Saturday, April 26, 2008

James Hansen's new vision of Climate Change


James Hansen and his NASA climate science team has been exploring a compelling but daunting new vision of climate change: because of human produced greenhouse gases (GHG) the Earth's climate is now over a tipping point that with expected latent positive feedbacks is potentially leading to warming beyond human control and a future climate fiercely inhospitable to humanity and those species with which we now share creation on this small blue planet.

The tipping point is the melting of the polar ice caps. The rapid and unpredicted melting of the Arctic ice cap is the wake up call. In order to go from warming getting hotter to cooling getting cooler before the ice caps melt Dr. Hansen and his team argue that we must immediately reduce our GHG output and stabilize CO2e in the atmosphere below 350 ppm.

Because present emission mitigation efforts are not expected to even keep atmospheric CO2e below the previously thought ceiling of 450 ppm in order to prevent this dangerous climate change, Dr. Hansen's new vision has been dismissed to a not worth reporting limbo by the mainstream media and so there has been little enlightening criticism of both the big melt science nor of possibly effective mitigation solutions - the scale and urgency of necessary mitigation is just too daunting.
As Joseph Romm eloquently describes our predicament faced with Hansen's new vision of climate change:
1. Staying below 450 ppm is technologically doable, but would be the greatest achievement in the history of the human race, by far. It would require a global effort sustained for decades comparable to what the U.S. did for just the few years of World War II (the biggest obstacle is not technological, but political ­ conservatives currently would never let progressives and moderates pursue such a strategy).

2. If 350 ppm is needed (and I’m not at all sure it is) then the deniers and delayers have won, since such a target is hopeless.

But hopeless is not an option if Hansen is right. If the climate change diagnosis is now akin to a possible terminal illness then we must get out of denial and make the drastic, radical, unthinkable, impossible life style changes necessary or were toast.

In their report Climate Code Red Sutton and Spratt look unflinchingly at the necessity of getting to below 350 ppm urgently and conclude 350 would be possible IF we could get out of political and economic business as usual through a wartime equivalent mobilization. Climate change is an emergency and in our past, in World War II with mobilization, we have disciplined ourselves to meet the challenge.

"There is an urgent need to reconceive the issue we face as a sustainability emergency, that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise. The feasibility of rapid transitions is well established historically. We now need to “think the unthinkable”, because the sustainability emergency is now not so much a radical idea as simply an indispensable course of action if we are to return to a safe-climate planet."

Mobilization nationally and globally. And practically such mobilization governance innovation must begin and be led by the US, the world's foremost economic and political power. This essay will explore this possible solution: this radical but compelling vision of all of our futures, our immediate futures. Mobilization first and foremost to get us below 350 ppm before the polar ice melts completely, but also mobilization to stabilize our civilization in order for surgery to head off each of the burgeoning global-scale problems predicted by E.O Wilson in his Bottleneck metaphor for our 21st century.

Mobilization doesn't have to mean Big Gov't, socialism or ecofascism. The reconfiguration of our economies doesn't have to mean a return to farming feudalism, doesn't have to be a loss of wondrous complexity - from vinyl to IPod could prove the best metaphor - although, in all probability, getting below 350 will mean powering down and relocalization. Government action doesn't preclude all of the individual lifestyle changes that most enviros are focused upon; we need both top down and bottom up evolution, with each supporting and facilitating change. Mobilization is first and foremost the needed tool to escape BAU, business as usual: our present expanding growth economy within which systemic change is difficult if not impossible.
Mobilization promises a supporting framework for change. Necessary reconfiguration of our economy requires support for those that are negatively effected in the transition. The mobilization effort during WW2 is a practical example of how our economy can be reconfigured without going off the rails, without great harm to many. Mobilization doesn't throw out the baby with the bath water - there is hopefully a prosperous normality after the transition. Mobilization will also enable Manhattan Project style development of alternative energies and carbon capture and sequestoring (CCS) for fossil fuels, especially coal.

