On Dealing With a (Climate Change) Rogue State

What do you do, when there is a fire in a crowded movie theater, and the fire marshals (climate scientists) shout “Fire!” but most people seem to want to stay to watch the movie till the end (even though it’s really not that good), and the management of the theater wants everyone to remain in their seats because they are afraid of having to refund the ticket prices? You can’t just leave, because frankly, barring access to a spaceship, you are pretty much stuck here with the rest of humanity. First, you must fully realize how desperate the situation is; second you must realize that for all their orchestrated talk, your leaders don’t get it; third you must work with everyone around you to take over the place and put out the fire, and then maybe even arrive at a better quality of movie fare…

Understand that the tongue can conceal the truth, but the eyes – never!”—Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

1. Policy

For years in US government climate policy circles, the mantra was, “How can we commit to binding emissions reduction goals, if China does not?” In one fell swoop (after years of quiet negotiations of course), the US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change seemed to provide a path forward from this impasse. The agreement calls for the US to achieve economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. For its part, China will strive to achieve peak CO2 emissions around 2030, and increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy consumption to 20 percent by 2030.

The good news is that the US, by making use of enforcement of the Clean Air Act to apply to CO2, combined with more aggressive action at the state level, particular California and the New England states, combined with the rapidly decreasing prices of solar and wind and other renewable energy technologies should easily be able to make this target and in fact surpass it to achieve even a 34-38 percent reduction by 2030.[1]

China – given that it also recognizes the national security implications of climate change – will no doubt – because of its immense capabilities and the fact that it has already achieved the fastest rate of development for the largest number of people in the history of humanity – also manage a “transition-to-renewable-energy-miracle” that far surpasses current predictions.

That is all good news, and other nations can be expected to follow suit as best they are technically able and politically “allowed.” The hope amongst policy makers is that the transition to a low-carbon future will out-strip the pace that is politically capable of being achieved at the level of multinational and even bilateral negotiations between sovereign nations.

2. Inadequacy

The bad news, though, is that none of this will be enough. It is true that negotiators may be able to agree to a unified reporting and reviewing mechanism. The Green Climate Fund may get funded fully. China may participate, or stay with its commitment to the South-South Fund (it’s own fund to help developing countries face climate change). The US may continue to talk about its recognition of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” morally and scientifically true as this principle is. It may even be able politically to take some action which (weakly at least) is in cognizance of its professed responsibilities. And no doubt, if they can both find a way to make money, and reasonably protect intellectual property rights, much clean air may come from US-Chinese cooperation in the area air pollution control technologies. All of this is hopeful, and trending in the right direction. But again, it all presupposes that we have time, and we do not.

We are on track now to an uninhabitable world. To quote an article by Michael Jennings at the London School of Economics,

Because of increasing temperatures due to GHG emissions a suite of amplifying feedback mechanisms, such as massive methane leaks from the subsea Arctic Ocean, have engaged and are probably unstoppable. These processes, acting in concert with the biological and physical inertia of the Earth system in responding to atmospheric loading of GHGs, along with economic, political and social barriers to emission reduction, currently place Earth’s climate trajectory well within the IPCC’s A1FI future climate change scenario. There is a rapidly diminishing chance of altering this trajectory as time goes on. There is also now a very real risk of sudden climate change. The pace of this quickly advancing situation, along with our scientific understanding of it, has substantially outstripped policy discussion.[2]

And yet we are still talking. The number of identified feedback loops keeps increasing, and yet, we keep talking. Scientists, always leery of making any statement reeking of melodrama, are increasingly making desperate, dramatic announcements, and yet, policy makers still don’t seem to get it. For example, “It is the summer sea ice loss passing the point of no return, leading to unstoppable catastrophic arctic methane sooner or later … puts us in a state of planetary emergency today,” said John Nissen, Arctic Methane Emergency Group Chairman. [3]

And yet we continue to worry about finding ways of sustaining unsustainable growth even though it means a good life for a few of us for a little while, followed by the death of us all not that long after. A study by Metis Risk Consulting & Feasta showed that disruptions in supply can collapse the world industrial economy in as little as three weeks. [4] And yet we continue negotiating. A 2015 projection showed collapse of the world food system by 2040 if present trends continue. [5] A 2013 Nature article pointed out that a multi-gigaton methane release from the East Siberian Sea is “highly possible at any time.” [6] This would mean the release of the equivalent of approximately 1,000 gigatons of CO2. For comparison, remember, humans have released about 1,475 gigatons of CO2 since 1850. And yet we still are talking.

3. Revolution, Revolution, Revolution

There is a path that the US and China could follow that might hold out some hope of survival. It is the path of a true, comprehensive and complete revolution. Nobody wants this type of disruption of his or her day-to-day complacency. But if the choice is to survive or not to survive, it is rather a simple choice. Incrementalism in the face of abrupt climate change will, at best, make us feel a little better about ourselves up until the moment we go over the cliff.

If policy makers could really be made to understand the existential nature of this crisis, then the US, China, Japan and the EU could cooperate at a wartime level of investment and urgency, the way they once cooperated against a common wartime enemy (with Japan no longer on the “wrong” side, of course). If they cannot be made to understand, then the rest of us must become implacably green revolutionaries.

Reaching out below and beyond those who imagine themselves to be the top of the pinnacle of the mass of humanity, humanity itself must wage a worldwide revolution to transition to a sustainable, human and nature-centered economy. The tools are there. The technology is there. The people – most of them at least – would be with this Great Greening wave. And where the established regimes of governance are lacking, that is where new, alternative, revolutionary, P2P, ad hoc, virtual and vital forms of polycentric [7] governance could be fully utilized and revitalized. We must now dream desperate dreams – and even more desperately, make them come true. And when the rogue state – in climate change terms – that the US has become has been defanged of its addiction to the poisons that are oil and gas, and has found within itself an all-American, deeply rooted eco-civilization, why then, the eagle will have landed, not on a barren moon, but on a verdant and sustaining Earth.

It’s not enough, that we take to the streets and rip up the cobblestones and make as if to heave them at the defenses of the regime; no, we must instead plant gardens wherever the barrenness is, and with the cobblestones build instead our own schools, therein to teach ourselves how to live in the new world we have not yet wrested from the old. And we must learn most of all a love that builds a bridge to those who have not yet seen, not yet understood, the reasons for our fierce impatience.“—Anonymous

References:

1. “Delivering on the U.S. Climate Commitment: A 10 Point Plan Toward a Low Carbon Future,” World Resources Institute May 2015

2. “Climate Disruption: Are We Beyond the Worst Case Scenario?” Global Policy, Volume 4, Issue 1, pages 32–42, February 2013

3. “Arctic Methane Emergency Group

4. “Trade-Off: Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: a study in global systemic collapse” David Korowicz, Metis Risk Consulting & Feasta, June 30, 2012

5. “Emerging Risk Report 2015: Food System Shock” Lloyds of London Innovation Series,

6. “Vast costs of Arctic change” Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope & Peter Wadhams

7. “Emergence of polycentric climate governance and its future prospects”Andrew J. Jordan, Dave Huitema, Mikael Hildén, Harro van Asselt, Tim J. Rayner,Jonas J. Schoenefeld, Jale Tosun,Johanna Forsterand Elin L. Boasson; Forthcoming in Nature Climate Change – accepted for publication 11 May 2015 Nature 499, 401–403 (25 July 2013) doi:10.1038/499401a

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of State or the US government.