Monday, 2 September 2013

Prosperity Drives Global Climate Change

A slide from a Robert Graves Presentation on alternative energy sources.

The basic scientific concepts of climate change have been well-known for many decades.  And at its core, the science contends that human activity has released to the atmosphere ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring gas that science has directly linked to fluctuations in global temperatures throughout Earth's history.  The most recent numbers and computer models on the subject have served to clarify and confirm what has for so long been suspected.  In fact, the highly anticipated report from the United Nation's Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change is expected to confirm - with a confidence of 95% - that climate change is due in part (in large part) to human activity.  A contributor to an earlier IPCC's climate report noted,
"The [most recent] report is simply an exclamation mark on what we already knew: Climate change is real and it continues unabated, the primary cause is fossil fuel burning, and if we don't do something to reduce carbon emissions we can expect far more dangerous and potentially irreversible impacts on us and our environment in the decades to come."
Over the past 50 years in the life of the recognized environmental movement, little of real significance has happened to change the trajectory - what was foreseen then is confirmed now.  Indeed, with all we know and all we have known for many years, we seem to be approaching calamity at an accelerating rate.  Which naturally raises the question of why.  Why has so much evidence had such little impact in slowing our headlong rush to global climate change?

In my last two posts I noted that the estimated value of the known global fossil-fuel reserves is $27 trillion.  This is an incredible sum, a sum that certainly drives the efforts (some might say, machinations) of Koch Industries, Exxon, Shell, BP and the many thousands of resource extractors world-wide, large and small.

But that enormous sum of money tells just part of the story, since it refers only to the anticipated revenues of the fossil-fuel companies themselves.  It does not speak to the economic value that accrues to the industries and individual companies that provide the technical, operational and service support to the extraction firms.  And it does not speak to the earnings of the millions of workers all these firms directly employ, nor the many millions more who benefit indirectly. I am referring, of course, to the broader economy, an economy that is firmly rooted in the supply of fossil-fuels.

Our economic well-being is predicated on ready access to the energy locked in the world's vast - but finite - supply of fossil fuel.  Our individual and collective prosperity, then, is a primary driver of global climate change.  This idea is captured by the graph at the top of this post, made popular by Robert Hargraves in his presentations of Aim High (see the pdf here), his proposal for an alternate fuel technology.  And our economic well-being is at the heart of the question of why so much evidence regarding climate change has elicited such a shockingly limited response to the impending calamity.

Let us explore some interesting aspects of this dilemma. 

As individuals, we are captive to a system upon which we are completely dependant, and this dependancy certainly limits the prospect of affecting any meaningful change.  And, sure, we can do our part and recycle and buy fuel efficient cars and generally be aware of our individual carbon footprint, but we are, each of us, locked into a reality that offers little scope for change.  Here in Canada, we live in a (so-called) representative democracy, and it is (supposedly) in the power of the individual en mass that we can really affect necessary change.  If that were true, though, why are we still asking why?  Why has the volume of evidence related to climate change not generated a ground-swell for change?   

Our own inertia and complacency has played a role in our limited response to the danger, but it is an inertia and complacency actively cultivated by our federal government.  Economic performance is a key measurement against which politicians rate themselves and their rivals, and politicians are quick to extoll the virtues of job creation that perpetuates our carbon economy.  The Government of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, is a leading proponent of this status quo.

To make the point, a commentary by Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail from last year notes that Canada "leads the world in presenting plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Canada leads the world in the size of the gap between plans and deeds."  As he says, every government since 1990 has presented stirring visions for the environment that were doomed to failure before they were announced.  The Harper government is no different, though perhaps more calculating, than those that preceded it.  As Simpson says,
"The Harper government offers a target for reducing emissions that contribute to climate change by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.  Over and over, ministers repeat this target, even though every environmentalist, oil company expert, academic, diplomat and bureaucrat who has studied the government's plan agrees that the target cannot be me, at least not the way the government is going about it."
This is a consistently cynical approach by the Harper government,
"It is typical of the Harper government to keep repeating statements that are implausible in the extreme or simply false, as in this case.  The theory, presumably, is that the truth arrives too late to catch up to the implausible assertion, that the media has given up tracking the gap between statement and reality, and that the people don't fundamentally care, so disillusioned are they with Ottawa and its ubiquitous spinning and information control."
In his commentary, Simpson makes reference to the (then) recent report released by the government's own Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughn, who provides his judgement on the Harper plan.  Scott notes that the government's plan to reduce emissions will not drop by the forecast rate of 17%; rather, he suggests that the Harper plan will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 7.5% against the 2005 baseline, an increase of 178 million tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Simpson suggests that one reason why the target won't be reached is the Harper government's methods - relying on a level of excessive regulations of the type the government regularly denounces.  As Simpson writes,
"Each industry - trucking, aviation, shipping, rail, oil and gas, electricity generation, chemicals, fertilizer, iron and steel - is to be regulated to the pips.  Rather than use economic tools such as carbon-trading markets or a carbon tax, the government is going to use the least economically efficient tool, the very one it continually decries - regulations."
Simpson continues his commentary on the Harper government's gamesmanship on the environment when he notes that the ineffectual regulations are accompanied by backroom lobbying by industry.  This, he says, "means there are still no regulations for coal-fired power plants and not even preliminary ones yet made public for the oil and gas industry."

