The Best (only viable)Adaptation is Mitigation

A policy of adaptation to climate change as the primary response to climate change would not only be self-defeating. It would tax all human and material capital on the planet in pursuit of an impossible dream. It is fundamentally failure-bound because climate chaos would easily overwhelm it. That is why the Green New Deal is such an important cultural turning point for the American people.

That is also why the failure of politicians to adapt to the new conditions recognized by a citizenry that is awakening to the extremity of the emerging climate reality is so offensive. The politicians are not prepared to face actual constituents who know what is going on and expect them to do something about it. Frankly, they serve the short-term financial interests of the big fossil-fueled corporations that continue to disrupt the Earth System at its very core as if there were no tomorrow. There will be no captain once the ship sinks.

Well, as time goes by, tomorrow becomes today, but the time for major climate action was yesterday. To anyone not bought off or just ignorantly out of the loop, only the most extreme climate action now has a chance to limit climate chaos from spiraling entirely out of control. The Green New Deal is a conceptual starting place. Even it is not enough if implemented, because so much more is involved in transforming a society from fossil-fuel addiction to ecosystem restoration. Yes, recycling more and buying a Prius while going about your industrial-consumerist “lifestyle” just won’t cut it.

Feinstein’s Folly

And that is why the old guard in Congress is so upset with smart political upstarts such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the youth of the Sunrise Movement. They refuse to mince sunrise.movementwords about the dangers ahead or accept platitudes in place of action. Politicians either dodge them completely by leaving their office by the back door or dismiss them out of hand. They patronize intelligent committed youth, most of whom know far more about the science of climate chaos than Senator Diane Feinstein, for example. She was so offensive when the Sunrise kids went to her seeking climate leadership instead of the same old BS. Well, they got the same old BS.

13-Dianne-Feinstein-2.w700.h700“I’ve been doing this for thirty years…[blah, blah, blah]…” Yes, and that is exactly the problem. For thirty years, the establishment politicians have kicked the can down the treacherous road to climate catastrophe. And now that we are at the brink, they want the rest of us to sit down and shut up because, in Feinstein’s words, “I know what I’m doing.” No, WE know what you are doing and it is too close to zero and too late to tolerate.

The Urgency of Now

Unless humans initiate major interventions now, toward reversing the trajectory of global warming, no amount of adaptation to the catastrophic consequences of global warming will be enough. Although it is hard to determine precisely, the tipping point toward full climate chaos is very close at hand. So many self-amplifying processes produce accelerating ecological destruction and may lead to human extinction unless humans act now to radically restrict our carbon emissions.

As Earth’s climate spirals toward a Jupiter-like atmosphere, intolerable conditions will extinguish most life on planet Earth. No human adaptation would be adequate unless it is a response to the conditions that we have already made less severe by taking extreme climate actions to mitigate the carbon emissions we continue to cause. And they are shocked because they think that the Green New Deal is a radical proposal that we somehow cannot afford. It is not nearly enough, but it points in the only direction we can afford. We must get reasonable politicians who can follow facts to begin leading a mobilization that made the transformation of American society to fight World War II seem like a spring picnic.

On the Ground Again: Flourishing Below Sea Level…for Now

Much of Holland is below sea level. Will the dikes hold? The Dutch have held back the North Sea for hundreds of years. They are the world’s experts on dike and canal building and pumping seawater. But they may be facing a whole new situation in the years to come.

Traveling through the Netherlands one recent spring, I could not find a hill over a couple of hundred feet high, and that was rare. Holland is very flat, much of the land is below sea level. If the dykes were to fail, the country would return to the marshes and estuaries so much of it had been before it was “reclaimed.” In the 13th century, windmills had begun to drain areas below sea level for farming.

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Areas of Holland Below Sea Level are in Blue to the right of ‘s-Gravenhage

We were staying in a house we rented via Airbnb in Haarlem at the corner of Martin Luther King Lan and Schweitzer Lan. I would sit at a desk by the window looking down on that corner from the second floor. With my laptop and coffee, I wrote and watched the early morning traffic. It was Spring. Almost as many people were riding bicycles to work or school as were driving the typical small fuel-efficient European cars.

Because the tulips were in bloom, it had been impossible to find a rental in Amsterdam. Haarlem actually turned out to be just as convenient, an easy train ride to central Amsterdam for the museums, canal-side cafés and old-world sights. Both cities were fascinating. Despite several European trips I never get over the massive number of ancient buildings in Europe, all made of hand-shaped stone. Sadly, it also reminds me of the historic buildings demolished by Trumpist wrecking balls in New York City.

