Tag Archives: climate change

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THE WORLD IN 2050: CREATING/IMAGINING JUST CLIMATE FUTURES: A NEARLY CARBON-NEUTRAL CONFERENCE

THE WORLD IN 2050: CREATING/IMAGINING JUST CLIMATE FUTURESA NEARLY CARBON-NEUTRAL CONFERENCE 24 October – 13 November 2016

from Resilience.org : Introducing … The Nearly Carbon-Free Academic Conference: The World in 2050 by John Foran

Scholars from University of Calfornia, Santa Barbara, wanted to see if they could reap most of the benefits of an academic conference without the huge carbon footprint associated with air travel. They have launched an interdisciplinary, online conference about climate futures:

…a conference where anyone could give a talk, no one had to fly to, and which anyone could attend and even participate in wide open discussions about the talks.

They thought that asking people to think about what the world would be like in 2050 would get a conversation going, and so they called the conference “The World in 2050:  Imagining and Creating Just Climate Futures,” and they invited the whole world to attend for three weeks starting on Monday, October 24 by going to a website at

http://ehc.english.ucsb.edu/?page_id=14895

to see what was going on.

Then they stayed home and waited to see what would happen.

 

The Scale of Change Over Time

(or “The difference between rust and fire”)

Randall Munroe has given us a great way to look at climate change over a somewhat-deep-time perspective.  (Remember, I’m an anthropologist, so 20,000 years is trifling – it’s next to nothing in geologic time, and only about one-tenth of the time since the first Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.) Today’s XKCD walks the viewer through a very nice scale model of the 20 millennia since the last glacial maximum, with some key events from the geological, archaeological and even linguistic record.  I’ll admit I haven’t taken the time to fact-check his placement of these events, but the ones I’m familiar with seem to be in about the right place (tragic extinctions of saber-toothed cats and Pokemon, I’m less certain about).  Scrolling through 500-year chunks of time, and reading the events therein, leaves one with a clear sense of just how out-of-the-ordinary the change over the last 500 years – and especially the last 100 years – has actually been.

earth_temperature_timeline

It’s good to see that the associated explainxkcd has not yet descended into a flame war (as of 11am PDT on 12 September 02016).  Clear, popular and provocative explorations often attract the attention of professional climate-denier trolls – this even happened to me once, gentle readers, despite the fact that I have “dozens of loyal fans… baker’s dozens… they come in 13s.” Remember, when there is over 97% scientific consensus on something, it is about as close to proven as science can reasonably get.

As Randall Munroe had pointed out previously, the difference between the effects of regular corrosion and a car fire is simply a question of how fast the oxidization is happening.

oxidation

When it comes to climate change, extinctions and far too many other phenomena, the difference between Anthropocene changes and natural background rates of change are roughly on that scale of difference.  It’s time to be in emergency response mode if we are to have any hope of saving what’s left.

 

Energy Return on Investment

What every schoolkid (and investor) should know, and why it is time for fossil fuel divestment.

Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is easy to understand: how much energy do you get out (R) compared to how much energy you had to put in to get access to that energy (I) –R:I. EROI tells you how much net energy you can expect to use for other things (driving cars, running generators, etc.). Traditional petroleum (think gushing oil wells) used to have a lucas_gusherspectacularly high EROI, about 1000:1 a century ago [1]. Since the 1970s, the EROI of the average barrel of petroleum has been dropping fast – it is now below 5:1 [1].

“The evidence suggests that the global production of conventional oil plateaued and may have begun to decline from 2005.” [2]

Essentially, we are expending a lot of energy to scrape the bottom of the barrel, digging out very hard-to-get stuff in deep seas (think Deepwater Horizon and its attendant complications), tar sands, athabasca_oil_sandsand “tight” shale oil.  Because we have to use so much energy just to get at that fuel, it only makes sense (from a profit perspective) if the selling price of the resulting fuel is very high.

