Could this be good news on the feasibility of limiting the 1.5C increase in global warming envisaged by the COP 21 Paris Climate Accord? A new study reported here suggests that ‘an updated analysis using the latest data shows the global carbon emissions budget that meets the 1.5C goal is significantly bigger than thought, equivalent to 20 years of current annual emissions…. the new work revealed that for a 66% chance of meeting the 1.5C target in 2100, the budget is 240bn tonnes of carbon, assuming that other greenhouse gases such as methane are also controlled. This means the target could be met if strong action is taken. The scientists also warned that carbon cuts need to happen sooner rather than later, starting with countries strengthening their Paris pledges in 2018.’
The new study reminds us of the difficulties of making projections but does not mention the expected addition of two billion more humans to Spaceship Earth by 2050 and another 2 billion after that by the target date for limiting global warming which is 2100. So often the climate disruption debate fails to make connections to other related existential threats to so-called civilised life in the Anthropocene Epoch. Here is a reminder of some of them:
Machine World EXISTENTIAL THREATS
Natural World EXISTENTIAL THREATS
An important graph presented by Ugo Bardi in his new book “The Seneca Curve” which he introduced in a presentation at the Club of Rome. This is the link to the short article in which he elaborates the rapid collapse in complex systems that overshoot by consuming more resources than they need to maintain carrying capacity. This is the basis of the crises faced on Spaceship Earth in the Anthropocene Epoch.
Thanks to Rob Ford, Principal at Wyedean School and Sixth Form College in the UK, for sending this link to a source – New Atlas – with which I was not familiar. Most of Rob’s students should expect to be alive by 2100 which is the possible ‘tipping point’ identified used by the MIT study described in the article. The tipping point would be triggered by the increase in atmospheric CO2. The article starts:
In the history of life on Earth, there have been five mass extinction events, with the most extreme example, the Permian extinction, wiping out some 95 percent of all marine life. Now, an MIT professor has analyzed the changes that took place in the carbon cycle leading up to these five main events – as well as dozens of smaller ones – and found that the end of this century could mark the tipping point for a sixth mass extinction event.
Each of the five major extinction events can effectively be traced back to one little troublemaker: carbon. As respiring organisms inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, and photosynthesizing plants do the opposite, the Earth naturally cycles carbon through the atmosphere and ocean. But disruptions to that process can throw the whole planet’s climate out of whack, either by adding too much carbon at once or by speeding up the rate at which it’s being added….
Rothman calculated how much carbon it would take today to tip us over the threshold. According to his calculations, if an extra 310 gigatons of carbon is added – say, through human action – it would tip the carbon cycle into “unknown territory” that may lead to mass extinction….
If 310 gigatons sounds like a lot, we have some bad news: humans are full steam ahead towards smashing that figure by the end of the century. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the best-case scenario for how much carbon humans will add to the oceans by the year 2100 is about 300 gigatons. In the worst case scenario, that number could surpass 500 gigatons.
In Catalonia and in the UK politicians are now starting to examine the alternatives to the universal notion of ‘progress’ as maximising the exponential rate of GDP rate of increase given the finite limits of Spaceship Earth’s carrying capacity. Here are the links to these two welcome and long overdue debates:
Catalonia – CUP (Popular Unity List)
UK – All Party Group on Limits to Growth
1981 brought the cybersphere into people’s homes offices with the launch of the IBM personal computer. This article from the Telegraph records the event and includes an advert from the time which started the massive technological breakthrough that changed the world in such a big way. The Machine World created by human intelligence was now expanded in a new way. Human ingenuity and capital-driven enterprise added to the planet’s airwaves an exponentially exploding cybersphere with an undreamed of capacity to process and store the ‘memes’ (units of cultural meaning) by which humans make sense of existence.
To the ‘spheres’ of the natural world – the outer skins around the planet (litho-hydro-cryo-hydro-atmo-biospheres) – we now have the ‘memosphere’ embedded, not only in human brains, but also in an infinitely expanding cybersphere. Artificial intelligence (AI) is now ominously poised to outstrip the organic form of human intelligence and has both the potential for both intended and unintended consequences for future existence.
