Aug 19, 2012

The Bad News

This call for talking about all the other hairy, scary problems making climate change less hopeful is an elaboration on the second idea from,"5 Most Interesting Things About The World's Biggest Problem," my blog exploring Bill McKibben's recent admission, "we're losing the fight, badly and quickly." That blog sets the stage for this one and takes a look at trying to explain climate change to a guitarist. (Don't try this at home.) That blog is the most popular i've yet written, take a look! Also reposted on

As far as climate change goes, leaders in the climate science and environmentalist communities are beginning to acknowledge "we're losing badly and quickly." Speaking critically, those statements seem a trifle conservative to me. Wouldn't ya know it. Always on the edge. What follows below is a brief about some of the things we enviros keep leaving out when considering greenhouse gas pollution. Just a few things I've thought of... 
No matter how you slice it, scientists -- you know the smart people who spend all day every day studying this stuff, are saying .... dah dah daht, dah Daaah .... drum roll please ... the numbers are in! ... We've crossed all thresholds! ... There's no question about it! ... Ahhh S*** -- Here we goooooo ... But it comes out like: 
Pause. "Ahem," pause. "Ladies and Gentlemen, GHGs are greenhouse gasses, and, ahem, the total amount of gasses -- that's greenhouse gasses -- the total amount of greenhouse gasses human society is projected to emit over the next few decades VASTLY EXCEEDS the amount of emissions any of us in the climate science community thinks our planet could possibly manage. I mean no question about it. We're going way past what any of us professionals over here believes is safe. And, uhm, believe it or not we're already IN crisis. Take that as you will, but It's too late to avoid that, so, uhm, just to be clear -- our job is to study the planet's weather systems over time; what controls the weather you know? We're, like, data monks. We just measure all day long. Everyday and this is what our numbers are telling us, so..."  

Is this your mental image of a "scientist" ?

Anyway, that's game over for stopping climate change, ya'll. The bus stops here. But before we start the "Now What?" conversation maybe we should consider things that make this problem even worse. Here's 10 challenges not being talked about. 

Baby we've lost. 

Challenge #1 - We've crossed all safety thresholds. (See above.)

Challenge #2 - Our Future
: Burn. Melt. Repeat
We've" entered a period of unstoppable warming. Everyone and everything. The world's best computers tell us the amount of emissions "committed to" by the world's largest companies over the next 40 years will further intensify the colossal: wildfires, droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and melting events we've been seeing a whole lot of, lately. Yes. More emissions will mean more fire and drought, among other things. And yes, in case you were wondering -- the last two years of giant wildfires and no winter is totally related to what's predicted for us in a climate change world. (1) In fact, it's so weird, the last couple of years' of freakish weather all over the United States and around the world is right in line with what the climate science community was afraid would happen. The last couple of years synch-up with what the world's climate scientists have identified as our worst case scenario for global climate change.  
People, we've got a fast moving climate change, here. Take no prisoners kind a climate change. Stuff's shuttin' down! 
Who is this guy & why is he yelling?

In other words and in all seriousness, when our planet takes on this many GHG emissions without mechanisms for rapid absorption, natural or otherwise, the climate scientists keep coming back and saying their data says you can bet on the destruction of our largest life-giving assets. Real. Soon. Like, in our lifetimes. Fresh waterways,  oceans,  forests,  grasslands,  mountain meadows,  glaciers,  mountain snow,  mountain ice,  permafrost,  soil (aka: Big Habitat). As these areas warm they'll decline and at the rate of warming we're currently experiencing they're expected to decline pretty fast; during the next few decades, i gather, from everything i read. But here's the real stinger. As these areas go they'll release more greenhouse gasses thus intensifying the whole situation. Ouch! Problem: worse. Burn-Melt-Add Gas-Repeat. What d'we do? Heat today = more heat tomorrow. (2)
  • About 500,000 acres burned in northern Mexico just months
    before Texas lost 3,000,000 acres to wildfires, in 2011.

Challenge #3 -- Political Convo Isn't Realistic.
NASA super-boss, Dr. James Hansen (who's been running NASA's Goddard Space Center for 31 years) says, "The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees (Celsius) of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster." (Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012) Whoah. OK, then. So what you're saying is the leaders of the international climate negotiations community are arguing over the wrong agreement. Their reduction target ain't high enough, or their bar ain't low enough, or something like that... Long story short, if they get an agreement signed it won't be enough. (3) 

But check this out.  

