Economics and politics - comment and analysis

How climate change is rapidly taking the planet apart. Part 2: amplifying feedbacks, divestment

  1. Introduction

Five years ago, I met Professor John Sweeney. At the time, Sweeney was the head of the Centre for Climate change in Maynooth. He is now emeritus. Sweeney has also been the IPCC representative for Ireland. He told me where he came from: a poor family from County Donegal (up North) that had emigrated to Glasgow. Sweeney studied geography and physics, came back to Ireland and became a climate change scientist. It was then my turn to explain where I come from. This is a typical Irish conversation. This country has been occupied for 800 years. One will at some point always inquire about your views on imperialism. John opened up and we had a very good conversation. ‘In the short term,’ he said, ‘climate change will not be too bad for Ireland, indeed agricultural yields (especially potatoes) will increase. But in the longer term, and globally, the climate is kaputt. There are just too many problems, too many phenomena, too many feedback loops, too much to handle at once, we are drifting into a complete mess, a complete disaster.’

‘Why doesn’t the IPCC make this clear to everyone?’ I asked. ‘Why don’t they push for carbon taxes?’ ‘Outsiders simply have no idea about the pressure we’re under,’ Sweeney said. ‘The IPCC works on the basis of the best and most relevant peer-reviewed publications. You know as well as I do that you need funding to write up peer-reviewed publications. If you look at the proposals that are being accepted – the funding which leads to scientific output, it’s very clear that some things cannot be said. The organisations that fund research have their own agenda. That agenda is always the same: it’s keeping business-as-usual intact and promoting it. As for the selection of the most relevant science, what is most relevant? It’s what governments want to hear. An extreme example is the fight that Jason Box had to put up to get his data on the Greenland Ice Sheet in the IPCC report – it took seven years. There is also the effect of the deniers. Publish a result which would turn out to be incorrect and your mistake will be on every denier site on the planet, it will influence public opinion and, hence, politicians. And, overall, instead of talking ‘truth to power,’ scientists have consciously downplayed the effects of climate change out of fear that if they would tell it as it is, politicians would do even less.’

‘There is still another factor,’ I said.  ‘Most scientists are coming from the so-called ‘hard’ sciences, they consider capitalism as natural as a tree. Any change has to fit in with the state of capitalism as it is at the moment because they consider it unchangeable. To them it is a given.’ ‘You are absolutely right,’ Sweeney said with a calm voice. ‘That is the big problem. And if we can’t change that, humanity is doomed’ (he actually used another word). And so this was it. Here was an accomplished and widely respected scientist, a man without any radical political tendencies whatsoever and looked at what he told me. And that was five years ago.

  1. The amplifying carbon feedback from the Earth system

In the meantime, things have become much worse and also much clearer. This week, as every week, some genuine horror stories were published. The most serious one deals with the reaction of the Earth system to ACD. As we know, temperatures are increasing because humans emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). As ACD is changing the climate, the natural systems of the world respond. Robert Scribbler just published an enormously worrying article on this (see here). This is happening in many places. Climate change-enhanced wildfires in Siberia and Africa are belching out huge smoke clouds, spewing large plumes of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Surface methane readings in these zones are up to 200 times higher than the global atmospheric average. As Scribbler writes, the Amazon, once considered to be the green lung of the planet, is now a net producer of both CO2 and methane (just as Tim Flannery predicted many years ago) (see here). The Copernicus Observatory surface monitors indicate pools of 600 to 800 parts per million CO2 concentrations near and around the Amazon rainforest. The 100- to 200-mile-wide spikes in CO2 concentration are 1.5 to 2 times current atmospheric concentrations (see here).

Incredibly, in Siberia bubbles of methane and CO2 are seeping up from beneath the permafrost causing sections of the Arctic soil to jiggle like jelly (see here). You can watch this for yourself in this short video from the Siberian Times (see here). According to the Siberian Times, greenhouse gas content in these blisters is 7.500 parts per million CO2 and 375 parts per million methane – about 19 times the current atmospheric CO2 levels and 200 times current atmospheric methane levels. These bubbles are the direct consequence of extremely rapid Arctic warming.

