Thursday, June 2, 2011

Series of Some Significance: Climate change and the limits of growth

[The following series of posts, from December, 2010 are now collected in one place for your convenience. gah]

Climate Change Concerns: Our growth has limits

Part 1

You’re on your own.

If you want climate change concerns to be addressed in your lifetime you’ll have to address them by yourself.

As you may already know, and bearing the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico in mind, greenhouse gas emissions will not be reduced this year. (Or the year after that, or the year after that, or the year after that).

The results of the summit are best summarized by the cartoon below:

(; London Free Press, Dec. 7)

“OK, I think we finally have all the oars in...”

No, we don’t. We obviously don’t.

“... We can begin to move forward on climate change.”

No, we can’t. We obviously can’t.

We will suffer much more tragic loss (up to this point in time, our losses have not been tragic enough) before governments act collectively to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming.

We know the truth.

For example:

“Human activities are imposing enormous costs on the Earth’s climate and other life-support systems... Whether one looks at the loss of forests, fisheries, species, or climate stability, the level of environmental destruction is very high and, in almost all cases, rising rapidly.” (The Limits of Growth, essay by J. G. Speth)

Obviously, not rapidly enough for governments to notice.

“The exponential expansions of human populations and, even more, economic activity are the main drivers of these momentous transformations. For all the material blessings economic progress has provided, its impact on the natural world must be counted in the balance as tragic loss.”

After Cancun, some may say that there is still hope for the long run, or, that you’re not entirely on your own.

One such person is Gwynne Dyer, author of Climate Wars and Crawling from the Wreckage (his latest book).


Climate Change Concerns: Our growth has limits

Part 2

You’re on your own. Address climate change concerns by yourself.

I think the recent UN climate summit delivers the same message.

Gwynne Dyer, author of Climate Wars and Crawling from the Wreckage (his latest book), thinks otherwise. (I hope he’s right).

In a recent column in the local paper, under the headline ‘No Climate Progress At Cancun,’ he writes:

“The UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, is nearing its end, but there will be no global deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions this year. However, there is some hope for the longer run.” (Dec. 7, London Free Press)

Upon what does he base his hope?

The slim chance that rich countries will some day in the future help poorer, developing countries grow their economies without bearing all the costs of doing so in a cleaner, greener fashion.

Will rich countries one day bear some of the costs that would allow, e.g., China, India, Brazil, to grow their economies with the help of expensive (much more expensive than coal-fired energy plants) solar-, wind-, water-based energy systems?

Well, they should.

Dyer says the following re rich countries:

“ was 200 years of burning fossil fuels that made them rich, and they are responsible for 80% of the greenhouse gases of human origin in the atmosphere now.”

At this point in history, rich countries may all know this but have unrealistic expectations for poorer countries.

Dyer says, “...the rich countries ignore the history and demand similar cuts from all countries, rich and poor.”

Such demands are unreasonable to the poorer, developing countries.

Dyer says:

“ ...the developing countries refuse to accept limits on their emissions for fear of stunting their economic growth. They also resent the fact that the past emissions of the rich countries have brought us all so close to the point of no return.”

How can any hope be found in the positions of the rich and poorer countries?

There is this notion: Poorer countries may be willing to switch to more expensive energy systems - and get off coal - with financial assistance from rich countries.

Is there any hope of this happening?

Dyer writes:

“People in the rich countries don't even understand that history, so they are still a long way from accepting that deal. It won't happen at Cancun, and it may be years before it does. Maybe too many years.”

If he sees any hope, it is a faint, faint hope, and not for the long run, but as he said earlier, “for the longer run.”

While we wait, let’s not hold our breath.

Let’s realize there are limits to economic growth, live small and save money for tough times ahead.


Climate Change Concerns: Our growth has limits

Part 3

Do you feel as if you’re on your own?

I.e., if you want climate change concerns to be addressed in your lifetime, do you feel as if you’ll have to address them by yourself?

I read the following recently:

“Human activities are imposing enormous costs on the Earth’s climate and other life-support systems... Whether one looks at the loss of forests, fisheries, species, or climate stability, the level of environmental destruction is very high and, in almost all cases, rising rapidly.” (The Limits of Growth, essay by J. G. Speth)

After reading the essay I thought, not enough is being done. And it’s almost as if we’re on our own in finding solutions.

However, although Gwynne Dyer recently wrote, “ ...the developing countries refuse to accept limits on their emissions for fear of stunting their economic growth. They also resent the fact that the past emissions of the rich countries have brought us all so close to the point of no return...” he also feels there is some hope for positive change in “the longer run.”

Humankind has a history of coming to the end of, e.g., an entire natural resource, before realizing there are limits to growth.