“We find the EROI for each major fossil fuel resource (except coal) has declined substantially over the last century. Most renewable and non-conventional energy alternatives have substantially lower EROI values than conventional fossil fuels.” [1]

As you may have heard (or noticed, if you fill a gas tank), the selling price of petroleum has recently dropped a lot.  Seems weird, but there are explanations (more on that later). What this price drop means is that a lot of places where it used to make sense to be extracting these fossil fuels, places where extraction companies have invested a lot in exploration and infrastructure to get at the stuff, don’t make sense anymore.  This is part of what is meant by “stranded assets” (more below) and it can lead to things like bankruptcy [3].

So if energy from petroleum is increasingly hard to get, why would the price be dropping now? Some of it may be due to a drop in demand because of the global economic slowdown, in turn related to China slowing the pace of its phenomenal economic growth [4].  Some of it may be due to the production boom from short-lived tight oil extraction and fracking taking place in the U.S., where production is high enough at first, but seems to fall off rapidly after about 15 years at each new site [2].

“Thus, despite the fall in crude oil prices from a new peak in June, 2014, after that of July, 2008, the peak oil issue remains with us, and broad economic recovery combined with the consequences of recent oil exploration and production cut-backs will bring back further major oil price rises.” [2]
The truth of the current situation is even more complicated than the EROI, of course. There is also the climate disruption represented by fossil fuel reserves.  And this leads to the other reason that fossil fuel companies should expect collapsing prices: we don’t want it so much anymore.  If we are serious about meeting the targets that global leaders just signed onto, we can’t even burn the fuel reserves that people have already invested in developing, let alone continue to develop new ones.  This concern was laid out by Bill McKibben in 2012 in “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” and is even more relevant in light of the Paris COP 21 agreed ambition to attempt to stay below a 1.5C rise in average global temperatures [5].

When whales get stuck on beaches, helping them back to deeper waters is usually the right thing to do [6].  But when fossil fuel titans are stranded, gasping for profits under the weight of their history, the most merciful response for everyone might just be to put them out of their misery.  A few brief moments of economic pain can spare us all from longer decades of climate and pollution disasters if these beasts are allowed to keep flopping around on- or off-shore.  Sadly, we are past the point of easy, painless solutions now.

“If the oil crisis hits the economy hard, then the prolonged recession that results could dampen the rising demand that everyone projects. If oil prices thus remain relatively depressed for longer than expected, this could hemorrhage the industry beyond repair.”[6]

To hasten the inevitable demise of fossil fuels, there are increasing calls for divestment.

“Divestment is the opposite of an investment – it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.” [7a]

Cities, colleges, foundations and individuals are hearing from activists demanding that they withdraw investments from fossil fuels.  And they are responding, with 517 institutions committed to withdrawing their investments in fossil fuels as of this post [7b].

“For the divestment skeptics who believe I am pushing an environmental agenda at the expense of necessities such as financial aid, let it be clear: The financial argument for divestment is sound, even independent of environmental concerns. The investment literature overwhelmingly shows that fossil fuel-free portfolios have higher risk adjusted returns than those invested in fossil fuel companies, which is understandable, considering the increasing risk of fossil fuel companies’ faulty practices and the imminence of carbon legislation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in August that California pension funds lost $5 billion due to investment in fossil fuels. ” [8]

If you are so inclined, you might think of divestment as a death penalty for criminal corporations who knowingly perpetrated [9] mass murders [10] in the past and who plan to continue into the future. I generally prefer less retribution-focused imagery, perhaps that of allowing an ill and deranged sufferer the dignity of a quick death, but then again, perhaps that metaphor is less accurate.  Either way, the humane thing to do is to get it over with quickly, before more harm is done.  Keeping fossil fuel extraction on life-support with continued investments is doing no one any good at this point.