Challenge #4 -- Too Late for "Killing The Economy." 
Bill McKibben says in the same Rolling Stone article with James Hansen, "Computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 today, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees Celsius." 
 Now i realize this blog's already getting boring. Overly tedious perhaps. But listen, that 'nother .8 degrees puts us up to about 80% of maximum allowable warming ... according to the outdated, international climate negotiators standard. What should the correct reduction standard be? Nobody knows it seems, but we know it should be lower.  
That's good, right? At least we know it should be lower. 
Hmmn. Conclusion: if we stopped burning everything today, stopped the economy as we know it, we might avoid the outdated international negotiators standard, but that's not enough and that's not gonna happen is it? (see below) We're stuck with damaging, freakish whatever whenever weather, year round for the next several decades. (4) There's really no stopping the warming is there?  (Sorry, mom.)

Challenge #5 -- Your Job Depends on GHGs. 
I'm gonna lean a little heavy on my armchair here, but suffice to say we all count on "job creators." Our beloved incomes, which make it possible to pay the bills on home and happiness are intrinsically/organically dependent on today's fossil-fueled jobs economy. Long story short, i couldn't work if it wasn't for fossil fuels. Our
global economy is defined by fossil fuels and fossil fuel markets. That's what we anti-global warming activists should be trying to change. What's "That" you say? Oh, nothing, it's just the power and omnipresence of fossil fuels, on a global basis; the underpinnings of civilization as we know it. No big deal. Again, no matter how you slice it fossil fuels employ and feed pretty much everybody on the Earth directly or indirectly and provide the fuel for economic growth. Whoops, let me just restate that: fossil fuels provide fuel for our economies to achieve their intended purpose. More on this in footnote (5). Do you want to give up your job?

And Challenge #6 -- Profit & Wealth.
Since worldwide political recognition of the impending climate crisis a decade or two ago global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, around 3% a year, year over year. Capitalism, er uh, profit, the thing that goes so well with Democracy, the thing that's making humans more equal, the high tide that raises all boats, indeed thrives on growth.  
 I'll bet my bottom dollar you, me and our friends can't stop the wealthy, aka the profit seekers, not on a worldwide basis. Or at least we can't stop the wealthy very quickly and speed counts. What's a reasonable amount of profit for one person or corporation to seek? Who knows. More to the point, you/me/we can't stop the people all over the world who want to be wealthy or become wealthy; the people who want to enhance their quality of life. Fossil fuels are their foundation. That's what fuels explosive growth. From a profit perspective fossil fuels are, as they say, "cheap, quick and dirty." Sound sexy? In a way, it's the human desire to own more than enough that defines today's climate change/GHG emissions/wealth confluence. I know first hand, i'm part of the global 1% (6) -- or at least my lifestyle is. Solution?... hmmm, let's see... Can somebody powerful please make fighting climate change profitable? I often wonder why Exxon or Shell or BP with their superior wits, resources and forecasting, didn't go algae fuel back in the 90's when the planet needed it. Today, fighting climate change means changing horses: no more gasoline, no more oil, no more coal, not even natural gas, everything dirty-fuel must go. Furthermore we the people would be best served by instituting tremendous resource and energy efficiency. But that stuff's all bad for today's profit leaders. Wealthy corporations, governments, NGOs, and individuals (like myself) don't want change. Good lord, we all know that -- we're rich! (7) 

Bill McKibben, always insightful,
"Tackling climate change (is) like trying to build a movement against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders." 
Two questions: Is wealth overrated? Can the world's wealthiest people end their slaveholder relationship with GHGs?

