Our Rapidly Changing Climate Mitigation Situation

global warming earth

The persistent La Niña of the past three years is rapidly cycling into the El Niño phase. There are indications that it could become a major El Niño which could push GMT warming to record levels – perhaps even exceeding a 1.5C rise while escalating climate impacts and damage.

While this surge of impacts and damage will hopefully not be so severe as to be a Pearl Harbor moment, the El Niño engendered impacts combined with rising awareness that global mitigation efforts have so far failed to even stop the increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions might just be a window of opportunity to rethink what should be done to ensure effective climate mitigation.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed emissions have continued to rise, slowed only by the Covid pandemic. While the growth in renewable capacity globally has soared the energy transition has been ineffectual at actually reducing emissions. Worryingly, investment in expanding fossil fuel production is increasing.

For example, the twenty biggest banks have invested  $4trillion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement was signed. The increase in projected oil, gas and even coal production strongly suggests that fossil fuel use may continue to rise for at least a decade – the American EIA predicts American oil and gas production will not decrease substantially by 2050 – and while the climate concerned believe that this planned production will become stranded assets, the predicted continued growth in demand for energy globally strongly suggests that this fossil fuel production will be burned somewhere, somehow. (‘Stranded assets’ looks to be just denial.)

Everything, everywhere, all at once is beginning to sound distressingly hollow. And each year of same old, same old makes effective mitigation that much harder.

Hence the growing informed chorus questioning our existing mitigation framework and policies. There has been growing concern especially over failure to initiate policies to limit the expansion of fossil fuel production:

Bill McKibben:

“But because most of our leaders can’t bear to say no—can’t bear to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel industry and crimp the supply of oil and gas—their only remaining bet is that they can somehow nonetheless transition us off fossil fuel by cutting demand. Theoretically, enough EVs will eventually mean that drilling for more oil is a losing proposition, and it will dwindle of its own accord, without any politician having to take any pain in the process. But the key word in that last sentence is “eventually.” Time is what we lack, and time is what they waste with their calculation and cowardice.”

LA TImes editorial:

“The U.N’s scientific assessment, approved by 195 nations, says that existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure — all of the coal-fired power plants, oil wells and gas-powered vehicles already built or on the way — will generate enough greenhouse gas pollution to warm the planet by a catastrophic 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, this century.

“Humans have already overheated Earth by 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). To avoid irreversible damage to our communities and ecosystems, we can’t just stop permitting new oil and gas drilling and coal- and gas-fired power plants, and end production of combustion-engine vehicles. We have to cancel and retire existing fossil fuel projects as well.”

A rethink of what effective mitigation must entail therefor strongly suggests using both arms of the climate policy scissors. Demand mitigation policies which conveniently fit into market-based governance have proven ineffectual. What if the focus of activism had been implementing a global carbon non-proliferation treaty, for example? Could this have effectively reduced fossil fuel production, especially by the major fossil fuel producers?

If a strong El Niño does develop and impacts and damage thrust a debate about effective mitigation into the Overton Window, a big step towards combining demand and supply-side policies could be a critical examination of why supply-side policies have been largely ignored. The IPCC mitigation reports have barely mentioned let alone examined policies to actually keep fossil fuels in the ground. Media, especially in the US, have focused upon only allowed solutions and governments have spent little time debating potential regulations to limit or wind down production.

The building climate dangers have always been downplayed so that mitigation could be shoehorned into continuing economic and political business as usual. The only conceptions of mitigation and policies allowed were incremental, did not threaten important business values such as the laminate of investments into the future, or did not provoke systemic change deep enough to cause a recession or endanger local or international businesses.

Reducing our use of fossil fuels in order to effectively reduce GHG emissions was always going to be a difficult transformation of our socio-economy even if the energy transition had begun in the 1990s and been well supported. Now, after at least three decades of mitigation failure, only deep systemic change can reduce emissions rapidly enough to have even a chance at not inflicting civilization threatening damage.

Emission reduction will require actually winding down fossil fuel production and powering down (at least in the short term) to a very different economy. This will require cooperation across party lines, a geopolitical truce with the conflicting great powers taking two steps back on all fronts, probably a global and local debt jubilee and more deep systemic change, all presently impossible, all organized almost immediately.

The alternative – muddling through, staying ineffective and feeding the multi-crisis – is the destruction of our civilization, tremendous pain and suffering and the probable death of all we care about and love.

The last word on our rapidly changing mitigation situation goes to Steven Donziger:

“Without such an immediate fossil fuel phase-out plan, the announcement looks more like a campaign stunt to compensate for Biden’s disastrous recent decisions to greenlight a slew of new fossil fuel projects that will pollute the planet for decades to come…..

“Hundreds of the world’s leading scientists have demonstrated that we are on the brink of a tipping point which, absent immediate change, will cause massive and irreversible damage to the planet and seal a dismal fate for future generations…..

“As these humanitarian costs grow more acute, fossil fuel investments are increasing to record levels. If active fossil fuel projects live to the end of their natural lives and those planned actually come to fruition, in a few short years we will blow past the limits of what scientists feel is the upper limit of a manageable level of global heating (an increase in temperatures of 1.5C compared with pre-industrial levels).”

Bill Henderson is a long time climate activist and Countercurrents contributor – bhenderson(at)dccnet(dot)com

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