The bubble of traditional environmentalism has burst; long live pragmatic environmentalism

In case any more confirmation was needed, 11/9 (or 9.11. for us Euros) was the final nail to the coffin of traditional environmentalism – at least when it comes to stopping the existential threat of climate change.

For years now, established environmental movements like Greenpeace, WWF, and Sierra Club have taken the prevention of dangerous climate change as one of the, if not THE, key objectives for the environmental movement. They are not mistaken to do so; out of all our current predicaments, only asteroid impacts and full-blown nuclear war are even on the same scale of existential threat for our civilization. Besides human civilization, climate change threatens to wreak havoc on the global ecosystem, and could make the sixth mass extinction one of the worst ones yet.

But for decades, the traditional environmental movement has also been extremely strict about the means it approves for averting this coming calamity. Most environmental organizations, for example, are dead set against the most important, second-largest source of low-carbon energy – nuclear power – and are highly critical about carbon capture and storage, geoengineering, and anything other than renewables and demand reductions as the answer. It’s all too often that these antiquated attitudes, dating from the 1980s or even earlier, cause these organizations to prioritize opposing nuclear power even at the expense of increased emissions.

As the urgency of climate change mitigation increases while the results of policies so far remain lackluster, there are more and more people who question the traditional prescriptions of the environmental movement and ask whether there might be a need for a more pragmatic policy and for all the options we can muster. In response, the traditional environmentalists explain their selectiveness about the weapons we use in the climate fight by saying that we don’t need them. There is a very strong 100% renewables movement that keeps repeating the same mantra all over again: given sufficient political will, renewables (and conservation) alone are sufficient to wean us off from both fossil fuels and nuclear in time to forestall a climate catastrophe. When pressed, these people generally admit that their plans would be very costly – but that when the external costs of energy sources and climate damage are “properly” accounted for, they’re actually cheaper than alternatives!

All this may be true, but it is also largely irrelevant. The Trump victory underscores the fatal flaw in the 100% renewables plans: outside our green bubble, we may never be able amass the required political will to put high enough  – “proper” – prices on carbon and other externalities so that the expensive 100% RE plans could become reality. There are various reasons why this is so, from economic costs inherent in high RE penetration to science denial to fossil fuel lobbyists to the uncomfortable fact that too many people oppose anything the “Greens” propose purely as a matter of principle.

And this is not just about Trump, as damaging as his policies may be to our chances of stopping climate change. Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, she would still have been bound by limitations of political capital. The problem here is not that half of the Americans voted for Hillary; the problem is that nearly half voted for Trump. And this is not an American problem, far from it. Similar discontent is on the rise in other countries as well, and Europe may well see more right-wing populists in power in the near future. (France, I’m looking at you.)

The uncomfortable truth which too few environmentalists have acknowledged publicly is that our current renewable energy and emission reduction trajectories are taking us nowhere in particular. While renewable energy sources are increasing, the rate of change is pitiful compared to what is actually needed. Even more ominously, the quantity of annual new installations is actually dropping in some areas with more variable energy sources – like Germany – long before required installation rates have been achieved. Nevertheless, the traditional environmentalists are behaving as if the climate fight is going well and right-wing populist victories represent merely a temporary setback. In reality, the problem is that climate fight has never really even got started properly, and now it may be aborted altogether. This graph summarizes the problem, and underscores the folly of spending energy and resources to fight nuclear power in addition to fossil fuels.

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Build rates, normalized per capita – and the required sustained level for 2°C. If we want to save low-lying countries, we’d need 1.5°C and even higher build rates. Source

The political difficulties inherent in attempting a major acceleration of current trends in renewable energy and emission reductions make it tremendously difficult to believe the massive economic realignments and public works envisioned in the more optimistic energy plans could possibly come to fruition. To pick just one example, a recent much-publicized 100% renewable electricity simulation required Germany to build some 800 gigawatts of electric transmission capacity by 2030. Aside from the small problem of the world cable industry being totally unable to provide the quantities of cabling needed for the plan in total, the reality is that even relatively modest additions – about ten gigawatts – in transmission capacity are now bogged down in local resistance, some of which is led by environmental organizations. It’s a deja vu from nuclear energy boom of the 1970s; the environmentalists just assumed this time that new energy sources would be totally acceptable to everyone, and seem to be genuinely surprised this isn’t always so. (See also here about the uncanny similarities between 1960s-70s nuclear boom and the current renewables enthusiasm.)

