George Monbiot writes in the Guardian that Earth’s tipping points could be closer than we think. Our current plans won’t work. His qualifications as a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and a political activist seem to give his opinion on the matter little sway, and he fails to cite any papers or expert opinions. What arguments does he make?
Climate policies commit us to a calamitous 2.9C of global heating, but catastrophic changes can occur at even 1.5C or 2C.
According to the IPCC’s Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers, the intermediate scenario, SSP2-4.5, which is that emissions remain close to their current levels until 2050, does not even predict 2.9C of warming by the turn of the century. Presumably Monbiot is assuming the scenario where we double our CO2 emissions by the turn of the century is a sure thing. This seems pessimistic to me.
If there’s one thing we know about climate breakdown, it’s that it will not be linear, smooth or gradual. Just as one continental plate might push beneath another in sudden fits and starts, causing periodic earthquakes and tsunamis, our atmospheric systems will absorb the stress for a while, then suddenly shift. Yet, everywhere, the programmes designed to avert it are linear, smooth and gradual.
We don’t know that climate change won’t be largely gradual, though I agree that we’re likely to see some sudden changes, like the change in the polar vortex that froze Texas in February or the heat dome that broke the temperature record in Litton. The only way to “avert” climate change is via technological advancement, unless you plan to impose authoritarian control over the world, in which case, a mass genocide could do it. Innovation goes at the pace it wants to, and progress is often gradual. Government programs don’t do shit.
Current plans to avoid catastrophe would work in a simple system like a washbasin, in which you can close the tap until the inflow is less than the outflow. But they are less likely to work in complex systems, such as the atmosphere, oceans and biosphere. Complex systems seek equilibrium. When they are pushed too far out of one equilibrium state, they can flip suddenly into another. A common property of complex systems is that it’s much easier to push them past a tipping point than to push them back. Once a transition has happened, it cannot realistically be reversed.
What “current plans”? You mean government plans to faze out coal and gas fired electrical plants? Canada has eliminated much of our coal power and halved the amount of electricity that we’re generating with gas. That’s far from gradual. If you mean government’s plans to eliminate gasoline powered vehicles, these programs are laughable, seemingly consisting only of adding taxes or threatening bans. This will lead to the same kind of protests that Macron saw from the Gillette Jaunes when he tried to raise fuel taxes. You need a viable alternative, like rapid transit.
The old assumption that the Earth’s tipping points are a long way off is beginning to look unsafe. A recent paper warns that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation – the system that distributes heat around the world and drives the Gulf Stream – may now be “close to a critical transition”. This circulation has flipped between “on” and “off” states several times in prehistory, plunging northern Europe and eastern North America into unbearable cold, heating the tropics, disrupting monsoons.
While it’s true that such changes are possible, and that it would likely be difficult to do anything about them if they occur, this doesn’t mean that we can stop using fossil fuels overnight.
A common sign that complex systems are approaching tipping points is rising volatility: they start to flicker. The extreme weather in 2021 – the heat domes, droughts, fires, floods and cyclones – is, frankly, terrifying. If Earth systems tip as a result of global heating, there will be little difference between taking inadequate action and taking no action at all. A miss is as good as a mile. Sudden changes of state might be possible with just 1.5C or 2C of global heating.
And its also possible that 2.7C won’t make a huge difference. According to the IPCC report, sea level is likely to rise by only 0.75m (2′ 6″). It also predicts with high confidence that all areas will experience less episodes of extreme cold.
So the target that much of the world is now adopting for climate action – net zero by 2050 – begins to look neither rational nor safe. It’s true that our only hope of avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown is some variety of net zero. What this means is that greenhouse gases are reduced through a combination of decarbonising the economy and drawing down carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere. It’s too late to hit the temperature targets in the Paris agreement without doing both. But there are two issues: speed and integrity. Many of the promises seem designed to be broken.
