Economics and politics - comment and analysis

The ideology of resilience, CO2 concentrations and the ‘methane bomb’

The ideology of resilience

Dog parks – enclosures in parks were dogs are allowed to run free –  are one of the many things to like in Stockholm. It may be a typical Swedish invention, so simple that no one ever thought about it, yet they are inherently useful. The advantages of urban ‘green-blue infrastructures’ or urban ‘green capital’ – the construction of this neoclassical pop concept was of course inevitable – are by now very well documented. There is for example less isolation and less depression. Elderly men suffer less from heart attacks. It is all good. The problem is that green-blue infrastructure is now being sold as a strategy to tackle climate change. ‘Green capital’ (sic) is said to increase the resilience to climate change of our urban environments and our societies as a whole (see for example here). This is not even sheer illusion. It is utter and sickening untruth.

Resilience is the new buzz word. It is the ideology that says that it is possible to confront climate change – which increasing resilience does not do – while keeping power relations and capitalism, as it functions nowadays, intact. It is the TINA of environmentalism: whatever social forces do, change is impossible, capitalism is nature, hence, it is meaningless to discuss new forms of production, consumption and distribution. It is useless to speak about the sociology of the global system. This is environmental neo-liberalism, the ideology of COP21, the music that accompanies the sinking of the Titanic. Never before has society been less sustainable, never before there has been more pollution and more destruction of habitats worldwide. Never before has there been more commodification. Now the mainstream wants to improve our “resilience.”

Resilience is part and parcel of this mainstream wacky gaga un-world where it is feasible to negotiate a major international agreement like COP21 – ‘this historical milestone that will safeguard the future of humanity’ etc. – to fight climate change that contains no reference to  “coal,” “oil,” “fracking,” “shale oil,” “fossil fuel” or “carbon dioxide.” The words “zero,” “ban,” “prohibit” or “stop” do not occur in this famous agreement (see here for my three part series on climate change). As I said, the word “adaptation” occurs 85 times, although the responsibility to adapt is nowhere mentioned. Liability and compensation are explicitly excluded. There is no action plan. The proposed emission cuts by the nations are voluntary. There is no enforceable compliance mechanism, let alone that there would be sanctions. The Paris Agreement proves that those in power do not have the will to stand up to the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.

Certainly, corporate elites want to address climate change before it becomes dangerous. But climate change is already highly dangerous (see here). According to the WHO, at least 250.000 people die worldwide each year as a direct consequence of climate change. As they are, for the most part, poor Africans, it is not considered that important. Worldwide, more than four million people die every year as a direct consequence of air pollution. Resilience does not address the urgent need to integrate climate change mitigation and adaptation policies in development policies and (real and well thought out) development aid because, for a good understanding, when they talk about green-blue urban infrastructure, they talk about our green-blue urban infrastructure, the ‘green capital’ in the affluent neighbourhoods of the first world. 

The mainstream and politically correct distinction between a warming between 1 and 2°C, which is considered “dangerous,” and more than 2 degrees, which is considered “very dangerous,” is also fallacious (see here). Global average temperature did not increase yet by 1.5 C and there is now clear evidence of tipping points – a summer sea-ice free Arctic will most likely become reality this decade, there is the loss of West Antarctic glaciers at a pace unimaginable to anyone even months ago, the coming reality of multi-metre sea level rise, the slowing of the Atlantic conveyor belt, accelerating ice-mass loss from Greenland, the demise of the Amazon rainforest (which is a net carbon emitter), the gigantic problem of methane leaching out the permafrost (see below), the earth itself that is responding to higher temperatures by emitting increasing levels of CO2 (see here), the possibility of Hansen’s storms down the line (see here), the  Friedrich result (see here) and much else. Resilience has nothing substantial to say about any of this. It is a barbiturate, a social palliative. Keep sleeping. Consume. Never consider social change.

One of its purposes is to hide what is clear to everyone who takes a serious look at climate “governance”: that the UNFCC has simply given up on the goal of preventing “dangerous climate change” (see here).  For example, the UNFCCC key goals ”to ensure that food production is not threatened” and achieving “a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change” have simply been discarded (see here). Food production is already threatened by rising sea levels and inundation, shifting rainfall patterns and desertification, extreme heat waves and wildfire episodes. The MENA is running out of drinking water and 30% of all arable land in Africa risks disappearing by 2030, that is, in 13 years from now. These developments and the subsequent consequences of climate change as a threat multiplier (failed states, ethnic strife, conflicts and wars over scarce resources such as water, foodstuffs, land, minerals and much else) is likely to lead to human misery and dysfunction on a scale never witnessed before. Policy-makers, in their wisdom, produce no plans, except the one of further fortressing Europe and paying off unwilling and never satisfied vassals at the periphery in order to keep refugees out of the continent. Ecosystems including corals, mangroves and kelp forests in Australia are degrading fast as the world’s six mass extinction gathers pace. Since 1970, half of the world’s wildlife has been massacred (see here). Major ecosystems are now severely degraded and climate policy-makers have no realistic agreement to save or restore them, from the Arctic to the Amazon, the Great Barrier Reef to the Sahel (see here). About all of this and more, resilience has nothing to say. No wonder politicians like it so much. Let’s address the “stewardship” of “spaceship Earth.” Let the funding arrive.