Stephen Pacala estimates that 500 million people, less than 7% of the world's population, contributes more than 50% of GHG - 7% living a lifestyle that threatens humanity. Getting below 350 isn't hopeless, just impossible without governance innovation so that we can effectively manage ourselves recognizing that without such discipline there is no future. Manage ourselves because we are the 500 million with the obese carbon footprint. As George Monbiot points out in HEAT: we need government to make us stop polluting, make us curtail our wasteful use of fossil fuels. We will continue to drive and fly if others do, if there are not reasonable shared restrictions.

In a recent op-ed David Suzuki made the point that FORESIGHT is the human genius that has allowed humanity to survive over millennia and prosper. We need to build our foresight capacity big time to meet the Bottleneck challenges now, this century. Mobilization is a way of turning the corner from a socio-economy predicated upon material growth leading to overshoot, collapse and die-off, to a future society much more careful and self-disciplined in order to protect the ecological basis for our social and economic systems.

Lester Brown has been examining and arguing for mobilization as a solution to the building global-scale problems in three iterations of his book Plan B. Plan B 3.0 (available free on the Net) begins with a stark catalogue of impending problems for our global society: climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, peak everything beginning with shortages of oil and food, market failure, warfare and failed states: intractable building problems caused by burgeoning human population equipped with powerful technologies using fossil fuel energy. Brown confronts these problems with a plan of hope: for example, we have the ability to cut GHG emissions by 80% by 2020 - a hopeful solution to climate change as an emergency. Mobilization is the key:"The challenge is to build a new economy and to do it atwartime speed before we miss so many of nature’s deadlinesthat the economic system begins to unravel." Brown insists that we have the wealth and technology; we have the policy options, the financial tools and expertize, abundant fat to cut and efficiencies to achieve, progressive ethical frameworks and potential rich quality lifestyles to aim for. What is needed is a mechanism to get out of business as usual so that systemic change is possible.

"The choice is ours­yours and mine. We can stay with businessas usual and preside over an economy that continues todestroy its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or wecan adopt Plan B and be the generation that changes direction,moving the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choicewill be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earthfor all generations to come."

Lester Brown has done the preliminary spadework in Plan-B 3.0. Having digested the Arctic melt science, Sutton and Spratt advocate mobilization in Churchillian tones because climate change is an emergency and political and economic business as usual is too slow and path dependent. But James Hansen instead has been focusing upon keeping coal in the ground.
To his great credit Dr. Hansen has not restricted his role to just that of scientist advancing his new climate change hypothesis, but because mobilization is heretically impossible today in the US, like most ENGO's involved in climate change mitigation, he focuses on what is considered doable, even if practically the only way of keeping coal in the ground is mobilization.

Hansen and ENGOs realize that invoking mobilization as a possible solution today is counterproductive. Choose your favorite reason:
Because, insidiously, climate change is an enemy that will only strike in a discounted, uncertain future; because climate change does not have a human face like Hitler or the Japanese that attacked Pearl Harbor; because President Bush and the only sometime conservative right wingers control the political agenda; because leveraging and indebtedness reinforcing path dependence; because the denial industry has introduced many effective blockades to climate change education in a population preoccupied with garbage like the tits and troubles of silly starlets and baseball players: because today's Americans are too selfish and pre-occupied to unite for change.

The biggest hurdle to achieving mobilization is getting mobilization on the mitigation menu in the US. Mobilization will only be possible if there is a robust consensus amongst Americans (first) that climate change is an emergency requiring drastic action. Almost all Americans would need to be on the same page about climate change danger or at least informed adequately so that this degree of danger is publicly undeniable. Then mobilization will become an option, the option.

Dr. Hansen and his team have articulated a very serious climate change hypothesis. Science works by rigorously testing hypothesis. The science community must innovate so that the Hansen et el hypothesis is tested rigorously as quickly as possible.

6 comments:

Akinol said...

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rob's uncle said...

Your assertion 'Dr. Hansen's new vision has been dismissed to a not worth reporting limbo by the mainstream media ' is incorrect: it was the lead story of the London Guardian on April 7:

'Climate target is not radical enough - study. Nasa scientist warns the world must urgently make huge CO2 reductions.' http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/07/climatechange.carbonemissions

The Guardian's web site is one of the premier news sites in the world. There is intelligent life outside the USA, you know!

Morgana said...

Good words.

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