Since EROI from fossil fuels will continue to drop, and since there is essentially incontrovertible evidence of harm from the stuff,  why would any sane person invest money in fossil fuel extraction at this point?

Divestment is the rational and compassionate thing to do.

References

(Note: much of the cited information actually came from other primary sources, referenced in the summaries below, because this is just a blog and I didn’t want to take the time to dig for primary sources – not the best scholarship on my part, but still a good starting point for discussion.)

[1] J. Lambert, C. Hall, S. Balogh. 2013.  EROI of Global Energy Resources: Status, Trends and Social Implications  http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/pdf/outputs/Energy/60999-EROI_of_Global_Energy_Resources.pdf

[2]   M. Jefferson. 2016. A global energy assessment. WIREs Energy Environ 2016, 5:715. doi: 10.1002/wene.179 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wene.179/epdf

[3] Carbontracker.org. 2015. The $2 trillion stranded assets danger zone: How fossil fuel firms risk destroying investor returns. http://www.carbontracker.org/report/stranded-assets-danger-zone/

[4] D. Nathman. 2016. Crude Oil Prices In 2016: Made In China?  Forbes.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougnathman/2016/01/20/crude-oil-prices-in-2016-made-in-china/#4bc36cb05b23

[5]  N. Scharping. 2016. Half a Degree Makes a Big Difference for Global Climate http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2016/04/22/a-half-degree-makes-a-big-difference-for-global-climate/#.VyWpqjB96Um

[6] Strandednomore.org. 2013. What To Do If You Find A Live Stranded Whale Or Dolphin: An Inconvenient Advice from StrandedNoMore.  http://strandednomore.org/what-to-do-if-you-find-a-live-stranded-whale-or-dolphin-an-inconvenient-advice-from-strandednomore/

[7] N. Ahmed. 2016. This Could Be the Death of the Fossil Fuel Industry — Will the Rest of the Economy Go With It?  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35817-we-could-be-witnessing-the-death-of-the-fossil-fuel-industry-will-it-take-the-rest-of-the-economy-down-with-it

[7] Fossilfree.org. 2016. a) http://gofossilfree.org/what-is-fossil-fuel-divestment/ and b) http://gofossilfree.org/commitments/

[8] S. Vaughan. 2015. Divestment Movement Spurs Existential Crisis in Higher Education. http://www.truth-out.org/speakout/item/32926-divestment-movement-spurs-existential-crisis-in-higher-education

[9] S. Hall. 2015. Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago. Scientific American.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/

[10] World Health Organization. 2015. Climate change and health.  http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs266/en/

We’ve got goals: the 17 SDGs

Global Goals SDGs

The UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals took effect the first day of 2016.  I’ll be leading a discussion of these goals at the upcoming NTU Sustainability Salon.  As I see it, the most promising thing about this renewed effort is the intention to interlink these challenges, recognizing interconnections and building bridges between disciplinary silos.

Learn more:

 

 

Goodbye and good riddance to coal

Two fascinating and promising new articles regarding this fossil of a fuel (both from German Energiewende perspectives):

Is renewable electricity now driving coal prices?

 at Energy Transition makes the argument that, particularly in light of COP21 and the divestment movement, coal’s dropping price may not lead to more demand (as traditional economics would predict), but instead may be a consequence of the fact that no one really likes coal anymore.  Even China’s coal use is down 5%, and their coal imports are down 35%. Is “The Invisible Hand” actually getting it right for a change, or is this really just demonstrating the efficacy of national policies in places like China and Germany?coal_and_renewables

Coal prices are at rock bottom, and coal companies have been hurt badly. (Photo by Marcel Oosterwijk, modified, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Can Germany engineer a coal exit?