Challenge #7 -- Are We Really Counting All The Emissions?
Reality Check. Seems to me there have to be more GHGs in the air than anyone's acknowledging. I worked in Texas's petrochemical industry for about three months earlier this year, helping small producers and polluters get permitted. Those were some days of mixed emotion. It feels great to make real money and use your brain, but you learn real quick that every well (oil or gas), every industrial coating facility, every backup generator, EMITS A LOT of greenhouse gasses. Particularly the wells. These things emit tons of greenhouse gasses (and other pollutants) way before the well's contents become marketable. In reality the well's "marketable product" is about the only thing getting measured during the many phases of fossil fuel identification, location, engagement, extraction, collection, transfer, refinement, transfer to market, retail, and combustion. I suspect we're in a deeper hole than we're acknowledging. As an environmentalist, all the conversation i hear about emissions is focused on tailpipes. Perhaps we should devote real attention to the off-gassing happening before combustion? Where's the accounting for flares, leaks, and spills worldwide? My gut says there are more greenhouse gasses emitted  every day than we think. 

Gas & Oil wells spontaneously catch fire every year,
they're, uh, very gaseous ya see. 

There's more to this story.

"Oh God, there's more?" Again, these are just my ideas. We all should be thinking critically. This is quite a deal this global warming stuff, there's more to the conversation than reducing tail pipe emissions and industrial greenhouse gasses. We're up against people who work hard every day. We're up against ourselves and our neighbors, our friends, the super wealthy, the middle the poor, we're up against anyone working to maintain wealth or get wealth. We're up against the ubiquitous human aim to "have more" and that aim's contemporaneous intertwining with the infrastructure of our modern civilization. Plus there's these problems: 

Challenge #8 -- Decompose. Repeat. 
Thanks to hotter, drier weather trash, natural debris, and other organic matter should decay faster. Will everything smell like a Manhattan summer all the time? I don't know, but seems to me that faster organic decomposition and continuation of the practice of incinerating trash will add more emissions; sort of a Burn-Decompose-Add Gas-Repeat dynamic. Maybe i'm crazy, but shouldn't these types of emissions be counted when emissions projections are made?

Challenge #9 -- Asphalt, Paints, Adhesives, Stains, Seals, Roof Shingles, Timber, Building Materials ... plus HEAT! It's the same idea, except with industrial materials. Will faster decomposition of industrial materials add a measurable amount of gasses to our total world GHG pollution? And, i'm gonna throw in a whacko idea -- the more radically it heats or cools outside, the more we'll run our A/Cs and heaters in our homes and vehicles, which of course adds more heat to the whole situation. And the more we use nuclear or fossil fueled power plants to offset the discomfort in our homes and buildings on extremely hot and cold days, the more these large scale kilowatt makers will add heat to the whole situation. Cycle cycle cycle. 

Challenge 10 -- We Don't Have a Solution. 
Sadly even the best systemic fix yet, "Cap & Trade" ain't working. No country has really been able to get it in place.
Gernot Wagner writes "not even the French have been able to raise carbon taxes." And you know how much the French LOVE taxes. Taxes and freedom, that's all i ever hear the French talk about. But additionally, out of all the unabashedly socialist democrat Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland) who implemented carbon taxes in the 1990s to create meaningful reductions, none have seen these programs have a strong enough effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. None of these Scandinavian programs are making a difference relative to the size of the problem they're helping to create.


(1)  I know there are dozens of other weather phenomena related to climate science projections last several years, most recently: hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding during convention season, hard drought in the grain states during summer, preceded by large wildfires, extreme heat and high temperatures, tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding and "no winter," preceded by hard drought in the SouthWest Summer/Fall 2011, including large wildfires, extreme heat and high temperatures, preceded by tornadoes, hurricanes, "mega-hurricane almost takes New York," and record rains, tornadoes and flooding in the Spring 2011, preceded by blizzards, extreme cold and low temperatures, and early freezes. That's 2012 to Jan. 1 2011. That's what happened ya'll. Right on schedule. Hitting the fan ... and still we don't notice. 

(2)  Almost everything in Nature stores carbon. Our largest bodies of water and national parks and mountain ranges and permafrost and giant glaciers are all giant GHG sinks. So for example scientists say, after much study and consideration, that melting permafrost will contribute about 8% of the warming believed allowable, by 2050, by 2040. Make sense? Melting permafrost will get us at least 8% closer to what the smart researchers (the scientists) and their computers say is a point of no return on global warming. Worse yet, a lot of the gasses in these natural sinks are more robust than CO2. From the atmosphere's perspective, Methane for instance is sort of an "Energizer Bunny" of greenhouse gasses, meaning it's worse for us. The result? Our atmosphere will have an even harder time managing natural GHG pollution than it has had managing industrialized GHG pollution.

