The crash that should be avoided
An Overshoot Commission has recently been launched. It is an initiative of the Paris Peace Forum. It wants to explore what techniques (geoengineering) can be used to restore the climate in case we cross the 1.5° climate change threshold.
I consider this initiative unwise for four reasons.
First unwise, from a control engineering point of view. In control engineering, overshoot is said to occur when there is leeway for corrective control beyond a certain tolerance range around a target value. If, in the case in question ‒ where, after a great deal of study and consultation, we identified the area between 0 and 1.5° as the extreme tolerance ‒ you continue to think that, beyond the 1.5° overshoot (from 0), you still have all the maneuvering room in the world to bend the climate change back to 1°, then you are probably the only one by now. Beyond 1.5°, and certainly with the speed at which you are hurtling towards it now, warming will run wild, and there will be no way back. If you are on the edge of the abyss, and you put one foot two inches too far, you no longer have any overshoot but just slide down into the depths. Then you crash.
Secondly, unwise because that repair option has already been sniffed at twice and also rejected twice. The first time around 2007 when sustainability professors were appointed all over the world, and the second time in the year just before the Paris COP, where then finally, fully aware that we are approaching a life-threatening situation, the firm choice was made for vigourous mitigation. So the flirting with the repair way has been going on for twenty years. It is physically impossible (see A. Robock, 20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea), and socially it can not be done either. Geoengineers do not realize that at the moment of application we will be in a super threatening situation where everything (climate, economy, countries) will be violently destabilized at the same time. As a result, interests (of countries, companies, families, individuals) will increasingly come into sharp conflict. If global warming gets out of hand, causing unimaginable suffering and uncertainty everywhere, the whole world will become a conflict zone, everyone will take revenge, and geopolitically you won't get anyone on the same page for absurd (in terms of scale, in terms of risk) technological mitigation projects.
And so, the justification of this pretentious Overshoot Club without many political and scientific big shots: "Research indicates that, if these options supplemented emissions cuts and were governed well, they could help ward off harms to people and the planet", is nothing but a load of hot air. Because that "well governed" can be ruled out in a reality that is going to consist of hunger and misery. The earth will turn into one large battlefield that will last for centuries.
Third, unwise (and mean) because out of a hidden motive ‒ you don't want (energy addict as you are) to think about the pain of having to use much less energy urgently, and so you'd rather shift that pain elsewhere and to the future ‒ one insinuates a way out option that may cause a postponement of mitigation because one gives young people another bone to chew on for a few years. Kevin Anderson rightly calls this misdirection. And Michael Mann: "The idea that we will have as a tool at our disposal the ability to capture and sequester large amounts of atmospheric carbon not only can be, but already is being used as an excuse by polluters and those advocating for them to delay and downplay the only safe climate solution—rapidly curtailing our burning of fossil fuels. This constitutes what's known as "moral hazard".
Fourth, this overshoot concept of climate scientists, merely focusing on temperature rise, provides a very limited view of the current overshoot situation in the dynamics of all planetary conditions. Bill Rees: "There is already (2017) a 73% overshoot. i.e. human eco-footprint is 20.9 billion hectare, and global bio-capacity is 12.1 hectare. So we deplete bio-capacity stocks (forests, soils, fish, etc) in a fast rate."
By this he means that important earth state variables (stocks/sinks) are degrading at an accelerating rate. So we are annually depreciating their value enormously. These degradations are also often irreversible. Which leads Debra Roberts to remark that we therefore absolutely cannot afford a rise of more than 1.5 degrees: "Overshooting would erase ecosystems that are absolutely critical to underpinning the livelihoods of often the most vulnerable [people] in the world."
However, with her "most vulnerable" she is pinning down that damage far too narrowly. We all, rich and poor, citizen and farmer, are losing habitat at an incredible rate.
Some stocks in rapid decline are:
- According to the 2019 Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services by IPBES, 1 million species are on the brink of extinction. About the rest, Rees says, "The average population of thousands of monitored species of wildlife vertebrates (birds, fish, mammals, amphibians) has declined by 60% since 1970."
