Climate Mitigation – looking forward from gobsmackingly bananas 2023

Ocean Temperature

2023 was the year that global warming went gobsmackingly bananas off the chart. On top of a building major El Niño, warming of both oceans and atmosphere seemed to accelerate far beyond what scientists and the public had been expecting.

The science papers of the year – from James Hansen and his co-writers – postulated that climate change was accelerating due to a lessening of aerosol cooling. Hansen predicts that (because of this new accelerated rate of warming) our mitigation schedule must speed up, staying below a 1.5C rise in global temperature is now untenable, that we will exceed a 2C rise in temperature around 2040, and that this acceleration will be clear and obvious to all this spring before the El Niño wanes.

(The papers are here and here. Micheal Mann’s disagreeing argument is here. Thomas Homer-Dixon’s excellent short synopsis of Hansen’s argument and why it is important is here. And other informative columns on whether climate change is accelerating are here by Gwynne Dyer and from the WashPost here.)

“ Lastly and most fundamentally, if James Hansen and his team are right, humanity’s responses to the climate crisis must be far more radical than currently planned. Incrementalism is now a waste of resources – and of time.” Thomas Homer-DIxon

Last summer I predicted that the high temperatures and resulting extreme weather events of the El Niño, on top of this off the chart underlying warming, combined with the emerging climate science, could awaken even the sleepiest from the society-wide implicatory climate denial that continues to frustrate attempts at climate mitigation.

We have left stopping our use of fossil fuels way too late and are perilously close if not over tipping points to climate catastrophe. The emerging climate science has been quantifying these tipping points and a possible cascade of feedbacks that could raise global temperatures many degrees warmer. This non-linear tipping point danger was documented in a superb report (the other climate science highlite of 2023) released during COP28 and then largely ignored.

Unfortunately the end of year climate articles summing up and looking forward showed that in climate journalism as well as amongst publics and policymakers, implicatory denial was still strong as almost every article had to have a hopeful energy transition success story looking into 2024.

Fossil fuel production and use expanded in 2023 (record breaking in the US). GHG emissions continued to rise. Governments (like the US and Canada) that have supposedly pledged to mitigate climate are instead doing everything in their power to expand fossil fuel production and are succeeding.

Publics and policymakers remain in deep, society-wide implicatory climate denial that keeps us from needed mitigation. We are stuck in an antiquated and outmoded ‘energy transition’ conception of mitigation. Increasing renewable capacity, even tripling renewable capacity if it were possible in the imperative half by 2030 timeline, will not necessarily reduce emissions at all – the history of energy transitions shows that they are additive, the new energy source adds to but doesn’t necessarily displace old energy sources. This is exactly what we have seen over the past decade in the present energy transition and what we should expect in the future (with an inflection point too late to make a difference). 

The energy transition is an ineffectual Rube Goldberg machine:

Energy transitions take decades we no longer have; historically new energy sources add to instead of displacing existing sources of energy; renewables aren’t decreasing fossil fuel use, and building renewable capacity of a scale needed to displace 50% of fossil fuel use by 2030 is now delusional.

To actually reduce emissions substantially governments must use both arms of the climate policy scissors – there must be draconian regulation to quickly wind down the production of fossil fuels. But draconian regulation is not allowed; even consideration of regulating a wind down of production is heretical and remains outside the MSM Overton Window, not allowed ; in spite of the building existential danger only ‘transitioning away’ can be considered.

“In the end, the climate conference agreed not to agree on “phasing out” fossil fuels but all too vaguely on “transitioning away” from them. That’s more like deciding to phase down humanity.”    Juan Cole 

This energy transition conception of mitigation keeps fossil fuel producers in the game expanding production; it keeps publics and policymakers happy not having to give up their fossil fuel based lifestyles (like a person with a possibly fatal medical condition telling themselves a story so they don’t have to give up what they are addicted to but what is killing them). It keeps us from doing due diligence to future generations.