Siberia is not the only place where this is happening. Africa and the Amazon also correlate with wildfires and extreme drought conditions that are, literally, baking out CO2 from the soil. This amplifying feedback is terrible news for humanity (see here). Imagine that, as by miracle, humanity stops emitting CO2 into the atmosphere tomorrow, the direct effects of past emissions will take 40 years to come to fruition: there will be no visible effect until 2056 – CO2 emissions will continue to rise. In the meantime, the planet will continue to respond to these increasing emissions and to their consequences by adding CO2 and methane of its own into the atmosphere, thereby contributing and causing more climate change. We – or rather the 90 big corporations that are historically responsible for approximately two thirds of all CO2 emissions (see here and here, the likes of Shell, Chevron, Exxon, etc.) – pushed atmospheric CO2 values to near 408 ppm (parts per million). This is a level not seen in the last 15 or 16 million years. It is this increase that dramatically warmed the Earth — a result that has its own larger impact on plants, on the cycles that influence their ability to take in carbon and even on the older carbon that was long ago stored in plants but is now sequestered in the soil, permafrost and oceans. Earth is starting to produce an increasingly strong carbon feedback response to human-forced warming (see here). How unsolvable can it get? But that is the nature of a feed-back loop.

As Scribbler explains, overall, the oceans can take in less atmospheric carbon and increasingly bubbles with thawing methane, the soils can store less carbon even as more is baked out in the heat, the plants and peats on balance burn more than grow, permafrost thaws and releases its own carbon. This carbon-cycle response to warming adds more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere on top of what is being released through the processes of fossil-fuel extraction and burning (see here).

How much carbon the Earth System will ultimately add to human fossil-fuel emissions is uncertain. In 2007, the IPCC estimated that ca. 87 ppm of additional CO2 would be added by 2100 (under an apparent assumed final human-driven CO2 accumulation of 700 ppm – surely, if this happens, we won’t survive). But this is not more than a wild and not a very educated guess. The model projections were between 4 and 44 percent. Thawing permafrost and methane clathrates were not included. In 2012, the IPCC produced another set of projections, again without including the permafrost carbon feedback or the methane hydrate feedback, so they are basically useless. The added heat forcing provided by the current human fossil-fuel emissions is far greater than the one that ended the last ice age (see here).

  1. What is happening in Siberia is insane

This report from the Siberian Times provides some pictures and videos. The first picture does not appear to show anything abnormal, indeed it looks like Ireland in the summer. If you watch the video, you can see the surface literally wobbling below the feet of the scientists. One scientist, who remains unnamed in the footage, warned that it is a ‘serious reason to be concerned if gas bubbles appear in the permafrost zone’, suggesting there could be ‘unpredictable’ consequences. Some of these scientists have been working in the Yamal region for twenty years or even longer. They have never seen anything like it.

Salekhard to Bely island map

Picture 1: Salekhard and up north to Bely Island where the permafrost is thawing and Yamal and Taimyr to the east (Source: google maps).

The Siberian Times writes that some are still disputing that any of this has anything to do with climate change. In fact, the link between climate change, thawing permafrost and increasing methane emissions has been well proven by Natalia Shakova (see here for an interview) and others in several seminal and indisputable studies which go years back. Further south, on the Yamal and Taimyr peninsulas, scientists are observing a number of craters that have suddenly formed in the permafrost.  When the craters first appeared on the Yamal Peninsula, they sparked bizarre theories as to their formation. Most experts now believe they were created by explosions of methane gas unlocked by warming temperatures in the far north of Russia (see here).