Is it really even ethical anymore to keep on believing – and suggesting to others – that political problems of 100% renewables are simply swept away once the people suddenly see how wrong they’ve been all these years? (Perhaps in 2020, or maybe in 2024, or at least in 2028…) How can we continue to believe this when the U.S. state most likely affected by climate change, Florida, voted solidly for Trump?

We in the environmentalist bubble may be willing to reduce our consumption and bear the costs and discomforts of emission reductions. Unfortunately, we tend to extrapolate and believe other people would do likewise only if we could provide them with more information about (say) climate change. But the world doesn’t seem to work that way. Some people actually see the proposals we have as threats to their identity and well-being, and may oppose us just out from spite. This is a fact that should be acknowledged, even if we shouldn’t pamper to such groups. We cannot make sustainable progress as long as we rely on plans that require the world to elect green leaders wholesale. Instead, we need plans that are resilient even if the populists win occasionally. (No conceivable plan could survive sustained populist rule, though.)

Traditional environmental movements have failed to come up with such plans, and continue to present extreme optimistic outliers (see graph below) as the only options. The sad truth is that while these plans may be technically feasible – that is, they probably do not break any laws of the nature – they cannot achieve meaningful climate mitigation unless everything goes just right. Technology has to develop in precisely the manner and schedule the optimists envision; economic problems need to be solved in time; and all this requires unprecedented political will while the economy is likely to undergo wrenching changes. And all this has to be sustained over decades. Take any one leg off this stool, or simply fail to sustain it, and the plans collapse in humiliation.

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164 different 100% renewable energy scenarios assessed by the IPCC in IPCC SRREN (2011). 100% RE plans that actually could deliver enough energy for a world of 9 to 10 billion people in 2050 are extreme outliers and often require, for example, devoting 1 to 3 Indias solely for biomass plantations and the invention of so far unknown technologies.

It’s not by any means certain that any plans could now avert dangerous climate change. We’re simply too late, and there are no silver bullets. But it’s certain that plans that require a revolution to occur first are even less likely to come to fruition. Sadly, the traditional environmental movement seems to be doubling up its demands for just such a green-red revolution – because it’s required for their extremely optimistic plans to work, and apparently heedless that these very threats of revolution mobilize conservative resistance. Revolutions may yet occur, but there’s an even chance they turn out to be fascist ones. In every revolution, it’s the scum that tends to float to the top.

What we need now are plans that openly acknowledge the political difficulties, the inertia, and the vagaries of human nature, instead of simulations that assume our technocrats can build everything from a clean slate and with cost or difficulty as no object. Traditional environmentalists have been extremely adept at pointing out various problems with increasing nuclear power generation rapidly, but so far they’ve all but ignored even the possibility that renewable energy sources and the infrastructure they require might also hit the wall of political opposition. This is a serious omission, since there is a chance better preparation might have reduced resistance. Perhaps it still can.

Environmentalists now also need to learn, and learn quick, that all the alternatives we have are imperfect, and that the utopian perfection is often the worst enemy of good enough. All energy sources suffer from their share of problems, and silver bullets simply don’t exist.

If we environmentalists continue to oppose the adequate because there is theoretically a perfect solution somewhere (generally, as long as it remains on paper), we all are committing the mistake many people made when voting for Jill Stein on the last elections. Voting for the “perfect” or even “least bad” candidate is a morally defensible position – but it can increase the risks that the worst option will actually be chosen. We now need to be extremely careful not to increase those risks simply because we don’t happen to like the more likely but less perfect candidate.

A pragmatic and extremely powerful message about climate change would be delivered if major environmental organizations stated that the situation now is so threatening that we need to think about all the options seriously – and not discount them with motivated reasoning. To discount any low-carbon, emission-reducing alternative, we now should demand very strong evidence.

However, it may well be that if the climate movement actually wants results in climate action, it now needs to make a break with traditional environmentalism, at least as far as much-hated solutions like nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and – yes – natural gas are concerned. Fighting two-front wars against fossil fuels and nuclear (among others) is just stupid; fighting a three-front war against fossil fuels, nuclear and nebulous concept of “capitalism” all but guarantees a defeat. (Just ask the Germans about the difficulties fighting two-front wars.)

If we can reduce emissions even somewhat using solutions that right-wingers can accept, we should do so. We simply don’t have the time to pout in our own bubble anymore and hope for a mass conversion of humanity to Green-Red principles; we need to engage in pragmatic policies that could work even if the United States doesn’t elect Jill Stein in 2020.

