Of warnings and their ripple effects

Greta Thunberg

In her testimony to the US Congress, Greta Thunberg did not prepare a statement for submission to the record. Instead, she submitted the most recent scientific report, issued by the IPCC three weeks earlier. She said simply, “I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.”

Alden Meyer, an elder statesman of environmental advocacy that I have been running into at every climate meeting since Rio in 1992, called it the shortest and most powerful testimony he has heard anyone give in Congress during his decades in Washington.

This week another headline blazed across newspapers and social media sites: World Scientists Warn of Climate Emergency.

Reading this newest installment in ecologist William Ripple’s series was a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, I was delighted that he and Chris Wolf at Oregon State, Tom Newsome at the University of Sydney, Phoebe Barnard at Conservation Biology Institute and the University of Capetown, and Bill Moomaw at Tufts were able to enlist 11,258 co-signatories from 153 countries for their paper published in BioScience on November 5th.

The first such warning, organized by Alden Meyer and the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992, had 1,575 prominent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates, co-sign. The second, by Ripple, Wolf, et al in BioScience in 2017, had 15,364 signatories from 184 countries, which begs the question: Why fewer this year?

In my humble opinion, the problem with this warning, and perhaps also why it is shedding supporters, is that it says all the right things but feels like it is speaking to an empty room. It has all been said before. I confess I have the same issue with street protests. Somewhere in the world, there may be someone who has never heard of climate change or doesn’t take it seriously, and might change their thinking after seeing a million people in the streets, but frankly, I don’t know who that person is or whether they are worth the effort.

It is all well and good to engage in awareness-raising, but at some point, you have to put down the placard and actually do something about the situation.

The issues identified by Ripple

The Scientists’ Warning is that we humans are either threatening or have already collapsed several essential prerequisites for continued human existence on Earth. The 1992 report cited ozone depletion, declining freshwater availability, unsustainable marine fisheries, ocean dead zones, forest loss, dwindling biodiversity, climate change, and population growth as shocking indicators that should stir us all to action.

hothouse earth

The 2017 report spotlighted climate change as the most likely to do us all in, but also drew attention to deforestation and agricultural production — particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption — as if they were separate, and also decried the Sixth mass extinction event. The 2019 report again hones in on climate change as our biggest problem, but this time connects the dots to human population, total fertility rate, ruminant livestock population, per capita meat production, world gross domestic product, global tree cover loss, Brazilian Amazon forest loss, energy consumption, air transport, divestment, global CO2 emissions, per capita CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions covered by carbon pricing, fossil fuel subsidies, atmospheric CO2 , atmospheric methane, atmospheric nitrous oxide, surface temperature change, minimum Arctic sea ice, Greenland ice mass, Antarctica ice mass, cumulative glacier thickness change, ocean heat content, ocean acidity, extreme weather events (frequency and economic losses), sea-level change, and total area burned by wildfires — as all part of that one big problem we have yet to face. Somehow they completely overlooked plastics.

Okay, so we are warned. Now what? My gripe with protest movements, even by distinguished scientists, is that even if they succeed beyond their wildest expectations and topple governments, they don’t have either an agreed plan to replace the current system or a transition roadmap to follow. Ripple says:

“Governmental bodies are making climate emergency declarations. Schoolchildren are striking. Ecocide lawsuits are proceeding in the courts. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change….”

Yes, all true. So then what?

The 2019 report says “The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle.” Well, that is very true and surprisingly honest. I imagine most in Extinction Rebellion would agree with that. I also imagine most scientists who signed this would cluster among the top 1% most wealthy individuals on the planet. Ripple, et al, then opine:

To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live, in ways that improve the vital signs summarized by our graphs. Economic and population growth are among the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion; therefore, we need bold and drastic transformations regarding economic and population policies. We suggest six critical and interrelated steps (in no particular order) that governments, businesses, and the rest of humanity can take to lessen the worst effects of climate change. These are important steps but are not the only actions needed or possible.

The steps Ripple proposed are all good. They are strong, they are honest, and they are realistic:

Energy: leave remaining stocks of fossil fuels in the ground and replace them with massive energy efficiency, conservation practices, and clean energy.

CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal): While this is buried in the energy section, Ripple et al advocate we “carefully pursue effective negative emissions using technology such as carbon extraction from the source [biochar, straw buildings, holistic management] and capture from the air and especially by enhancing natural systems.”

Slash short-lived pollutants: By sharply curtailing emissions of methane, soot, and hydrofluorocarbons (refrigerants) we could potentially reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades, Ripple says.

rain forest

Rescue nature: We need more phytoplankton, coral reefs, forests, savannas, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, soils, mangroves, and sea grasses. We need reforestation and afforestation at enormous scales. Going by the calculations the late Frank Michael and I made ten years ago, now repeatedly confirmed, we need to add roughly four Spains in additional global forest annually; a trillion trees per decade. There is no map to avert Hothouse Earth that does not include this.

Food: The scientists suggest “eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products, especially ruminant livestock,” and eliminating food waste. “Cropping practices … that increase soil carbon are vitally important. “ This needs to be unpacked a little because in my view the problem is less about animals as food than about feeding them grains. Until wild stocks can be rebuilt, domestic livestock are vital surrogates in natural ecosystems.

water crisis

World Water Crisis — The New York Times 6 Aug 2019

Population: “[W]orld population must be stabilized — and, ideally, gradually reduced — within a framework that ensures social integrity.” Amen. Probably needs to be lower than most are ready to acknowledge, and will get there by unhappy means unless a graceful glide path is selected and followed assiduously.