The dominant theory is that the craters were formed by pingos – dome-shaped mounds over a core of ice – erupting under pressure of methane gas released by the thawing of permafrost caused by climate change. Some of these craters are small, others are large and become lakes. This picture shows the Deryabinsky crevice in snow soon after it was formed, when the hole was some four metres in width. It is now a lake, some 70 metres in diameter (see here).

standard yamal july 2015

Picture 2: The Deryabinsky crevice soon after it was formed due to the pressure of methane gas which was released by the thawing of permafrost (source: the Siberian Times).

Siberia is not the only place on land where the permafrost is thawing. Alaska is continuing to warm at a pace that is now 70 years ahead of the pace predicted just a few years ago. In Greenland, the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting and the permafrost is thawing. Conditions in Greenland are surreal. In early June of this year, it was hotter in Greenland than in New York City. Nor is the problem confined to the Arctic or its proximity. In Antarctica, CO2 levels exceeded 400 ppm for the rest time in four million years. Our emissions have changed everything from pole to pole. As Dahr Jamail reports, in eastern Antarctica, the Nansen Ice Shelf has produced an iceberg which is 20 km long. A giant crack in the shelf that has existed since 1999 expanded dramatically in 2014, and that trend continued into this year when melting on the surface and from the warming seas below the shelf caused an area larger than the area of Manhattan to release out into the ocean (see here).

More and more studies are showing the likelihood of far higher sea level increases than previously projected, as the rapid pace of melting of both the Antarctic and Greenland icecaps increases (Jamail cites some of the most recent here). These studies show that abrupt sea level rise is increasingly realistic, with sea levels estimated to rise by six feet (183 cm) within this century and far higher in the next. There is no doubt that many of the world’s most heavily populated coastal areas and cities will be flooded. If we do not step up, we are evolving into a sort of climate which existed between 15 and 20 million years ago, at which point temperatures were between 3 and 6 degrees Celsius warmer than they are now. Ice sheets did not exist and sea levels were between 25 and 40 meters higher than they are now. If all the ice sheets melt, we can expect a sea-level rise between 120 and 190 feet (36 and 58 meters) (see here).

Until a couple of years ago, this would have been too weird for science fiction. Now these are the best scientific predictions.

These are not the only horror studies. Dahr Jamail publishes a monthly climate dispatch on Truthout, providing a selection of new papers and insights (see here). It is always excellent. Let me quote some examples. The authors of a study which was recently published in Nature Climate Change argue that if we continue to burn fossil fuels – and to date there is nothing or very little to indicate that we will not – the planet will eventually be eight degrees C warmer than the pre-industrial baseline. Note that 3.5 C above the pre-industrial baseline is considered by many scientists as the ‘extinction event.’ Earth will then have the climate it did 52 million years ago. Temperatures in the Arctic will increase by approximately seventeen degrees C (see here). As I explained before, average global temperatures do not tell the whole or even the main story. It is, as the joke goes, like measuring the average temperature in a hospital. Some people have a fever, others are dead. It is not average global temperature that is essential, but the rise of latitudinal temperature. The study predicts that if significant changes in emissions do not occur, by 2300, greenhouse gases will transform the planet into a place where large areas of the world will have become completely uninhabitable by humans and many species would not survive (see here).

And Myles Allen, the head of a climate dynamics group at the University of Oxford adds that it took less warming – about 6 degrees Celsius – to lift the world out of the Ice Age than the planet may be facing over the next 200 years. “That’s the profundity of the change we’re talking about” (see here). As Jamail explains, melting of all the ice at the poles would cause sea-level increases that would displace the 40 percent of the global population that lives near a coast. Tropical rainforest systems around the world would collapse. In southern Europe and the US drought would be “completely catastrophic for agriculture” (see here). There is no way in which this will not lead to complete societal collapse.