I’m saying this as a Democratic Socialist, who strives to see a world order based on justice, fairness and equality. It’s just that I’d prefer there is going to be a world, and a civilization, where my descendants can also strive for such outcomes. That’s why I support Ecomodernists and not the traditional environmental organizations, as much as I still like much of what these old-fashioned folks are doing.

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After the U.S. elections

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

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Why we don’t have the luxury of saying no to low-carbon energy, in one chart

Science Magazine

Reproduced as a public service from Anderson & Peters (2016), Science 354(6309), pp.182-183.

I’ve long maintained that the climate crisis is so acute that humanity simply does not have the luxury of picking and choosing which low-carbon energy sources we’d use. That option was foreclosed perhaps two decades ago, but the idea that we’ll lick the climate change with only our favorite technology dies hard.

Two recent studies highlight an important yet almost totally ignored problem with current climate plans and show why energy cultism must end. In short, these studies (and others like them) show just how much our plans depend on magical CO2-sucking technology conveniently appearing, and suggest that the Earth’s ability to sequester carbon on its own will decrease if we’re able to decrease atmospheric CO2 levels, causing a need for more active measures.

However, for the short term the more important of the two, and therefore the one I’m going to focus on in this post, is this paper from the hallowed pages of Science (one of the two “gold-plated” scientific publications in the world). In it, Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters dissect the assumptions that have gone into climate models and scenarios the world’s leaders believe might deliver us from excesses of runaway warming. What they find is alarming, to say the least: with few outlier exceptions, these models will not work without so-called negative emission technologies that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Without, the Paris target of 1.5°C (necessary to save small island states and many low-lying, poor countries from drowning) is right out, and even the more conservative 2°C is looking very unlikely.

The problem is, these technologies don’t actually exist. As the authors note in their paper, two decades of research have failed to produce a viable, economical technology for the easiest use case: removing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel power plants. This failure bodes ill for the more difficult but, for climate plans, absolutely necessary use case, removal of carbon dioxide from bioenergy power plants. This largely theoretical technology, known as BECCS, or burning biomass while removing and storing its carbon dioxide emissions, is supposed to be widely used from 2030 onwards. But there’s very little indication it’ll be ready by then – if ever.

Even if the technology works, we’d still be faced with the problem of finding enough biomass to feed its voracious appetite. We’ve long criticized existing environmental organizations for their energy plans that blithely assume we can find as much new arable land for our energy plantations as is currently used for our most important staple crop, wheat. Similar problems abound in more “official” climate scenarios: the two authors helpfully calculate that we’d need the total land area of one to two Indias just to grow the feedstocks, note that logistics of such undertaking (equivalent to up to half of the total global primary energy consumption) aren’t considered, and conclude that even if we make it work somehow, the biodiversity loss could equal that projected from 2.8°C warming.

I’m not an expert but can forecast that if a plan requires harnessing a subcontinent or two, there could be some difficulties ahead.

Negative emission technologies such as BECCS are used in the climate scenarios because they are easy fixes for a very difficult problem. However, the magnitude of our reliance on them is rarely communicated to decision-makers and the public, partly because climate scenarios are reported using net carbon emissions only. But what if BECCS and other fantasy technologies fail to deliver, as they very well may do?

Then we’re in a deep doo-doo. And the depth of the hole we’ll find ourselves in is greatly influenced by the existence of lamentable energy cults. Even at this late hour, there are very influential persons arguing that we shouldn’t use – or won’t need – technology X or technology Y for emission reductions.

This, too, is fantastical thinking. It’s an energy cult straight from the trenches of 1980s energy debates, and it’s woefully out of date when the world is headed towards four or more degrees of warming. All technologies have their challenges and if history is anything to go by (see my previous piece on historical energy transitions here), all technologies will suffer from problems and issues the optimist boosters won’t see in advance. Renewable energy revolutions have already shown they’re not as quick or easy as some believed, if we failed to learn the exact same lesson from the stalled nuclear energy revolution of the 1960s. I predict BECCS “revolution” will also suffer from a variety of unforeseen (or, more properly, foreseen but ignored in the initial optimism) problems, and that its rollout will not be as easy as the official scenarios believe.

The bottom line, therefore, is clear: as long as we’ve actually demonstrated in practice that we can get deep enough emission cuts with a given set of solutions, we should be extremely wary of opposing any potential partial solution to the climate crisis. These, by the way, include degrowth, downshifting and other “social” solutions – we shouldn’t think only technology will or even can help us out here, although we shouldn’t discount technological solutions either.