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Picture 1: COP21 (Source: Google Images). 

What the world should do

The mainstream creates carbon markets, although the evidence shows that it is the last thing we should do. The whole idea of carbon markets is nothing but a neoclassical fraud. Some push for geo-engineering, although these technologies remain unproven. If they ever become reality, they will remain politically unacceptable for many governments in the world and for good reasons. What has to happen, first and foremost, is abundantly clear – it is so simple that everyone knows it. Nothing substantially good will happen as long as we continue to subsidise fossil fuels by $ 5.3 trillion a year ($10 million a minute) – this, at least, was the estimated figure for 2014. In fact, it is even more than Stern’s obscene figure, as Stefanski calculated in a 2015 paper (using a new methodology – see here).

Imagine that this money would be used for ecological restructuring, instead of being skewed away from investment in sustainable options.  Imagine that governments would leave austerity behind, that they would borrow (interests are never been lower) and invest. That imbalances in the EU would be dealt with, so that, instead of punishing the crisis countries (or, in the case of Greece, crushing and plundering it (see here)), current account surpluses would be redistributed to the debtor countries. Flassbeck said something similar a couple of thousands of times in the meantime (see, for example, here). Of course, he is right. But nothing happens. If it would go this way, climate change mitigation would become a reality and it would be efficient. Nor is, as opponents say, the Keynesian strategy simply about ‘returning to growth’ – growth as much as possible. The conceptual tools to make the turn exist. We can use extremely valuable work which was in the limelight twenty or thirty years (when people still spoke about “sustainable development” and meant it too) on a Sustainable National Income (Hueting) or El Serafy and Lutz’s work (both from the World Bank) on new macroeconomic accounting methods. But now we have resilience. Climate change is a (‘mere’) technical problem. Climate change is being infantilised – a tree here, a park there, some energy efficient buildings – the simple idea is to address climate change in such way that leaves power relations and capitalism, as it works today, intact. It will never work. Of course, a whole army of academics and economists disagree. What did they “accomplish”? What is the state of the world telling us about their “efforts”?

All over the world, thousands upon thousands of economists and other social scientists are working on climate change. Is it that difficult to solve? Don’t we know what to do? Does anyone seriously believe that this system functions for something like the common good, that it is solving problems? What is the gain to society of all these people writing up publications that practically no one ever reads? All these reports that are being written which prove what those who fund wants to see proved (yes, there are exceptions, yes, there are people doing good work). If you take offense to this, let me finish by explaining where humanity finds itself at the moment. Then ask yourself who is responsible and what the role of mainstream social science has been in all of this.

CO2 rose to 405.1 ppm in 2016

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that carbon dioxide levels in 2016 broke records for the second year in a row.  The 2016 increase is 3 parts per million. The annual mean rate of growth of CO2 in a given year is the difference in concentration between the end of December and the start of January of that year. The annual growth rate measured at Mauna is not the same as the global growth rate, but it is quite similar. One standard deviation of the annual differences MLO minus global is 0.26 ppm/year (see here for the technical explanation).

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Figure 1: Annual mean growth rate of CO2 at Mauna Loa (Source: NOAA). 

The measurements come from the Mauna Loa Baseline Atmospheric Observatory in Hawaii and are confirmed by NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. The numbers show that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere stands now at 405.1 ppm. Here is a page where James Hansen explained what it meant for the planet to reach the 400 ppm milestone (see here). That was before COP21. The rate of CO2 growth over the last decade is 100 to 200 times faster than what the Earth experienced during the transition from the last Ice Age. Emissions have remained at historically high levels since 2011, economic crisis or not, Paris COP21 or not, voluntary agreements or not, Marrakech 2016 update or not, carbon markets or not, resilience or not: CO2 emissions are spiking.

‘Carbon dioxide may be catastrophic; methane may be apocalyptic’

In December 2016, Uwe Brand et al. published ‘Methane Hydrate: Killer cause of Earth’s greatest extinction’ in the journal Palaeoworld (see here). The authors issue a dire warning: “Global warming triggered by the massive release of carbon dioxide may be catastrophic. (…) But the release of methane from hydrate may be apocalyptic” (see here).

The paper discusses the cause for the Permian mass extinction, the greatest challenge life ever faced on earth. Scientists now think that the leading causes for the event lay in Siberian trap volcanism and the emission of greenhouse gases with consequent global warming. This global warming triggered the release of methane from permafrost and shelf sediment methane hydrates. The result was the biggest extinction of all time. The runaway greenhouse effect led to sea-level increase, de-oxygenation, major oceanic circulation shifts, increased acidification of the oceans as well as worldwide aridity on land. The cataclysm, which occurred 250 million years ago and annihilated 90% of all species, was caused by atmospheric methane.

Brand et al. do not leave doubt that today our emissions are mimicking these eventualities. As they write: “The end Permian holds an important lesson for humanity regarding the issue it faces today with greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and climate change” (see here).

