Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Can we change in time?

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I have found that the BCEN Landwatch list serve is an endless source of leads, discussions and debate about a wide variety of issues, some of which finds its way on here. As noted I spent part of Sunday at the BCEN conference, and naturally the most important issue cropped up there too. And it is not the rerun of the Wall Street crash, but the fact that human life on this planet is now seriously threatened by global warming. All of the former predictions were indeed wrong. It is all happening much faster than anticipated. We will now see an ice free North Pole in a matter of years – not the next century. The loss of the polar ice cap means less reflection of sunlight and more heat absorbed by the oceans. So the sea level rise and ice melt is speeding up and at the same time frozen methane in the deep ocean has begun to bubble up to the surface. And methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Up until recently most of the discussion of greenhouse gas reduction has been in terms of what percentage of reduction is needed over some baseline year. But what scientists are now saying is that we have to look at the cumulative effect. Because the greenhouse gases once emitted tend to accumulate, because we have been busy destroying the natural processes that used to absorb CO2. So attention is now focused on what concentration in the atmosphere is “acceptable”. Or in other words, if we going to avoid a catastrophic warming (4 to 5 degrees C) and just get a mildly disastrous one ( 2 degrees C)  what concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere should we aim for and how fast do we need to move?

Bill Henderson kicked off this exchange, and, as so often is the case, when Pamela Zevitt responded I heard myself say “I wish I had written that”. So I asked her if I could reproduce it here. She insisted on rewriting it a bit (to make the context clearer) and I am including Bill’s original post too.

From: Bill Henderson

Sent: Saturday, September 27, 2008 1:44 PM
To: landwatch
Subject: [BCEN LW:] Fwd: [bcenvirowatch] Greenhouse gas emissions shock scientists, LAT, 20080927
“Most of the targets out there put us on track for [atmospheric  concentrations of carbon dioxide] of 700ppm, which equates to a  [temperature] rise of about four degrees,” said Bruce Duguid, head of  investor engagement at the Carbon Trust. “These targets are much  better than the business as usual scenarios that would result in  concentrations of 1,000ppm, but they are still nowhere near enough.”

I’ve spent the past couple of days writing an op-ed trying to tie the Church of Business guys responsible for the present financial meltdown to our failure over several decades to even begin emission-reduction. (Plus: It’s not just toxic securities – it’s melamine in milk, GM genes from who knows where in all our crops, cattle eating dead cattle, water in plastic bottles, chemicals in our kids gonads, etc., etc.)

I’ve also been reading HOT AIR by Simpson, Jaccard and Rivers, a good read on emission reduction politics in Canada. Funny thing though, even though this book is less than 2 years old there is no mention whatever of  the tipping point, abrupt climate change (CC), latent feedback, irreversible CC danger – these well meaning, very smart, very informed authors stay completely within gradual CC – temperature increase and local problems throughout Canada’s differing regions is the danger. Therefore their prescription is a gradual implementation of emissions mitigation with finance instruments which will not disturb business as usual (BAU). They even use the thin edge of the wedge metaphor – after dissing Stern in favour of Nordhaus. What you end up with is the BC CC mitigation program.

But surely by now Jaccard and Campbell as well as May, Layton, Dion and even Harper have moved to understanding CC as an immediate danger,  that we are close to going over a melting Arctic tipping point to a CC  that isn’t mitigatable and which promises to destroy our civilization. So why are we still arguing about $10 dollar carbon taxes and  pretending to make reductions were not going to as GHG emissions continue to rise, and not only in the developing world making products for us, but still in Canada too? How powerful is the BAU frame that our leaders self-edit about this most important emergency situation?

What sort of leadership is this? Are you content that the powers that be are aiming to stay under 700 ppm instead of 350 ppm?

To which Pamela responded

RE: Tax shifting and the immediacy of Climate Change action:

Lets not focus too much on why one piece of the solution puzzle doesn’t give us the action oriented answer we want.

