Paris not the half of it
Not all agree it’s a bad thing Trump’s made good on his campaign promise to pull the United States out of Paris.
One climate researcher argued that the Trump circus could do less damage outside of the tent, than in it. But regardless, an enormous elephant remains in that tent: the Paris Agreement might have been a milestone, but not in marking the beginning of meaningful climate action.
In 2008, the incomparable Professor Sir David John Cameron MacKay published, at his own expense, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. But by the time of his untimely death two years ago, and still, the public and the mainstream media MacKay had passionately sought to inform about the scale of the challenge of decarbonising energy remained stubbornly ignorant of the central tenant of his message:
Not one of the 194 signatory countries to the Paris accord has a plausible plan to convincingly cut its greenhouse gas emissions—Climate Action Tracker rates five countries’ plans as ‘sufficient’, of the 32 countries it tracks, but for emission-reduction goals pre-Paris, and Aotearoa, unsurprisingly, is among the 15 countries ranked ‘inadequate’. Certainly, the world’s most respected climate scientist, Dr James Hansen, was unimpressed with Paris:
This time next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Dr James Hansen’s urgent warning to the United States congress, that global warming had begun. With the United States’ coral reefs on course to disappear, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef at a terminal stage, and ocean acidification rampant, humankind should long since have been stung into action. Instead, and predictably, Paris has acted as a balm, and with breathless talk of some countries being near to reaching their emission targets, and the cost of photovoltaic panels and batteries falling, the great unwarmed is lulled into thinking the job’s a good ’un. Renewables advocates are keen to quote Hansen on the climate warnings, but mute on his, on MacKay’s and the advice of pretty much every other energy expert on the planet: renewables sans nuclear don’t begin to stack up.
The world urgently needs a mandatory crash course in global warming basics. The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were anything like their current 410 parts per million was during the Pliocene, 2.6 to 5.3 million years ago. Global sea level was an instructive 25 metres higher than today. At that height, for example, less than 10% of Bangladesh, current population 163 million, would be above sea level—in comparison, the international community is failing to cope with the fewer than five million refugees that have managed to flee Syria. Meanwhile, the reason that anthropogenic sea-level rise has only been in the order of 0.1 to 0.2 metres to date is that the world’s oceans, ice sheets, and glaciers have been absorbing most of the added heat. The hydrosphere has a mass about 275 times greater than that of the atmosphere—it takes a little time to warm 14 quintillion tonnes of ice and water.
But talk of reducing emissions, aside from being just that, talk, ignores the inconvenient issue of the longevity of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Three quarters of atmospheric carbon dioxide persists for centuries, and the balance:
This particular planetary experiment has never been run before, in paleoclimate history. The planet has never been warmed, in the course of a couple of centuries, by an amount that has previously taken millennia. Consequently, it is completely unknown just how soon rising temperatures and rising seas will plunge civilisation into perpetual crisis mode. Even the cities that the projected 13 million American sea-level rise refugees by 2100 flood into will struggle to cope. But 2100 is just a number. Sea-level rise will likely be rampant by then, on its way to its inevitable ultimate height, 80 metres above today’s. If climate denier ‘dimmest president ever’ Donald Trump doesn’t believe the world’s largest economy can currently afford to switch to sustainable energy, the task, when every climate thing that can go wrong begins to go wrong, will likely overwhelm even the richest and most literally switched-on economies.
Learning that Arctic sea-ice extent has halved in the last four decades, and that the Arctic Ocean could be summer-sea-ice free within two decades should, by itself, be cause for unequivocally courageous action on climate. But sea ice is not the half of it. Viewed from a dispassionate distance, the world of ice ages is surprisingly ephemeral—the planet has mostly been ice-sheet free for the greater part of its existence. It transpires that it takes a peculiar set of conditions to coincide to induce glaciation, and, had all things been equal:
Preparing for a 100 000-year glaciation, even with a 1500-year warning, would have been a challenge. Ironically, thanks to its fossil-fuel emissions, humanity now needs to prepare for the opposite extreme, but has just squandered, never mind Hansen’s 29, 60 years of the finite grace period provided by Roger ‘Grandfather of the Greenhouse Effect’ Randall Dougan Revelle’s 1957 testimony to the United States congress and that of generations of climate scientists since. And not only has the preparation time been lost, so has the allowance of fossil-fuel combustion needed to power the rebuilding, more or less from the ground-up, of the energy infrastructure that underpins modern civilisation, and resettle the 1.3 billion people by 2050 the World Bank estimates will be made refugees. Throwing more petrol and diesel on the fire, in its haste to adapt, risks exacerbating climate feedbacks, such as the inadequately understood phenomenon of methane hydrate release, which could already be unstoppable.
When a boiler is suspected of being about to blow, the rational response is to immediately stop stoking it. Incredibly, screwing down the pressure relief valve and continuing to stoke is something humans display a fatal propensity for doing, and humankind is doing exactly that by embracing a suicidal mix of renewables and fast-ramping natural gas plants—although natural in the fracking era might be an oxymoron too far. This unholy, the-economy-comes-first imperative is high-risk strategy, compared with the alternative of stopping the stoking, by embracing a breeding moratorium.
Even before global warming bites deeply, humankind’s growth is already extracting a terrible toll on its fellow species, precipitating the most abrupt extinction event since the Chicxulub impactor dispatched three-quarters of plant and animal kingdom. Even for its own edification, it behoves humanity to spare what is left of the natural world, by putting an end to the multiplication that has taken it from a potentially sustainable 2 billion in 1927 to 7.5 billion, in less than a century.
A population moratorium would allow an almost immediate complete cessation of road and house building, for example, as the existing stock would suffice. The current practice of recontouring the landscape with heavy machinery for roads and housing demands prodigious amounts of diesel. Those who imagine Elon Musk’s cars signal the end of fossil-fuel powered vehicles fail to appreciate how infinitesimal a contribution they can potentially make to the world of bulldozers, excavators, earthmovers, compactors and trucks. By freeing up construction capacity to work on the urgent job of electrifying public transport, ports and airports, and producing battery-powered service vehicles rather than the likes of Tesla sports cars, the prospects of the many, rather than the few, would be enormously improved.
Such a strategy wouldn’t signal an end to economic growth—the work needed to decarbonise and to resettle climate refugees will dwarf last century’s world-war mobilisations. But if humankind continues to procrastinate, the danger is compounded that when governments are eventually forced to act, it would take the form of panicked doomed-to-fail measures, wasting resources desperately required for the hundred-year climate war.
The tsunami of young people registering and voting in Theresa May’s misjudged snap election is evidence that, sooner rather than later, political decisions will begin to be made by a cohort with a far better understanding that anthropogenic global warming is not just another environmental issue. It is also the same young, breeding-age cohort that must make the supreme sacrifice of largely forgoing the right to breed.
It is a huge ask of one generation—the 10 000th generation of Homo sapiens sapiens, give or take—to single-generationally take the steam out of global warming, by breeding at sub-replacement levels for a decade or two. But it is also an utterly unique privilege to be part of the generation that gave humankind and its fellow species its best chance to escape a miserable hell on Earth.
Boomers don’t know the half of what they’ve bequeathed their grandchildren. It is now down to the millennials to salvage a survivable climate.