Monday, November 2, 2015

Ten years that changed everything; and prevented all change

We are one month away from the COP-21, in Paris, that should change everything - and will probably change nothing relevant. But change does occur, even though in ways that often surprise us, and in ways we may not like to see. The past decade has been a period of enormous changes and, also, a decade of gigantic efforts aimed at avoiding change at all costs. It is one of the many contradictions of our world. So, let me try to tell the story of these difficult years.

- The acceleration of climate change. In 2005, climate change seemed to be still a relatively tame beast. The scenarios presented by the IPCC (at that time updated to 2001) showed gradual temperature increases and the problems seemed to be decades away - if not centuries. But 2005 was also the year when it became clear that limiting warming to no more than 2 degrees C was much more difficult than previously thought. At the same time, the concept that climate change is a non linear process started to penetrate the debate and the danger of the "runaway climate change" was more and more understood. The events of the decade showed the rapid progression of climate change. Hurricanes (Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012, and many others), the melting of the ice caps, the melting of the permafrost, releasing its deadly charge of stored methane, giant forest fires, entire states going dry, the loss of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans, and much more. It was found that high temperatures affect humans more than it was believed and, as a last straw, that the negative effects on the human behavior of increasing CO2 concentrations are much more important than previously believed. We are discovering with horror that we are transforming our planet into a gas chamber and we don't know how to stop.

- The rise of denial. In 2005, the denial of climate science seemed to be in decline, to be buried in the dustbin of history by the accumulation of scientific knowledge on climate. It was not to be so. The campaign against science went into high gear, using the full range of propaganda techniques available. In 2008, we saw the so-called "climategate" scandal, possibly the most successful negative PR campaign ever mounted. In 2011, the "pause" meme was diffused by the Daily Mail, and it was another remarkably successful propaganda attack. Then, individual climate scientists were harassed, demonized, investigated, and even physically threatened, while the public was the objective of a barrage of contradictory information destined to create uncertainty and doubt. The campaign was successful, especially in the US. During the 2012 presidential campaign, we saw both candidates avoiding the climate change issue as if it was laced with poison. And, in 2015, we see something never seen before: none of the Republican presidential candidates agree that climate change is caused by human activities, and that it is a problem. Denial remains a heavy burden to the attempt of doing something practical to stop climate change.

- The peak that wasn't. In 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere re-examined the ideas of Marion King Hubbert, who, in the 1950s, had introduced the concept of "peaking" for the production of crude oil. Their calculations indicated that the world peak - that they dubbed "peak oil" - would occur in 2004-2005. It was a reasonably good prediction in terms of "conventional" oil, which seems to have peaked between 2005 and 2008. But Campbell and Laherrere had not considered the role of "non conventional" oil; combustible liquids such as shale (or "tight") oil. Using these new sources, the production of "all liquids" kept increasing and that has made the concept of peak oil as popular, more or less, as Saddam Hussein was in the previous decade. The effort of the oil industry to produce from difficult resources led to various bad consequences for the ecosystem (remember Macondo in 2010?), but the main one is that the CO2 emissions did not decline as a consequence of depletion, as it might have been expected.

- The fading of green. In the 1990s, sustainability was still a fashionable idea and Green parties had considerable representation in many European parliaments. Over time, however, the political weight of the environmental movement has constantly eroded. The destiny of the Green parties closely follows that of all the ideas about environmental sustainability, which are not any more part of the arsenal of slogans of winning politicians. Even the European Union, once a bulwark of reason and of environmental consciousness, lost its focus,in particular with the mad hope of importing natural gas from the US. Most people all over the world seem to be so busy with their day-to-day economic worries, that they have no time or inclination to worry about an abstract entity called "the Environment", which seems to be an expensive luxury that we can't afford right now. It seems that the concept of "growth" has swept away the Environment everywhere as the thing to cherish most.