- We are continuously losing important heat sinks, namely (a) the amount of ice on mountains and poles that can melt ‒ and during melting absorbs 80 times more heat than during a 1 degree temperature increase, and so is now strongly restraining global warming ‒ is decreasing noticeably, (b) sea and land and buildings are getting hotter and hotter, and so we are also losing direct heat absorption capacity there.
- The sharp reduction of snowfall on mountains and plains causes four other important losses besides albedo loss: (a) slow wetting of deep subsoil during winter and spring disappears, causing natural water wells to replenish badly and plains to dry out earlier; (b) spring heat is less inhibited via cooling effect of snowmelt on plains, and thus much faster evaporation, and much too vigorous onset of growth; (c) runoff from rivers becomes extremely erratic when all water falls as rain, and snow no longer buffers the runoff (see for example the drying up of the Colorado River that originates in the Rocky Mountains); (d) constant supply of water for ship transportation, for drinking water, and for all agricultural growth processes throughout the summer by melting snow buffers on mountains disappears. See, e.g., the drying up of the Po Valley and Rio Grande Valley, and the increasing water problems around the Himalayas.
- Extreme weather patterns (drought, heat, slamming rains) intensify erosion of soils. Also increasing loss of organic matter due to accelerated decomposition rates due to higher temperatures. Soil fertility is decreasing everywhere. Also in the north. Elsewhere: humus pulverizes, sand is all that remains.
- It is becoming increasingly difficult to raise livestock and to produce cereals. Cows and sheep do not tolerate high temperatures, and if wheat (for example) has to endure more than 23° for a few days in the flowering phase, yields quickly decrease.
- Cheap and easily catchable fish-stocks ‒ fish alone now supply 17% of the world population's protein intake ‒ in coastal areas are in sharp decline (North Sea and Asia 20-30% less). Fish are migrating along with their preferred temperatures but recent research indicates hard limits to this adaptation: "With sea temperatures rising faster than ever, fish will very quickly get left behind in evolutionary terms and struggle to survive. This has serious implications for all fish and our food security, as many of the species we eat could become increasingly scarce or even non-existent in decades to come." See this article on the growing mismatch in food and reproductive timing in the life rhythms of animal species.
- We are rapidly losing production capacity of fruit trees. Any fruit tree needs a fairly narrow bandwidth of seasonal conditions to produce abundant good fruit. Grapes can't handle high temperatures. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches, nuts need enough cold ('accumulation of required chilling hours') to bloom in the spring. Consequence: fewer and fewer yields, and more and more fruit regions lose production potential.
We are losing ground and accessibility
In addition, important mental state variables of humans and animals, such as hope, orientation, resistance, and resilience, are increasingly impaired. But that aside. All in all, what Bill Rees means by "the shrinking bio-capacity of earth" is absolutely true. We are visibly losing liveable terrain, i.e. places that were previously conducive to growth (had growth potential) and provided good yields without many inputs; places, therefore, where we could harvest and grow, where basic amenities for humans ‒ water, food, liveable temperatures ‒ were stable and sufficiently present. With that rapidly increasing loss of territory comes increasing pressure on less place, both because of migrations and because of trade, and we crowd closer and closer together. See the Mexican border, and the expanding cities worldwide. The UN Global Assessment Report (GAR) summarizes this with: "If the 1.5°C threshold is breached, the possibilities to adapt will diminish as ecosystem services collapse. Unable to support current economic activity and human populations, migration on a scale never before seen may be triggered, ........."
If we put climate warming in that much broader light of fast depreciating fixed earth assets ‒ which was undoubtedly done by most decision-makers during the Paris COP ‒ then the red line now drawn at 1.5° is the absolute limit between (left of it) an already dangerous overshoot of the earth system and (right of it) a certain crash of humanity, because everybody has realized that (a) beyond that red line a minefield of positive feedback loops (= reinforcing forces) awaits us, and (b) that beyond that red line more and more negative loops (inhibiting forces, such as CO2 absorption capacity of vegetation and sea) are going to perish irreversibly.
Beyond that red line our current model of society, characterized by liberal power play between money-mad elites who play their trump card (= technology and intelligentsia) against each other to the hilt, will eventually experience what everyone may have feared in the past 20 years but did not really bother to realize, namely a system collapse and thus a total wipe-out of humanity.
