One Shot Left

The latest science suggests that preventing runaway climate change means total decarbonisation.

George Bush is behaving like a furious defaulter whose home is about to be
repossessed. Smashing the porcelain, ripping the doors off their hinges, he is
determined that there will be nothing worth owning by the time the bastards kick
him out. His midnight regulations, opening America's wilderness to logging and
mining, trashing pollution controls, tearing up conservation laws, will do
almost as much damage in the last 60 days of his presidency as he achieved in
the foregoing 3000(1).

His backers - among them the nastiest pollutocrats in America - are calling
in their favours. But this last binge of vandalism is also the Bush presidency
reduced to its essentials. Destruction is not an accidental product of its
ideology. Destruction is the ideology. Neoconservatism is power expressed by
showing that you can reduce any part of the world to rubble.

If it is now too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Bush team must
carry much of the blame. His wilful trashing of the Middle Climate - the
interlude of benign temperatures which allowed human civilisation to flourish -
makes the mass murder he engineered in Iraq only the second of his crimes
against humanity. Bush has waged his war on science with the same obtuse
determination with which he has waged his war on terror.

Is it too late? To say so is to make it true. To suggest that there is
nothing that can now be done is to ensure that nothing is done. But even a
resolute optimist like me finds hope ever harder to summon. A new summary of the
science published since last year's Intergovernmental Panel report suggests that
- almost a century ahead of schedule - the critical climate processes might have

Just a year ago the Intergovernmental Panel warned that the Arctic's
"late-summer sea ice is projected to disappear almost completely towards the end
of the 21st century ... in some models."(3) But, as the new report by the Public
Interest Research Centre (PIRC) shows, climate scientists are now predicting the
end of late-summer sea ice within three to seven years. The trajectory of
current melting plummets through the graphs like a meteorite falling to earth.

Forget the sodding polar bears: this is about all of us. As the ice
disappears, the region becomes darker, which means that it absorbs more heat. A
recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the extra
warming caused by disappearing sea ice penetrates 1500km inland, covering almost
the entire region of continuous permafrost(4). Arctic permafrost contains twice
as much carbon as the entire global atmosphere(5). It remains safe for as long
as the ground stays frozen. But the melting has begun. Methane gushers are now
gassing out of some places with such force that they keep the water open in
Arctic lakes, through the winter(6).

The effects of melting permafrost are not incorporated into any global
climate models. Runaway warming in the Arctic alone could flip the entire planet
into a new climatic state. The Middle Climate could collapse faster and sooner
than the grimmest forecasts proposed.

Barack Obama's speech to the US climate summit last week was an astonishing
development(7). It shows that, in this respect at least, there really is a
prospect of profound political change in America. But while he described a
workable plan for dealing with the problem perceived by the Earth Summit of
1992, the measures he proposes are now hopelessly out of date. The science has
moved on. The events the Earth Summit and the Kyoto process were supposed to
have prevented are already beginning. Thanks to the wrecking tactics of Bush the
elder, Clinton (and Gore) and Bush the younger, steady, sensible programmes of
the kind that Obama proposes are now irrelevant. As the PIRC report suggests,
the years of sabotage and procrastination have left us with only one remaining
shot: a crash programme of total energy replacement.

A paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shows that if we
are to give ourselves a roughly even chance(8,9) of preventing more than two
degrees of warming, global emissions from energy must peak by 2015 and decline
by between six and eight per cent per year from 2020 to 2040, leading to a
complete decarbonisation of the global economy soon after 2050(10). Even this
programme would work only if some optimistic assumptions about the response of
the biosphere hold true. Delivering a high chance of preventing two degrees of
warming would mean cutting global emissions by over 8% a year.

Is this possible? Is this acceptable? The Tyndall paper points out that
annual emission reductions greater than one per cent have "been associated only
with economic recession or upheaval." When the Soviet Union collapsed, they fell
by some 5% a year. But you can answer these questions only by considering the
alternatives. The trajectory both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown have proposed -
an 80% cut by 2050 - means reducing emissions by an average of 2% a year. This
programme, the figures in the Tyndall paper suggest, is likely to commit the
world to at least four or five degrees of warming(11), which means the likely
collapse of human civilisation across much of the planet. Is this

The costs of a total energy replacement and conservation plan would be
astronomical, the speed improbable. But the governments of the rich nations have
already deployed a scheme like this for another purpose. A survey by the
broadcasting network CNBC suggests that the US federal government has now spent
$4.2 trillion in response to the financial crisis, more than the total spending
on World War Two when adjusted for inflation(12). Do we want to be remembered as
the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?

This approach is challenged by the American thinker Sharon Astyk. In an
interesting new essay, she points out that replacing the world's energy
infrastructure involves "an enormous front-load of fossil fuels", which are
required to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars, new grid connections,
insulation and all the rest(13). This could push us past the climate tipping
point. Instead, she proposes, we must ask people "to make short term, radical
sacrifices", cutting our energy consumption by 50%, with little technological
assistance, in five years. There are two problems: the first is that all
previous attempts show that relying on voluntary abstinence does not work. The
second is that a 10% annual cut in energy consumption while the infrastructure
remains mostly unchanged means a 10% annual cut in total consumption: a deeper
depression than the modern world has ever experienced. No political system -
even an absolute monarchy - could survive an economic collapse on this scale.

She is right about the risks of a technological green new deal, but these are
risks we have to take. Astyk's proposals travel far into the realm of wishful
thinking. Even the technological solution I favour inhabits the distant margins
of possibility.

Can we do it? Search me. Reviewing the new evidence, I have to admit that we
might have left it too late. But there is another question I can answer more
easily. Can we afford not to try? No we can't.

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