We caught a local bus to the famous Keukenhof, touted rightly as the “most beautiful spring garden in the world.” The Keukenhof is an exquisite 32-hectare garden with every variety of tulip, countless other flowers, trees imaginable. Massive tulip fields and bicycle paths availed themselves nearby. We walked through a tiny fraction of the Keukenhof before renting bicycles to ride along the canals and among the tulip fields nearby. It was delightful.

One day we rented a car so we could drive to Petten, NL, to see the ancestral town from which my wife’s family had immigrated to “The New World” on the Mayflower. Petten is right on the coast of the North Sea, behind a huge dike built of sand and planted with grasses. It appeared to have been recently renovated since the grass clumps on the dike were all new and planted in neat rows.

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Dike or Sand Sea-wall and Beach at Petten, North Holland, facing the North Sea.

On arriving in Petten, we noticed that the whole town seemed rather new. Construction was still ongoing on a large staircase over the dike to the beach. Of course, we climbed it and went down to the broad beach. I was surprised to see the construction of what appeared to be a large restraint on the beach, built on piers about 15 feet high, with lots of big windows facing the sea. Everything in Petten from the beach to the town seemed new compared to other towns in Holland that had existed for centuries.

We asked some folks in one of the stores in town why everything was so new. As it turned out, Petten had been lost to storm surges twice in history, then destroyed by the Germans in World War II. I wondered how long it would be until the current global sea rise would destroy Patten. Despite its accomplishments in holding back the North Sea in past centuries, Holland will have never experienced the degree of sea rise predicted for this century as a result of global warming and glacier and polar ice cap melt.

Clearly, the Dutch are a resourceful people with a long history of resilience. They seem both very well organized and among the happiest people on the planet. Things are ‘expensive,’ at least from an American traveler’s perspective. But the Dutch are able to afford their rather advanced lives. I did not see a homeless person on the entire trip. Modern windmills and bicycles are everywhere. The Dutch seem to be adapting to climate change as well as anyone. But as the world fails to adequately reduce carbon emissions to mitigate extreme temperature rise, they too are in for some high tides and tough times.

Individual Climate Ethics and Global Change

Can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything and take shorter showers, install some solar panels, buy low-emissions products, etc., etc., can we avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem runs much deeper than that – it involves the entire Earth System. The climate crisis is endemic to industrial civilization itself. That means, in some sense, everything must change. But how can change adequate to this global crisis be accomplished? That is the big unacknowledged question. I have heard many emissions reduction targets (you know, 20% reduction by 2030, etc. – they mean nothing).

Words and Inaction

Such proclamations are abstract; they say nothing about how such minimal gestures toward necessity would be accomplished. Yet we are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity and every form of ecological and climate disturbance. Emissions reductions proclamations and agreements are nothing more than fantasy.

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Species extinctions are accelerating with increasing more intense Droughts and other forms of  Climate Chaos

Hundreds of species go extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway. New car sales are booming, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has never exceeded 1%. So many ecological fronts on which destabilization is accelerating make it nearly impossible to keep up, no less mount the planetary-scale changes required of us to make an actual difference.

Euphemisms avoid confronting difficult decisions. The good news is that new capacity in renewable energy production is growing faster than new fossil-fuel capacity, despite Trumpist coal hawking. But to have a chance at slowing weather weirding and global climate chaos, we need to stop all new fossil-fueled energy production — a mind-boggling prospect. Yet, we actually need to use less energy by taking serious, even drastic conservation measures.

Individual Action

One of the most important factors for those of us who already take climate-disruption danger seriously is that we not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. Individual action by those who are aware and care will never be enough. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable and necessary, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism It may oppose the collective anti-moralism of collective consumerism. However, it will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan, the technosphere that continues its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. Only mass mobilization for major energy-use reduction has a chance of being enough.

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Consumer Identity

The current momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some moderate level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will be enough to take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. The change we need is deeply systemic, and that will not happen until a social movement much broader than the Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” can mobilize people on a vast scale.

Collective Action

Only mass mobilization can overcome the force the economic as well as political momentum, and allow us to transform the extractive industrial economy into an ecological society. This is where transforming the consumer culture becomes paramount. The more we can demonstrate low-carbon consumer minimalism and vastly reduce energy consumption while restoring local ecosystems, the faster social change can help re-stabilize climate and avert total disaster.