Only the IPCC’s most extreme scenario, which is new in the 2021 report, involves actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Scenario SSP1-2.6, which assumes that CO2 emissions will be rapidly reduced, does not include removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and yet predicts only 1.8C warming (.5C over the current average temperature) by the turn of the century. Since the Chinese made no promises to even slow their increases in CO2 emissions, are already responsible for 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, and are signatories to the Paris agreement, the fact that countries that did promise reductions might miss their targets seems like a moot point.
At its worst, net zero by 2050 is a device for shunting responsibility across both time and space. Those in power today seek to pass their liabilities to those in power tomorrow. Every industry seeks to pass the buck to another industry. Who is this magical someone else who will suck up their greenhouse gases?
Government has no magic wand to replace existing technologies without hurting the people they are responsible to. If governments actually cared about reducing CO2, they would be building nuclear power plants and electrified rapid transit projects, not taxing emissions, which amounts to a massive tax increase on everyone, including the poor, because carbon taxes increase the cost of everything. Of course corporations are passing the buck. Corporations exist for profit, and if emitting CO2 allows profit to be made, they will do it. That’s why shipping companies cross the oceans at high speeds, burning more fuel than they would if crossing more slowly: because it’s more profitable.
Their plans rely on either technology or nature to absorb the carbon dioxide they want to keep producing. The technologies consist of carbon capture and storage (catching the carbon emissions from power stations and cement plants then burying them in geological strata), or direct air capture (sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and burying that too). But their large-scale use is described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “subject to multiple feasibility and sustainability constraints”. They are unlikely to be deployed at scale in the future for the same reason that they’re not being deployed at scale today, despite 20 years of talk: technical and logistical barriers. Never mind: you can keep smoking, because one day they’ll find a cure for cancer.
Why capture carbon? Nuclear power stations emit no CO2 and are reliable sources of power, and they are completely feasible now.
So what’s left is nature: the capacity of the world’s living systems to absorb the gases we produce. As a report by ActionAid points out, there’s not enough land in the world to meet the promises to offset emissions that companies and governments have already made. Even those who own land want someone else to deal with their gases: in the UK, the National Farmers’ Union is aiming for net zero. But net zero commitments by other sectors work only if farmland goes sharply net negative. That means an end to livestock farming and the restoration of forests, peat bogs and other natural carbon sinks. Instead, a mythical other will also have to suck up emissions from farming: possibly landowners on Venus or Mars.
Reforestation isn’t a bad idea, but it is not going to move the needle toward net zero by more than a few percentage points at best.
Even when all the promised technofixes and offsets are counted, current policies commit us to a calamitous 2.9C of global heating. To risk irreversible change by proceeding at such a leisurely pace, to rely on undelivered technologies and nonexistent capacities: this is a formula for catastrophe.
You can’t speed up technological progress. People need to eat, and they need shelter and heat to survive. Today, we have the technology to generate electricity without emissions, but the political will to implement it is not there. There is currently no competitive alternative to diesel for shipping, though hydrogen would be a possible fuel if there were a cheap way to produce it without emitting CO2. Today’s farms are also heavily dependent on fossil fuels and fertilizers.
If Earth systems cross critical thresholds, everything we did and everything we were – the learning, the wisdom, the stories, the art, the politics, the love, the hate, the anger and the hope – will be reduced to stratigraphy. It’s not a smooth and linear transition we need. It’s a crash course.
Better start building the gas chambers, eh? I think not. A 2.7C increase from preindustrial average temperatures seems likely. This will be catastrophic for low lying countries that can’t adapt to sea levels increasing by 2′ 6″, as well as to equatorial countries in areas like the Persian Gulf, which may become uninhabitable, but northern countries will actually benefit economically, and developed countries can afford to adapt.
The more I see fear mongering being used to justify the need for authoritarian government, the more I say “If you aren’t building nuclear power stations to reduce emissions, shut up”. Carbon taxes don’t in themselves reduce emissions, they just siphon money from the poor to the government. If 100% of that money was going to programs to help reduce emissions, there would still be massive waste: government bureaucracy is inefficient. The fact that in most case, money from carbon taxes is not being earmarked for emission reduction is convincing evidence that those in government are using them instead as a way to siphon money from the people to government contractors and donors.