Climate Destruction – when do we pull the emergency brake?

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

(quotation often attributed to Abraham Lincoln)

Well, it appears that many people have finally realized that they are being lied to. This time, it was a young girl in Stockholm who – much like in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes – pointed out the obvious: if we continue with business as usual, it really does not make sense for young people to go to school, invest in an education, or put money in pension funds. The school strike started by Greta Thunberg has received quite some media attention and inspired young people all over the world. I can recommend you all to read her statement.

ClimateChangeTimeLine

Oops! It turns out that Limits to Growth was right after all. Unlimited economic growth is not possible on a finite planet and we have now reached or exceeded many of the planetary boundaries. Our children are now literally fighting for the lives. It is up to us – their parents – to decide which side we are on. For most people, this should be an easy choice.

Unfortunately, many people and almost all politicians continue to deny the obvious connection between the size of the economy and the rate of environmental destruction. As Greta Thunberg points out, global oil consumption recently passed 100 million barrels of oil per day. This ever-increasing oil consumption is caused by economic growth and it leads to environmental destruction.

Do we need to reduce the size of the economy to save humanity? Is water wet? Our refusal to accept the obvious makes us unable to implement even straightforward measures to avoid disaster. We know that every intercontinental flight emits hundreds of tons of CO2, which will remain in the atmosphere and heat the Earth for many centuries to come. Yet, we are not allowed to question whether all these flights are necessary. 50% of global emissions are caused by 10% of the world’s population. The rich are destroying the world.

We are now in state of Climate Emergency. If we act today, we might still save parts of the planet. If not, we will have abdicated our responsibility as parents and as civilized human beings. The time has come to pull the economic emergency brake and to cease unnecessary economic activity. So, if you love your children, you need to stop flying and stop buying. You should also join the environmental movement, because ten years from now it will be too late.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: global CO2 emissions soared to a new high in 2018.

PS. If you need an uplifting speech after all this misery, I can recommend Henry V. It is amazing what determined and brave people can accomplish.

Null Öl, null Gas, null Kohle

Öffentlicher Vortag an der HSR

Wie wir das Klima-Abkommen von Paris umsetzen können

Montag, 17. Dezember 2018, 17.15 – 19.00 Uhr
HSR Hochschule für Technik, Rapperswil, Gebäude 4, Aula

Im Klimaabkommen von Paris haben die Staaten vor vier Jahren vereinbart, bis 2050 aus den fossilen Energien auszusteigen. Damit wollen sie die Erderwärmung bis Ende dieses Jahrhunderts auf deutlich unter zwei Grad Celsius begrenzen.

Marcel Hänggi zeigt in seinem Vortrag auf, wie wir dieses ambitiöse Ziel erreichen können. Marcel Hänggi, geboren 1969, ist Umweltjournalist und Buchautor in Zürich. Er wurde mit dem Zürcher Journalistenpreis und dem Conrad-Matschoss-Preis für Technikgeschichte ausgezeichnet. 2013 wählte ihn die Zeitschrift Schweizer Journalist zum Wissenschaftsjournalisten des Jahres. Marcel Hänggi ist Mitinitiant der Gletscher-Initiative. Sie verlangt, dass die Schweiz ab 2050 vollkommen klimaneutral wird.

Flyer zum Anlass

 

 

I think, therefore I don’t buy

Why we need a consumer strike to save the world

UCS Destroying the Earth

It is a mindbogglingly depressing spectacle: Every time the IPCC releases a new report, politicians and business leaders all over the world unite in pretending that they do not understand its implications. After some empty promises of taking climate destruction seriously and investing in green technologies, they quickly return to business as usual. Environmentalists and climate scientists are only marginally better, arguing that humanity could still be saved if only politicians and business leaders were to act responsibly, which everybody knows they will not. In other words, everyone agrees that the worst scenarios will come to pass and there is basically nothing we can do about it.

At least, there is no disagreement over facts and science anymore:

  • Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are changing the atmosphere of the only inhabitable planet in the known universe, leading – among other things – to rapid global warming.
  • Even if we were to stop using fossil fuel today, temperatures would continue to rise for quite some time. In order to have any chance of survival, we need to stop using fossil fuel completely by 2050. In other words, we have 30 years to completely rebuild the world’s energy infrastructure. Fun fact: The Three Gorges hydroelectric power plant in China took 18 years to build.
  • As a first step, we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% during the next 11 years. The problem is that these emissions are still increasing.

The Keeling curve, measuring the atmospheric concentration of CO2, shows the magnitude of the problem.

Keeling20181014

Despite decades of political debate, the CO2 concentration is higher than ever before during the last three million years, it is increasing faster than ever, and the annual rate of increase is still increasing. We added 0.8 ppm of CO2 per year to the atmosphere in the 60s, today we add 2.4 ppm annually.

Here is a fun math problem: You are driving through town at 90 km/h (almost twice the allowed speed limit) when you see a police car 200 meters in front of you. How much can you accelerate and still avoid a speeding ticket? It is obviously a silly question. If you are already going too fast, you need to step on the brake.

