Monday, October 15, 2018

We are doomed. Part 1: The world outside.

The recent United Nations report on global warming is clear and unequivocal: Carbon emissions caused by human activity are warming the planet, and -- unless dramatic, unprecedented measures are taken within the next two decades -- that warming will cause catastrophic damage to the environment and our civilization. Hundreds of millions of people will face extreme heat, drought, floods, famine, and poverty.

The report is notable for several reasons. For one, the timeline is much shorter than previously thought. Previous research indicated the world was facing serious trouble due to carbon emissions, but that the effects would not kick in for 50 - 100 years. Instead, the recent report finds this will  begin to happen within our lifetimes.

The report also challenged existing climate research by concluding that a much lower degree of warming -- 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit -- would be sufficient to cause damage. This is a lower threshold than previously estimated.

The research is sound, and the conclusions sobering. We have much less time than we thought, and much less margin for error.

I do not believe we will make it.

To date, nearly everything climate researchers have predicted is happening. As individuals, as a nation, as a species, we have demonstrated an inability and unwillingness to change a thing. Instead, we run faster towards the cliff's edge.

For much of human history, the failure to mitigate carbon emissions lay in ignorance. We did not know it was going to be a problem. By the time of the ecology movement of the 1970s and research into the 1980s, smart people began to suspect and figure out what was happening. That was over 30 years ago. This depressing but complete article from the New York Times Magazine covers it well.

We also did not comprehend how much sustained and rapid population growth would compound these climate issues, especially as less-developed nations like China took large and quick steps to modernize.

Now, even in the face of all-but-incontrovertible facts and research, we face self-made obstacles, to say nothing of the megatons of carbon already in the atmosphere.

Our society has tremendous inertia. The rapid changes required to avert catastrophe would be a tough sell under the best of circumstances. Given current realities, I believe it is all but impossible.

The Grid and The System

Massive investment in changing over the power grid is required. Coal has to virtually vanish, replaced by solar, wind, nuclear, and other non-emitting sources. Building new power plants is a glacially slow and excruciatingly expensive process, frequently beset by environmental concerns (think of the owls! think of the waste!) which now seem trivial against the stakes of the problem, NIMBYism, and a general disagreement over what kind of power should go where. Here in the USA, we have been able to coast for nearly 100 years on the massive infrastructure work implemented by the TVA and other huge government projects that wired our nation in the 1920s. It is inconceivable in our current moment that we would have the will to do something similar.

The entirety of the gasoline-powered transportation world must change. People need to drive their gasoline cars, trucks, planes, and boats much, much less. Everyone needs to shift to electric vehicles as quickly as possible, and those vehicles need to get their electricity from non-emitting sources.

We have to get nearly every existing car and truck off the roads within 20 years. We need to change how people think about jets and boats and lawnmowers and chainsaws and dirtbikes and portable generators.

It will be expensive -- the governments will need to subsidize this change, through some combination of vehicle buy-backs, incentives on new cars, and penalties for continuing to drive emitting vehicles. There will need to be credits and incentives to shut down gas stations.

Every single living person will need to change their habits. This may be less of a hit for urbanites in high-density areas with lots of public transportation, but there will still be changes for them, regardless. It will mean a dramatic, profound shift for suburbanites and rural folks, who rely on personal gas-powered vehicles for everything.

Petroleum infrastructure is fundamentally built into and drives our modern society. Gas stations. Gas trucks. Storage. Refineries. Drilling sites. Pipelines. All of that has to be shut down, and replaced by clean power infrastructure.

Even people's diets must change. Production and consumption of meat, particularly beef, has substantial environmental impact. In America, we can't get people to change what they eat, even as it bloats and kills them. Americans aren't going to stop eating cheeseburgers, even if "their" president tells them to.

Perhaps more dramatically, people should stop having so many children, as the absolute population load is a huge contributor and multiplier of existing bad effects, and the Western lifestyle contributes more than anything else.

At a high level, I have long thought that part of the climate change problem was that small, short-term individual actions -- driving to work today, eating a burger for lunch, accepting the power that comes out of your wall without question -- collectively add up to a large, long-term problem. It is extremely difficult to get people to change their behavior under those conditions.

The People and The Governments

Government is not going to save us. Government is us, and we are the problem. Humans are not good at comprehending large numbers, or the idea that the drop they individually contribute becomes to an ocean of trouble. People in the USA do not even believe their vote matters. How can you possibly convince them to take on further inconvenience?

All of that assumes there is political will and force to make these changes happen. Instead, at the present moment, the United States government is some combination of captive to oil-and-gas industry donors like the Koch brothers, short-sightedly stuffing their pockets with money (as though that will hold back the sea) and too afraid or too stupid to understand and accept the truth of the problem. Our representatives don't believe climate change is a real problem, or won't let themselves believe it is a real problem, or are paid by special interests to deny it is a real problem

The United States is one of the top two contributors to greenhouse gases, and has been for decades. And yet we will do nothing to solve this problem, nothing to help. Indeed, we will continue to argue the science is fraudulent or bad, that it isn't real, or that everyone else must go first, or that some yet-to-be-invented magic technology will fix everything, even as apocalyptic storms shred the country and Florida sinks under the sea.

But for a moment, imagine the USA did the right thing. Do we really believe the rest of the world will follow? That China and Russia will sign on, follow the USA, and enact similarly radical changes in their countries?

One might have imagined the EU capable of something like this, but infected with nationalism, it only takes one right-wing ideologue to tell the idiots what they want to hear and prevent it from happening. Success for that destructive model in one nation just makes it difficult for every other nation -- Why should Spain sacrifice when Britain is not doing a thing? Then you must face the Third World and explain to them why they can't have cars and jets and gasoline.

We Are Doomed

There is little to be done. Your individual actions contributed to this problem, but now even the most radical change on your part will do little to halt it, given how easy it is for the rest of the country (if not the world) to undo whatever benefit you are providing.

There are 7.4 billion people in the world.  Your actions do not matter.

Some will argue this post and others like it are a way to continue to do nothing, to justify refusing to change lifestyles. Perhaps. 30 years ago, everyone assumed we would fix the problem later. Now, as the clock runs out, we blame the past for everything -- for making the systems we are trapped in, for not doing anything, for not making gentle turns when they could still be made.

We could have done something, and we chose not to.

We could still do something. We will choose not to.

The most likely scenario is everything the report describes: extreme heat, drought, flooding, famine, and increased poverty, accompanied by nearly endless war (over land, water, food, and resources) as the global economy shrinks in reaction to ecological disaster and mass migration. It will hit the poor hardest, but it will hit all of us.

Every country will go some flavor of authoritarian, China-style, as it is the only way to force the population to do what is required to survive. We will all lose our "freedom" in exchange for "survival". The global order will fray as every nation locks its doors in a futile effort to protect itself, as though tariffs, walls, and guns could stop the carbon-laden air from drifting across their borders.

Recent events have reminded me that nothing lasts forever. Everything dies, including societies. Humanity will likely survive in some form, but it is difficult for me to envision what the other side of this inflection point looks like.

I am afraid I will live long enough to find out.

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