More research documents the advance of catastrophic climate change. Massive government mobilization for renewable energy is needed.
Bob Sheak, December 1, 2018
The scientific and expert evidence documenting the profoundly destructive and accelerating changes in the earth’s climate continues to accumulate. We are talking about a steadily rising earth’s temperature stemming from human activities that are affecting virtually all aspects of societies and habitats all over the world.
Those who deny, evade, postpone action, or offer only marginal reforms, including most importantly those in powerful economic and governmental positions, serve only to perpetuate and compound this terrifying trend. Investigative journalist and author Dahr Jamail names the phenonmon anthropogenic climate disruption, calling attention to how human activities, particularly those involved in generating greenhouse gases, are responsible for the myriad climatic and environmental impacts that are leading to the massive extinction of species and threatening to upend the foundations of human life. See Jamail’s running series of over 200 in-depth reports on “anthropogenic climate disruption” going back to 2012 at: https://truthout.org/series/planet-or-profit.
Recent headlines give us a sense of the severity of the problem.
“Will we survive climate change” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/science/climate-change-doom.html)
“How extreme weather is shrinking the planet” (as more and more habitats are degraded or destroyed) (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/11/26/how-extreme-weather-is-shrinking-the-planet)
“California wildfires: Where is the climate change outrage?” (https://truthout.org/articles/california-wildfires-where-is-the-climate-change-outrage)
“We’ve never seen this: massive Canadian glaciers shrinking rapidly” (www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/canada-glaciers-yukon-shrinking)
“Sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff: 60% of Earth’s wildlife wiped out since 1970” (https://www.commondrams.org/news/2018/10/30/humanity-sleepwalking-towards-edge-cliff-60-earths-wildlife-wiped-out-1970)
“US automakers double down on trucks and SUVs, despite talk of a cleaner future” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/15102018/automakers-gm-ford-pickup-suv-electric-vehicle-emissions-standard-climate-change-industry-bailout)
“Earth’s ice loss ‘is a nuclear explosion of geologic change” (https://truthout.org/articles/earths-ice-loss-is-a-nuclear-explosion-of-geologic-change)
“Disaster awaiting to happen as Trump quietly approves massive oil drilling project in arctic waters of Alaska coast” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/10/25/disaster-waiting-happen-trump-quietly-approves-massive-oil-drilling-project-arctic)
There are two new authoritative reports on this growing problem. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers an international perspective on the causes and consequences, with some attention to “solutions.” Volume Two of the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment focuses on this serious multi-faceted problem in the U.S. The reports can be viewed as complementary in that they both are based on increasingly sophisticated and abundant evidence that the effects of climate change are massive and represent a rapidly growing problem that requires a commensurate response by governments, a response that is thus far sorely lacking. Indeed, as we know, Trump and the Republicans in Washington reject or ignore both reports and advance policies that compound the climate crisis. And the Democrats have yet to advance policies that adequately confront the problem, though there is some reason to be hopeful about the policies that will emerge from the Democratically-controlled House that will be seated in January 2019.
In what follows, I will focus on the IPCC report, after a short summary of the U.S. National Climate Assessment.
The U.S. National Climate Assessment is the second major scientific report issued on the subject. It was issued this month (November, 2018). Thirteen federal agencies were involved in the production of this report and an earlier one issued in 2017.
According to an article by Coral Davenport and Kendra Pierre-Louis in The New York Times, the 1,656-page assessment “lays out the devastating effects of a changing climate on the economy, health and environment, including record wildfires in California, crop failures in the Midwest and crumbling infrastructure in the South.” Furthermore: “Going forward, American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by midcentury….”
And: “No area of the country will be untouched, from the Southwest, where droughts will curb hydropower and tax already limited water supplies, to Alaska, where the loss of sea ice will cause coastal flooding and erosion and force communities to relocate, to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, where saltwater will taint drinking water.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23/climate-highlights-climate-assessment.html).
The evidence just keeps piling up.
The recent IPPC report “was written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies,” and was accepted at a session of the UN General Assembly on October 6, 2018by 180 countries (15 countries were absent), including the U.S. delegation. According to a report written by Coral Davenport for the New York Times, “a State Department statement said that ‘acceptance of this report by the panel does not imply endorsement by the United States of the specific findings or underlying contents of the report. Davenport writes:
“The State Department delegation faced a conundrum. Refusing to approve the document would place the United States at odds with many nations and show it rejecting established academic science on the world stage. However, the delegation also represents a president who has rejected climate science and climate policy”
The Paris Climate Agreement
The basic point of the IPPC report was to assess whether the goals of the 2015 international Paris climate agreement were being achieved. Let’s take a detour back to Paris. In December 2015, the countries of the world sent representatives to this UN-sponsored event in Paris. The goals of the meeting was to find ways for the countries of the world to limit global greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would keep the average global temperature from rising to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, with the “aspirational” goal of limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), and also to assist less-developed countries to deal with effects of climate change.