(3)  C'est la vie. In fact many climate scientists believe our recent 0.8 degrees C warming has caused damage to a greater extent than their computer models could project. These incindiary and scandalous professional climate scientists believe ANY more warming above what we've already incurred (0.8ºC = 1.44º F) and we will cause damage above and beyond what humans can handle. They think we're at the limit ALREADY. (i agree)

(4)  Even if we did decide to shut down what we know of as modern life and live a fossil fuel free existence there a numerous "radical," "far left," "profiting from climate science" Climate Scientists -- who also by the way must have a very sick sense of humor if you are to believe they're making this stuff up -- who believe any additional warming sends us to the superbowl of peril. Geez. 

(5)  You probably know, the world's top 6 wealthiest consolidated industries (in order) are: Banking, Oil & Gas (Fossil Fuels), Tech, Automobile Makers, Construction, and Chemicals. All fossil fuel / energy dependent. Believe it or not Food and Real Estate don't rank that high, in terms of consolidated wealth. Now this may sound out of whack, but try shuttin' the world's wealthiest, most consolidated industries down --- that won't be easy, and if we did what would happen to our day jobs? Upping the ante, these consolidated industries are of course financing the future of wealth, too. Borrowing, as i understand it, against projected profits which are of course based on an assumption  of fossil fuel production well into the future. Even worse, here's a factoid for ya, Bill McKibben says in the recommended Rolling Stone article that today's Oil & Gas companies possess the equivalent of five times more emissions, in committed marketable product, than even our outdated climate negotiator's top line allows for. The fossil fuel providers -- the Exxons, the Massey Coals, the PetroChinas, the utility providers --- are effectively the most powerful and entrenched companies in the world. And they plan to keep growing. Legal code and regulation are written around them; they sell to governments and consumers and militaries. They do well during peacetime and wartime. Everyone's their customer. Talk about "power." They've got this whole thing wired. "They" are planning on selling us 5xs more emissions than the climate negotiators believe our biological system can manage. Their future, our future, is emissions. Emissions = life as we know it.

(6)  I've got it good. I'm part of the global 1% living in the USA. My standard of living is wayyyyy better than most folks on Earth. My life depends on fossil fuels. My band couldn't be out on the road, having the time of our lives in Italy, Spain, the UK, the NorthEast, the MidWest, the West Coast, the SouthEast, Canada, France, Austria...

(7)  It doesn't matter whether you're homeless or Kim Kardashian or Bill McKibben or the Dalai Lama or the next President of the United States -- none of us have been able to reduce emissions enough to mitigate the severity of what the climate science says is coming. It's been six years since Glenn Beck started discrediting An Inconvenient Truth. What's changed? The bottom line is our lives depend on materialism and economic growth. Our lives drive the economy. The economy's foundation is in emissions. Collectively, we have negative impacts on nature's systems because of how we fuel our built system (civilization). Who we are and what we buy defines our values and our relationship with everything (including the climate). Our built system won't change until our values change, and right now we collectively undervalue the climate. But before you blame yourself for the situation we're all in, blame all the higher ups who place cash and property before the common good. I mean, you're a higher up too relative to the world's standard of living, but don't blame the Hummer drivers. Blame the economically powerful people, individuals or corporations. Thems who you should challenge. The question we should be asking ourselves is, "How much leverage does the thing i'm working on have on fixing the problem i'm fighting against?  To change Capitalism, you'll have to challenge your own bad self, every second, to live inside a different set of values. You might have to become one of the global 99%. 

1 comment:

christopher searles said...


"Good follow up to first piece. We are definitely in what Thomas Berry called "the great transition." It is now all about adaptation. To #7 I would add industrial meat production (especially mammals - the cows and pigs - the red stuff). The methane they release is intense. And, of course, the feeding of them takes massive amounts of fossil fuels in the form of fertilizer (and its transport to feed lots) and fuel necessary to move the meat to and from slaughter. In that sense, your vegan bandmate is way ahead of me (even though I eat way less meat than most first worlders and rarely have red meat - it isn't enough, of course)."

Good points, Talley. Thanks (Chris)

this was: "about an hour ago via mobile" on Facebook. You can find that convo and other good ones somewhere on my Fb page: