A less convenient truth.

A friend of mine was teasing me about climate change the other day. She knows I have very little faith in our ability to extricate ourselves from the current mess, but she pointed out that she’d heard Gore talking on the radio and he seemed to feel we could do it.

I did not hear what Gore had to say. I presume it was similar to what he says in the movie: Buy a Prius, use compact fluorescents, recycle.

I don’t think my friend is aware of the final UN report that came out a month ago. I don’t think the News SurPressed mentioned it.

For a long time the goal has been to insure that global temperatures do not rise more than 2°C. This is a somewhat arbitrary mark on the continuum of temperatures — the idea being that somewhere around this value there will be massive ecosystem (and economic) disruption.

In the final UN report from the IPCC the most optimistic scenario barely achieves this. It would require carbon emissions to peak NOW, and drop by 85% in 2050.

Consider that: Global carbon consumption must cease to grow RIGHT NOW. And over the next 40 years we must reduce our consumption so that we are burning 1/6th of the oil/coal/whatever that we currently burn. (not reduce by 1/6, but reduce to 1/6).

Buying a Prius (and driving the same amount) will mean maybe a 50% reduction in gasoline usage (except that it takes more energy to make a Prius than a normal car, and more energy to dispose of one afterward so the comparison isn’t quite that simple). If you want to reduce your consumption to 1/6, you would need something that was three times as fuel efficient as a Prius – 150mpg.

Buy a bike. Walk. Take the bus.

And we must do that in every aspect of our lives. Heat our houses 6 times as efficiently, transport goods, farm, etc.

So Gore is wrong in saying that buying a Prius will solve the problem. It might be a good start, and many people probably should, but it is nowhere near enough.

In 1997 the Kyoto treaty, was signed (but not by the US) requiring significant reductions in emissions among the developed nations (but not for the developing nations like China or India, a fact which has turned out to be a major flaw).

At the moment the UK and Sweden are the only countries in the EU that appear to be on track for reducing their emissions in line with the treaty. Emissions in the US have increased by 16%, in Canada 27%, in China 47% and in India 55%.

That is using the standards set out in the Kyoto treaty. However those standards exclude emissions in global shipping and air transport. If you include a pro-rated share of those emissions into each country’s share then instead of declining by -14% England’s emissions actually rise by 19%.

Kyoto has failed massively. We are in far worse shape globally than the worst case scenario put forth back in 1997. That was only 10 years ago. As each successive report has come out from the IPCC they have painted a bleaker and bleaker picture. And that reflects the change in less than a year.

We aren’t going to achieve it. There is no way we can reduce global emissions to 1/6 of their current value.

There might be an engineering solution, but there is no political will to reach it.

It’s the tragedy of the commons all over again. When I chid my friend after she bought a gas-guzzling Vanagon, she said that she would reduce her consumption if everyone else did. A safe statement — it’s clear other people won’t. They already haven’t.

She also asked me if she were the enemy now. As Walt Kelly pointed out 30 years ago: We have met the enemy and he is us.

The world population is rising. By 2050 there will be another 3~4 billion of us, so to achieve a global decline to 1/6th, we actually need to reduce our individual consumption to 1/9th.

Global economic output is up. This means consumption is higher, not lower. Consider India and China, their emissions have risen by roughly 50% in the last 10 years — and both are huge countries.

The price of oil is rising as oil reserves are depleted. This means that people will turn to cheaper alternatives (like coal, oil shale, etc.). Unfortunately, these cheap alternatives are almost universally dirtier and produce more carbon, not less.

Biodiesel is touted as a solution. A technology which combines rainforest destruction with rising food prices does not look like a solution to me. The price of flour has doubled at my grocery store in less than a year. There have been food riots all over the world as biodiesel raises the cost of maize directly, wheat and rice in consequence, and meat indirectly.

These reports are available for anyone to read, they are on the web. I am not making this stuff up. They were not produced by raging loony environmentalists, they are the result of scientific debate using the best data currently available. The IPCC was set up by the UN and has taken input from every nation. If anything, I assume the actual situation is worse than painted in the reports because:

  • When the first report came out of the IPCC it was clear that both China and the US had watered down its conclusions.
  • Experience from the Kyoto protocol suggests that things are worse than people can guess. We just don’t know yet all the ways things can go wrong.