In only around 10000 years, human activity has created the ‘technosphere’ on the surface of the ‘blue dot’ Spaceship Earth and imposed it on the natural spheres. The natural world’s spheres have been evolving for 4,500,000,000 years but in the last 300 years the technosphere has exploded exponentially and in the last 40 years (just over half my lifetime) the growth of computing power has expanded by doubling every 18 months to 2 years (Moore’s Law). The scale of human impact on the planet means that we are now in a new geological Epoch – the Anthropocene -where humans are the greatest geologica force in transforming the earth’s natural spheres.
Although human-made global warming and climate disruption are now much in the news, the rise of computing and the expansion of the cybersphere underlie the globalised financial, economic and commercial systems have become incredibly complex and inherently unstable as they expand at an exponential rate. Deregulated ‘market forces’ encouraged by neo-liberal values have limited the capacity for political control of the processes unleashed within the Machine World’s invented systems accelerated by computing.
The Telegraph article does not make the leap to the planetary implications of the launch in 1981 of the small home computer. But thinking globally is an urgent need if we are to grasp the reality of contemporary existence and should be a major task for all those who run the world and those who research and teach about our contemporary predicaments. Unfortunately, as we sit before our home computers or access our hand-held computing devices, the mass of distractions divert us from reflecting on the ‘big picture’ and the unpredicatable trajectories and the unintended consequences that lie ahead.
Jeremy Williams reviews a recent book that is timely in revealing the huge damage (exponential impact of human activity on the natural world) and injustices (undervaluing that which cannot be measured) brought about by concentrating this crude measure of economic well-being used by every nation to guide policy.
The many absurdities of GDP
THE MANY ABSURDITIES OF GDP
Reading Lorenzo Fioramonti’s book The World After GDP recently, I was struck again at how simplistic Gross Domestic Product is. It remains our primary measure of national success because it’s now deeply embedded in our institutions, but it’s blind to what really matters. We urgently need our politicians to consider a wider set of metrics, and adopt a more nuanced view of progress. Here are some of the shortcomings of GDP, and you may well have your own examples:
- If you buy a meal at a restaurant, it counts towards GDP. The exact same meal cooked at home does not. All housework or domestic work is thus invisible to GDP, even though it accounts for over half of the work done in Britain. Since women do more housework than men, GDP has traditionally valued men’s work and ignored women’s contributions.
- Parents raising their own small children has no value to GDP, but dropping them off with a professional child-minder does. Caring for an elderly relative would be the same – growth if a professional carer does it, no growth if a family member helps out.
- There’s no way to measure averted problems. If I pull out of a junction carelessly and hit another car, GDP will be boosted by insurance and repair costs, and legal and healthcare expenses. If I see the other car and brake, there’s no benefit to GDP. From an economics point of view, it would have been better to have had the accident. At the macro level, this means that GDP can’t properly value preventative medicine, health and safety, community resilience, and a whole host of things we’d consider positive.
- All waste is good for GDP. If we stopped throwing away a third of the food we buy, that would be bad for growth. Insulating our homes would also be bad for growth.
- Leisure has little value in GDP terms, unless we’re doing a paid activity. Sleep is of no value whatsoever.
- Speaking of nocturnal activities, changes to the way we calculate GDP were introduced in 2014 to include illegal and black market transactions. That means that GDP only values sex if someone pays for it, even though that’s illegal. Sex in any other context is worthless.
- Natural assets aren’t counted, so a tree is worth nothing. Cut it down and turn it into wood, and it now registers on the GDP radar. Since the loss of the tree is not subtracted, chopping it down is recorded as pure gain. That logic applies in the world’s endangered rainforests, and is one of the main reasons why they are endangered.
- There’s no way to calculate the loss of something that is free. Pollution, aquifer depletion, or soil erosion aren’t subtracted from GDP.
- Conversely, the increase of natural resources is a form of growth that GDP doesn’t capture. Growing or recovering fish stocks, for example, are not accounted for. (Grow those same fish in a fish farm though, and they would count towards GDP.)
- Many vital services are invisible to GDP. Fioramonti highlights rainfall – it’s critical to agricultural production, but it’s a resource that doesn’t appear in any accounts of national wealth. A safe and stable global climate is perhaps the biggest oversight.