Over the ensuing two years, by November of 2017, 194 countries had signed onto the agreement, with 147of their governments ratifying it. Obama had signed the agreement. Bill McKibben recalls that the agreement would result in hope and goodwill and spur a transition to alternative energy sources, “and that once nations began installing solar panels and wind turbines, they’ find it easier and cheaper than they had expected.” McKibben quotes Philip A. Wallach, a Brookings Institution fellow, who hoped that the meeting had spurred “a virtuous cycle of ambitious commitments, honestly report progress to match, and further commitments following on those successes” (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/11/22/global-warming-very-grim-forecast).
But things didn’t go as countries of the world hoped they would. Once in office, Trump announced in June 2017 that the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement, a process that takes three years to finalize. Trump’s decision made the US the only country in the world to leave the Paris accord. Because of the size of the U.S. economy and the level of its carbon emissions, second only to China’s, international action to stem to rise of the earth’s temperature was set back.
The Associated Press “asked two dozen climate scientists what would happen if the U.S. reneges on its commitments under the Paris Agreement,” as reported by Stefan Beckett for CBS News on June 1, 2017. “They said that doing so would make it more difficult to prevent crossing a dangerous threshold in global temperatures,” and, if the agreement falls apart, “could result in an additional 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere each year, speeding up the rate of rising sea levels and melting ice sheets” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/paris-climate-agreement-what-you-need-to-know).
Questions on whether global temperature can be slowed or stopped
The scientific evidence becomes more and more difficult to ignore, though Trump, the Republicans, and the fossil fuel industry led by ExxonMobil continue to oppose policies that would address the problem. The evidence compiled in the IPPC report indicates that the severe weather, ice melting, warming and acidification of the ocean, rising ocean levels, and more, will have major disruptive effects on humans, involving war, conflict, and proliferation of refugees, and more. The already bad situation will worsen as we approach1.5 degrees Celsius, and it will wreak more harm as we go beyond that level. So far, the IPPC finds that global governments are mostly not doing enough to reign in rising temperatures. The IPCC report is blunt in saying that global warming “is likely to reach [and perhaps surpass] 1.5degrees C [or 2.7degrees F] between 2030 and 2050 if it continues to increase at the current rate.” (http://ippc.ch/pdf/special-reports/sr15/wr15_spm_final,pdf).
One of the contributors to the IPCC report, Heleen De. Coninck, associate professor in Innovation Studies at the Environmental Science Department at Radboud University’s Faculty of Science in the Netherlands, provides further background in an interview at The Real News, iterating what climate scientists are saying, namely, that going beyond 1.5 degrees toward 2 degrees will have a great and devastating effect worldwide.
Coninck says that “…the parties in the Paris agreement have asked for [the IPCC] to answer the question whether they can still make the 1.5 degree target limits, and how that would compare to limiting global warming to 2 degrees. The Paris agreement says that we, as a world, should stay well below 2 degrees temperature rise compared to pre-industrial, and strive for [no more than a] 1.5 degree temperature rise. In terms of the differences in impacts, this report has really added a lot to the understanding of that. For instance, we know now that under a 2 degree limit, pretty much all the coral reefs in the world would just die out. Under a 1.5 degree limit, some of them would still be left” (https://therealnews.com/stories/author-of-new-ipcc-report-says-she-still-has-hope). In either case, there is a tremendous loss of reefs.
Some Highlights of the IPPC report of November 2018
In a long essay, Bob Berwyn reports on highlights of the report (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/07102018/ipcc-climate-change-science-report-data-carbon-emissions-heat-waves-extreme-weather-oil-gas-agriculture).
Human activities, especially those involving fossil fuels, have already generated globally a one-degree Celsius increase above preindustrial temperatures. And the world is moving quickly toward 1.5 degrees. What is disturbing is that even at the present 1-degree global average temperature that has risen beyond pre-industrial levels, there are significant climate disruptions and calamities. Berwyn gives these readily familiar examples.