So I believe that Gore paints a far rosier picture that current evidence supports.

Perhaps he does this because if people realized how bad things were they would give up in despair. Every little bit helps. We will almost certainly not achieve the 2°C target, but maybe we can stay within 3°C or 4°C… Perhaps the lemurs will all die and all of Bangladesh be flooded, but maybe the raccoons will survive?

So maybe that’s what he’s thinking.

The American people certainly seem incapable of reading or understanding the data that are out there. You don’t have to look hard for it. It’s right there. Maybe he has to start out with comforting half truths before we are ready to look at the full and inconvenient truth.

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4 Responses to “A less convenient truth.”

  1. Gary Says:

    It’s as if we are 8 minute per mile marathoners who have run through the first five miles at 7 minutes per mile because it seems so easy at the time. What’s the rational thing to do when you realize you can’t sustain your pace but you are still feeling great? It is eerie discussing life as we know it. Thanks for bringing it up George.

  2. Jim K Says:

    George — I disagree about a couple of things, though only in a way to reinforce your view. It might not even be disagreement, but added emphasis:
    > The IPCC report is a political report about science. Every word in there is vetted by political representatives of EVERY country involved, with unanimous agreement required for inclusion. So if you think of the Bush Administration teaming up with Saudi Arabia and China, that’s the final edits on the document.
    > As you say, so far, the measured effect has always been worse than the previously predicted worst case
    > The geological record suggests that climate shifts by thresholds, not by linear increments. Just like pulling that Achilles, it builds up quietly, where you can’t feel it, then blam, it goes. So we really don’t know if two degrees, or two and a half degrees, or one and a half degrees, or something else is the point of threshold change. Shut down the North Atlantic Conveyer and make winters on the Polish plain drop to 50 degrees below zero? It’s happened before.

    Thanks for writing it up.

    — jk

  3. georgeruns Says:

    Sadly, neither Gore’s optimism, nor my pessimism has any effect on my friend. When Gore speaks she feels all is well in hand and she doesn’t need to do anything. When I speak she feels there is nothing she can do so she doesn’t need to do anything.

    I feel we should still try to mitigate. Gore’s suggestions aren’t really bad, just worrying given the implication that they are sufficient. We should have started changing 15 years ago. We didn’t. We should start now. We’ve left it so late that there is no longer a good solution, and that’s frightening. But if we don’t change things will get far worse.

    My friend tells me I make her feel despairing and powerless. So the great crisis of our times is turned into as an emotional problem, and dismissed. There’s something wrong with our society which teaches this kind of “logic” — I suppose that’s why we are where we are today.

    What I should be saying is less “disaster will come” but rather “our actions now will determine just how bad the coming disaster will be”. I think there is a fair chance that our civilization will collapse. Globally. The less we do now, the more likely that becomes. Increasing population combined with declining agricultural productivity looks like a recipe for starvation and warfare. We already see this in Africa. How long before Pakistan drops an A-bomb? When will it come here?

  4. georgeruns Says:

    Later my friend asked me why I was so angry about this (I hadn’t realized I was angry, but I guess that is an accurate description). If I couldn’t do anything about it, I should not let it bother me.

    (My friend is one of those people who claims that there is no external reality and that acts as if meditation can solve all problems)

    I am angry with her because she does not care. I am angry that she will not alter her behavior one jot to reduce the oncoming disaster. I am angry that she chooses to live in ignorance and denial. I am angry that she thinks it is wrong to be angry.

    I am angry at human stupidity and selfishness.

    I am angry at Gore for proposing solutions which are not solutions. I don’t like being lied to, especially about life threatening matters. I am angry that the Nobel committee choose to honor him and thereby endorses these lies. This breeds complacency and makes people less willing to tackle the real issues.

    I am angry because my sacrifices to improve things are laughed at. I have used my bike as my primary means of transportation since I left high school. I ride in the rain because I feel it is important to to reduce pollution even if it is uncomfortable. Anyone could have switched to riding a bike (I spent 10 years riding around LA, one of the least bike friendly cities around). Very few have.

    I tried (and failed) to set up a protected area in Madagascar, to preserve one of the few know homes for a highly endangered species of lemur.

    I am angry because I do not do enough.

    I am angry because the beauty of the world, with its myriad species, will be diminished.

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