According to a study of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, higher temperatures will lead to lower oxygen content of most global oceans before 2040, which will radically change the ecology of these oceans – less than 24 years from now (see here). It is of course not necessary to look into the future. It is not as if the effects of climate change are not here already (see here). Southern African countries have been coping with the worst food crisis in a quarter of a century as food prices and rates of malnutrition are soaring. In Angola, 1.4 million people are suffering from drought and malnutrition rates have doubled; at least 95,000 children are being impacted. In Malawi, 8 million people (half the country), need food aid for the second straight in a row (see here).

  1. The catastrophic problem of water shortages

The World Bank issued a new report warning that global water shortages will deal a “severe hit” to economies across the Middle East, North Africa and Central and South Asia as ACD progresses. By 2050 growing demand for water from both cities and agriculture will cause dramatic water shortages in regions where it is currently in abundance, in addition to worsening shortages that already exist (see here). The World Bank also produced a study in 2014 (updated in 2015) saying that in a business-as-usual scenario, 30% of arable land in Africa risks disappearing by 2030, while the situation in south east Asia is also grave – that is in 14 years by now (see here).

Laura Parker writes in National Geographic that in some areas of Beijing the ground is giving way at a rate of four inches a year as water in the giant aquifer below it is pumped (see here). The groundwater has been so depleted that the city – home to more than 20 million people – could face serious disruptions. But, as Parker writes, Beijing is not the only place experiencing problems of soil collapsing when groundwater is depleted. Parts of Shanghai, Mexico City, and other cities are sinking too. As she writes, sections of California’s Central Valley have dropped by a foot, and in some localized areas, by as much as 28 feet. The most over-stressed is the Arabian Aquifer System, which supplies water to 60 million people in Saudi Arabia and Yemen (see here and here). The Indus Basin aquifer in northwest India and Pakistan is the second-most threatened, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in northern Africa the third. More than two-thirds of the groundwater consumed around the world irrigates agriculture, while the rest supplies drinking water. Nearly two billion people rely on groundwater that is considered under threat (see here).

  1. Our measurements of CO2 are incorrect

As if it is about adding insult to injury, the accounting method of CO2 that we are using is incorrect. We absolutely need to have the right measure in place. It is our essential compass to guide to planet through the storm, assuming that such guidance is possible.

I explained this before, but it is worth repeating.  To understand what is happening, it is necessary to know what territorial emissions are and what the difference is between production emissions and consumption emissions. Territorial emissions refer to GHGs that occur within a country (e.g. from burning fossil fuels for the generation of electricity, in transport and industrial production, direct emissions from heating in households and businesses and emissions related to agricultural, forestry and waste management activities). These are the current basis of carbon accounting under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Production emissions refer to territorial emissions plus emissions from international aviation and shipping on the basis of bunker fuels. Consumption emissions refer to production emissions minus emissions embedded in export of goods and services, plus emissions embedded in imports of goods and services. Finally, the carbon footprint refers to the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by a nation (equivalent to consumption emissions), a business, a product (equivalent to lifecycle emissions) or a person (see for these definitions here).

Countries publish figures on the emissions that they emit for all sectors including changes in carbon sinks (such as forests) and aviation and shipping fuelled from within the country. Dividing the total figure by the population estimate gives the carbon emissions per person. These figures have been showing a falling trend for years. For example, as Stuart Parkinson writes, in the UK carbon emissions per person in 1990 were 14.6t. In 2014, they were 9.1t – a reduction by 38% (see here). This looks impressive: the average carbon emission per person for Europe is ca. 10t, for North America it is over 20t and for China is now over 8t (see here).

These are production emissions. Consumption emissions basically refer to who is responsible for them. For example, if a machine is made in China, but bought and used in the UK, under the consumption-based accounting system the UK is responsible for the emissions of manufacture and use, while, under a production-based system, only use would be counted (see here). The consumption-based system – which is the carbon footprint – is more appropriate to use because it is much more logical as well as realistic.

