Short term thinking on the climate will kill somebody’s kids

Monbiot in The Guardian. Naturally, everybody wants $4.2 trillion but I reckon the climate should probably be a priority:

“A paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shows that if we are to give ourselves a roughly even chance of preventing more than two degrees of warming, global emissions from energy must peak by 2015 and decline by between 6% and 8% per year from 2020 to 2040, leading to a complete decarbonisation of the global economy soon after 2050. Even this programme would work only if some optimistic assumptions about the response of the biosphere hold true. Delivering a high chance of preventing two degrees of warming would mean cutting global emissions by more than 8% a year.

Is this possible? Is this acceptable? The Tyndall paper points out that annual emission cuts greater than 1% have “been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”. When the Soviet Union collapsed, emissions fell by some 5% a year. But you can answer these questions only by considering the alternatives. The trajectory both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown have proposed – an 80% cut by 2050 – means reducing emissions by an average of 2% a year. This programme, the figures in the Tyndall paper suggest, is likely to commit the world to at least four or five degrees of warming, which means the likely collapse of human civilisation across much of the planet. Is this acceptable?

The costs of a total energy replacement and conservation plan would be astronomical, the speed improbable. But the governments of the rich nations have already deployed a scheme like this for another purpose. A survey by the broadcasting network CNBC suggests that the US federal government has now spent $4.2 trillion in response to the financial crisis, more than the total spending on the second world war when adjusted for inflation. Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?

This approach is challenged by the American thinker Sharon Astyk. In an interesting new essay, she points out that replacing the world’s energy infrastructure involves “an enormous front-load of fossil fuels”, which are required to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars, new grid connections, insulation and all the rest. This could push us past the climate tipping point. Instead, she proposes, we must ask people “to make short term, radical sacrifices”, cutting our energy consumption by 50%, with little technological assistance, in five years.

There are two problems: the first is that all previous attempts show that relying on voluntary abstinence does not work. The second is that a 10% annual cut in energy consumption while the infrastructure remains mostly unchanged means a 10% annual cut in total consumption: a deeper depression than the modern world has ever experienced. No political system – even an absolute monarchy – could survive an economic collapse on this scale.

She is right about the risks of a technological green new deal, but these are risks we have to take. Astyk’s proposals travel far into the realm of wishful thinking. Even the technological new deal I favour inhabits the distant margins of possibility.

Can we do it? Search me. Reviewing the new evidence, I have to admit that we might have left it too late. But there is another question I can answer more easily. Can we afford not to try? No, we can’t.”


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