Likewise, since the global footprint of humanity is approximately twice too large, we should not be talking about growth. You cannot eat more and shit less! We need to step on the brake as quickly as possible and reduce the size of the world economy by stopping all unnecessary economic activities. Deep down, we all know this to be true. Every car which is built is a disaster for the environment, regardless of whether it is electric or not. A large commercial aircraft emits hundreds of tons of CO2 per flight and is built to last for 25 years. If we were to take the latest IPCC report seriously, someone needs to tell Boeing and Airbus to stop manufacturing airplanes tomorrow.

Our problem is a completely anachronistic and dysfunctional economic system, which requires growth to function. If you want to understand why, I can recommend reading James K. Galbraith, Kate Raworth, or Jason Hickel. However, the basic problem is that capital income (or ROI) requires capital to be scarce (through supply and demand). As soon as there is too much money available, real interest rates will be negative. In other words, in a declining economy, there will be little space for investors to make money; you would actually have to work to earn a living.

We know that stopping climate destruction will require a complete redesign of the world economy. It is also clear that the political ambition to do so in non-existent. To make matters worse, the people earning money on fossil fuel are really nasty, referring to the free press as the “enemy of the people”, torturing political opponents to death and dismembering them with a bone saw, or poisoning them with nerve gas. Does anyone seriously believe that these people are prepared to reduce production of fossil fuel by 50% during the next 11 years? The mere thought of doing so hasn’t even begun to speculate about the slightest possibility of crossing their minds (to quote Douglas Adams).

There is another option, though. The profits of oil companies and banks are driven by consumption. If the rich, educated, and liberal-minded consumers of the world were simply to stop consuming, the tables would turn. It is difficult to be a drug lord if nobody wants to buy drugs. Likewise, it is tough to be an oil company if the demand for oil declines dramatically. By avoiding unnecessary spending, we can all dramatically reduce our ecological footprint. We can also break the power of banks and big oil.

I believe that we have passed the the political point of no return. Wether we like it or not, we cannot rely on our current generation of politicians to solve our problems. If we want our children to have a future, we need to take matters into our own hands.  A Consumer Strike is simple, legal, effective, and saves you time and money. There is no reason for not trying.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. So, stop buying, stop flying, and drastically reduce your meat consumption. Your children will thank you and you get to keep the money, rather than handing it over to murderers and crazy despots.

The Emperor Has No Clothes!

Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is much cleverer than most people realize. It perfectly captures a very common phenomena in society: most people are horrified of not agreeing with their peers, even when the peers are obviously wrong. This is known as “pluralistic ignorance” in social psychology (a discussion of the phenomenon can be found here).

Pluralistic ignorance also explains the saying that “only children and drunkards tell the truth”. In Andersen’s tale, it was a young boy who pointed out the obvious fact that the Emperor had no clothes. Sober adults are typically too opportunistic or socially inhibited to dare to publicly admit the obvious.

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Recently, in Stockholm, a young girl named Greta Thunberg, told the truth about climate change. Please read her short statement. It does not contain anything we did not know already, but it is written by somebody who dares to speak her mind. Consequently, it makes more sense than anything ever written or said by any established politician.

The moral of the story? We need an expiration date on politicians or to force them to drink more. And we also need to stop destroying the climate.

The Cassandra Syndrome

My decision to study physics was based on the conviction that we live in an enlightened society, where the power of science to make quantitative predictions was generally accepted. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Our society does not value science. It values the results of science, if these can be used to make people rich. Physicists were popular because of the laser, the atomic bomb, and the transistor. When they started talking about limits to growth and climate change, their message was less appreciated.

But, as Galileo Galilei pointed out in 1615: “It is not within the power for practitioners of demonstrative sciences to change opinion at will, choosing now this and now that one; there is a great difference between giving orders to a mathematician or a philosopher and giving them to a merchant or a lawyer; and demonstrated conclusions about natural and celestial phenomena cannot be changed with the same ease as opinions about what is or is not legitimate in a contract, in rental, or in commerce.”

Or as Richard Feynman put it: “Nature cannot be fooled”.

“Climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.” These are the words of eminent climate scientist and the scientific advisor to the Pope, Angela Merkel, and the European Union Prof. Dr. Joachim Schellnhuber. Perhaps we should start listening.

Sustainable growth is an oxymoron!

The world’s response to climate change is based on the concept of “sustainable growth”: we postulate that economic growth is necessary and try to ensure that it is sustainable. It is kind of like putting lipstick on a pig, but the banks love it.

There are a couple of problems with this approach:

  1. It has not worked so far. Not only are the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere still increasing, they are increasing faster than ever. After 30 years of failure, it might be time to stop beating the dead horse.
  2. There is no evidence that sustainable growth is even possible. Common sense and experience tells us that it is not.
  3. We need to be absolutely sure that sustainable growth is possible before trying. Otherwise, continuing to grow the economy is a recipe for disaster.

I have updated my plot comparing global GDP and CO2 emissions below. The data and analysis is provided in the following Excel Sheet. Please feel free to use and distribute as you like.

GDP-CO2-plot