Simpson concludes his commentary by saying,
"Canada has been embarrassed in the world's eyes so many times on the climate-change file that another embarrassment matters little.  The Harper government has many climate-change deniers and skeptics in its ranks - in caucus and the country.  Doing nothing, or as little as possible as slowly as possible, suits them just fine."
So government often plays a central role in the status quo, and the economy (our prosperity) is a key element in the purposely designed inertia.  To drive that point forcefully home, we can return to the aforementioned Scott Vaughn, who recently left his post as environmental commissioner to take a position with a public policy institute.  In his final report to the Harper government, Vaughn stated that the environment and the economy have never been so thoroughly intertwined in this country.  As reported in the Toronto Star in relation to Vaughn's last report, "about 30 per cent of Canada's gross domestic product is fuelled by exports, and natural resources account for half those exports.  More than 750,000 Canadians were working in the resource sector in 2010 and that number is growing.  Ottawa estimates more than 600 major resource projects, representing $650 billion in new investments , are under way or planned across the country for the next decade."

Despite Prime Minister Harper's calm assertion that his government will continue to provide "responsible resource development", Mr. Vaughn is less sure, as he says,
"There are serious questions about the federal capacity to safeguard Canada's environment."
Our headlong rush to global climate change is driven by the prosperity of individuals, corporations and governments - aided and abetted (in pursuit of their own prosperity) by the media, think-tanks and special interest groups.  Each plays the assigned role in a system seemingly unalterable.  And it will continue to be unalterable while our "leaders" remain blindly aligned to a model of prosperity based on the carbon economy.  Their lack of vision and leadership has been enabled and sanctified by an adherence to a range of tired ideologies - in politics, in business, in religion (more on this topic in future posts).    

I submit, dear reader, that we are in desperate need of new thinking.  And as part of that new thinking, we need to consider a new kind of prosperity - a prosperity that is sustainable.  And, by happy coincidence, there is just such a site that you can turn to in pursuit of new knowledge and thinking -- it is called Sustainable Prosperity, a national research and policy network at the University of Ottawa.  While it is not the only such site and source for information on alternative policies and strategies that can move us to a low carbon economy, it is certainly a site worth your time and support.

And while I'm on the subject of new thinking, and the move away from our carbon-based economy, why not check out the Pembina Institute, a group that is "leading Canada's transition to a clean energy future".

Or perhaps you'll want to learn about the Environmental Law Centre, or West Coast Environmental Law.  These organizations, and many more, provide alternative viewpoints and advocacy that balance the dominant policies and outdated ideologies espoused by our corporate and political masters.  And, no matter where you are, similar organizations are working in most every country around the world (such as the UK's Responding to Climate Change).

If enough people, individuals like you and I, captive to a system upon which we are completely dependant, can educate ourselves to the impending calamity inherent in our carbon-based economy, a critical mass will become aware of and advocate for the alternatives available to us.  And then we will project the power of individuals en masse to affect meaningful change.

And we'll stop asking why, and start asking how and when.

Postcript.  A brief article published on the RTCC website piqued my interest, and I think it a fitting coda to my post.  Rajendra Pachauri leads the UN's IPCC, and it is his group that will soon release the 5th assessment of global warming and its impacts.  Pachauri made this comment,
"We may utilise the gifts of nature just as we choose, but in our books the debits are always equal to the credits. May I submit that humanity has completely ignored, disregarded and been totally indifferent to the debits? Today we have the knowledge to be able to map out the debits and to understand what we have done to the condition of this planet.  We cannot isolate ourselves from anything that happens in any part of this planet.  It will affect all of us in some way or the other."
The article includes a video interview Pachauri gave at the COP18 climate change conference in Doha.  When asked about the role of "political will" in the context of political action in responding more effectively to the climate change problem, he said this,
"I think what's going to be crucially important is the awareness of the public, particularly in democracies, because that's the only way you create political will.  I mean, its the public that's going to demand actions.  And I suppose that raises the importance of creating awareness among the public, and you know the media has an extremely important part to play in this.  Once you have political will in terms of action at the national and sub-national level then I've no doubt that it will percolate into the discussions taking place in the COPs. And hopefully it will lead to an agreement."
And so dear reader, as noted in my post, the resolution to the problems of our carbon economy and global climate change will get a critical boost through the power of individuals en masse, and such newfound political will cannot happen soon enough.        

By David.

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Your musical accompaniment for the day, "Madness" from the album The 2nd Law by Muse.  Enjoy.

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