schnell erzählt: Fast 30 Jahre nach der ersten Klimakonferenz der UNO steigen die Treibhausgaskonzentrationen in der Atmosphäre schneller als je zuvor, weil immer mehr fossile Brennstoffe verbraucht werden. Von erfolgreicher Klimapolitik zu reden, wäre nicht nur vermessen, sondern verlogen.

Das Problem ist, dass die nationale und globale Klimapolitik auf der falschen Annahme basiert, dass neue Technologien fossile Brennstoffe irgendwann überflüssig machen werden. Diese Annahme war schon vor 30 Jahren sehr optimistisch und heute wissen wir, dass sie definitiv falsch ist.

Wenn das Grundproblem verstanden ist, wird die Lösung einfach: Globale Klimakompensation verändert die Spielregeln der globalen Wirtschaft dahingehend, dass Klimazerstörung wirtschaftlich keinen Sinn mehr macht.

Die Menschheit kann noch gerettet werden, aber wir haben nur eine letzte Chance und weniger als 10 Jahre, um dies zu tun. Die Zeit für Verzögerungen, Ausreden und endlose Debatten ist definitiv vorbei.

Ich freue mich auf zahlreiches Erscheinen und eine angeregte Diskussion.

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.

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.

The Flaw in the Plan

One of my favorite moments after the financial crisis in 2008 was when Alan Greenspan, the legendary chairman of the Federal Reserve, had to admit that he did not understand how the economy works. Here is a part of a transcript from a congressional hearing on October 23, 2008:

ALAN GREENSPAN:

Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to — to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not.

And what I’m saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I’ve been very distressed by that fact.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN:

You found a flaw in the reality…

ALAN GREENSPAN:

Flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN:

In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working?

ALAN GREENSPAN:

That is — precisely. No, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS AND THE ROLE OF FEDERAL REGULATORS, October 23, 2008. The full transcript is available here.

Oops! To misquote Mike Tyson slightly, everybody has a world view until he gets punched in the face. Unfortunately, with great power comes great responsibility, and mistakes made by generals, presidents, CEOs, or the chairmen of the FED have consequences.

It is dangerous when people base their thinking on a flawed understanding of the world. People who believe in UFOs, witches, or weird conspiracy theories should not be allowed to run things. Before the scientific revolution and the discovery of microbes, people used to believe in the spontaneous generation of life. The proof was simple: if you left a piece of meat out in the sun for a while, it would soon be crawling with maggots and worms.

Today, a majority of people, including a large fraction of the ruling class, seems to believe in the spontaneous generation of money. Generations of school children have been taught how to calculate compound interest, but nobody asked where the money was supposed to come from.

In a stunningly absurd “press conference”, which lasted for approximately 90 seconds, the soon to be ex-president of the USA revealed to the world the limits of his mental abilities.

The White House, November 24, 2020

Never mind the 270’000 dead from COVID-19, the fact that millions of Americans have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and the melting polar caps. As long as the Ponzi-Scheme commonly referred to as the stock market continues to rise, everything is fine.

One of my first textbooks in physics contained an poignant warning: “Never mistake the model for reality!” The illustration was a person devouring the menu in a restaurant. Mainstream economics is a theory about a model. Unfortunately, reality seems to have moved on so that the model does not apply anymore.