If we could travel back a few centuries and travel to Easter Island we would see islanders carving stone statues, or moai, out of volcanic rock while surrounded by thick woods of Chilean wine palm, “a fine timber that can grow as big as an oak.” (R. Wright, ‘A Short History of Progress’)

To move the moai into a standing position on an altar of stone, however, several wine palms had to be cut down and used as wheels and levers.

The moai grew larger as their numbers increased over time and the wine palms decreased in numbers, and the soil, held in place by the trees, decreased in fertility and eroded away. Still more statues were built.

However, the last and largest moai never was raised onto its altar. There was not enough timber. At some point in time, whether for moving a moai or for building a wooden floor or house beam, the last tree was cut down.

In ‘A Short History of Progress’ we can read about the result:

“In the epilogue to their 1992 book, Easter island, the archaeologists Paul Bahn and john Flenley are explicit. The Islanders, they write, carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of their future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash... Do we have to repeat the experiment on a grand scale?...Is the human personality always the same as that of the person who felled the last tree?”

In our lifetime we may learn the answer to that last question because we do not know yet that our growth has limits.


Climate Change Concerns: Our growth has limits

Part 4

Because humankind has a history of using up resources without concern for natural limits, chances are good that little united action will be taken to combat global warming and resultant climate instability.

No positive steps will likely ever be encouraged by the Federal Conservative Government of my own country, Canada, which is a great shame in my humble opinion.

Former Federal Liberal Member of Parliament Glen Pearson (for London North Center) wrote a post entitled ‘Santa Claus Joins Ranks Of The Homeless’ at his blogsite on Dec. 9 that certainly relates to the above statements.

“Just in time for the global environment meetings in Cancun, Mexico, this country’s Environment Commissioner delivered a harsh report on the Conservative record in battling climate change. As it was being released, the Harper government was being awarded three “Fossil of the Day” awards. Alas, from both within and without, Canada has adopted environmental policies that are an embarrassment to our international reputation and likely formed a key reason why we lost the Security Council vote a short while ago.”

“The humiliation grew only more acute with the release of the latest Climate Change Performance Index, in which Canada fell to 54th out of 57 countries. The current government took up the practice almost five years ago of saying one thing about its environmental commitment while practicing the opposite.  This purposeful benign obstructionism has left Canadians and the provinces confused, frustrated and embarrassed. In reality, the death of any real climate change agenda is almost complete.”

Some Canadians will say, wait. Our Prime Minister is doing his best. London’s former Liberal MP says otherwise.

“This week, the Prime Minister stood up in Question Period and stated that he is looking out for the economy of this country by focusing on security, among other things. Yet there is nothing more insecure than a planet in decline – nothing. Will stealth jets clean up our water?  Will billions of dollars spent on prisons lower our carbon footprint?  Could it possibly be that cutting taxes on corporations will lead to a green revolution?  Did the $50 + billion stimulus plan deal in any significant way with our staggering emissions? No matter how many people you throw in the slammer, or how many high-tech jets you purchase, you will in no way reduce our carbon footprint by one smidgen. How can you have security when farms are lost due to drought, lakes are poisoned, agriculture is in decline, and coasts are ruined by rising tides?” (MP G. Pearson’s complete post is here).

Canadians don’t know the meaning of limits.

Personal debt is extremely high and has put many families in a very vulnerable position.

Ontario’s provincial debt has never been higher.

Federal or national debt has never been higher.

Carbon emissions only decline when we experience a recession. Otherwise, our main desire is to burn fuel like there’s no tomorrow.

No tomorrow.


Climate Change Concerns: Our growth has limits

Part 5

We're like stupid chickens in some ways, and are in a pot of trouble here in Canada concerning climate change.

From a former Liberal MP’s point of view, and I trust it, our Conservative government will do nothing to turn things around regarding rising carbon emissions and global temperatures.

We have a government that puts too many things before the environment, the future.

E.g., our economy first (when did the environment ever get a $50 billion stimulus package?), our excessive lifestyle first, our GDP first, the tar sands first, more prisons first, etc.

Is it any wonder I say at times, you’re on your own if you want to see reductions in carbon emissions?

Not only does our government promote weak-kneed policies, as far as the environment and a healthy, sustainable future is concerned, but it receives a lot of vocal support.

Case in point. Our local paper, The London Free Press, featured a hollow ‘Three cheers for Environment Minister John Baird’ point of view earlier this week.

It was entitled ‘Speaking climate truth makes Baird hot stuff.’

(Beware. Any piece linking the words “climate truth” and “Baird” is bound to be malicious).

It begins:

“Environment Minister John Baird goes to the UN’s climate change smoke blower in Cancun, only to be accused back home of being a bull in China’s shop. He should be let loose more often.”

(The UN’s attempt to facilitate progress is a ‘smoke blower’, but Baird’s lack of any plan - any plan to reduce emissions - is a good thing?)