How does the picture of CO2 emissions look when the consumption emissions accounting method is used? According to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change report, the UK markedly increased its net import of energy intensive goods since the 1990s (see here and here). The researchers estimate that in 1992, UK’s emissions would have been 35% higher if all the goods used in the UK would have been manufactured in the UK. By 2010, this figure had increased to 80%. This means that, according to the footprint method, the average contribution to climate change per person increased to 19.5t in 1990 and to 15.5t in 2014. This is much higher than the production-based method: the percentage reduction between 1990 and 2014 is about only half of the official figure. Among other things, this is a result of globalization. Manufactured goods are now mostly produced elsewhere. The shift of production overseas and the import of goods reduce emissions as measured on a production basis, but not on a consumption basis. And over the last two decades, growth in imported emissions has more than offset reductions in production emissions.

UK-carbon-footprint-per-head

Figure 1: UK carbon footprint per person (carbon emissions and carbon footprint). Source: Stuart Parkinson (see here).

There four small histograms show an incredible problem for humankind. Undeniably, progress has and is being made. But it is radically insufficient. In order to reach the goal of keeping average global temperature below 2 degrees C by 2100, the average carbon footprint has to decrease to ca. 3t per person (see here). This means that the majority of European countries – and we are not the biggest polluters – need to cut their carbon footprint by 80%. This task is truly gargantuan and as good as well nigh absolutely impossible. Anyone who says that this can be achieved – if it can be achieved at all – without steep carbon taxes, deep changes in consumption patterns and production methods is completely lying. Of course, there is no use in staring ourselves blind to a goal which is not achievable anyway. But the longer we wait, the more difficult it will become to reach any other goal that implies a significant decrease in CO2 emissions. If it looks unachievable today, it will look unachievable tomorrow too, and even more so.

The accounting method that the countries and the international organisations use to calculate their emissions is flawed. Atmospheric CO2 emissions are rising year after year. It is true that the CO2 emissions of many countries are decreasing. The carbon footprint is also decreasing in many countries. This is all good news. The only problem is the one that shows up in Parkinson’s graph: the carbon footprint offsets the carbon emissions (compare the emissions of 1990 with the footprint in 2014) (see here).

  1. Is there also good news?

There is, although the question is if it is good enough. Remarkably, more and more people in high places are speaking out – in stark contradiction to the head of the IPCC. Before COP21 took place in December 2015, Yvo de Boer, who was the UNFCCC executive secretary when the summit in Copenhagen collapsed after a rift occurred between the industrialised and the developing countries, put it bluntly: “The only way that a 2015 agreement can achieve a 2-degree goal is to shut down the whole global economy.”

So, we need to forget about the 2015 (Paris) goal of a 2 C degrees rise in average global temperature by 2100. It is impossible. The Paris climate deal has nothing to say about mechanisms to achieve this lofty goal and since everything is voluntary it just cannot work anyway. Recently, Christiana Figueres, the current executive secretary of the UNFCC said something similar, thereby fundamentally disagreeing with the head of the IPCC, Heosung Lee, who seems to be in complete denial, if this is what it is, about the reality of climate change – a sad condition for someone who is the head of the IPCC (see here).

Or perhaps they too can say what they want without making a difference whatsoever. Canada is still racing towards apocalypse with its tar sands. The Americans are exporting coal to China. The Australians export coal to Germany. In the US, the Appalachian mountains are tuned into toxic wastelands. In the UK, the conservative government voted to open up the country to fracking a full five days after signing the COP21 Paris Agreement. As Michael Klare said: “The result is indisputable: humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables. Instead, it is pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas” (see here). If we do not exit the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas, humanity’s game is up. There is no doubt about it.

So what is the good news then? First, there are initiatives such as the campaign that is aimed at making Exxon pay for ACD. If successful, the campaign would lead to extreme economic losses for Exxon. The campaign against Exxon is now deeply tied to the overall campaign to pressure universities and businesses to divest from fossil fuel companies. It seems to gather more steam every week (see here). I do not know what the real effects of it are or will be, but it has to be seen in combination with a much wider movement propagating divestment in fossil fuels.