“Sea level rise is already causing frequent flooding and contaminating fresh water supplies on low lying islands. In Indonesia, the rising water and erosion has inundated poor coastal communities….” Additionally, “Satellite measurements from recent years show seal level rising faster than expected, and new data from ancient ice layers, tree rings and other sources suggest the polar ice sheets are more vulnerable to extensive melting at 1.5 degrees C warming that previously believed.”
Berwyn quotes Christopher Weber, “global lead scientist for climate and energy for the World Wildlife Fund, who said “We’re already seeing impacts like super storms, wildfires and heat waves from 1 degree of warming.” These are impacts that were not expected to occur under temperatures reached 2 degrees.
Feedback loops and tipping points increase the likelihood of unanticipated surges in temperatures
Jon Queally quotes Durwood Zaelke, founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, who told The Guardian that the IPCC report “fails to focus on the weakest link in the climate chain: the self-reinforcing climate tipping points and runaway warming” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/10/09/whats-not-latest-ipcc-report-much-much-more-terrifying-new-research). Queally also quotes Johan Rockstrom and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden who “found that it is precisely these feedback loops and tipping points that should most frighten and concern humanity,” and Nobel prize laureate Mario Molino who says:
“…the IPCC understates a key risk: that self-reinforcing feedback loops could push the climate system into chaos before we have time to tame our energy system, and the other sources of climate pollution.”
For example, as the ice cover melts in the Arctic, more of the sun’s heat is absorbed by the open ocean rather than reflected back into space.
We are on track to blow past 1.5 degrees Celsius
This is what the scientists involved in the IPCC glean from the thousands of peer-reviewed studies they have evaluated. In the absence of “a radical transformation of energy, transportation, and agricultural systems, the world will hurdle past the 1.5 degree Celsius target…by the middle of the century,” if not sooner (i.e., by 2040 or even 2030).
If this should happen, then “nearly all of the planet’s coral reefs will die, droughts and heat waves will continue to intensify, and an additional 10 million people will face greater risks from rising sea levels, including deadly storm surges and flooded coastal zones.”
Indeed, in the absence of transformative changes, the world most likely will surpass 2 degrees, headed, according to Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, and move toward increases of 3 and 4 degrees Celsius. In this eventuality, we will enter a period of chaos and institutional and societal collapse. But just a one-half degree increase in the average world temperature, rising to 1.5 degrees, can have, according to University of Florida sea level expert Andrea Dutton (quoted by Berwyn), “far-reaching impacts on our ability to survive on this planet.” It’s extraordinary and terrifying that climate scientists are telling us that if greenhouse gas emissions are not sufficiently curtailed and soon, there will be environmental havoc and human misery across the globe.
With the right government and international policies, the earth’s temperature can be kept from reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius. But we don’t have nearly enough such policies.
The implication of this statement is that the U.S. China, and other countries with large economies and high-levels of greenhouse gas emissions, will find a way by 2040 to “cut global emissions 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by around 2050, according to the IPPC report. Heleen De. Coninck (cited previously), one of the contributors to the IPPC report, still has hope that the governments of the world can adopt and implement the right policies. She thinks that we still have a chance to “shift from a predominantly fossil fuel-based system to a predominantly renewables-based system that is also very efficient with energy.”
In addition to shifting massively to renewable energy, she also hopes that we can learn how to preserve our forests, which keep carbon out of the atmosphere, and transform our agricultural system in ways to protect and retain carbon-absorbing soil, along with raising fewer cattle, which belch methane into the atmosphere. In addition, she says we need to reduce international trade and the transportation that involves long distance travel between countries, along with building energy-efficient buildings and transport. She adds, “If you plan your city in a way that you can reduce your transport needs and make your houses more efficient, you could do that in one go through urban planning policies, for instance.” She also refers to the need to develop carbon dioxide removal technologies to reduce the gas that is already in the atmosphere.
So far, however, there is too little progress in any of these areas. The countries of the world are not moving toward such outcomes. Berwyn writes:
“Existing pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions submitted under the Paris Agreement don’t come close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even 2 degrees Celsius.” Rather, “scientists say they would result in closer to 3 or 4 degrees Celsius of warming.”
In the meantime, “extreme weather is shrinking the planet”
Bill McKibben discusses how liveable habitats for human beings are declining as the temperatures rise and extreme weather events proliferate. He reminds us that “in the past thirty years we’ve seen all twenty of the hottest years ever recorded.” And, he adds: “The melting of the ice caps and glaciers and the rising sea levels of our oceans and seas, initially predicted for the end of the century, have occurred decades early.” Continuing, he writes: “The planet’s diameter will remain eight thousand miles, and its surface will still cover two hundred million square miles,” but “the earth, for humans, has begun to shrink, under our feet and in our minds” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/11/26/how-extreme-weather-is-shrinking-the-planet).