The financial collapse. The deep causes of great financial crisis of 2008 were never really understood and were reduced to contingent bad practices in finance. However, it was not just a financial crisis, it led the world's real economic machine to grind to a near complete stop. The crisis was overcome by printing more money and the economy restarted to work; but it never recovered completely. And nobody knows whether another financial collapse is around the corner and what could be done if it comes. The financial collapse showed the fragility of the whole system and it fixated the attention of most people on financial/monetary factors; often leading them to forget that there exists also a real world, out there, and that "the economy" is not just financial transactions, but it means providing material resources for society to survive.

- The rise of conflicts. Military confrontation and violent strife are on the rise. We have seen tanks rolling in the very heart of Europe and an immense strip of land in a nearly continuous military confrontation, from North Africa to the Middle East, and all the way further to Afghanistan. Entire nations are crumbling down under massive aerial bombing and civil strife, producing hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing. Is like a fire that flared once, and now is growing, engulfing one country after another. And nobody can say where the fire will stop, if it will. The only thing we can say is that destructive conflict tends to erupt in those states where the economy was in large part supported by the revenues from fossil fuel exports and where depletion led to the total or partial loss of this revenue. This was the case, for instance, of Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. The struggle may also be related to climate change and the consequent drought, as it is the case of Syria. We can't say for sure of all this is a harbinger of things to come in other places, but it might well be.

- And more.... The above is not an exhaustive list of all the things that have been going on during the past decade. One could add the erosion of democracy and of personal freedom in the West, the decline or even the collapse of several national economies, the ongoing de-globalization, the increasing competition for rare and limited mineral resources, and much more. But all these events have a common origin. In all cases, people and institutions reacted to change by trying to stop it. For instance, facing the oil and gas depletion, the industry reacted by doubling the effort to find more at all costs, both financial and environmental. And they also stepped up its effort to deny the existence and the danger of climate change. Then, most people tried to solve their immediate economic difficulties by working hard and ignoring the deep reasons of their troubles. And here we are: after a decade of effort to ignore and contain changes, we are facing unavoidable and drastic changes. And we don't know how exactly to adapt to these changes. It is a difficult time that we are facing.

On the other hand, there has been at least one positive trend during the past ten years.

- The renewable revolution. Solar and wind technologies have dramatically improved in terms of both costs and efficiency. There have been no technological miracles, just steady, incremental improvements. The result is that, in ten years, renewables such as silicon based photovoltaics and wind plants have grown from toys for environmentalists to serious technologies that can produce energy at costs competitive with those of fossil fuels. Renewable energy is the greatest hope we have for a non destructive adaptation to the unavoidable changes ahead.  It will not be easy, but it is possible; we need to work hard on it.


  1. They are still renewables made with fossil fuels.

    1. But they won't be any more in the future

  2. "They are still renewables made with fossil fuels."

    yes, there is no free lunch. magic, green solar is neither. it relies on a highly technical, fossil fuel powered industrial infrastructure.

    the only solution is far fewer people all consuming much much less, yet human breeding controls and conservation are still taboo subjects.

    so enjoy today, because this will not end well.

    1. seems that actually there will be fewer people all consuming less (I don't know how much less)

    2. thats just optimistic rubbish. even if the human population magically stopped growing at 7 billion and we all consumed resources at third world levels, that would still mean we were about 6 times overshoot what earth can support sans fossil fuels and assuming equitable climate, (both of which are receding into the distance at a rapid pace). its not just growth, its the absolute number of people that is the problem. and that aint going to be fixed in time to stop almost universal die off. only nature knows how to fix our staggeringly large population bloom. man has proven too pathetic to even try.

      there is no 'get out of jail free card' on this one.

    3. Don't understimate the power of death rate under strained economic conditions..

  3. Unfortunately we have to fight a lot of challenges (overpopulation, peak of resources, loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems etc...) and i dont have hope in humanking, these challenges are too complex to us be solved.

