It is time to get serious about Global Climate Change by looking at the root cause: GROWTH. Global climate change/Warming has been the focus of world wide demonstrations primarily by the youth kickstarted by Times’s person of the year, sixteen year old Gretta Thunberg. Children like Gretta will inherit this mess. Most adults don’t get it, especially my baby boomer generation. Almost no politicians get it and most don’t even understand it with many including our president calling climate change, the consequence of growth a “hoax”. 37% of adults in a recent poll said the warming came from increased solar radiation! In this short essay my goal is to show that climate change is merely the symptom. The root cause is exponential increases of population and material consumption what we call GROWTH which has altered the climate. This growth of the economy accelerated exponentially with the onset of the industrial revolution which began two centuries ago and really took off within the past 150 years. This growth was fueled by the discovery and utilization of fossil energy, initially coal followed by oil and gas. The unprecedented economic boom after WW 2 in the US was the poster child for this massive transformation in living standards. The ditty at the time urged us to buy and consume, to see the USA in our Chevrolet flying on newly constructed smooth glossy highways linking the shining new sprawling suburbs. All of the energy for this growth powered by virtually free fossil fuels pouring gasses into the air. Virtually no one then paid attention to the “externalities” of air pollution, loss of farmland, and certainly CO2 emissions which to many of us was just vapor from dry ice in a high school science lab. Initially, few were talking about any negatives to this newly discovered nirvana. Incomes were rising lifting all boats. Income inequality was minimal and except for the beginning of smog in Southern California, what was there not to like about life in America? We were the model and the envy of the world with expanding opportunities, universal education and improving public health. Atmospheric CO2 measured at Mauna Loa was 320 ppm in 1972.. It is important to note that Ice core samples now go back almost 3 million years and no readings exceeded that number.(Ed note: today it is 415 ppm)There were a few brilliant minds who began to question this economic model including a group in Italy called the club of Rome started by David Rockefeller, Aurelio Peccei, and Alexander King and a group of scientists at MIT led by Jay Forester. There was a growing awareness in the scientific community that unlimited growth on a limited planet was unsustainable. Using the newly developed science of System Dynamics and early modeling on freezer sized IBM computers, the group attempted to explain the likely trajectory of 13 different scenarios of growth examining five different factors which allowed or limited growth: population, pollution, industrial production, agricultural production and natural resources. In 1972 they published their results in a book called The limits to Growth. It was a an environmental blockbuster hailed by many, assailed by others.The books central conclusion was that a finite world could not support infinite growth and expansion without collapse. The different scenarios’ model runs looked at outcomes when sustainable development was instituted and compared it to outcomes where current development remained unchanged. Now almost 50 years later we can see that the world has followed the unsustainable version and we are entering a period of decline which will result in a collapse of growth this century. It is too late to institute a” sustainable” growth program to prevent collapse. That is not to say that policies to reduce greenhouse gasses shouldn’t be enacted to reduce impacts of climate change. They absolutely should! But to reemphasize my original statement:Global climate change is the symptom and consequence of unlimited growth:Population growth, production/consumtion growth, economic growth. Runaway Global climate change would not occur without runaway exponential Global growth. Calling Global climate change The PROBLEM conflates cause and effect. Measures designed to attack or mitigate Global Climate Change without attacking the root cause of growth are doomed to failure. The lag periods inherent in the biophysics of a myriad of atmospheric and oceanic feedback loops guarantee that climate change will continue the rest of this century. If nothing is done to slow the process, the ultimate outcome could be far worse for the world’s climate. The destruction of soils, forests and grasslands is reducing the carrying capacity of the planet. Every ecosystem has a carrying capacity for its members and when that carrying capacity is exceeded there continues to be overshoot of the population followed by collapse. This is the period we are entering based upon this 50 year old model. Critics of the original model then as well as today, refuse to believe the model. As Gore said, it is an inconvenient truth. One group doesn’t want to believe that there are limits to the human experience. Many believe that technology can extend or abrogate these limits if they in fact even exist. Another group simply doesn’t care and think there is still time to party and loot the environment for profit heedless of the consequences. Some of the rapacious “one percenters” do get it and are fleeing to their fortified island sanctuaries to save themselves leaving the rest of us to our fate.
It is a mistake that just climate change has been the sole focus in worldwide demonstrations. Gretta Thunberg is exceedingly bright and and must certainly grasp that climate change is the symptom and not the cause. In her direct and forceful voice she utilizes shame to try to force emission reductions as way of reducing GROWTH, which is the cause. The recently concluded COP25 in Madrid was yet another doomed conference focusing on a symptom of the problem because at this point the world is not ready for a conference limiting growth. l
Lmiting growth could shrink living standards, cause a depression, shrink the wealth of many countries, corporations, and powerful individuals. I get it that this is a hot potato so she has attacked the problem indirectly through the back door by seeking to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Green house gas concentrations are increasing because of increasing population, increasing production leading to increasing material consumption fostered by burning fossil fuels to support that consumption. It’s as simple as that. But the growth and “Progress” model is baked into the world’s economic, social and political cake and that is why absolutely nothing has happened to reduce emissions or growth. Bill Clinton once said “no one was ever elected promising less.”