The shrinking is reflected in along the world’s coastlines, where rising ocean and sea levels force people to abandon their communities. McKibben quotes a book written by Orrin Pilkey, an expert on sea levels at Duke University: “Like it or not, we will retreat from most the world’s non-urban shorelines in the not very distant future.” And the populations in coastline cities will increasingly suffer from storms and flooding. McKibben gives several examples of cities across the globe, including even Boston, about which he writes: “In the first days of 2018, a nor’ easter flooded downtown Boston; dumpsters and cars floated through the financial district.”
The habitability of some continental interiors will be undermined by soaring temperatures, disrupting all aspects of human activities. McKibben writes: “Nine of the ten deadliest heat waves in human history have occurred since 2000.” He gives several examples. The summer of 2018 was the hottest ever measures in some areas of India, and record heat waves occurred in cities in Pakistan, Iran, Montreal, Africa, Korea. Algeria, and in parts of the American southwest. In the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, “triple-digit temperatures with soaring humidity levels [produced] a heat index of more than a hundred and forty degrees Fahrenheit.” So, more and more places in the world are “becoming too hot for humans.” Furthermore: “As the planet warms, a crescent-shaped area encompassing parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the North China Plan, where about 1.5 billion people (a fifth of humanity) life, is at high risk of such temperatures in the next have century,” if not before that, as the IPPC report warns.
It’s not only human that are being affected by rising temperatures. McKibben points out that “[w]e have already managed to kill off sixty percent of the world’s wildlife since 1970 by destroying their habitats and now higher temperatures are starting to take their toll.”
McKibben’s next example of how the earth’s habitable areas are shrinking for humans concerns as access to safe water diminishes. One study carried out in 2017 by Manoj Joshi of the University of East Anglia “found that, by 2050, if temperatures rise to two degrees a quarter of the earth will experience serious drought and desertification.” Among other points, McKibben points out that we have “already overpumped the aquifers that lie beneath the world’s breadbaskets; without the means to irrigate, we may encounter a repeat of the nineteen thirties, when droughts and deep plowing led to the Dust Bowl….”
Finally, one-fifth of the ground in the Northern Hemisphere is underlaid with permafrost. With rising temperatures, the permafrost is melting and as it melt “it releases more carbon into the atmosphere.” This is turn leads to cracks in roads, tilting housings, and uprooted trees. The cost is going to be enormous. McKibben cites a report released by ninety scientists in 2017 that “concluded the economic losses from a warming Arctic could approach ninety trillion dollars in the course of the century.”
What is needed?
I again rely on Bill McKibben’s analysis, drawing on an article he wrote for New Republic magazine in August, 2016 (https://newrepublic.com/article/135684/declare-war-climate-change-mobilize-wwii).
His basic argument is that the U.S. government needs to undertake a massive war-level mobilization if we are to have any chance of stopping and reversing the disruptive and cataclysmic climate change that is besetting humanity. Implicitly, if this were to happen, the U.S.’s example would likely reverberate around the world and help to galvanize the international community to join the effort.
Indeed, the idea is not far-fetched. In July of 2016, McKibben reminds us, “the Democratic Party issued a platform that called for a World War-II-type ‘global climate emergency.’ In fact, Hillary Clinton’s negotiators agreed to plans for an urgent summit ‘in the first hundred days of the next administration’ where the president will convene ‘the world’s best engineers, climate scientists, policy experts, activists, and indigenous communities to chart a course to solve the climate crisis.’”
There is at least one major part of such a plan that has been developed by Mark Z. Jacobson, “a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and the director of its Atmosphere and Energy Program.” Jacobson has been working on the plan for years “with a team of experts to calculate precisely how each of the 50 states could power itself from renewable resources.” McKibben is convinced that “Jacobson’s work demonstrates conclusively that America could generate 80 to 85 percent of its power from sun, wind, and water by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.” And: In the past year, the Stanford team has offered similar plans for 139 nations around the world.”
There is enough land for the plan to go ahead, that is, it would need only “about four-tenths of one percent of America’s landmass to produce renewable energy, mostly from sprawling solar power stations.” And we have enough raw materials, like neodymium, to make the wind turbines, and enough lithium for batteries to run electric cars.