This is why hopeful new year observations about how price competitive renewables are becoming or the COP agreement to (supposedly) invest enough to triple renewable capacity by 2030 are such a disconnect while fossil fuel production continues to expand. Renewables are great technology and if these technologies get a chance to mature there is every reason to believe in unlimited clean energy in the second half of this century. But the urgent problem to solve is reducing emissions by at least half by 2030 and any reasonable person should know this isn’t happening and won’t happen even if everything – politics, supply lines, investment, national and international support, no right wing populist backlash, etc – goes according to the energy transition plan.

The new digital technologies especially paint a hopeful picture of much improved energy efficiency and improved societal organization through innovation; but these new techs are right now becoming big energy hogs. AI has huge potential but also uses vast amounts of electricity. The growth in renewable capacity is providing a lot of this energy growth, the increase of energy, but fossil fuels are still supplying the same 80% plus of global energy as they have for decades – and of course and most importantly, this means emissions are still increasing.

And even if renewables did miraculously displace fossil fuels quickly in most developed countries, there is a growing shortage of energy worldwide and without a regulated wind down of production the surge of investment and expansion since Paris will mean that fossil fuels will still be plentiful and in demand and will be burned somewhere by nations that will be desperate to both keep afloat and catch up in the development race, fossil fuels still being an incredible source of now fiercely needed energy.

So why the hopeful disinformation portraying a rosy energy transition future? Because we are all still deep into society-wide implicatory denial and don’t want to be awakened; we love our very fortunate BAU and are deeply threatened by needed systemic change.
“..denial is far more widespread and deeply ingrained in our society, so deeply in fact that in some form or other, most of us are fully immersed in it. And that this “soft”  form of denial, when it comes to climate action, has proven as effective as the now almost defunct “hard” denial of the climate crisis.”
Wolfgang Knorr

The path to real, effective mitigation now is to get national and international agreement, especially amongst the world’s major producers, for as rapid a regulated wind-down of all production as is possible. This will require waking up to implicatory denial, consensus building for bi-partisan emergency government action, and accelerating the global acceptance of a fossil fuel non-proliferation agreement. (Not possible say the climate realists.)

It will require deconstructing the energy transition conception of mitigation and its replacement by the primary ethical consideration that is much more truthful then ‘we need new sources of energy in order to not use fossil fuels’:

We benefit greatly from both the production and use of fossil fuels but the greenhouse gas potentially fatal side effects fall disproportionately on more vulnerable innocents in the world today and on all future generations of our descendants. We therefore have an obligation to stop producing the cause of this horrible damage which threatens not only our global civilization but even humanity’s very future as well as the future of all of the species with which we share creation.

After at least three decades of mitigation failure, far past the 1C guardrail that we should have responsibly kept warming below, with warming now taking us to or over existentially threatening tipping points, we have to treat climate change as an emergency and stop producing and using fossil fuels as quickly as is possible. 

This must now mean powering down (in at least the short term) and deep systemic change in our socio-economies, governance innovation like wartime-style coalition governments and Green New Deal-style transition support, diplomatic agreement to step back from potential confrontation to fight climate while decreasing military emissions, etc., etc. (Wildly impractical doomerism sing the climate realists.)

The path we are on going into 2024 is irrational and irresponsible; it is a plan to fail and we need to change rapidly. Without an evolution past fossil fuels modernity is doomed and all we know and care for is at risk. Urgent change is needed. It will have to be painful to some degree but it is possible, can be accomplished with nobody left behind; there is a bright future if we finally remove this sword that is hanging over our heads; and it is the right thing to do – due diligence to our descendants and our home on Earth. (Don’t even think about it or consider in any way because it is doomerism chant the powerful mob of energy experts, ENGO spokespersons, climate journalists and supposed climate leaders.)

Will an accelerating warming awaken publics and policymakers, journalists and pretend climate leaders from society-wide denial this spring? Will we wake up and take urgent emergency action and actually keep fossil fuels in the ground? Or is denial too strong and the emergency action now needed too daunting, too painful to even consider?

I guess we’ll see this spring.

Bill Henderson is a long time climate activist and CounterCurrents contributor. Bhenderson(at)dccnet(dot)com

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