This Science Climate Policy editorial notes that, although cheap coal is still Germany’s top energy source (43% in 2015) and top GHG emissions source (40% of carbon emissions), renewables are rapidly overtaking coal there.  They are particularly heavy users of some of the least-efficient, dirtiest coal: lignite.  Germany has pledged to go to 80% renewables by 2050 (and they’re committed to giving up nuclear power, and it’s not exactly the sunshine state up there, so it’s not as if they’re just doing it because it’s easy). Weaning themselves off coal is the only way they will get there.  Agora Energiewende proposes halting all construction of new plants and lignite mines now, and closing down the older lignite plants beginning in 2018.

industry

“The Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones.”

Fritjof Capra (from Z. Yamani)

Coal is the fuel that opened the way to the Industrial Revolution, for both good and ill. That was a long time ago, at the beginning of the Anthropocene.  It really is time to move on to something better. Germany is one major industrial nation who’s getting serious about doing it, and China appears to be on her way as well. This is a most welcome reflection of the Great Work of our time.

 

Climate Scientist Jason Box: “Yeah, the shit that’s going down has been testing my ability to block it.”

I find it impressive that an article like this was posted in a mainstream magazine like Esquire. I especially like their web address that went with the article, which includes the phrase “ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists.” I guess it’s good to know we’re not alone with our worries. I find the perspectives expressed (in regards to not getting bogged down in anxiety and depression) heartening and important to cling to in these times of dire beauty, because the work is still worth doing.

Little humans on a big planet

Happy Earth Day!  I hope you enjoyed the Google doodle and quiz as much as I did (in my squiddy way, I ‘spose).  You can even get Google to match your donations to the Jane Goodall Institute  and other wildlife charities (Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, World Wildlife Fund, WildAid, Zoological Society of London and Virunga Fund), through the end of the month.  Such donations are a small thing, to be sure, but if enough people pitch in where money is being leveraged so cleverly, we can change outcomes for the better.

Google Doodle Earth Day 2015

However, there are some big problems that are not going to be solved by a little donation here, or a shorter shower there. These are great things to do, they’re not wrong, but they’re still not enough.  All indications are that we are tipping over into some serious crisis conditions, and we will not be able to just do the first 10 of the 50 Simple Things… or shop our way out of it. As a recent Union of Concerned Scientists blogger pointed out:

When we focus on the “human activities” that are causing climate change, we sound like we’re laying climate blame on things like using a washer and dryer, driving, flipping a light switch and other day-to-day things many humans in the developed world take for granted and that many humans in the developing world would very much like to do, too.

two-thirds of all industrial carbon emissions come from just 90 institutions...

The problems are big, and the biggest sources of those problems lie in the policies of governments and the actions of big industries.  The people who make the decisions about how much coal and oil is burned to run our economy are the tiny handful of humans with most of the ability to cause (or, one hopes, fix) the problems.  And as Utah Phillips is alleged to have said

The earth is not dying. It is being killed, and the people killing it have names and addresses.

What’s more, those people who bear the vast majority of the responsibility could fit into a small auditorium (or, say, a few dozen board rooms, plus the chamber of the US House of Representatives).

How do we get them to change their evil ways?  Well, that’s where our real power comes in, not as individuals, but as groups and communities.  We need to demand transparency, so that we can make informed choices.  We need to demand accountability, so that those who are most responsible for making the messes are the ones who pay the most to clean them up.  We need to demand justice, for the global billions alive today who did so little to cause the problems, and the coming generations who are blameless, but who would suffer so much if we do not make real changes.  And we need to demand sanity, so that the nearsighted self-interest of a few does not lead to catastrophe for all.  To make these demands, we must come together, share information, and refuse to be silenced.

We are primates that have undergone millions of years of evolution to specialize in social learning and creative problem-solving. The seven-billion-plus humans alive and breathing right now have a lot of potential.  We can do incredible things.  So, let’s decide to do them, together.  We haven’t got time to wait any more.

Observational Learning in Sumatran Orangutans

Observational Learning in Sumatran Orangutans

Okay, now that I’m done ranting, I should probably go hug a tree 🙂

Happy Earth Day!