Tragic lack of overview
The tragedy is nevertheless that most specialized climate scientists (by definition not generalists), deeply integrated in the current system as they are, do not dare in their visions of ways out take a single step outside the normative and descriptive frames of mind (rules of play) of the current liberal economic order, and now, on the verge of overshoot and crash, are once again coming up with a load of partly immature, partly non-existent technology (see also the recent IPCC mitigation report) instead of throwing a spanner in the works and proposing strongly inhibiting interventions in the economic interactions.
Thus, I believe that most climate scientists ‒ Anderson, Hansen, and Klaas van Egmond, for example, are exceptions ‒ do not have a sufficient overview of the total problem situation to delineate passable ways out of this hopeless climate condition. They simply fall short. Stubbornly, they continue to view the climate subsystem as a pretty isolated entity and look for control variables and ways out purely there. In fact, they want too much there, given what can be achieved there. But every attempt to get the emissions and the dynamics of the radiative forcing under control, without restructuring the economic order in such a way that the demand for energy is strongly reduced, is mopping with the tap open. A few technical gimmicks (such as renewables, heat pumps, hydrogen, batteries) are really not going to stabilize this gigantic disruption. To ensure that the scale at which that technology will be produced and consumed does not result in continually rising demand for fossil fuels and thus can occur within the rapidly diminishing carbon budget ‒ i.e. cannot continue to be scaled up constantly by unregulated and free-riding expansion of all kinds of economic activity ‒ much more radical social change is needed. And it is high time to start calling for these changes. A mine-dismantling specialist who is called to a ticking landmine in a densely populated residential area has to listen very keenly to his own sense of awareness around whether he suspects he won't be able to disable the thing. Because at that point, he has to call in social solutions (i.e. evacuation of the area around it), and he is responsible for unleashing that solution. But as a specialist it is quite difficult at such a moment to jump to that broader view (broadening the field of vision) and to give up the technical solution. It is perilous but crucial to make that jump decision in time.
Main deficiencies in the field of view of climate scientists
What does that jump decision moment currently look like for climate scientists? What hesitations are at play there? I'll use an example to elaborate.
In this video from the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation, 15 of a total of 26 climate scientists declare they no longer have confidence that we can limit global warming to below 2 degrees. One of them says (at 3 min.): "From a political point of view it is good to set a reduction target, even though you know that the chance of achieving it is not that great, but at least then something will be done". Then he leaves the "something" up in the air and doesn't focus on it, whereas ‒ in my opinion ‒ what exactly is going to be done causally determines how the warming will wind up, doesn't it.
From the above comment by a climate scientist rises a mixture of despair and dilemma. I mean: he envisions a sharp turn coming his way. He knows ‒ because pronounces earlier in the video that we're going to shoot solidly over the 1.5° ‒ that you're not going to make it to stay out of the danger zone with current policies. So in doing so, he is actually denouncing the current content (= the planned green growth) of 'something', but in the same breath is encouraging the continuation of that death road instead of proposing more radical methods to avoid that overshoot (as if nothing else is conceivable/imaginable outside of that one road).
Why doesn't he just indicate that strongly reducing consumption by means of spending caps would be an option to succeed in staying below 1.5°? He does not signal this because he is too obsessively focused on finding solutions within fixed frames and prevailing social relations. Is geeky and frantic in looking for solutions within the frame of "everybody must get more and more prosperity". What does not fit into that frame, such a person fails to see. Numerous steering possibilities and blocking social workings are not covered by such a focused field of vision.
