Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: the Year that Changed Everything?

Recent wildfires in California, photo from the Independent

There has been no lack of disasters taking place in 2015. Some can be classified as "natural" others as human caused. In all cases, anyway, they are an indication of the stress felt by the ecosystem and by the economic system at the same time. We are, finally, reaching our limits as we knew we had to, from the time when we were warned, in 1972, by the study titled "The Limits to Growth."

But not everything was bad in 2015 and, in this post for the end of the year, let's concentrate on the good things that happened. If we do that, we see that 2015 has been a very special year. Not that any of the big problems we face has been solved; but there is something new going on; something unexpected, but that may give a boost to a new direction that the world may take; a direction that may lead us to a better world. We may be learning something, after all.

So, let me list some of the good things that happened in 2015

- The Papal Encyclical on climate, the "Laudato si'". This has really been something big. For one thing, it was clear from the way it affected the debate. Mostly, climate scientists, and scientists in general, are no-nonsense people, often atheists or agnostics, rarely churchgoers. So, the arrival of the Pope in the debate took them by surprise: "The Pope? What? Does he agree with us? Really? He said that God orders to us to safeguard the creation..... Eh....?" You can't imagine how happy these solemn scientists were; like children receiving a Christmas gift in August! But the main effect of the Pope's encyclical has been on the anti-science camp. They were, clearly, in difficulty. As a reaction, they could have demonized the Pope, saying that he is a communist, or he is possessed by the devil, or something like that. Some weirdos have done exactly that but, by far and large, the mainstream anti-science camp has decided that their best (and probably the only) strategy was to keep a low profile and hope that the "Laudato si'" would be ignored and then forgotten. It wasn't and it won't. The effect of the encyclical has been large on the public's understanding of climate change. It is an effect that's continuing and that can only increase in the future.

- The COP21 climate conference in Paris. I know that many people say that not enough has been obtained, which is true. But it is also true that the conference has been a success mainly in showing the marginality of the anti-science camp. They had spent so much money trying to demonize science and scientists, trying to ridicule climate science, spreading various conspiracy legends and then, what? They found that the delegations of 190 countries in Paris declared that climate change is real, it is human made, and something must be made to stop it. Now, think about that: if you were in their shoes, how would you feel? That's the main reason why the Paris conference was a remarkable success. It was just a first step, of course, but you can't go anywhere without a first step!

- The new perception of the need of clean energy. This year has seen a true explosion in the endorsements of renewable energy. A set of technologies that once were seen as just toys for Green Nerds, now are increasingly seen not just part of the solution of the problem of climate change, but THE solution. Among those who came out strongly in favor of renewable energy in 2015, I can cite Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Klare, Naomi Oreskes, Bill Gates, and, yes, the Pope himself! True, not everyone has understood exactly the terms of the problem. Some, like Bill Gates, still think that renewables need to be substantially improved before being deployed, without realizing how pressing is the need of the renewable transition. Others have understood that energy is the problem, but they picked up the wrong solution: nuclear energy - as James Hansen and others did. Within some limits, it is an understandable mistake on the part of people who are not energy experts, but, at least, they understood the need of producing energy. This is the real change in perception: we are moving from a perception that sees emission reductions as the priority to a perception that sees clean energy production as the priority. If we can manage to produce clean renewable energy at a cost lower than fossil energy, then we'll move to renewables without the need of laws, treaties, and special taxes (and we can do that, already!)

- The collapse of the oil markets. At first sight, low oil prices would seem to be exactly the opposite of what we need to fight climate change. But that's not the case: think that we have been telling people that we need to "leave oil in the ground" without much success, so far. But now low prices are doing the job for us by making extraction unprofitable! The low oil prices of 2015 show the impossibility for the market to keep producing from expensive (and dirty) sources such as shale oil. As a consequence, the shale oil industry giving out its death rattle and we are facing the start of the terminal decline of the world's oil production. That will carry with it the decline of all fossil fuel production. The importance of this event can hardly be underestimated. It means that the decline in emissions is likely to be much more rapid than anything that was even vaguely imagined at the COP21 in Paris and that the scenarios contemplated in the INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) will soon be as obsolete as flying cars and nuclear water boilers. The emission decline could even take the shape of a "Seneca Collapse" that might stop the growth of greenhouse gas concentrations short of the dreaded climate "tipping point". That would surely be a good thing but, of course, a Seneca collapse of the world's energy production would be a major disaster in itself; possibly able to destroy the world's economic system. But there is a middle way: the Seneca effect could help us manage to sharply curtail fossil fuels use, but not so much that we would be left without the resources needed to build a new energy system based on renewables. It is difficult, but not impossible, as shown by quantitative calculations.

Of course, things might go wrong in other ways. For instance, a major war could push up the need of fuels and cause the oil industry to restart extracting resources that a market economy cannot extract. It is possible, indeed, that the current drive for war is the result of exactly this kind of considerations. Nevertheless, war is not unavoidable and, if we manage to avoid it, then 2015 may be remembered as the year when everything changed. A year of hope!


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)