We don’t have a plan or planet B nor time to concoct one: we have one shot and one shot only to make this thing work, so let’s make sure we throw everything we’ve got at this mess and hope and pray some solutions at least work. Either get on the act or get out of the way, and stop trying to derail projects that might help, even if you don’t love the solution.

PS. I’d strongly suggest everyone follow Kevin Anderson (Twitter: @KevinClimate) and Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen), and listen to their many recorded presentations about the scale of the climate/energy problem. (This one is a good start.) As I’ve often noted, everyone who thinks climate/energy problem is easy to lick doesn’t really understand the problem.

PPS. Following a great suggestion from an actual anthropologist (@NuclearAnthro, follow him as well!), I’ve corrected this article so that it talks of “energy cults” rather than “energy tribalism.” I like the word “cult” more (IÄ FTAGN!), and “tribalism” has some rather unfortunate, not to say inaccurate connotations. I suggest all energy/climate peeps switch over as well.  

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The problem is, islands is what we have now – some thoughts on Stewart Brand’s essay “Rethinking Extinction”

If you want to read an article that simultaneously enlights, delights and gives hope, you could do much worse than to read this excellent Aeon essay on extinctions penned by one of the titans of the environmental movement – Stewart Brand.

Brand provides a fascinating counterargument to oft-heard discourse about species extinctions and the “Sixth Mass Extinction” now caused by humans. He argues that biodiversity is in fact increasing dramatically, and has been doing so for the last 200 million years (see the chart below). Despite the sometimes horrendous damage humans can inflict upon the environment and the undeniable plight of many species, we are not destroying the environment as a whole. Instead, “the frightening extinction statistics that we hear” are largely about small island ecosystems that comprise only 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, but are the site of 95% of all bird, 90% of all reptile, and 60% of all mammal extinctions since 1600. (The island ecosystems have not, by and large, collapsed as a result – they’ve evolved to a different form.) Besides, these extinctions have already happened, since most vulnerable species are already gone.

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Fossil record shows biodiversity has been increasing for 200 million years. Chart courtesy of Wikimedia and the original Aeon article.

Regrettable as they are, these local losses have very little effect on the overall ecological health of the planet. Brand argues that since continents and oceans are much larger, it is unlikely even major die-offs or habitat destructions would collapse the ecosystems there. Species can move to new locations, and if a species dies, it leaves a niche free for some other species to exploit – and there is some evidence that die-offs are actually accelerating the global evolutionary rates. Islands have been a special case because of their simpler ecosystems, which is also a major reason why they’re also the best studied: they’ve been used as laboratories.

However, the fly in this ointment might be that all we have left may be islands. This was the opinion of a Finnish academician and conservation biologist Ilkka Hanski, who devoted his distinguished career to the study of threatened animal and plant species. Based on his experience on habitat patchiness, developed in part on innumerable small islands in the Finnish archipelago, he developed a theory of “island ecology” on mainlands. (More accurately, “metapopulation theory for fragmented landscapes” – PDF link.) Even though continents are indubitably larger, human activity has in effect made the remaining habitats as islands: small patches of nature amidst a sea of paved roads, power lines, cities, farms, mines, factories and wastelands.

Hanski, whose untimely death in May will be sorely regretted, repeatedly stressed how even seemingly healthy populations that on paper have enough square kilometers to roam may in fact teeter precariously on brink of extinction because their habitats have been fragmented through human activity. This is a major issue that isn’t adequately addressed in many simpler measures of environmental health, and which may well resist quantification into a simple metric.

Nevertheless, habitat fragmentation is a real problem, and while there are some ways to mitigate it (for example, roads may be built with tunnels or bridges that let animals across), it seems clear we simply cannot continue our encroachment into natural spaces without a risk of causing major damage even to continental ecosystems. The nature of this beast is that impacts are nonlinear: habitat fragmentation may go on for quite a while without many noticeable ill effects, but after some threshold is reached, a cascading collapse might well result. Worse, habitat fragmentation also hinders the mechanisms Brand hopes will help restore ecosystems after collapse of keystone species. Species may migrate and there may be a species capable of filling the hole, but what if they can’t move because their remaining habitats are isolated islands in the human-built world?