- GDP has no truck with inequality, as it’s just a raw measure of activity. All growth is positive, even if it all goes to a handful of people and society is falling apart all around them.
- All education is a problem for GDP, because it can count teaching, but not knowledge. The cost of providing education can be counted, but not education itself.
- Technological progress is a tricky one too. Someone buying solar panels today would be paying less for them and getting a better product than someone buying them five years ago. But since GDP can only count the actual price, the older and less efficient panels did more for GDP.
- On the subject of solar, renewable energy is a challenge to GDP. We can count coal or gas, but the wind and the sun are free. Beyond the initial set-up and ongoing maintenance, renewable energy has no fuel costs and makes a much lower contribution to GDP. On purely GDP terms, fossil fuels are much better.
- The internet is also leaving GDP behind. Buying a map or an atlas is positive for growth, and looking something up on Google Maps isn’t. The value of free services, including email, Wikipedia or social media, are impossible to quantify in GDP terms.
Some of these have been shortcomings from the start. Others are emerging problems. Together I think they signal the beginning of the end for GDP as the one metric to rule them all. There’s no other single metric to take it’s place, I should add. Instead, we’re going to need to draw on a wider set of measurements, balancing gains and losses, paid and unpaid work and services, and scoring non-monetary benefits.
In July 2017 the New York Magazine published what rapidly came to be its most read article ever. This follow up article is an annotated response by the author, DavidWallace-Wells, to the many critics who found the article alarmist. By way of introduction Wells explains:
I hope, in the annotations and commentary below, I have added some context. But I also believe very firmly in the set of propositions that animated the project from the start: that the public does not appreciate the scale of climate risk; that this is in part because we have not spent enough time contemplating the scarier half of the distribution curve of possibilities, especially its brutal long tail, or the risks beyond sea-level rise; that there is journalistic and public-interest value in spreading the news from the scientific community, no matter how unnerving it may be; and that, when it comes to the challenge of climate change, public complacency is a far, far bigger problem than widespread fatalism — that many, many more people are not scared enough than are already “too scared.” In fact, I don’t even understand what “too scared” would mean. The science says climate change threatens nearly every aspect of human life on this planet, and that inaction will hasten the problems. In that context, I don’t think it’s a slur to call an article, or its writer, alarmist. I’ll accept that characterization. We should be alarmed.
THE NINE SECTIONS OF THE PAPER:
- Heat Death;
- The End of Food;
- Climate Plagues;
- Unbreathable Air;
- Perpetual War;
- Permanent Economic Collapse;
- Poisoned Oceans;
- The Great Filter
more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent
The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by half each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do.This road map was laid out in Science and neatly summarized in Vox.
10 BOOKS THAT SUPPORT THE UNIHABITABLE EARTH THESIS:
In a forthcoming book China’s Engine of Ecological Apocalypse (Verso 2018) upon which this eye-opening article is based Richard Smith offers a frightening view of how China’s economy, currently growing ar 7% per annum (doubling GDP every 10 years) is locked in to accelerating the trajectory towards ecological disaster. Smith argues that the built-in drivers and barriers of China’s hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalism not only render the idea that China could lead the fight against climate change implausible but also reinforce China’s role as the leading driver of global warming and thus, planetary collapse.
The article concludes rather contentiously as follows:
Right now, we’re living in the most critical moment in all of human history. As the prospect of imminent planetary ecological collapse looms ever larger, support for capitalism is crumbling everywhere and people around the world are desperately searching for an ecologically sustainable and more equitable socio-economic system. We may fail to build that better world, and that may be our fate. Yet, inured as I am, somehow I still can’t believe that humanity won’t find a way. Somehow, perhaps irrationally, I just can’t believe that after more than a million years of evolution, and after all the astonishing achievements of thousands of years of human civilization and culture, we’re going to throw it all away and drive ourselves and many other species off the cliff to extinction to save our 300-year-old system of capitalism, let alone to save China’s ghastly 40-year-old system of police-state capitalism. That would be an appallingly sad coda to life on Earth.