We need to replace all carbon-based consumer products and services with consumer minimalism, now. That will involve some constraints we are not used to, but there is no time to waste. I discussed this in more detail at TheHopefulRealist.com, especially in my Feb 24, 2016 post. We must all do what we can do and join any effort we can in our local communities to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path to extinction.

Hidden Costs Constrain the Benefits of Transitioning to Renewable Energy

It seems that little effort to understand fully the costs and benefits of the transition from fossil fuel to PV energy production has accompanied the rush to install utility scale solar and wind farms. However, it is very important to examine the environmental costs of achieving the environmental benefits of low carbon emissions energy production, especially at industrial scale. Moreover, that transition must involve so far largely ignored major societal transformations if humanity is actually to achieve the goals of zero carbon emissions, ecological restoration, and climate stabilization.

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Paris Agreement Celebration

Given the accelerating trajectory of ecosystems collapse and climate destabilization well underway, achieving those goals is simply imperative. Yet, despite the importance of the technical, economic, and social complexities inherent in such a comprehensive transition to “sustainability,” utilities, governments, and corporations pursue the quest mostly in a business-as-usual format.The COP-21 Paris Climate Agreements, so difficult to implement, nevertheless fall short of needed international action.

Even before reading Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions, I worried about the carbon costs of the production of renewables. Zehner raised many questions but did not provide the kind of data-driven findings we need to optimize renewables deployment, though he rightly asserted the primacy of the problem of overconsumption.

Optimization Imperative

Importantly, the choices are difficult and the optimal solutions very hard to achieve.  In several ways, international trade is an important culprit. Not only does it add immensely to carbon costs; it also amplifies the waste resulting from not keeping manufacturing domestic in all PV markets. Corporate financial optimization conflicts with ecological and climate imperatives.

Clearly, we need an international agreement that works in the exact opposite direction from the extant NAFTA or delayed TTP regimes. No approximation of net-zero emissions will be possible in the near future without severely curtailing international trade and minimizing the distance between materials extraction, and the manufacture, installation and operation of near carbon-neutral energy systems. The same goes for all industrial production.

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Only Deep Industrial Contraction can Achieve Adequate Reduction in Carbon Emissions.

We must accelerate the transition, but we must do so consistent with the goal of minimizing net carbon emissions in the process as well as in the outcome.  In that context, it is interesting to note that so little mention is made of energy conservation in the literature of emissions reduction and “sustainability” — except indirectly, in terms of improving production efficiency. The immensity of the task escapes most analysts.

DeGrowth and Consumption

One of Zehner’s core arguments is that the renewable energy transition not only consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy production and depletes increasingly scarce mineral resources. It also encourages more energy consumption and waste.  It is not surprising to find the old pattern of “unanticipated consequences of social action” in this context.

The core consequence in this case is that the goal of zero carbon emissions to stabilize ecosystems and climate must entail significant contraction of industrial economies themselves – “degrowth.” Most government officials and policy wonks do not anticipate that deeply transformative consequence. It contravenes their deeply held beliefs in economic growth as the primary societal goal.

Two Kinds of “Grass Roots”

Most analysts and even political leaders agree on the need for large-scale highly rational international agreements to optimize the transition to a low-carbon renewable-energy-based economy. Yet little prospect for such large-scale political solutions is in sight. At one level, local community efforts to fight global warming are essential. However, some sort of “grass-roots” effort also must arise within the PV and wind industries, in order to optimize the extraction-production-distribution-installation matrix, despite the difficulty. Maybe the industry could form cooperatives to trade or share elements of the cycle in order to minimize distance between these elements in order to optimize carbon-reduction benefits. At this point, micro-economic incentives are lacking.

As Kris De Decker documented as early as 2015, based on diverse research findings, net-positive life-cycle carbon-reduction benefits from renewables are far from automatic. They only occur with localized optimization of supply chains. An important step is to bring awareness to the players — and to environmentalists too. However, some form of leverage on the industry is also needed, or it’s not likely to happen. Time is short, and the cost of time in this instance is very high.

Civility and the Climate Impacts of Denialism

Yesterday, I read an article in the Scientific American discussing a key dilemma that stymies climate action. No standards exist that could provide firm measures of how much carbon emissions reduction is necessary by what date to avoid the worst climate chaos. The article asked the difficult question of how much CO2 we must remove from the atmosphere to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The tendency of political elites to dodge such specific targets results from their avoidance of any basis for judging political policies for having failed.