I cannot claim to know biology in more than the most rudimentary fashion, but Hanski’s writings have impacted me at least quite a bit. Fears of habitat fragmentation are one of the reasons I disagree with traditional environmentalists, as their energy scenarios seem to pay lip service at most to this problem. While all environmental organizations agree that ecosystem degradation is a major problem, they nevertheless see no problems announcing or supporting grand plans that would harness vast areas of the world solely for energy production. As this image shows, such plans are likely to result to significant added habitat fragmentation, even considering that some buildup can be done on areas already disturbed by human activities.

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The simple, unavoidable fact is that less dense energy means more ecosystem fragmentation per energy unit generated. Image from our book Climate Gamble, based on actual projects.

Some may think bringing up energy in a discussion about ecosystem damage is tedious, but I disagree. These things really are interconnected, and it is very hard to conserve and protect Earthly life if, at the same time, we must gird the Earth with the harness of power grids, power farms, and energy plantations.

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A Response to Lawrence, Sovacool, and Stirling. (Reblogged)

In the following post, Nicholas Thompson performs a very good examination of the much-publicized study that sought to “prove” commitment to nuclear power slows down CO2 emission reductions. Well, turns out the paper suffers from a basic math error – among other problems. Correcting the error turns the conclusions upside down and shows countries with active nuclear policy achieve on average better emission reductions, but I have a suspicion these corrections will not be reported as widely as the original paper. Nevertheless, here goes:

A few months ago I read a paper, “Nuclear energy and path dependence in Europe’s ‘Energy union’: coherence or continued divergence?” and after reading it,…

Source: A Response to Lawrence, Sovacool, and Stirling.

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Justifying liberalism and socialism without God (a commentary to Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens”)

There’s no need to invoke a belief in supernatural deity in order to believe that all humans are equally important and should be treated with as much equality as possible. In fact, striving for equitable treatment for all is one of the few solid conclusions we can draw from all philosophy.

I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. While I’ve been enjoying the book so far, I’m also somewhat let down by Harari’s apparent dislike of liberalism and “socialist humanism” (as he calls movements that seek greater equality for all humans). In a particularly egregious passage, Harari argues that both liberalism and humanism cannot be justified without a belief in a supreme being (pages 260 and 270 in particular in the Finnish translation). According to Harari, without eternal souls and a creator god who created all humans equal, liberals and humanists “have great trouble” explaining what’s so special in individual members of Homo Sapiens. Therefore, without God, there’s really no justification for trying to treat people equally.

I’m fairly certain Harari is wrong. While there’s no denying that the Christian tradition has influenced humanism, I for one find no need to believe in souls or creation to think that individual humans are special, have the same intrinsic worth and should be treated equally as far as possible. The reason for doing so is perhaps best formulated by philosopher John Rawls in his rightly famous principle, the Veil of Uncertainty.

The Veil of Uncertainty is a thought experiment that helps answer what is a just society, and it’s deceptively simple: what kind of society would you prefer if you didn’t know in advance where and with what endowments – such as looks, intelligence, health, or inherited wealth – you will be born?

Put simply, this is “just” a reformulation of the Golden Rule (treat others as you’d like them to treat you). While the Golden Rule is most famously known from Christian tradition, it has been developed by non-religious thinkers as well. The Golden Rule and the Veil of Uncertainty are not religious per se, and require no belief in supernatural to follow. Nevertheless, these two rules provide a sound (in my opinion, the soundest I’ve yet found) basis for making decisions that involve other people.

A desire for equality and a confirmation of intrinsic human worth flow directly from these two maxims. However we wish to implement them, the end result more or less resembles what Harari believes follows only (or even mostly) from a belief in undying souls that are equally important.

For example, if we healty people think of a society we’d prefer if we were born not with our current health endowment but with some significant disability, we’d most likely prefer a society where even the most grievously disabled are cared for, valued, and provided with the necessities for a life worth living. Similarly, if we didn’t know in advance where and with what inherited wealth (societal or family) we’d be born with, surely we should prefer a society where income differentials are moderate and even a very bad luck of birth doesn’t render us destitute?

Likewise for the Golden Rule: if I want that people would treat me equitably if I’m down on my luck, it’s probably the best to try to treat people who are down on their luck equitably.

No need to think about gods or souls, no need even for a “right” or “wrong.” What’s needed are only one belief and one desire: first, a desire to make a difference in the world, and second, a belief that environmental factors have an influence in person’s life. And that, it seems, is a fairly well-justified assumption.

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Dear Scots; vote again, we want toll-free haggis

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