“What got Baird in the bad books of the left was his rightful insistence that if a billion Chinese didn’t give a damn about change then what’s the point?”

Now, if you’re looking for any history about China’s position re climate change relative to the US position, you won’t find it in a Baird-supporter’s ‘point of view’ piece.

And if you’re hoping for ideas from Canadian Conservatives or its Environment Minister about what could be done to prepare for the inevitable change in economic direction that will be required now and in the future, look away.

The point of view continues, listing a few reasons why we should view Baird and ‘business as usual’ Canada as the good guy and China as the bad:

“Last year, partially because of the recession, Canada had a 2% drop in greenhouse gas emissions while China increased its by 8%... (Canada is) a massive country with a small population... not cheap to heat, and not cheap to get around. That’s the reality.”

I’m glad the writer mentions the recession. The next one may be only way we’ll ever lower emissions again. Not that I look forward to it, but it may just be around the corner.

No mention was made, however, about the number of jobs wealthy countries, such as Canada, have exported to China (thus contributing to China’s growing economy and carbon emissions) because we are addicted to cheap goods aka Dollarama- and Wal-Mart-style.

And, yes, it is expensive to live in Canada. But not for long. Very soon it will be “even more expensive.” Climate change has a way of mucking up monthly budgets!

The writer ends with a question. (Oh, I love a quiz).

“Some billion Chinese have spewed out 8% more in Greenhouse gases than they did the year before, while a comparative 35-million smidgen of Canadians managed to lower their levels by 2%. Who’s the bad guy here?”

Wait. Wait. I know the answer to this one. It’s...

“Well, apparently,” says the writer, “it’s Canada - and Baird, of course...”

He took the words right out of my mouth.


Climate Change Concerns: Our growth has limits

Part 6, Conclusion

Times are tough all over.

Individuals and countries are burdened with growing debt and the expectation to keep growing and spending or driving the economy to save themselves.

Because our philosophies related to lifestyles and economic matters have unsustainable growth factors attached, tougher times are coming.

Why? Growth in fact has limits.

Here is a statement from an essay entitled ‘A Letter to My Boys’ by H. Murray - Philipson and found in the book ‘Moral Ground.’

“We stand at the fork in the road when we must choose between sustainability and catastrophe.”

I ask, will we stand at the fork alone?

In the following brief history lesson from Murray -Philipson’s essay, I think we find out answer.

“On current trends we may have ten years before we cross the point of no return on climate change. Our generation bears a unique responsibility to those who come after - unique, because this set of circumstances has never existed before.”

Now, about that history lesson. The writer continues:

re 1900 -

“The pace of change in one hundred years has been extraordinary.

“In 1900, the Wright brothers had not yet flown and the world’s population was 1.5 billion.

“The impact of man on the natural world was limited, and it still made sense to convert natural capital into manufacturing and financial capital to improve the human condition.”

re 1950 -

“Half a century later... the foundations (were laid) of the modern global economy.

“At that time, there was no mention of “sustainability” or “the environment.”

“The assumption was that nature could be taken for granted.

“There were plenty of warning signs, even then, that unrestricted exploitation of nature had unfortunate side effects - the near-extinction of the North American bison, the pollution of the Great Lakes, the smogs in London - but the notion of climate change was unheard-of, and the bounty of the planet was still considered unlimited.”

re 2000

“Global population quadrupled to 6 billion in the twentieth century, and the relationship between man and nature has been turned upside down in the process.

“Economic growth was achieved through burning fossil fuels... atmospheric levels of CO2 have risen from preindustrial levels of 280 parts per million (ppm) to 387 ppm. Despite increasing scientific alarm, they continue to rise by 3 ppm per year.

“The economic model off which the world is working came from an Age of Innocence and is not fit for our purpose in the twenty-first century - the Age of Consequences. The rules for 1 billion people cannot be the same for 6 billion...”

- re 2010 [population 6.7 billion]

“There has to be a global agreement on global sustainability... we are all in the same business, the business of survival. There is no point pursuing wealth for its own sake.”

And now, back to that fork in the road “when we must choose between sustainability and catastrophe.”

Will we stand alone?

No. All 6.7 billion people are crowded shoulder to shoulder in the same spot.

But, there appears to be no one to lead us toward sustainability.

If the recent Climate Change Conference in Cancun is any indication, major governments worldwide still stress economic growth at an unsustainable pace.

So, though we stand at the forks along with everyone else, we are without proper leadership and therefore stand as if alone.

How did I begin this set of posts several days ago?

“You’re on your own. If you want climate change concerns to be addressed in your lifetime you’ll have to address them by yourself.”

Sad but true?

I think so.


Please click here to read more Climate Change Concerns.


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