The article also raised the issue of whether science could develop new techniques of carbon sequestration – “negative emissions” technologies – soon enough to use them to avoid catastrophic climate change. It also questioned whether deployment of such technologies might detract from direct mitigation efforts. Those are interesting and difficult questions.

I have to disagree with the continuing search for new technologies as the answer to the climate crisis. We must cut carbon emissions by reducing the energy we use and waste. Trying to capture the emissions from excessive use and waste cannot solve the underlying problem. However, I appreciated the thoughtful analysis and difficulty in finding and optimizing strategies for slowing, stopping, and reversing global warming before we reach a tipping point beyond which collapse of climate and ecosystems forces societal collapse.

Climate Discussion, or Not

I read that article right after participating in some “discussions” on a Facebook group called, Climate Change Discussion. Discussions of Climate change are not often actual discussions. On this Facebook group, responses to posts frequently devolve into rather juvenile name-calling and nasty shouting matches. On the one hand, some occasionally interesting and informative posts appear there. Too often, however, so-called skeptics attack the person offering such information or opinion as “alarmists,” and use far more hostile epithets. Well, that may be tolerable as far as it goes, but the “alarmists” become targets for a wide range of abusive accusations. Both terms, “alarmists” and “denialists,” are more accusatory than descriptive, with one exception. “Alarmist” implies unjustified panic, while “denialist” implies resistance to facts. The difference is not trivial.

It strikes me as peculiar that those who claim to have “sound reservations” about climate models become so angry with those who present facts that contradict their “skepticism.” Facts, of course, are denied or ignored. The so-called skeptics have no problem denigrating large numbers of scientists who have no other ax to grind other than seeking accurate measures of reality and projecting trends within reasonable parameters. Yet “skeptics” take extreme offense at the idea that insisting on being blind to obvious and demonstrated facts contributes to the delay of any action that might mitigate the devastation that Bangladeshis and others already feel, and some call criminal because the delays cause great suffering and death.

Rising Tides in Ghana

Rising Tides in Ghana

Climate scientists base their findings and projections on vast amounts of time-series data gathered by many field researchers and recording stations around the world. The duplicitous sanctimonious denial of fact and science are puzzling on the surface. Such behavior is at least callus and indifferent to the plight of others who suffer from what we participants in the carbon economy do that causes such suffering. It is understandable that some call it criminal for contributing to a political climate of do-nothing-ism that causes many more deaths than if people just faced reality and our own complicity in its path — and did something about it.

Refined Climate Models and Worsening Crisis

New data have repeatedly confirmed the predictions of climate science models as correct, except that they have repeatedly UNDER-estimated the effects of global warming because various amplifying feedback processes were not at first incorporated into their complex models. Arctic water exposed due to melting sea-ice absorbs more heat than the ice that melted due to atmospheric warming. Melting tundra releases methane, which is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than the CO2 we release directly, which caused the tundra to melt in the first place, etc., etc.

What that all means is that climate science is far beyond the initial hypothesis testing stage; it is at the stage of refining models that have already effectively described the trends in the data and do so more accurately as more data on feedback variables are added to the predictive models. The sad truth is that the improved models consistently forecast a very dire immediate future and are entirely consistent with current climate disruptions. That is why the situation is much worse than initially thought by climate scientists and why denialist politics is so ABSURD.

When a prediction underestimates an outcome that it predicts, that does not mean the ‘theory’ is wrong; it means the theory is incomplete. It might seem unfortunate that climate models did not over-predict the effects, in which case, we would have a little breathing room. As it stands, we do not. On the other hand, over-prediction would have generated far more skepticism and denial than we must overcome now.

The intersection of denialism and science has its roots in complex relations between mainstream (corporate) economics, political corruption, and social-psychological processes within particular groups. But that discussion awaits another post.

Politics of Denial, Technology and Reality

I keep running across obsessively denialist arguments in Face Book groups such as “Climate Change Discussion,” that make claims like, “Green Energy Is Expensive & It Won’t Save The Environment.” They brazenly tout false information, distortions of out-of-date facts, and assumptions that have no factual basis. They seem to reflect no critical thinking ability. Otherwise, we would have to classify them as outright propaganda.

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Carbon Emissions are Real. Photo:  Ghana Coal Plant.

