Tag Archives: David Roberts

We need a paradigm shift and a new article says “yes, we can”

It’s a huge, even monumental task, but we have to think big, even grandiose, if we are to avoid the “four horsemen” of apocalyptic climate change: global inequality, ecosystem depletion, “constrained depression” (low demand and high debt), and “resilience deficit” (i.e., our existing water, power, and transportation systems can’t handle coming climate disruption). David Roberts in Grist summarizes a very important article in Foreign Policy by Patrick Doherty, called “A New U.S. Grand Strategy,” that insists the U.S. can solve the monumental problems of climate change by designing our major systems–economic, industrial, civic, and political–around sustainability. As Doherty says, it’s more than a matter of  lowering  carbon emissions;  we need a “global transition to sustainability,” and the U.S. can and must begin the transition. As Bill McKibben says, “Between renewable energy and more efficient engineering, the technology already exists to stave off catastrophic global warming.” Doherty outlines the bigger picture, a strategy to create “a larger industrial, economic, civic, and political system that is designed around sustainability,” where sustainability is not just an add-on.

Roberts’ summary highlights the main features of an America leading the way globally, but first domestically, by creating walkable communities, shifting to sustainable agriculture and economics, and engaging in multilateral diplomacy.

  • Walkable communities: More and more Americans want to live in dense, walkable areas; get rid of regulations that hamper them and start building them.
  • Regenerative agriculture: Farmers can produce “up to three times the profits per acre and 30 percent higher yields during drought” with agricultural techniques that also clean water and restore soils. . . .
  • Resource productivity: “Energy and resource intensity per person will have to drop dramatically.” That imperative can drive “innovation in material sciences, engineering, advanced manufacturing, and energy production, distribution, and consumption.”
  • Excess liquidity: Channel all the corporate cash that’s sitting around in funds into long-term investments in America by taxing waste and creating regional growth strategies.
  • Stranded hydrocarbon assets: Figure out how to devalue the immense amount of carbon that’s still sitting underneath the ground without unduly traumatizing the economy.

This last–leaving the fossil fuel in the ground–is the major goal of 350.org’s divestment movement and collaborative efforts to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, both of which campaigns are gaining momentum. And so this proposal is not just a fantasy; millions recognize that we are already beginning to shift the paradigm toward sustainability. Doherty’s article is long, but it’s clearly written and easy to follow; I recommend it. And let’s make sure President Obama and his cabinet know about it. Isn’t that the implication of the photo on the Foreign Policy website article? grandstrategy

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Earth on the brink

It has taken me awhile to figure out how to call attention to some really scary climate news while keeping to my goal of publishing posts that are 50 percent positive. Some news, such as the record high temperatures across the US this spring, I can balance with a good-news story: the US has cut its carbon emissions significantly and is on track to hit President Obama’s commitment to reduce global warming pollution between 2005 and 2020 by 17 percent. But in the case of the June 6 paper published in Nature warning that Earth may be fast approaching a tipping-point, a shift to a much-less-hospitable ecosystem, it takes work to be optimistic. And so I follow the lead author of the study in viewing the warning itself as good news. As Anthony Barnosky, a paleoecologist, told an interviewer from Wired, “There have been big, planetary shifts before.” The difference is, we know that one is imminent. Unlike us, “the dinosaurs couldn’t see it coming.”

The study, in which 22 scientists warn of impending and irrevocable major changes in the biosphere, is behind a paywall, but summaries abound in blogs. I recommend starting with David Roberts’ post on Grist or the Wired write-up, or one of the few front-page news stories, in the San Francisco Chronicle (probably because Barnosky is from nearby UC Berkeley). Most accounts refer to a tipping point for Earth, but the paper itself uses the term “status shift”–an irreversible transition of an ecological system from one state to another. Many such transitions are localized, but there have been global ones, such as the end of the last ice age about 14,000 years ago. It’s not just the warming of the planet that is leading to a status shift, say the scientists; it’s the explosion of population, which means ever-more resources for the extra billions to consume. More people means habitat destruction, the disappearance of plant and animal species, over-exploitation of energy resources, and more carbon emissions, producing more warming.

Here’s a video of lead author Anthony Barnosky, of UC Berkeley, on the findings:

James H. Brown, a macroecologist who is one of the authors, is quoted in the Times‘s Green blog as saying,  “We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy. If you try to get the good data and do the arithmetic, it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflated gently, or it’s going to burst.” How we can gently deflate the bubble is what the commentators explore in the posts. Common to all the scenarios for avoiding the brink are the need to dramatically slow population growth,  get off fossil fuels and onto alternative forms of energy, develop more efficient food production, and practice better ecosystem management.

The analysis includes reaction from climate scientists with different perspectives, such as those who would greatly expand the time frame of these changes (the paper warns that they may occur within a few generations),  To keep away from what would tip this blog toward doom and gloom I seized on the judgment of those who say this shift is neither imminent nor inevitable, which echoes Barnosky’s belief expressed in the video and in interviews that humanity can pull together and avoid the doomsday scenario. In an interview with the Green blog’s Justin Gillis, Barnosky pointed out that “while many species are threatened directly and indirectly by human activity, the number actually driven extinct in the last 200 years is estimated to be only 1 to 2 percent of all species on earth. ‘We still have almost all the species that we regard as valuable out there to be saved. . . . We as people have it in our power to do that.’”

I’ll give the final word in this post to  David Roberts, in a June 11 post in Grist, who stated the goal in larger terms–namely, that we have to conceive of ourselves as global citizens, not just as members of a family, or a tribe, as  Thunder or Heat fans. Even thinking of ourselves as North Americans isn’t  enough. We are “those who live on Earth”; our fellow tribe members are all human beings.  Only in this way will we be able to “envision a world in which we slow our degradation of ecosystem services, avoid global tipping points, and develop technology that is regenerative, working with nature, like nature, rather than clumsily trying to replace it.” By this, I take him to mean we ought to go beyond technological fixes like geoengineering, which has recently become a hot topic. More about this in upcoming posts.