Two major deficiencies of the field of view of most climate scientists, in my opinion, are:
- They don't perceive priorities within the entire global bandwidth of economic activity. But is it so complicated to understand that now that the conversion (to renewables) of the whole long-chain exchange circus is running aground ‒ i.e. that we will not get emissions under control in time to prevent a 'climate runaway' ‒ you have to start prioritizing what is essential to keep going in order to keep humanity in one piece? While already in Kyoto a very clear priority cue has been given by politicians. A core agreement (Article 2) was that a stabilization of warming must be achieved in such a way that food production will not be endangered anywhere. Everyone has been worried from the beginning about the possible loss of the natural potentials in their own habitat. In order to guarantee such a food supply, it is essential that it continues to grow easily everywhere (plants, crops, livestock, trees), and so the climate conditions may only deviate minimally from what has been like for centuries. That made sure that in every region everyone could be supplied with sufficient, versatile and cheap food from nearby. That is to be seen as gold. We live on a cloud (nature) that gives us everything, every year. As long as that process works, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. The whole circus around it (education, transportation, communication, vacations, going out, sports, luxuries, etc) is all partly dispensable, partly postponable, partly substitutable and later re-settleable. But when that food production line starts to falter and to have trouble, you're gone. I mean, completely gone. Not just the vulnerable. After all, if food becomes difficult to produce and distribute globally, elites can't switch to artificial food systems either because then the entire bunch of cheap labor (= the weak spot of everyone who buys products and services) that now digs up, assembles, transports and delivers the inputs to every Western system (yes, including those so-called carbon capture systems) also becomes shit expensive and scarce because their cheap availability (their life force and health) is directly proportional to their accessibility to cheap nearby easily producible food. In short: The blindness of climate scientists regarding the core relevance of earth's productivity (the basis for our well-being), so that we are now (blindfolded) in danger of sacrificing that productivity even more deeply, is something I consider a serious flaw. This has been driving most biologists to despair for years, and for good reason.
- They overlook the social dimension of the global warming problem. In particular, fail to see how the most important socioeconomic rules of society ‒ namely, those around access to income and property ‒ determine the demand for fossil energy. Consequently, fail to see that emissions reduction is not blocked by cost or unwillingness to reduce consumption, but to "who comes first". After all, we cause those emissions in the first place (i.e. use energy) in order to win from each other, or at least to consolidate our position and not be left behind. After all, our rules of society authorize an open mutual struggle for the shaping of our personal domains. We push more than we share, and so can be constantly crowded out. So, to really put the brakes on the demand for energy requires that first ‒ as is common in wartime ‒ that mutual struggle must be neutralized so that everyone can rest assured that they continue to have as much accessibility to essential needs fulfillment as anyone else. Using a distribution system, this could be done very well. Light forms of this (such as PCAs) distribute restrictions on only a portion of personal emissions or consumption. Stronger forms distribute a carbon budget for all personal indirect and direct emissions and link it to a system in which each product or service is equipped with an emission score being the sum of all emissions throughout the upstream production and transportation chain. And really strong forms distribute resources (such as land and capital) to produce one's own commodities (energy, food, housing). Not practicable? No, not without a popular uprising, although recent surveys on more than 40000 respondents in 20 countries show more support for progressive regulation rather than corrective taxes, provided new rules imply an effficient way out.
By the way: The blindness of climate scientists to the social dimension does currently decline considerably. The IPCC mitigation report, for example, pays considerable attention to the carbon intensity of the lifestyle of elites. Modi paved that way in Glasgow with his "Lifestyle for environment" speech.
But if we are so close to a crash that the repair option ‒ which is increasingly prominent in (inter)national emission reduction plans ‒ is nothing short of a suicide belt, and we should therefore put that option out of our minds, then we must diligently try to find another common narrative. That will take some searching. Because, although there are more and more calls for it (see Kevin Anderson at t=8 min: or this analysis in which technological salvation is called into question and an emergency halt to emissions is called for), there is not really a shared plan B on the table. Let alone in the hearts, and that's what it's all about, of course. The gap between business-as-usual, green growth, and back-to-basics advocates is, now that things are getting heated, widening rather than narrowing. So where to start?
We all know that if you really want to transform the way you deal with something or someone, there is only one way to go: start deep quarelling. Now that we really have to limit each other's emissions in the short term in order to prevent the temperature from rising any further, we will have to penetrate deeper into each other's annoyances and causes of distrust by means of very direct confrontations, in order to outline new laws for our economic conduct. In confrontations, deep inhibitions are stirred up and expressed. A deeper rapprochement and mutual involvement than merely ideas can be the result.