  4. Erased by mistake; reposting:

    Harquebus has left a new comment on your post "Ten years that changed everything; and prevented a...":

    Solar Pv is becoming cheaper because, Chinese manufactures do not process the toxic byproducts as used to be the case. They instead dump them into the local environment. Another byproduct in the manufacturing process is a gas that is 17,000 times more potent than CO2. When these panels are disposed of, they leach toxic compounds into landfills for generations to come. When factoring these and the fossil fuels used to produce, manufacture, transport and maintain them, they are neither clean nor green.
    Wind turbines use massive amounts of steel and concrete, both fossil fuel intensive and there is not a single process in the manufacturing chain for rare earths, used in magnets, that is not destructive to the environment. Again, when these factors are considered, they also are neither clean nor green.
    The only viable solution to climate change and environmental destruction is population reduction and control. One way or another, this is going to happen and if we don't do it voluntarily, it will get very ugly.

    1. Thanks Ugo. I was starting to wonder.

    2. While I expect there will be no solution to climate change, it's probably too late, for those of us in the West, especially North Americans like myself, there is a useful response. As we consume resources at five times the world average and 20 times poor world average, we have the ability to effectively reduce the population by four to 19 people each by changing our own behaviour. Quit flying, quit driving grow some food turn, down or your thermostat and so on. And there may be a reward other than knowing you've done the right thing. "It will get ugly" just as you say, and those who have learned to live with less ff will be much better prepared than those who drive until their last tank is empty.

    3. Could you please give some sources and numbers for your claims concerning the toxic and climate-unfriendly byproducts of chinese solar panel production.

      Concerning wind turbines: "massive" has to be seen - as everything always - in relation. And in respect to climate change, one can calculate the climate effect of a GJ electric energy, assuming a certain productive period of a wind turbine. And then, this can be compared to the emissions of other energy converters. Look e.g. here: .
      You see, no, there's no such thing as a free lunch, but there are huge differences! Wind is actually the least emissive technology! So, although the upfront investment in setup of the devices seem "massive" at first glance, it is actually quite tiny, when you look at the life cycle.

      Concerning PV i got the impression, that you mixed two topics: climate change and chemical damage to the environment. That some manufacurers save cost by acting irresponsibly is no argument against the whole concept.

  5. The above summary of what has been going on over the past 10 years is reasonably good, though the "and more" list probably could include a number of additional pretty significant things and (in my opinion) certain of the main 6 items also could be better qualified. How much of the list could have been predicted 10 years ago? And how much of it was, at least by some? And what would a similar such list look like for the NEXT ten years? Is our individual and collective capacity to predict or "foresee: getting better or getting worse? And how and why? My own view is that the "turbulence" in the "overall system" (including that of both major and minor trends and whether political, military, cultural, ideological, economic, financial or biophysical) is getting worse with every passing 10 years. Maybe that means there will be bigger and crazier SURPRISES over the next ten years? I can think of a few possible / plausible ones but I see little value in trying to be a Cassandra and besides somebody could check back in ten years and prove me WRONG. (Heaven forbid)

  6. I d like to add: the irrevocable rise of China to the position of top polluter. This is certainly not per capita, but per nation and partly due to its sheer size. But: the per capita emissions of China are in the lower EU range and rising fast. Definitely higher than world mean (correct me if i'm wrong). So the day may come, that even their per capita emissions will belong to the top tier. I assume, if we account differently for Chinas urban and countryside population, the former may well be there.

    Two numbers I got from Rahmstorfs recent comment in the Sydney Morning Herald ( 500 Billion USD p.a. for finding new fossil fuels and the same money stream for government subsidies for fossil fuel use. Astoundingly irrational, even in classic economic thinking.

    And, as the ever constant reminder: we need a significant price on GHG. The EU is making progress with its emission trading scheme, but slow like a snail, hampered not to the least by the resistance of Poland and several related countries.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)