This much wider movement also exists. One of the actors within this movement is the insurance industry. This makes sense because it becomes increasingly difficult to insure anything in a world which becomes more unpredictable by the day because of ACD. Two weeks ago, a conference was held in Berlin in which representatives of banks and insurers such as UBS and AXA met with climate change scientists from the Potsdam Centre for Climate Change Research (PIK), the von Humboldt University of Berlin and others (see here). The main question of the conference was about finding the best strategy to make divestment a reality: diverting investment from coal and oil in clean innovation and zero CO2 manufacturing and energy systems. Divestment is already a reality:  globally many billions are diverted toward clean investment and financial giants such as Allianz joined as it announced to phase out all investments in coal and mining. The foundation of the legendary Rockefeller oil dynasty promised to withdraw all investments from business based on fossil fuels. This may be the push we need, or at least, it can be one of the pushes. Industrialists, bankers, insurers and investors are realising that investing in coal and oil is taking the planet apart and they lose a lot of money doing it. The speeches at the conference left nothing to the imagination – and they are not only speeches. The concern is to close gaps in climate financing, help states reach relevant commitment, accomplish long-term and economically rational capital allocation, with means reconversion to a low-carbon economy (see here and here).

This does not mean that now all is well. Let me give a final example. Instead of recognising that we are confronted with a global emergence and cooperate in order to save what we have, the world is entering a new phase of imperialism. A handful of global corporations systematically plunders Africa’s mineral wealth and other resources. This is the message from a new report from War On Want, The New Colonialism: Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources (see here). The report highlights the role of the British government in aiding and abetting the process. It is not different anywhere else. All major rich countries are supporting ‘their’ companies in a new rush for resources, rare minerals and of course oil (see here).

What has this to do with climate change? The development of un-development is also the development of unsustainability. It is an illusion to think that climate change can be ‘solved’ – mitigated or adapted to, so that societies can continue to exist, grow and eventually thrive and prosper – without changing the power relations that govern the world economy and the sociology of the global system.  The report reveals the degree to which British companies control Africa’s key mineral resources, especially gold, platinum, diamonds, copper, oil, gas and coal. It documents how 101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange have mining operations in 37 sub-Saharan African countries and collectively control over $1 trillion worth of Africa’s most valuable resources. Under the guise of the UK ‘helping Africa’ in its economic development, $134 billion has flowed into the continent each year in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid, while the British government has enabled the extraction of $192 billion from Africa, mainly in profits by foreign companies, tax dodging and the cost of adapting to climate change. Successive British governments have consistently opposed African countries putting up regulatory or protective barriers and backed policies promoting low corporate taxes (see here). This is, of course, nothing new. This is the sociology of the global system. Saranel Benjamin, International Programmes Director at War on Want, said:

“The African continent is today facing a new colonial invasion, no less devastating in scale and impact than the one it suffered during the nineteenth century. It’s a scandal that Africa’s wealth in natural resources is being seized by foreign, private interests, whose operations are leaving a devastating trail of social, environmental and human rights abuses in their wake’’ (see here).

The problem is that if we are ever going to deal with climate change in an efficient manner, we cannot do it without the US, China, India and Europe, but we cannot do it without Africa either. Instead of exploiting the developing countries, we need to give them the opportunity to properly and genuinely develop and it has to be ecologically responsible development. It goes further than that. Looking at what is happening globally at the moment, it is the poor countries – those that are the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and with the least resources – that are taking the leading role in addressing climate change. It is the rich countries that are not advancing. CO2 emissions will rise for as long as we continue to delude ourselves that carbon trading can make efficient and relevant contributions to fighting climate change (see here and here). CO2 emissions will stop rising forty years after we stop this market based nonsense and implement steep carbon taxes. It’s high time we get on with it, because at some point, we won’t have forty years left.