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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)