Having had the opportunity to meet and discuss the issues of tax shifting with with Mark Jaccard one of the architects behind Climate Change and economic policy shifting in BC I would say that yes, I think he and others working on the issue understand the immanency and urgency of taking action. The problem is people keep fixating on tax shifting or other paradigms that are directed at affecting social behaviour change and then ask why those who suggest such solutions don’t seem to recognize we may not be able to wait for the “social marketplace” to sort things out. We see the world set to burn long before we see the positive outcomes of those shifts. But I see the work of Mark and others as being the best use of skills that can create essential analytical tools to model and predict change to social and human capital behaviour (whether some think it useful or not to do so).  Just as I as a conservation biologist and many of my colleagues work to influence land use policy or species legislation to force decision makers to stop putting humanity at the center of the universe. Mitigation while not necessarily the immediate action needed in some cases, is still a valuable if implicit means to raise alarm bells on how the complexities of earth’s systems are about to crash.  Those that choose to work at influencing policy choose to do so because it is an (albeit indirect) route that many politicians buy in to. I don’t chain myself to trees, even though I have very deep core beliefs about their value because I know it is not how I will be able to protect them most effectively.

I think every leader on the planet who has half a brain cell is a little troubled, some hopefully down right scared and certainly most must be aware of the worst case scenarios about climate change. But no matter how much we ask ourselves how it is that they don’t see what is happening, why they don’t have the necessary epiphany many of us have had and extinguish their apathy and sycophantic worship of the GDP, I don’t see them actually being the leaders of change. Globally, human society is stuck in a rut of growth, consumerism, waste and denial, and if that is what the masses demand then that is what the politicians provide (at least as far as mass societal gratification goes). As a biologist I have theories about why this is happening, even though it makes no sense for a species to behave this way. All I can say is that I think we are seeing a very bizarre result of several factors coming together including population growth, technology and cause and effect related to our abstraction and disconnectedness with the natural world. Topped off with a drive to maximize survival of the individual. Our intelligence while allowing us to flourish past normal checks and balances most other species deal with has put us out of synch and that has caused a whole lot of rippling feedbacks, and not good ones.

Still, if the pattern of our species ebb and flow on this planet has shown anything we are not necessarily beyond redemption (yet). We need to be working holistically from all fronts. Policy that hopes to change human consumption driven behaviour will be part of many potential solutions that will most likely include catastrophically painful sacrifices and a huge paradigm shift to a deep ecology based life. Regardless of whether we feel one course of action today to be ineffectual or inadequate to affect tomorrow, my feeling is that we will still most definitely be ‘hooped’ if our species cannot start to think collectively outside its myopic self gratifying monkey brain.

Pamela Zevit Coquitlam BC.

For what it is worth, Bill Rees has a somewhat similar conclusion. He is convinced we will come up with a solution. In fact he says there are two possible routes. The first one is an extension of what we are doing now – fighting for the resources (currently oil). The second one is that we in the developed world start a bargaining process which means we voluntarily surrender some of resources to India and China, but are smart enough to find ways to be more efficient that our fundamental needs and much of our desirable lifestyle is not lost, while they can the  catch up to us. But note that it starts with us setting a good example – not doing the current dance about we won’t cut until the Chinese do.

I hope he is right that we will not do the first – but obviously that means a change in political leadership. If the neoconservatives are re-elected here and in the US, I would expect the warlike stance to continue. Which is to say we continue to behave like chimps.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 30, 2008 at 7:00 am

One Response

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  1. This must be addressed by politicians at all levels, local, national and international.

    In Canada — like anywhere I suppose — we have two elements to contend with; i) petty party politics; and ii) a serious ideological divide.

    If we can somehow instill a bit of reality in our leaders, then putting i) aside may be possible. That leaves ii), which puts Harper et al on one side of the divide, and the others collectively on the other.

    That is a round about way to say that after this election a centre-left coalition government may be possible between the Liberals, NDP and Greens to deal with climate change, and would likely be backed by the Bloc which is largely a social democratic outfit, their singular focus on Quebec notwithstanding. Two thirds of the electorate appear to support anything but Harper.

    I see no other way to unleash the climate scientists and sustainability planners and to get some real action to mitigate as best we can a disasterously warming nation and world.


    October 1, 2008 at 1:23 pm

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