Implementing such a plan
McKibben refers to Tom Solomon, a retired engineer, “took Jacobon’s research and calculated how much clean energy America would need to produce by 2050 to completely replace fossil fuels. The answer: 6,448 gigawatts.” Here’s how Solomon then preceded, according to McKibben.
“So Solomon did the math to figure out how many factories it would take to produce 6,448 gigawatts of clean energy in the next 35 years. He started by looking at SolarCity, a clean-energy company that is currently building the nation’s biggest solar factory in Buffalo….Using the SolarCity plant as a rough yardstick, Solomon calculates that America needs 295 solar factories of a similar size to defeat climate change – roughly six per state – plus a similar effort for wind turbines.”
The factories don’t require any new technology. They do require good local technical schools that could supply the workforce, local contractors who could get the local permits, order the needed materials, level the ground and excavate, lay foundations, build walls, columns and a roof – “and facilitate each of the stations for factory machine tooling with plumbing, piping, and electrical wiring”; and train a workforce of 1,500.”
Such a massive effort was accomplished during WWII
McKibben is talking about a mobilization of people and resources like that which was done in the first years of WWII. The planning and the implementation of the war-effort was done mostly by the federal government, which “birthed a welter of new agencies with names like the War Production Board and the Defense Plant Corporation, the latter of which, “between 1940 and 1945, spent $9 billion on 2,300 projects in 46 states, building factories it hen leased to private industry.” By the end of the war, “the government had a dominant position in everything from aircraft manufacturing to synthetic rubber production.”
Mark Wilson, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has written book, involving “a decades-long study of the mobilization effort, entitled Destructive Creation. McKibben quotes Wilson, who says “It was public capital that build most of the stuff, not Wall Street.” And, continuing: “They placed the contracts, they moved the stuff around.” McKibben further describes Wilson’s research findings, as follows.
“The feds acted aggressively – they could cancel contracts as war needs changed, tossing factories full of people abruptly out of work. If firms refused to take direction, FDR ordered many of them seized. Though companies made money, there was little in the way of profiteering – bad memories from World War I, Wilson says, led to ‘robust profit controls, which were mostly accepted by America’s industrial tycoons. In many cases, federal authorities purposively set up competition between public operations and private factories: The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard build submarines, but so did Electric Boat of Groton, Connecticut. ‘They were both quite impressive and productive,’ Wilson says.”
How would it start today?
McKibben imagines what a president could do immediately upon taking office.
“Much of what we need to do can – and must – be accomplished immediately, through the use of executive action that FDR relied on to lay the groundwork for a wider mobilization. The president could immediately put a halt to drilling and mining on public lands and waters, which contain at least half of all the untapped carbon left in America. She could slow the build-out of the natural gas system simply be correcting the outmoded way the EPA calculates the warming effect of methane, just as Obama reined in coal-fired power plants. She could tell her various commissioners to put a stop to the federal practice of rubber-stamping new fossil-fuel project, rejecting those that would ‘significantly exacerbate’ global warming. She could instruct every federal agency to buy all their power from green sources and rely exclusively on plug-in cars, creating new markets overnight. She could set a price on carbon for her agencies to follow internally, even without congressional action that probably won’t be forthcoming. And just as FDR brought in experts from the private sector to plan for the defense build-out, she could get the blueprints for a full-scale climate mobilization in place even as she rallies the political will to make them plausible. Without the same urgency and foresight displayed by FDR – without immediate executive action – we will lose the war.”
At this moment in history, we await to see whether Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives will lead to the creation of some of the political groundwork for a transformation of the energy sector, calling for the phasing out of fossil fuels and proposing a plan for a renewable-energy system. There are reasons for some optimism. There is the precedent of WWII war mobilization. There are detailed plans for the conversion of the energy sector to renewables. Some Democrats are calling for a “green new deal.” Newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representing the 14th Congressional District in New York, has unveiled a plan for a “Green New Deal” (https://ocasio2018.com/green-new-deal), and there are ideas for how to pay for it (https://huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-green-new-deal-cost-us-5c0042be4b027f1097bda5b). Some states and cities in the U.S. are planning to achieve zero-emissions or significantly reduced emissions over the coming years. A large majority of Americans now agree that climate change is a problem and must be addressed. The cost of solar panels and wind turbines has fallen and is now highly competitive in price.
But, as the reports from the IPPC and US National Climate Assessment indicate, the problem of catastrophic climate change is growing, not declining, and, ominously, we don’t have much time before the problem is irreparable and totally out of control.