I am pessimistic that there is any hope that our globalized industrial system will ever reach a consensus on limiting growth or industrial emissions. For one, the human race has a short discount rate baked into our genes and our brain. We have a short time horizon. We focus on the immediate and discount the distant . The economy and political system operates exactly the same way. Corporate CEOs are rewarded not by the long term success of their companies but by quarterly increases in the stock price or profits. This is greed at work and not a strategy to grow the company long term. Political decisions have followed that paradigm. We may know that upfront costs might promote benefits down the line to our descendants but up front costs are too expensive costing jobs or profits or increased taxes so the proposals wither and die. That is exactly what has happened with for example the Kyoto accords which were tepid, mild and minimal to begin with. Almost no countries have come close to meeting their obligations and some countries like the US and Canada have scorned the accords and exited in high dudgeon. My pessimism has an important theoretical basis. We now have a complex globalized interconnected economic system and not just a disparate collection of independent countries and the world economic system is like some giant single organism. It is self regulating , and beyond any national control. It is like a shifting amoeba controlled by central banks and mysterious algorithms utilizing incomprehensible derivatives constructed by unknown viziers behind the curtain, like the wizard in the Wizzard of Oz. If Gretta and her supporters want to find where the pressure points or leverage points are to enact change, where would they look? They are desperately trying to start a worldwide revolution by forcing major change on the entire world. I am afraid this movement will fail just like the Occupy Wall Street movement failed 8 years ago. If she just stuck with trying to enact simple measures to limit greenhouse gas increases it might be possible for the movement to have some impact. I have some limited simple measures that could be enacted as possible partial solutions. Simply put, my first proposal is to increase the cost of fossil energy. Reduce emitting carbon. The second is: soak up this carbon. The best way to reduce emissions is to borrow from Donald Trump’s playbook and put tariffs on fossil fuels. Trump is threatening to put a tariff of 100% on French wines. A federal tariff of 100% on oil gas and coal would be a minimal first start. For example the Federal tax on aviation gas is 19 cents and only 24 cents on commercial jet fuel. State taxes on diesel and gasoline are a fraction of the per gallon cost in the US. Even with a minimal 100% tariff on fuel, the per gallon cost would still be under $5/gallon. The tariff should be raised in stages but it can and should be done immediately .Fuel surcharges in this range have been the rule in European countries for many decades and their energy use per capita is about ½ of Americans as a consequence. The second and more effective way to cut worldwide emissions is to soak it up in plants and soil. A professor at the University of New Mexico in an article a year ago estimated that human generated emissions only account for about 8% of the world wide CO2 rise. This was an astounding assertion. This is a potential solution big enough to have real impact and yet right now nations are still removing mangroves, draining swamps and marshes and clear cutting forests. These activities must cease and pressure brought to bear on those individuals, companies and nations engaging in these destructive practices to world health. Degradation of the soil by industrial agriculture also contributes mightily to emissions by the application of chemical agents which sterilize the soil, reduce tilth, increase compaction, decrease the percolation and promote wind and water erosion. For example Roundup the most popular herbicide is a potent antibiotic and kills bacteria and fungi in tiny concentrations. Trees and plants not only pull CO2 out of the air to build their stems , roots and leaves and fruits. They pass carbon- rich root exudates which nourish the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and worms in a healthy humus rich soil. Roundup stops this process cold by sterilizing soil and thereby blocking this carbon transfer. Ban roundup and related herbicides. Simple, Just a stroke of the pen.
There. I have laid out two concrete proposals entirely absent from COP25. What do you think the chances of my proposals being enacted even if proposed by Gretta Thunberg?
I have explained why I think the world is going to ride this horse into the ground because the individual has little impact on the globalized system. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing that an individual can do this century. I have no doubt that this is the century of decline and possibly collapse. All civilizations have collapsed but after collapse there will be a chance of rebirth. Collapse will not be uniform and some regions may experience only mild forms while others experience Armageddon. What we can do is to build resilience into our cultural and social systems? Build resilience into our consumption patterns by buying only things of high repairable quality that we need. Don’t buy new when serviceable used products are available. Build resilience into our soils by organic permaculture practices and consume locally grown foods. Limit our travel to essential trips. Build walkable communities with mixed use downtowns. Halt the rampant digital data collection and surveillance inherent in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning stored in “the cloud” which ironically is a cloud, a vast increase of fossil fuel emissions from all the energy required. Make sure all new structures are insulated heavily and oriented properly to the sun to allow solar heating of the interiors and the hot water. This is truly making use of sustainable renewable energy. Forget government subsidized giant windmills and massive solar farms which have been a failure worldwide delivering only a fraction of their nameplate energy to electrical grids not designed for their erratic input. Since 2014, the amount of new “renewable” electric energy has lagged the annual increases in electric consumption. In other words, renewables are not replacing fossil energy. They are not even keeping up. There is nothing green about most forms of this new “green” energy. Build resilience into the social and cultural fabric by paying attention to neighbors and family needs. Real happiness is getting what you want. If you’re not happy you are not getting what you want. Don’t confuse needs with wants. These simple aphorisms have been the basis of civilizations and religions long before we started burning coal and oil and should form the basis for a new society.
I am a student of energy and I am well aware of the consequences of my comments. The industrial revolution was launched by the sudden one time availability of a new form of concentrated energy which has generated vast increases in wealth, amazing tools and machines, new professions, improvements in public health and education and vast enlargement of commerce and trade worldwide. It is now cooking the planet. In a very real sense, Energy IS the economy. There will be no equivalent substitute for this fossil energy. Implementation of Gretta’s recommendations would face an array of powerful interests and nations who like the way things are and will fight to keep their wealth and power enabled by cheap energy. At the time of this writing, emissions are still increasing and absolutely nothing has been done to arrest them. Humanity’s only hope is to reduce fossil energy use 7-8% Per year for this next decade starting immediately. The big emitters, the US, China, India,Brazil, the Middle East and most of the developed world are indifferent to the clamorings of Gretta and her followers. It is a certainty that fossil energy consumption will decline this century. Our choice then is to have a controlled engineered decarbonization of the economy or chaotic explosive delamination of society augmented by hothouse earth.
PS: I just reread Limits to Growth after 48 years and the accuracy of its World Model predictions is stunning. Read it.