Is the threat of abrupt climate change real? Is there something like a ‘methane bomb’ and is it reasonable to expect that it may go off? The answer to both questions is a simple and resounding ‘Yes.’ Not only is it possible, it is inevitable. It is simple physics. This, at least, is the position of the biggest experts on methane in the world. It is not anything new either (see here). For several years, scientists were fundamentally divided over whether such a scenario is plausible. Carolyn Rupple of the US Geological Survey (USGS) Gas Hydrates Project told NBC News the scenario is “nearly impossible.” Ed Dlugokencky, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) said there has been “no detectable change in Arctic methane emissions over the past two decades.” NASA’s Gavin Schmidt said that ice core records from previously warm Arctic periods show no indication of such a scenario having ever occurred. Methane hydrate expert David Archer reiterated that “the mechanisms for release operate on time scales of centuries and longer.” But none of the scientists rejecting the plausibility of the scenario are experts in the Arctic and specifically in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). In contrast, an emerging consensus among ESAS specialists based on continuing fieldwork is highlighting a real danger of unprecedented quantities of methane venting due to thawing permafrost.

Here is the result of a 2010 analysis led by the Met Office in the UK. The paper was published in The Review of Geophysics – see here for this article, which can be read free of charge. The authors explain that:

“processes governing methane wetland emissions, permafrost thawing, and destabilization of marine hydrates may affect the climate system. Another major concern is the possible degradation or thaw of terrestrial permafrost due to climate change. (…) Large amounts of methane are also stored in marine hydrates, and they could be responsible for large emissions in the future. The time scales for destabilization of marine hydrates are not well understood and are likely to be very long for hydrates found in deep sediments but much shorter for hydrates below shallow waters, such as in the Arctic Ocean. (…) Significant increases in methane emissions are likely, and catastrophic emissions cannot be ruled out” (see here – my emphases).

A later study by Natalia Shakhova et al. found that the time scale for the destabilisation of hydrates in deep sediments may not be that very long at all (see here). Shakhova is professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center. She is considered to be one of the world’s top experts in ESAS’s methane emissions. The paper explains that one source of these emissions “may be highly potential and extremely mobile shallow methane hydrates, whose stability zone is seabed permafrost-related and could be disturbed upon permafrost development, degradation, and thawing.” But, the authors continue, “Even if the methane hydrates are deep, fissures, taliks and other soft spots create heat pathways from the seabed which warms quickly due to shallow depths” (my emphasis). Various mechanisms for such processes have been elaborated in detail. The paper then posits the plausibility of a 50 Gigatonne (Gt) methane release occurring abruptly “at any time,” noting that the total quantity of carbon in the ESAS is “not less than 1,400 Gt:

“Since the area of geological disjunctives (fault zones, tectonically and seismically active areas) within the Siberian Arctic shelf composes not less than 1-2% of the total area and area of open taliks (area of melt through permafrost), acting as a pathway for methane escape within the Siberian Arctic shelf reaches up to 5-10% of the total area, we consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time. That may cause 12-times increase of modern atmospheric methane burden with consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming“(my emphasis – see here).

A 2011 study led by Sergienko on the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), conducted by more than 20 Arctic experts and published in the Proceedings of the Russian Academy of Science concluded that

“on the basis of the analysis of published data and in the course of the authors’ long-term geochemical and acoustic surveys performed in 1995–2011 on the East Siberian shelf (ESS) and aimed to research the role of the Arctic shelf in the processes of massive methane outbursts into the Earth’s atmosphere crucially new results were obtained. (…) The emission of methane in several areas of the ESS is massive to the extent that growth in the methane concentrations in the atmosphere to values capable of causing a considerable and even catastrophic warning on the Earth is possible” (my emphasis – see here. This article is not free of charge, but the abstract and the bibliography is accessible).

Dahr Jamail writes in Truthout that one study has shown that methane could trigger “catastrophic climate change” that would cost the global economy $60 trillion, it is to say, more or less annual global GDP (see here), although at that point it really is no longer important because most life on earth would be gone.

Finally, Yurganov et al. point out that between January 2009 and 2013, Arctic methane levels ramped steadily higher by about 10-20 ppb on average each year (see here). And Vaks et al., analysing a 500.000 year history of Siberian permafrost, found that “global climates only slightly warmer than today are sufficient to thaw significant regions of permafrost” (see here and here). The study found that there is a tipping point for continuous thawing of permafrost at 1.5 C which “can potentially lead to substantial release of carbon trapped in the permafrost into the atmosphere” (see here).

This, then, seems to be the consensus. The climate change crisis is an emergency. Humanity is, at best, a couple of tenths of a degree away from a tipping point after which permafrost will thaw continuously. The carbon and methane that the thawing releases are only two major problems among many, none of which are being sufficiently addressed anywhere. CO2 emissions will spike further in 2017. After all, we continue to subsidise fossil fuels. It may well be $ 11 million per minute now, or perhaps even $12 million per minute. That is a terrible and a disgusting crime. It is indeed a crime against humanity.