Economy: This is possibly the biggest sticking point, so let’s quote the entire warning by the scientists:

Excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems, driven by economic growth, must be quickly curtailed to maintain the long-term sustainability of the biosphere. We need a carbon-free economy that explicitly addresses human dependence on the biosphere and policies that guide economic decisions accordingly. Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality. (emphasis added)

Now that is a very noble statement and one that drives to the core of the denialist and obstructionist agenda. One of neoliberalism’s most benighted spokesmen, Bill Clinton, famously said, “You can’t get elected by promising people less.” He could have easily as said, you can’t win over an audience by insulting their religion. The religion of the consumer culture (now global) is growth. More. Then more. Then still more. The Scientists’ Warning, after pleading with everyone to do with less, says:

“The good news is that such transformative change, with social and economic justice for all, promises far greater human well-being than does business as usual.”

The statement may be absolutely true, and it is a philosophy I have been flogging for the past 40 years, but it makes very little difference. To get the needed change now, at this late hour, will require far greater sacrifice than possibly any human society has ever shown before. Go to the darkest days of the London Blitz or the Siege of Leningrad and multiply that times ten. We have to cut emissions in half by 2030, half again by 2040, and to net-zero by 2050. That means switching energy systems to clean and renewable, surely, but it also means no more air travel. No more fleets of aircraft carriers and B52 bombers. Sail-powered commerce across oceans. Solar-powered rail across continents. Just as in the Special Period in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union, imagine food calories cut by a third. The longer we delay, the steeper the descent.


IPCC: The need for negative emissions

Last week, Ida Auken, Member of the Danish Parliament (Folketinget), writing for the World Economic Forum borrowed a page from Transition Network to try to imagine the world of 2030 that we could have. She called it “CO-topia.”

It is cheaper for you not to own your own car, which, in turn, reduces congestion so you arrive at your destination more easily and quickly and don’t have to spend time looking for somewhere to park. You can also choose to travel by bike, scooter or public transit.

The air you breathe in the city is cleaner because there are far fewer cars on the streets and the rest are electric — all electricity is green in fact. There is less noise and much more space for parks and pedestrian streets since all the parking space became available. For lunch you can choose from dozens of exciting meals — most of them are plant-based, so you eat more healthily and are more environmentally friendly than when lunch meant choosing between five types of burger.

Single-use plastics are a distant memory. You still grab a to-go coffee, but it comes in a reusable cup that you turn in at the next coffee shop to get your deposit back. The same system applies to plastic bottles and other take-away containers. At home, all of your household appliances have been turned into service contracts. If your dishwasher is about to break down, it is no longer your problem. The service provider already knows about the problem and has sent someone to fix it. When the machine no longer works, the provider picks up the old machine and installs a new one.

People are trying out new types of living arrangements with more shared functions and spaces. This means that more people can afford to live in cities. More houses are built with wood, which makes them nicer to live in and much better for the climate than concrete buildings.

When you buy something, you buy something that lasts; you buy it because you really need it and want to take care of it. But because you buy far fewer things, you can actually afford products of better quality and design.


Much of the land formerly used to produce animal feedstock has become available. As people in cities have started to value going into nature, tourism, hunting and angling now offer new types of income for people living in rural areas. Forests and nature are again spreading across the globe. People travel more in their region and by train, so air traffic has started to decline. Most airlines have switched to electrofuels, biofuels or electricity.

Best of all, because citizens have stopped buying so much stuff, they have more money to spend on other things. This new disposable income is spent on services: cleaning, gardening, help with laundry, healthy and easy meals to cook, entertainment, experiences and fabulous new restaurants. All of these things give the average modern person more options and more free time to spend with their friends and families, working out, learning new skills, playing sports or making art — you name it and there’s more time to do it.

If we consider what the future could be, picking up the mantle against climate change may not seem so bad after all.

Rather than “a carbon-free economy,” during all that heroic deprivation we must strive to create a carbon-intensive economy, as Kathleen Draper and I argued in Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth. We need to start intercepting carbon before it gets back to the atmosphere and instead incorporate it into everything we build, buy, or clothe ourselves with. We need wooden ships, char-crete buildings, bamboo bicycles, moringa furniture, and hemp clothing. We need to elegantly craft those things to last for centuries.

As Daniel Christian Wahl describes it, what is required is a new regenerative economy:

One of the leading lights showing the way individuals can do something right now is Nori. You can go to nori.com on your phone and purchase carbon removal for your past month, or your past year, or your whole next year. The calculator on the Nori site helps you estimate your footprint based on what you did or plan to do. Then Nori arranges to pay carbon sequestrators to retrieve your carbon back from the atmosphere and put it somewhere it will stay and won’t go back. Nori already does, or may eventually do, all of those CDR strategies that politicians aren’t even talking about yet. Doing just that simple 5-minute exercise on your phone can do much more for the planet than getting arrested with Jane Fonda or publishing yet another warning signed by umpty-ump famous scientists.

The sacredness of our growth economy is precisely how Congressional deniers and delayers chose to attack the little Swedish mermaid as she sat defiantly before them in September. Their staunchest argument, their line drawn in the sand, was that the Paris Agreement is bad for the economy. Whose economy? What kind of economy is that, that is killing us all?

It is not the economy that Greta Thunberg’s generation wants. If they get their say, it is not the economy they will have.

Albert Bates was a civil sector representative at the Copenhagen climate conference, trying to point the world back towards a stable atmosphere using soils and trees.  His book BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth has just been released and his book Plastics: From Pollution to Evolution is due out in April 2019.

Originally published by Medium




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