Some social psychologists have gone into great detail explaining the complex sources of climate denialism in terms of compliance with social norms, avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and other factors that make it hard for people to believe that such a catastrophic global trend could be happening, even in the face of clear evidence. “Confirmation bias” is a concept that captures much of the psychological basis of the distortions of reality that would seem impossible if one simply looks objectively at the facts. But there is more at play here.

 

Social Psychology of Ideology

After all, who is purely objective? Most people (including scientists) routinely exclude evidence that conflicts with their existing beliefs until the evidence is too strong to resist. People find ways to “interpret” evidence to make it appear to confirm their biases; if that doesn’t work some folks simply deny the validity of the evidence, no matter how strong it is by scientific standards. Only when others in their social group recognize the facts do they come around to the conclusions the facts imply.

There is, of course, the general human resistance to change. In the case of climate disruption, the human changes actually needed to adequately deal with the problem are extreme. People subconsciously know that an adequate response would completely transform the way they live. That is a huge and threatening unknown, very hard to process.

As a social psychologist myself, I certainly understand these processes and the difficulties people face in recognizing a new and threatening reality. That is especially true when a new reality:

  • has seemed until now a speculation about the future,
  • is so massive in scale that it is hard to conceptualize,
  • is thought to be something that happens far away in little known places,
  • seems to not directly affect my life today, and
  • appears to be beyond my own influence anyway.

Ideology and Technology

Some denialists focus more on technology than on climate itself. They pitch for the conventional high-energy technologies of the industrial economy that caused the problem in the first place. Among these folks, the ideology of endless progress through new technology and new materials reigns supreme. That is why the ‘nuclear option’ is so appealing to them.

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Techno-Billionaire Bill. Photo: Pinterest

Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies would have governments pour billions into new nuclear power plant designs and let existing viable technologies languish. As one scientist put it, “nuclear power is an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive way to boil water.” Thermal solar collectors are far more efficient and cost-effective at producing steam. However, existing technologies have no profit potential for new capital investment – no new patents there, only benefit to people and planet. I see no reason to accept techno-billionaires as directors of global energy policy.

 

I have had to conclude that NO single technology, or even a combination of several, can do enough on its own to reach the NEGATIVE carbon emissions now necessary to reign in the trajectory of planetary heating already “in the pipeline,” without major reductions in energy use and waste by humans. That is the only hope to stabilize global climate.

Even producing and deploying existing low-carbon technologies requires the use of carbon-emitting processes. We must industrially manufacture even the “greenest” technologies in order to deploy them on a significant scale. All that involves carbon emissions from the processes of material extraction, industrial manufacture, distribution, and installation. In that context, nuclear power, being the most capital-intensive of all technologies is most carbon consuming and expensive to build and activate. Never mind its reliance on outdated vulnerable grid configurations that we must decentralize along with power production. On top of that, we simply do not have enough time to deploy significant numbers of nuclear power plants to replace coal and gas-powered electricity generation before the climate collapses beyond hope, even if we ignore the extreme dangers and costs.

Climate Realism

“The solution” must combine near-zero emissions technologies with major constraints on ALL but the most necessary energy consumption, mostly by the current highest energy consumption nations. That is where most of the excessive consumption and waste is. That is the uncomfortable and very difficult fact, which is why confirmation bias is so rampant and clear thinking on the matter is so rare.

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Solar and Wind Power offer Cost-effective Energy Production with the Lowest Carbon Emissions to Install and operate. Photo: Shutterstock.

At the same time, the most vocal public denialists studiously tout false logic as utility corporations do their cost-benefit analysis and increasingly find wind and solar a better economic deal than coal or now even fracked gas. So they add more wind and solar to their mix. Obsessive technophilia keeps touting nuclear power as “green” despite uneconomic and carbon-intensive construction and maintenance and perpetually failed efforts to find a way to store nuclear waste safely.

 

The climate crisis is now. If we were to wait for nuclear power plants to come on line to replace coal and gas, ignoring their inherent dangers, we would have passed the point of no return on climate chaos. Equating wasteful fossil-fuel energy consumption or a new nuclear power program with “civilization” is to degrade the concept by replacing human values with obsession with overly complex technology — which is exactly what we need to get over. We must optimize deployment of existing solar and wind power, and electric-powered transportation, while constraining our over-use of fossil-fueled electric power in our daily lives and rapidly restoring ecosystems, in order to achieve the negative carbon emissions necessary to curtail climate collapse.